Dancing at Lughnasa is an actor’s play. At the center of the excitement for our production is the chance to see two of our finest MFA actors, Ashley Dillard and Chris J. Handley, deliver their 3rd year thesis performances as Kate Mundy and Michael Evans, respectively.
I was able to snag Chris and Ashley for a few minutes before rehearsal earlier this week to check in and ask them a few questions about the process. Let’s hear from the stars!
So these are your thesis roles. What does that mean?
Ashley: You know, a lot of people keep asking us this. It’s a role in which we get a lot of opinions and a lot of help from [faculty and advisors], and they determine whether or not we were successful in finding the tools to play the part. It’s not necessarily “Is this the best work you’ve ever done?”, “Is this the most research you’ve ever done?”, or “Is this the most effort you’ve put in?”.
Chris: I think that the ‘thesis’ word is an academic term… this is the culmination of everything that you have learned. And yeah, I think it is. I think this role is the culmination of everything I’ve learned up until this point. But I think that my next role will be the culmination of everything I’ve learned up until that point, and the next one and the next one. So if this is my best work ever – well, I hope not, because…
Ashley: You want to continue to learn and grow!
Did you have some sway over what your thesis role would be?
Ashley: Oh yeah. Last semester [the faculty] told us, “Here’s the season. Come to us with three options – it can be cross-gendered, if can be something you’ve never done – if you want to put it in for the musical, put it in for the musical. Anything, sky’s the limit.” And then we have to come up with reasons why we want to do the roles and how it’s going to serve as a thesis, how we’re going to apply what we’ve learned so far to them, why it will be challenging.
Chris: And then they take those three [roles] that we suggest and say “We want you to do choice X because we think it will challenge you the most.” So we offer the three options of what we think will challenge us and they take those and pick from them.
What about your role in Dancing at Lughnasa do you find the most challenging?
Chris: For me, it’s the connection to the audience, and figuring out who I’m talking to. I guess in a culminating way, this is a great thesis for me, because my first show here (Chris played Gallimard in M. Butterfly) was also talking directly to the audience. So I now have to do it again, and hopefully I’ve learned something over these three years and can do it more specifically to tell the story. It makes me want to go back and do [M. Butterfly] again! So the challenge is telling the story directly to the audience, to these people that are right here right now.
Ashley: This is probably the hardest role I’ve had so far. It’s hard to find the things I like
about [Kate]. For the most part, for the past ten years I’ve played characters that I like, that I understand. Me as Ashley does not necessarily understand me as Kate.
On the surface, she can be so cold, and that’s such an acting trap.
Ashley: Yup. But that’s the fun of it – trying to find your way in!
So you’re in your 3rd year now, do you feel a noticeable difference in your skill or technique?
Ashley: Everything, absolutely everything. I know far more plays now, that’s for sure. I have a very good working knowledge of text in general. In a play like [Dancing at Lughnasa] that’s really difficult, I have a technique to go back to. I can say “Am I connecting with a person and having a real moment-to-moment conversation with them?”, and if I’m not, I know I have the tools: go back to something simple, look the person in the eye, listen to what they’re saying and respond truthfully. Have I scored my script? Do I know what verbs I’m using? There’s a nice technique to it now, as opposed to three years ago, I’d have been like “I don’t know what I’m doing! I guess I’ll be nicer!”
Chris: Yeah, there’s a lot of times you go into [a role] you really connect to and think, “Oh I can do this role, because I get it. Done.” Then you go in and just do it. But [other times] you have a role that maybe you can’t figure out, and there’s a challenge, and now we have the technique to go in and say “This is why I can’t figure it out, and here’s how using this tool can fix it.” I want to go back and audition for all the roles I didn’t get when I was living in New York, because now I could get more of them. I’ve learned the skills to get them.
Chris, what is your favorite Ashley Dillard moment in Dancing at Lughnasa?
Chris: In the only scene we have together, she says – and I’m going to cry saying this – she says, “Call me the moment you’re going to fly those kites, because I wouldn’t miss that for all the world.” And Michael feels so happy looking back and hearing her say that, and the way Ashley brings life to it is wonderful. And it’s wonderful to be on stage with her and share that moment every time.
Ashley: (laughs) But we don’t really get to share that moment because I can’t actually look at him.
Chris: But I get to look at you!
Ashley, do you have a favorite Chris Handley moment?
Ashley: My absolute favorite moment is when he starts to talk about who his father really was. And I don’t ever get to actually see what Chris is doing, all I can do is hear, so we all go through such a journey listening to him talk about [his father] and explore, come to terms and forgive, all in this little four-minute speech about who his dad actually was. It’s all the hopes and dreams and realizations, and it’s just lovely.
James Nelson is a first-year MFA directing candidate. He is currently assistant directing IU Theatre’s season opener Dancing at Lughnasa.