Translations: an Interview with Actor Rory Nolan

Posted June 29, 2011 in Arts & Culture Features

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Rory Nolan embodies everything that is right about the acting profession. His passion and dedication to his craft shines through with every word that he speaks, and though he has achieved great success as an actor, he is not in it for the money. Since graduating from the Gaiety School of Acting in 2003, he has acted in over twenty-five productions, exhibiting mastery and earning plaudits from each and every one. He is currently acting in Brien Friel’s Translations, an Irish masterpiece about identity, sense of self, and cultural discovery, which is currently showing at the legendary Abbey Theatre. We met at the theatre bar on the eve of opening night—surely a nerve-wracking and hectic time for any actor—but Rory was calm, cool, and collected and endearingly delighted to sit down and chat about his palpable passion for the theatre. He spoke with a charm, fervor, and clarity of speech that left me wishing I could prolong the interview just so I could continue to listen to him. To watch Rory, along with the rest of the talented ensemble, go see Translations at the Abbey Theatre running until August 13.

How did you get started acting?

Well, I got started at a young age. I was actually studying English and Sociology at University College Dublin when I first got involved with theatre. I became very active in the drama group there, which was lovely because I was able to study theatre and acting as well as directing and producing. I was in thirty shows in three years at UCD and just completely fell in love with acting. So from there, I studied at the Gaiety School of Acting for two years and have made it my career since then. You really have to be consumed by it, you know, which I completely am. It’s a fantastic complaint to have—to be consumed by something so entirely.

What is your technique, if you will, when it comes to your craft? Would you consider yourself a “method actor,” if you can stand the term?

You know, I can stand it, but I am definitely reluctant to use the term “method actor” because of everything that it entails. I have been extraordinarily lucky in the diversity of roles that I have played, so my approach has been completely different every time. I think it is important to be off book as soon as possible so that I can spend as much time as I can “stepping into the shoes” of the character. And I mean that literally. I will go to the costumer during rehearsal and ask for the shoes and clothes that I will be wearing so that I can truly explore how my character moves, walks, and sits. But at the end of the day, you are who you are. You bring as much to the character as the character brings to you, and I think that is important to remember.

Do you have a favorite show you have performed in?

Let’s see, the show Improbable Frequency put on by the Rough Magic Theatre Company was an incredible experience. It was, and still is, one of my favorite plays and it got me seen by a lot of people in the business, which was really lovely.

My role as Happy in Death of a Salesman was a fantastic experience as well because I truly learned so much. That’s one of the lovely things about this job is that you are always learning with each new role you take on. There is no ultimate level of acting mastery that you seek—no matter how experienced you are, there is always more to learn, and that is one of the great joys of acting.

And then this show, Translations, is one of my very favorite shows I have acted in as well. It is such an Irish masterpiece—so monumental and beautifully succinct.

What in your opinion makes Irish theatre unique from that in other cultures and countries?

Well, I think the Irish have this innate story-telling nature. There is such a turbulent history to our country—not just regarding the conflict between the North and the South but really, since our founding. I think that our stories and our way of thinking and how we relate to the world is so unique and grounded in such a rich history that it has led to great arts and great theatre.

One discrepancy in acting theory that I continuously encounter is whether an actor needs to genuinely feel and experience the world and emotion of the character or whether an understanding of the “universality of human emotion” will suffice in the sense of gestures, expressions, vocal inflection, etc. As a successful actor, what is your take on the matter?

I think it is a mixture of the two. When talking about gesture and expression and vocal inflection, I think those are important but must come naturally. And when talking about living in the “world” of the character, my only problem with that is that you bring as much to the character as the character brings to you. I think of the details that I discover in the world of the character more as psychological pointers to find the emotion. It’s really a process of osmosis in that you bring emotion to the character just as the character brings emotion to you. And another important thing to consider is that you are always part of a greater entity—and that is the show as a whole. It is not all about having a deep understand of your character, but rather having an understanding of how you fit into the show on a grander scheme. Every character, no matter how small or large, serves a purpose.

I have to ask that clichéd question: if you couldn’t act, what would you do?

Oh goodness, that might be the one question that confounds me. Living on the street probably. Not really, but at the point I am now, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Even if couldn’t act, I would still be in the business. I just can’t imagine not doing this.

Now let’s talk Translations. Can you tell me a little bit about the show?

I would be delighted. It is set in 1833 in a small town in Donegal. There is an English military presence mapping the country of Ireland and anglicizing the place names—essentially translating them to be understood in English. It’s about really powerful and resonant themes—identity, culture, and transition. And there is a lovely love story between an Irish girl and an Englishman, which explores the topic of two people being from the same planet but completely different worlds.

Can you tell me about the character that you play?

Yes of course. I play Doalty, and he is described as being “big, gentle, enthusiastic, and slightly thick.” He is just a big-hearted guy, which is a lot of fun to play. He isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is very affected by what happens in the course of the play, which makes him change a lot. It has been lovely to explore this character because there is such a definite arc in his persona from the beginning to the end.

I understand one of the unique aspects of the play is that though it is all spoken in English, some of the lines are meant to be understood as though the character is speaking in Irish. Can you tell me a little about how this is accomplished?

Well a lot is done through the genius of Brien Friel, you know, within the writing. The script is so beautifully and masterfully written. Many of the characters are “peasants,” but they veer sharply from what is thought of as the stereotypical dense Irish peasant in that they are highly educated. The world of Ulysses and the Greeks and Romans is still very much alive in their hearts, which makes things all the more rich and interesting when their world collides with the world of the English soldiers. And Brien Friel has written this through in his work so that it is clear and the audience just gets it. I think that doing something like using accents to distinguish the different languages would actually weaken the device because it would patronize the audience.

What do you think Brien Friel is trying to say with this play, and what do you, as an ensemble, hope the audience gets from it?

Well, I certainly hope they leave having enjoyed themselves! But beyond that, I hope they leave with an idea of home and what that really means. It is a play about sense of self and what that means within their society and their world. It is about searching for where you belong in the past as a living, breathing thing. How if you think of the past as being dead, you will just fossilize. You know, this show was written thirty years ago in a very tumultuous political climate, but the magic of the play is that it still resonates just as powerfully today as it did back then. It resonates for different reasons, but just as powerfully. I truly believe that it is a play that everyone should see.

I haven’t even seen it yet, but I wholeheartedly agree.

Translations runs until August 13 at the Abbey Theatre. For more information and booking visit

Words Laura Burdine




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