Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Lisa Dwan

I was recently asked to define my greatest attribute and without much contemplation, I announced it to be listening. It’s a skill which I’ve consciously honed and developed over the past number of years – it is essential for my role as a teacher, a researcher, an interviewer, a friend, a sibling and occasionally, as a daughter. However, is it my greatest attribute? I’m not so sure.

Without sounding overtly egotistical, my reasoning for the amendment is not because of a sudden realisation of how great I am but due to this blog. ‘Minnie Mélange’ has developed from an online portal for my personal fashion commentary to become an outlet for me to converse with those who inspire and interest me most. The common thread between these two dimensions is curiosity. In the cacophony of voice and spectrum of content which is available online, my insatiable curiosity has been the vehicle to decipher that noise and to find the people and ‘things’ which interest me most.

The most authentic representation of that curiosity can be found within the ‘Extraordinary Women’ series. Over the past year, I have been fortunate to speak with the most amazing individuals who have denoted their ambitions, failures, successes, dreams, personal characteristics and professional drive. The fourteenth interviewee is Lisa Dwan; a warm, engaging, talented, disciplined, ambitious and vivacious individual who is difficult to define by one or any label.

At the beginning of the Summer, Athlone-born Lisa will take to the stage at The Barbican Theatre in London to perform a trio of Samuel Beckett’s work but the pieces, ‘Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby’, have already received mass positive acclaim across continental boundaries. Meeting Lisa whilst she was in Ireland was one of the most philosophical and educational experiences I’ve had to date. It was a privilege to co-question the representation of women in theatre/television, the hunger for perfection and the liberation in being oneself whilst simultaneously sipping hot chocolate.


How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

Professionally, I do a number of different things. I’m an actor, I’m a producer, I suppose in a sense, I’m multi-faceted but I also have a media company – I’m a journalist, I’m a writer, I’m a presenter – I do a whole heap of things and what I try to do to afford me that freedom is that I try to not allow anyone to give me a label. The question that I most dread is ‘what do you do?’ I don’t want to be defined by my work.

In terms of acting, it is amazing in so many ways, particularly when you are working with the likes of Samuel Beckett but it can also be a very demoralising profession. I know earlier, we spoke about how people perceive you, Sinéad but I’m a blonde who looks a certain way and am in my thirties, and for some reason in society, we think that if you look this way and are clever, you’re a bitch, if you’re pretty, you’re a bimbo and that’s about the extent of the personality spectrum for women. Someone like Samuel Beckett, throws all of those preconceptions of what a women should be, what she should look like, what she should sound like, out of the water and offers us the most multi-faceted, nuanced, amazing role. With Beckett, I get to play a subconscious, a ninety year old, a forty-year old and multiple people, all at once. It’s just so rich…

And liberating.

Yes, liberating and it can keep me completely pre-occupied for years, as it has. As you progress in excavating the work of Beckett, you almost feel that he is getting to a big truth about what it is to be human. I feel that I am expanding my own self, my emotional, intellectual and philosophical self, through that work. I find it a very expansive and liberating landscape.

The creative domain requires not only self-exploration and performance, but one must also be confident within the business realm. Do you find that juxtaposition a challenge?

I have a business head and would consider myself to be quite creative in business. I set up a media company where I launched and sold a number of onesies which funded the Beckett productions. I try to keep things as fluid as possible. It’s lonely, you have to be a pioneer of sorts and you have to always push open doors and avoid labels, it can be tough. However, what tends to happen is that people who ‘get you’, they really ‘get you’ and tend to be open-minded and creative themselves. It does create a natural sieve that the people who aren’t going to understand you dissolve and I have a very wonderful network of people who I have ended up working with and becoming friends with.

In terms of your personal characteristics and traits, how would you define yourself?

Personally, I am a very intense, driven, slightly neurotic individual. I’m hyper-sensitive and sometimes, very blind to how I might be or appear. I don’t see myself as others may see me and sometimes, I lack perspective. There’s a combination of ballsy, fiery strength and immense vulnerability.

Is that a harmonious collaboration?

Not always. There’s often a tumultuous meeting point of the two.

You started off as a dancer from Coosan in Athlone and in June you will be in The Barbican Theatre performing a trilogy of Beckett plays but how did that journey and the numerous transitions occur?

It was a series of accidents. I think my whole life has been a series of accidents – lucky accidents. I am somebody who walks through life with all of my senses open and I am very responsive when things happen. Ultimately, many of my decisions occur because I couldn’t do certain things. Unlike you, I’m not someone who could have travelled down an education route, I wanted to do other things. The rest of my family are academic but I saw that road ahead and it wasn’t for me. I was a dancer and for me it was the most holistic form of expression. In a way, I could transcend how I looked and I became something else and could communicate so much emotion through dance – it felt immediate. I was very blessed with a natural physique and a natural talent that I didn’t have to work too hard but when I did, although the work was intense, it was extremely rewarding. I was one of those people who was fortunate to have a very co-ordinated body but then my body failed. My knee injury was a very lucky accident – I had a very discombobulating, slightly depressing year when I had to make that transition from dance. I didn’t know where to go until someone said, ‘Oh, you’re a Dwan – you must be able to act’. You run into these beacons who point you in certain directions.In a way, my life has been characterised by me running into physical sign posts.

So, I started acting. I remember the first time I was doing a scene and it felt like a convergence of all of the thoughts and experiences in my head. All of a sudden, I had a vehicle and I could give my traumas employment. There’s a lot of autonomy in those sort of decisions, what you purge from your own past. It’s the emotional equivalent of interior decorating.

I suppose though, I found acting slightly awkward when I came up against the type of roles that were being offered. People like Samuel Beckett come around only once every three hundred years. I’m not dissing certain type of television programmes or films but the world’s perception of what a woman is was very disappointing to me and I was never going to be it. I couldn’t toe the line on the girl next door.

Why do you think audiences accept that definition?

I don’t know but I’m also unsure as to why certain people inject poison in their faces – why can’t we accept that we are human, that we are going to age and that we are going to die? We are trying to defeat the natural cycle.

Whose responsibility is it to defeat that stereotypical image of women?

I don’t know and it’s very hard to change that status quo or to even infiltrate it – they just think that you’re some grumbling whinge. What you can do is just forge your own path and walk your own thoughts. I’m only able to do these things because occasionally, people have said yes to me. I think when there is difference and when people think differently, do not allow yourself to be intimidated or frightened by that but instead, support and embrace that difference. I think we all have a responsibility to send the elevator back down – regardless of what stage you are at in your life and in your career – we must help and support others in any way that we can.

I’ve often thought of throwing the towel in and questioned if I’m crazy doing this lonely, difficult work and touring the world in such a depressing landscape and doing it to lose money. There’s no money in this and all too often, people make creative and personal choices due to money and if I had to say one thing about Ireland, I think our pre-occupation with money has in some cases, ruined our creativity. I think if we were doing things for other reasons, the money will come.

We have mentioned Beckett quite colloquially thus far but how did you first come in contact with his work and how did that relationship begin?

It was another happy accident. I had spoken about how unhappy I was with the lack of roles pertaining to women in the industry and all of a sudden, someone sent me the script of Beckett’s ‘Not I’. When I opened it up, I didn’t just see on stream of consciousness, I saw a continent of voices. I responded to it and I knew that it had to be spoken at speed. It had nothing to do with my aesthetic, no part of my body mattered, it was about inhabiting a spectrum of emotions and a cacophony of sound.

From an early age, you had adapted a specific discipline relating to the depiction of women. Did this make the rehearsal period easier?

There is nothing easy about Beckett [laughs]. Every aspect of doing this work is difficult. Actors who are considered great wouldn’t dream of doing a solo show, where everything rides of them, and they most certainly would not contemplate doing a solo show with the world’s most allegedly difficult play as well as two others. Beckett gets rid of directors, he doesn’t require them and the best directors of Beckett understand that and aren’t driven by their own ego. I was very fortunate that in my first instance of performing this work, I had a very sensitive director and she understood that I had to make very sensitive connections with the work. She also wouldn’t let me meet Billie Whitelaw prior to the performance.

Afterwards, I got to meet Billie and was in a position to take on her notes and to learn from the Beckett establishment. Billie was fabulous and encouraged me to search further within to make the performance almost innate.

I know the original performance of ‘Not I’ spanned approximately 22-24 minutes and Beckett was absolutely appalled, how do you discipline yourself to rehearse and perform the routine in as little time as possible?

Beckett’s not interested in the speed but I think he wants to hear our edge, he’s interested in the terror in what happens when you take it to that point. In many respects, ‘Not I’ is a representation of thought and I wanted to try to replicate what was happening in here [points to heart]. The self-checking, the speed, the phonetics – when you’re rehearsing and performing the piece, you realise that you are in his genius. Your own internal ‘Not I’ starts and you’re performing what you hear in your mind.

How does that internal ‘Not I’ impact upon your perspective of the outside world?

You realise how ridiculous and pathetic the outside world is and the institutions which we are defined by are immediately highlighted. I love that Beckett throws those archetypes, institutions and assumed authorities into flux and proves that if you distance yourself from those, the world will not crumble. I’ve grown so much out of this and feel both liberated and affirmed by it.

You mentioned Billie Whitelaw earlier but how did your relationship with her and the guidance which you received impact upon your performance and your person?

I had an awful lot of self-doubt at the time and I was really taken by Beckett’s direction not to include any ‘colour’ in the performance and Billie really helped me to understand what that note meant. She said, ‘Lisa, it’s not that he didn’t want emotion, he wanted all of it. What he didn’t want was an artificial monotone’. She really helped me to become honest with myself and she affirmed in me that my gut instinct to fellow this path was right. I’ll forever be in her debt for that because she could have been vain and wanted me to copy her performance but she didn’t.

In contrast, she could have ignored you and been unwilling to offer advice.

Exactly and I now have a duty to pass on the little bit I know to anyone who is willing or interested in this work.

You’ve toured ‘Not I/Footfall/Rockaby’ extensively around the world but how does the piece resonate with an audience where culture, language, politics and even interests may differ to Beckett’s own?

The reason why Beckett resonates internationally is that he found a universal truth. He gets to the emotional truth of a scene through music, through art, through visual poetry – an amazing prism where he distils the unnecessary and pares it down to something very basic and human. In order to achieve that understanding with an international audience, the piece doesn’t have to be some complicated highfalutin, accessible thing, he wanted it to be understood – which is a gargantuan challenge. I see very intense and emotional reactions to this work when I travel from country to country and the language, culture or geography of the audience doesn’t seem to matter.

As an Irish person, has your shared nationality with Beckett proved advantageous?

It’s kind of irrelevant other than that I viscerally understood the landscape which Beckett was writing from – but I’m not sure the piece’s notion of home is solely depicting Ireland.

Earlier we were discussing the solitary journey which you have embarked upon but as a person, how do you manage those emotions?

It’s extremely hard but simultaneously amazing. I’m sat opposite you now as one of the most privileged people there is – I get to do what I love for a living, I get to work in this kind of landscape, I have got to sell-out thousands of seats, I had a dream, I worked bloody hard and the dream paid off – that doesn’t always happen. I managed to create this production and work with many amazing people who have helped me to facilitate this tour and realise it. My gratitude is mostly to the people who dared to say yes and just how powerful yes is. I’m not going to lie, being in that mental space, there are a lot of sacrifices which need to be made but to be honest, and the good outweighs the bad. Nerves, hard work, exhaustion and fear can sometimes bring out your worst attributes and coping with the stress of perfectionism, stage fright, loneliness and trauma on a nightly basis can be tricky but I’m a super privileged individual.

Have you honed an ability to leave those emotions in the wings after a performance?

I do my best to do that but sometimes I take it home with me and perhaps that may make my general mood, at times, unpleasant [laughs] but ultimately, I sit here blown away by the people I’ve come into contact with and the experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have.

With being a perfectionist, how do you manage criticism?

It’s very easy to be hyper-critical and to assume that my drive is tied to a certain ego-mania or ambition that is based on vanity. Which funny enough, are criticisms which are only ever given to women. Men can be ambitious but apparently we aren’t allowed that particular virtue.

A brilliant friend of mine once said that if you don’t look to the online masses or those who critique you for affirmation, the negative commentary won’t impact upon you either.

It’s true and I’d even go further – expectations of any kind will only ever lead to resentment.

Those expectations that you set for yourself, do you consciously record them?

I should and I often email someone quite late at night saying ‘I’ve had this idea’ and they think that I’m a lunatic!

Interesting! You’ve been to Australia, Paris and Hong Kong with this production and The Barbican in London awaits you but in the interim, you were home in Ireland, will that / does that impact upon future performance of the trilogy?

The notion of home is always a mixed bag. Sometimes you expect a clap on the back from home and sometimes you don’t get it but that dissatisfaction can lead to the greatest creative decisions I’ve made. For example, look at how Joyce or Beckett were treated by home – thank God! I don’t know how great that is for home but I struggle with that definition of home – I don’t have one. It’s something that I’ve deeply craved but because there seems to be a bit of a vacuum there, it drives me.

Thank you to Lisa, Angela and Freddie for their assistance in conducting this interview. You can discover more about Lisa on Twitter.

Interview originally published April 26, 2015

Sinead Burke