INTERVIEW with Seamus McNally
by Ole Schwarz of Werkstatt~Berlin
OS: So tell me Seamus, is your background in Meisner, or Strasberg, or Stella Adler? One of the seminal New York masters?
SMc: Well, I’ve had brushes with teachers versed in those techniques over the years. Hard not to in New York. These people you mention, have of course irreversibly influenced us all. All variations on Stanislavsky, I suppose. In my case, I’ve had the good fortune of having several exceptional teachers. Both of the people that I consider to be my "mentors", don't really fall under the usual categories and surnames that acting teachers so often assign their techniques to.
OS: Who are they? Can you talk a little bit more about the training you had?
SMc: At first I was working with The Living Theatre. We were all just trying to help keep the company going after Julian Beck had pretty recently died, and Judith Malina was in Hollywood working on The Addams Family movies and Awakenings, with DeNiro and Robin Williams, sending her paychecks to the Lower East Side, keeping this leaky storefront open. We were doing some pretty wildly experimental stuff, improvising dreams, helping her old lover and new husband, Hanon Reznikov, develop a piece called Rules of Civility, deconstructing the education of George Washington. Bizarre, but very dedicated work.
OS: A different New York. The storefront is probably a Whole Foods now. What years are these?
SMc: You’re probably right. I want to say ’88 or ’89. But not long after that, I met my first mentor, the one and only Gloria Maddox. I never thought of this before, but she was a lot like Judith Malina, kindred spirits for sure. Gloria was a profoundly gifted actor and teacher of improvisation and scene study, often in combination with each other. She taught for years at Yale, with Terry Schreiber, but mostly through Michael Howard Studio. Michael is a great teacher who still operates the longest running private acting studio in NYC. I studied with Gloria for about six years. Tragically, she passed away from ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Some time before passing away, she asked me to step in and take over her class at Michael’s studio. This was 20 years ago... when I was only 26 years old. Above all, Gloria taught me how to diagnose the blocks that my fellow actors were up against, and to help them name these blocks concisely and intuitively, and to encourage them to push through their creative and personal obstacles with bravery and with a wide range of exercises, far too numerous to list here.
OS: ALS is a terrible condition. That must have been quite a loss for you when she passed away.
SMc: Christ… it was just brutal. Devastating for all of her students. We were like zombies for a year leading up to, and following her death. Shell-shocked. She influenced so many lives, so many wonderful actors. But then you move on as you must. I had a miraculous windfall when I met my second mentor, a number of years later, John Osborne Hughes. He is a London-based teacher and theater director, a unique, brilliant instructor who has worked with some amazing actors. John first inherited, and then further developed over the course of decades, a very original, incisive terminology, naming the components of the craft of acting, in a way that I might best describe as scientific. He believes very much in the power of stillness, of cultivating our awareness as actors, in order to most effectively explore character thinking. He also taught me how to really work with actions, psychological and physical actions, fortified by a tool for which I am fairly sure he coined the term, pic-pressions. These are pictures, infused with sense-data.
OS: I suppose that does sound fairly scientific.
SMc: It is. It may sound a bit cerebral, and it was at times, but it was also very liberating. His approach became second nature pretty quickly, I found that it just made such logical sense, so however detailed it could get, the technique never dampened spontanaeity. Quite the opposite. These were mind blowing ideas for me when I first started to put these principles to practical use, and they continue to fascinate me to this day. I guess I've taken this "steamer trunk" of tools, these years of studying and applying them myself, first as an actor for a time, then as a director, and I've invested them in the practical work of teaching and coaching actors.
OS: I suppose the ultimate test of a technique is how effectively it works in the real working world. It must be encouraging that they keep coming back. You’ve worked with Nick Sandow and Babs Olusanmokun for years now on shows like Roots and Orange is the New Black.
SMc: Absolutely. Especially in the last 12 or so years, I've had to navigate countless complex and very challenging, situations both as a director, and as a teacher and coach, usually in service of work on film and television sets, but quite a bit in the theater as well. It can be terrifying at times because there’s so much responsibility, I certainly feel there is, and I only carry a relatively small part of the burden. But I’ve been in their shoes. I get it.
OS: The stakes can be very high for all involved.
SMc: They are, and having walked through the fire with the actors, some of whom I think of as family, I now feel like I can really just show up, you know? I can effectively read an actor, even a relative stranger, ascertain some of the limitations they’re facing, difficulties that a given production is facing, I can read into a challenging scene or role, find a way into the deeper currents of the material, and just serve actors, and often directors, in staying out of their own way, ultimately help them serve the story, of course.
OS: It’s quite a journey we’re on isn’t it. What are some of your goals going forward?
SMc: It has been one hell of a ride so far. I want to keep coming back to Berlin. Keep working with your studio, and with Matthias Schott. I’ve had so much help along the way. My teachers, coaching clients, students, my wife for a dozen years, Angela Dee, my wife for a dozen years and a brilliant actor and filmmaker herself, they have all taught me so much. I’m eternally grateful to them all. I guess my goal might be… well, if I can illuminate and reflect back for the people that I work with... half of what they teach me each day. Then I’m satisfied. Then I can sleep at night. Or at least catnap for a while. HAH…! There’s a lot to do, dammit…!