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Interview with actress Angeline Ball – In Skagway

24 January 2014 Charlie Kenber

A “whimsical, magical story of immigration and survival on the edge of the world”

In Skagway, a new play from Karen Ardiff explores life in a remote Alaskan frontier town at the end of the gold rush. We spoke to actress Angeline Ball about bringing such a harsh world to the stage…

London Calling: How are rehearsals going?

Angeline Ball: I haven’t worked for a little while because I was up in Manchester doing Shameless for eighteen months and it’s my first theatre piece for a long while. So throwing yourself back into it is quite challenging! The way that Russell Bolam (director) likes to work is kind of Stanislavsky-style; so it’s intensely looking at the script and taking it apart and finding out your character’s objective. I was laughing the other day because it just goes to show you can teach an old dog new tricks! It’s the first time I’ve worked that way and I’m really enjoying it.

LC: The show is described as an ‘Irish Western’ – what does that mean to you?

AB: I think fundamentally two characters are Irish who came over on the boats to escape the famine. My character came from London and went to New York, then they migrated across America. So they keep fundamentally Irish but have all these experiences.

We’ve done a whole backstory and timescale on things: we would have gone in 1880, and ended up in Skagway in about 1886. We’ve charted all of that, because there are references to dancing in Washington and stuff like that. We had a look exactly at how we would have taken those trips.

LC: Does the state of Skagway at the time translate into the play?

AB: It really does. Skagway was a bit like the edge of the world then – not only did it have absolutely bitter cold winters, but you’ve got all of these people in the last desperate hope to find some gold. There were very little provisions out there and if you didn’t have money you were at the mercy of the elements. It’s a strange pivotal kind of world that you fall off the edge of it and then you’re gone.

It was kind of one of those last towns where anything goes. It was a big free-for-all. Everybody was each for their own really, just trying to survive. Especially women – most women out there were prostitutes. Very few women would go on the trail and hunt for gold. There was an alley behind the main street of Skagway called Paradise Alley that was totally inhabited by women of the night.

When you look at photos of Skagway it’s so muddy: it’s just a slush-bucket, and to have these lovely names like Paradise Alley! And don’t forget the weather on top of that and the lack of food and everything.

LC: What drew you to the project?

AB: I think it was that lawlessness of the play, the ragged edges. The rawness. Also for a woman it is a very good piece. I get to be quite challenged in my role. The writing is brilliant; I think Karen Ardiff has done an incredible job. It’s so layered and so dense and the characters are so complex. I’ve never played anything like this before so it’s an amazing challenge.

Also to work with Russell Bolam who’s a brilliant director, and Geraldine Alexander and all these fabulous actors. It’s almost like post-Christmas it’s time to catch your breath and fall in love with acting again. And that’s where you can find it is in the theatre, instead of just doing an episode of this that and the other. Television is so immediate for the actor and sometimes you don’t get time to take a breath and acknowledge for yourself again why you’re doing it.

LC: Is the process very different with television work then?

AB: Yeah it’s very different. It’s sometimes very immediate – I suppose it depends on the show. Literally “there’s your script, on!”

You have to be physically quite different: you can’t do the grand gestures you do on stage, and you don’t get the freedom to move around a lot because you’re restricted by camera.

I think with theatre it just kind of opens me up. I kind of saw it as opening up to the New Year and getting the cogs and wheels in motion again. Oiling the old acting cogs.

LC: Is there something particularly special for you about Irish writing?

AB: The thing about new Irish writing – especially me being Irish – is it’s really nice to see the influence of old Irish writers like O’Casey and Beckett and Joyce, and then the mixture of how it’s evolved. I know that Karen is an actress, so she would have done a lot of these plays herself.

So she would know these characters, and then to interpret them in an Irish format and create this huge world of not just basing it in Ireland but literally basing it on the edge of nowhere, it’s quite wonderful I think. It’s kind of spooky.

Some people that are referenced in the play actually did exist…so it’s a wicked web of weaving in reality and what actually did happen and this whimsical, magical story of immigration and survival on the edge of the world.

LC: Who do you think the play will appeal to?

AB: There’s a nakedness in Skagway about peoples’ feelings and emotions…so I think that’s very interesting. I think the fact it’s four women is very appealing and it shows the strength that women would have had to have.

I really hope it does appeal to the masses; I don’t want it just to appeal to women, or the adventurers out there. But I think it’s very dense, it’s very layered: it’s about human relationships at the husk of it, and it’s about survival.

In Skagway is on at the Arcola Theatre from 6th February until 1st March. Tickets available here.

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