Moya O’Connell knew she wanted to be a theatre actor from a young age. The funny thing is, she decided this without ever having seen a live play.
Growing up in British Columbia’s Slocan Valley, O’Connell was surrounded by many things—nature, agriculture, seven family donkeys—but the arts wasn’t one of them. “I think, like so many people who spend time outside in the country, there’s not a lot of stimuli other than the natural world, and your imagination gets revved up—it’s what you rely on the most,” O’Connell says over the phone from Niagara on the Lake, where she is about to begin rehearsals for the 2017 Shaw Festival. “The forest becomes a kingdom, and you play out all sorts of worlds. I don’t know why I became an actor; I hadn’t really seen any theatre, I didn’t know anything about the theatre.”
O’Connell, who spends half of the year in Vancouver and the other half in Niagara, speaks with a relaxed candour as she strolls about the small and picturesque Ontario town, having just purchased her daughter—who she parents with husband Torquil Campbell, co-lead singer of the famed Canadian indie band Stars—a new pair of shoes. And while O’Connell didn’t grow up watching live performances or taking theatre classes, she did often act in plays that she would put on at home with her four siblings. She credits growing up in a big family with helping her not only understand, but appreciate, the collaboration required of actors in ensemble casts.
At this season’s Shaw—an historic Canadian festival named after iconic playwright Bernard Shaw—O’Connell, a veteran at the festival, has roles in Dracula and Middle Town. She describes Dracula as “quite sexy and racy”, while Middletown is “quite existential, it’s really beautiful. It’s a play in America in a place called Middle Town, it could sort of be anywhere and everywhere, with people living lives of quiet desperation. And it’s got a lot of humour—an offbeat, off-kilter sense of humour—a lot of beauty, and it’s also sad and melancholy.” Those are two starkly different stories and tones, and therein lies the charm of this festival. “That’s the great beauty of working at place like the Shaw,” says O’Connell. “Hopefully in your season you get wildly opposing roles, so you have to stretch yourself in different directions as an actor.”
O’Connell and her family spend the Shaw’s off-season in Vancouver (“There’s something about the proximity to the sea and the nature that fills is up as artists, and my husband finds he writes a lot when he’s in Vancouver,” she says)—that is, when they are not on the road with Stars. And while travelling the world is incredible, O’Connell admits with a laugh that living on a tour bus is harder now that she is in her forties.
Aging, and the changes that come along with it, seems to be on her mind a lot lately. O’Connell confesses that as the years have passed in her career, she has become less interested in her own artistic journey and more involved in that of the collective. Beyond a sense of humility, there is almost a discomfiture. “Sometimes I get quite embarrassed now, being on stage, of people’s gaze. But I think it just means I’m growing into a different kind of actor or artist. Or, I hope that’s what it means. I don’t know,” she says candidly. “It’s something I used to really enjoy and, not long for, but accept and feel comfortable inside of. Now I feel uncomfortable with that, and I want to subvert it somehow. But maybe, I hope, maybe that means I’m moving into a different part of my artistic life, and different roles and different ideas on the craft.”
O’Connell is sure of the things she isn’t sure about, and that awareness is refreshing. She knew what she wanted out of life early on, even if she wasn’t sure exactly why she wanted it. “It’s hard talking about acting,” she says after a moment’s pause. “Because I don’t really know what it is, and I don’t really know why I do it, to be totally honest with you.”
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