“Breaking out of the Ingénue” In Conversation with Eliza Martin: Playwright/Performer of “O”
Interview by Bailey Green.
We spoke with playwright and actor Eliza Martin about her upcoming solo show O, playing for two nights only at the Artscape Wychwood Barns on November 28 and 29. The play tells the story of Leigh, who is donning her flower crown to play Ophelia. During a tech rehearsal the day before opening, Leigh speaks to the audience about her experiences as the ingénue—namely crying and dying. Through Leigh, Martin challenges the notions surrounding these iconic roles for young women. We spoke with Martin about breaking out of the ingénue, her fascination with Ophelia and discovering her voice.
Bailey Green: Tell me about the genesis of the project.
Eliza Martin: So I started working on O in 2014 when I was about to graduate [from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College]. It was an Independent Study Project led by David Matheson, and I was interested in the character of Ophelia, perhaps for the reasons we all are. There’s that image in our head of the woman floating in the water, this history of all those famous paintings and I wanted to do a project exploring her.
BG: What else drew you to the character of Ophelia, what qualities did you want to explore more deeply?
EM: As a young woman in theatre, we think of ‘who I would play in that show’. We look at plays with the lens of the part we might be considered for. So for me, I recognized this frustration in this tiny, tiny role [Ophelia] and these limited situations that we see her in. We get her being a pawn for her dad and brother, her briefly talking to Hamlet and then as Mad Ophelia. Which is beautiful in its own right, but still—in a play that is three hours long, she only has these tiny moments, whereas Hamlet deliberates about one decision for pages. Yet for this one young woman, we get only a few glimpses into what she’s going through and hardly any text at all. At the time of my ISP, a friend of mine mentioned that she took a Shakespeare course in university and the professor spoke about the origin of Ophelia’s name—he said O is a nice emotional sound, and O is also a zero and it means nothing. I was enraged by that notion, so I called it O. I wanted this moment of defence – I just can’t let a female part mean nothing.
BG: How has this draft changed from previous drafts? Do you find your focus has changed?
EM: I think the focus has changed. It’s very much the same spirit. And a lot of the work Ali [Joy Richardson] and I did as co-creators has stayed in tact from when we workshopped O at the Paprika Festival. This time we’re digging a little deeper into the heart of both the character and the actor, Leigh. It’s a longer version and there’s a bit more darkness and ambiguity. We only had 30 minutes at Paprika, so it’s been great to be given more time to dig. I’m working with Rebecca Ballarin, who is new to the project, and our team is just amazing.
BG: How have you broken out of the ingénue role in your own career?
EM: It’s something that has always been kind of assigned to me? And because of that I used to view parts and opportunities through that lens. I’d approach Hamlet and think Ophelia and I would immediately slot myself into those expectations. And now, I have arrived at this crossroads, because if we’re going to play these parts we need to play them differently. Or perhaps they don’t belong anymore, and they need to be adapted. Or how can someone else play them to make them more compelling? Maybe I’m not the right person to play these roles anymore. I think we need to move forward with that knowledge, that these roles need to be changed or played by other people. There need to be new voices.
BG: What challenges you the most about this project?
EM: I think bringing my own self into it has been challenging. It started as a project where I wanted to explore Ophelia and Hamlet as a play and I wanted to do so with distance and from an academic perspective. But when I was working with Ali, she encouraged me to bring my own story which was very challenging and scary to do. That opened the door for the work we’re doing now, and collaborating with Rebecca, has moved the piece further in the direction I was going.
BG: Who or what is currently inspiring you?
EM: I’m very interested in the conversations being had about consent. I don’t think that was a conversation that was in O in the previous versions, but there’s a lot to be said about the power dynamic between a young woman and older man. I’m inspired by the women coming forward and talking about their experiences. It’s not something that goes very far in the show, I wouldn’t say that we really tackle issues of consent, but there’s a lot to be said for decisions we feel we need to make because we’re part of this big system. This is Leigh’s first real Equity gig, and she’s working with a well-known director, and she doesn’t feel that she is able to express herself or ask for changes that should be made.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Go-to cafe: Bloomer’s.
Album on repeat: Christmas music…don’t judge me!
Best time to write: Late at night—so toxic, so tempting.
Current favourite tea: Earl grey, any day.
Late night snack: Popcorn
Written and performed by Eliza Martin
Directed by Rebecca Ballarin
Sound Design by Nick Potter
Lighting Design by Steph Raposo
Production Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Script Advisor: Rachel Blair
Photo Credit: Neil Silcox
With Ben Hayward as Rod
and Lucy McPhee as Carol
Hamlet opens tomorrow night and Leigh is ready to make her debut as Ophelia: wigged, primped, and donning her flower crown. During a brief hold in her tech rehearsal, Leigh takes the audience through basic acting skills for the ingénue and shares candid personal anecdotes, sparking a series of unsettling realizations.
O examines the stage life and death of the ingénue – the stories they tell, and the women behind them. Will we continue to accept that success for an actress means crying and dying through a career? Or can we find a way to keep our heads above water while turning the tide?
Artscape Wychwood Barns
8pm November 29th & 30th 2017
$15, online & at the door