Margo MacDonald Q & A with Margo MacDonald

Interview by Ren Tomovcik
( Photo by Andrew Alexander)

Rideau Award-winning Margo MacDonald is one of Ottawa's brightest theatre personalities, and there's no doubt her star is still rising.  On the eve of her latest performance, Margo shares her thoughts about life onstage in Ottawa.


Margo is a well-known Ottawa actor and theatre creator.  She is the co-founder of A Company of Fools, and last appeared with the Fools this summer in the Torchlight Shakespeare production of "Much Ado About Nothing."  Margo recently won a Prix Rideau Award for Outstanding Female Performance for the role of Fay in "Iron" with SevenThirty Productions.  She is currently performing in The Gladstone's "Noises Off", and will next appear in "William Shakespeare's Danish Play" with A Company of Fools at the Gladstone in February 2010.

Margo, how did you get started in theatre?  Did you always know you wanted to be onstage? My parents took me to see a production of "Oliver" when I was five years old.  That was the first time I realized there were such things as stage actors and knew immediately that was the life for me.  I came home singing all the songs and spent days re-enacting the scenes.  I told my mother then that I wanted to be an actor, to which she replied, "Wait and see.  All little girls think they want to be actors."  But I never wavered.

What play can you remember seeing or reading that had a lasting impact on you?Well, apart from the aforementioned "Oliver", I read "Waiting for Godot" in grade eleven and it changed my life.  I fell in love with the vision of Samuel Beckett and from there moved on to Eugene Ionesco, the Dadaists, the Surrealists...all that lot.  It changed the way I looked at art and the world.  In tandem with that awakening, I saw my first production of Shakespeare ("A Mid-Summer Night's Dream" by Penguin Theatre) which toured to my high school.  My love of classical text grew along with my love of experimental theatre, and I think those influences still show in the work I do today.

What was the first Ottawa production you appeared in?  Tell us about that role and what it meant to you.It was probably my school's production of The Night Before Christmas, in which I played "Ma, in her kerchief" in grade two, or thereabouts!  But the first professional production I appeared in (apart from my early days spent doing improv-comedy) was at the old NAC Atelier (how I miss that place!) in a workshop production of a play called "Scribbles."  I played a social misfit whose only outlet for her repressed feelings was the little drawings she did on bits of scrap paper.  She carried them around in a box. 

The role involved taking my shirt off, kissing a much older man, and then an older woman, and a complete emotional breakdown -- quite a lot for an inexperienced young actor.  It was quite an astounding thing, as a new graduate, to have professionals I admired think I was good enough that they wanted to work with me.  Actually, that is still an astounding thing to me.

Does it help when you identify with a character, or do you prefer to challenge yourself by taking on roles where the characters' situations are outside your realm of personal experience?Well, no matter what the character is, you are going to play it using part of yourself and who you are -- or might have been.  That is what the actor brings.  Two equally skilled actors will play a role completely differently and it is all about what the actor brings to the role on a personal level.  For me, the further a character is from how I am in everyday life, the more I enjoy playing them.  I guess most would think of me as a "character actor" because I rarely play myself.  Rather, I warp myself to suit each role.

Margo performs in "A Midwinter's Dream Tale" with A Company of Fools (Photo: Andrew Alexander)

What is the hardest role you have ever prepared for, and what made it so challenging? I think it was the role I won the Prix Rideau Award for last year -- Fay in "Iron" with SevenThirty Productions, so it was great to have all that hard work acknowledged by the award nominations I received.  Fay was in prison for fifteen years for the murder of her husband.  It took a lot of work to get to that place--mentally, emotionally--in a realistic manner.  Also, the role required a Scottish accent which I'd never done before (apart from broad comic ones) and, although I love to do accents and have a facility for them, the fact that my director (John P. Kelly) has an Irish accent made it a little tricky to maintain.
Another really tough role was Lady Anne/Prince Edward in "Richard III--in Bouffon" with A Company of Fools several years back.  I'd done a fair bit of red-nosed clown work before, but never bouffon.  Getting my body to recover from the damage inflicted by the twisted body positions in the bouffon play took several months.  But the experience on stage, the interaction with the audience (they got to throw bread at us when they thought we'd gone too far, being rude, or mean or what-have-you), was unlike anything I'd experienced previously and I'm really glad to have done it.  Why I was crazy enough to agree to the remount a couple of years ago, that I can't tell you!

Have you ever worked in an offstage role?  Have you ever directed or written your own play?Funny you should ask...playwriting is something rather new in my career, though I've collectively created shows many times in the past.  These last couple of years, though, I've actually been working on writing and developing two different scripts.  One is a collective project with several other artists here in town (Richard Gelinas, David Hersh, Teri Rata Loretto, and David Whiteley).  We call ourselves The Absinthe Collective and are developing a show entitled "A Leave of Absinthe" -- a preliminary version of which appeared at last year's Fringe Festival.  It's about the artist/absinthe culture in 1888 Paris.
Margo Macdonald Left:  Margo with Teri Rata Loretto in a promotional shot for "A Leave of Absinthe." 
Photo: Andrew Alexander.

The other is a script I am actually writing on my own now, which is a big learning experience for me.  It is a biographical piece about a cross-dressing, bisexual, swordfighter, duellist and opera singer in 17th century France.  I finished draft two as part of the GCTC playwright's unit this past season and am now working on draft three which will be the one I take into workshop, hopefully, later this year.
As for directing, I do dabble in it from time to time, most notably I've directed a few of the Torchlight Shakespeare summer park shows for A Company of Fools.

Tell us a little about "Noises Off" and the role you play in it.It's not just an advertising gimmick -- it really is one of the funniest plays ever written, and I think under John P. Kelly's direction, this production really does it credit.  I play Dotty, an aging theatre diva, who (in the play-within-the-play) plays the role of the doddering housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett (who seems to be obsessed with sardines).

How did you prepare for this role?The trickiest part is the aging, as I'm playing an actor who is at least 15 years older than myself who plays a character who is at least 15 years older than herself.  Tricky, but fun.

You're one of Ottawa's brightest stage stars, but you're in good company on this production, surrounded by many more of the city's finest.  What do you learn from working with other accomplished stage actors, and what is the dynamic like between the cast members? This is indeed a splendid cast of very talented people and we are all having so much fun working together.  I'm particularly pleased to be onstage, finally, with John Koensgen whom I have admired all of my career.  I'd worked with him as a director twice before and we've done some staged readings, but this is first time we've been in a show together.  He is marvellous.  I'm also very pleased that Al Connors is in the cast as this is the first time we've acted together in a show outside of A Company of Fools.  He is tremendously funny.

Noises Off at the Gladstone
Margo takes the stage with John Koensgen in The Gladstone's "Noises Off" (Photo: Andrew Alexander)
How would you describe the Ottawa theatre community, and the capital's arts community at large?During the Magnetic North Festival back in June, Naomi Campbell (who's from Toronto) said to me that theatre in Ottawa right now has "a real indie band vibe to it".  I really like that description and think it suits the groundswell of exciting, independent work that is happening here.

Have you ever been given a piece of advice by a veteran actor that resonated with you or that helped you with your own development?
Yup.  "Take the work seriously, but never take yourself too seriously."

And what advice would you give to someone just getting started in the world of theatre?The same.  I love to see actors take joy in the work they are doing.  Some actors are too hard on themselves and like to beat themselves up; they forget they are supposed to be 'playing'.  Work hard, but remember to play.
Here's one of my favourite Samuel Beckett quotations:
"No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."

You can catch Margo in The Gladstone's "Noises Off," playing now until October 10th.  See the Gladstone website for details, tickets and performance times.


Written by Michael Frayn - Directed by John P. Kelly

It is only hours before the opening of a British adult farce, Nothing On, and the touring company is hurriedly running through a final dress rehearsal in the Grand Theatre, Weston-SuperMare, before the first audience arrives. The Nothing On cast is loveable, but mainly inept. We cheer for them under our breath and hope that they can pull it together and get the show on the road. However, our hopes are dashed in Act 2…

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