Martha Irving has come a long way since her directoral debut for Shipwrecked on a Haunted Island. The play, a terrifying ghost story, opened (and closed) 40-odd years ago in Irving’s friend Karen’s backyard.
“I was a real tyrant,” says Irving of her 11-year-old self. “I wanted to play all the parts so I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, do it like this! Be in awe! Awe!’”
At age 13, Irving realized her true calling was acting, and she spent the next four decades honing her craft. Irving has appeared in countless plays (The Tempest, Scientific Americans, The Girls in the Gang, The Diary of Anne Frank, Death of a Salesman, Into the Woods, The Miracle Worker) as well as on screen (The Hanging Garden, Pit Pony, Black Harbour, Trudeau II). But until late last year, Irving had no intention of playing the role of director.
“I was always just going to be an actor,” says Irving. “My Dad’s a director, I never wanted to do it.” But when fellow actor Corey Turner approached her about directing John Patrick Shanley’s (Moonstruck) play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Irving seized the opportunity.
“For the first time I thought, OK, it’s presented itself to me, I might as well take it on, and it’s good,” says Irving. “I’m actually really enjoying it. I feel this great freedom, and it’s because I’m an actor by profession. You feel like you can’t mess up because your next job depends on how you’re doing, but I don’t consider myself a director, so I can take more chances and I don’t have to worry about that pressure of trying to make a career. It’s freeing.”
As an actor, Irving approaches each role with an instinctual desire to discover her character’s motivation. She approaches directing from the same intuitive stance, only now gets to focus her energies on a greater number of characters. “I like figuring out why people do what they do,” she says. “I spend my life doing that, it’s a big jigsaw puzzle to me.”
Irving was born in Moncton, NB—she isn’t of the oil dynasty—and grew up between Boston and PEI. She spent her childhood surrounded by the “family business” of theatre, and learned the ropes by watching her father’s rehearsals. Irving began performing in school plays and community theatre in junior high, and moved to England after high school to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
“I’d practiced my English accent since I was 11,” she says. “And the first two years I kept coming home from school and I’d say to my Dad, ‘Do I have an accent, do I have an accent?’ And he’d say no. Then the third year I picked it up without realizing it”—thanks to a British boyfriend—“until we were going to do a production of Kennedy’s Children and when I started reading for it I thought: ‘I’m not in control of the sounds coming out of my mouth, I have an English accent.’ When I came home, it took me a year to get rid of it.”
Irving moved from London to Toronto, where she performed in numerous new Canadian works, including John Mighton’s Scientific Americans and the premier of The Girls in the Gang at the Blyth Festival. Irving met her future husband, a stage carpenter named Michael Higgins, through work, and the two moved to Halifax in 1990. “He loves wooden boats,” says Irving, “so we chose Halifax because of the boats.”
Irving, a Neptune regular, is effusive in her love of Halifax, and she’s grateful to be one of the few local actors consistently able to make a living through her art. Irving’s success can be attributed to her single-minded devotion to theatre, which she describes in terms of an addiction.
“Theatre was my entire life,” says Irving. “And if I wasn’t working I didn’t really know who I was, I had some big identity crisis.”
Irving’s daughter Madeleine is set to continue the family business, and Irving is eager to show her the reality of life on stage. “The best thing to do for a person is to take the glamour out of it,” says Irving. “It’s not about being rich and famous. The only reason people do it is because they have to do it.”
The two characters in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Danny, played by Corey Turner, and Roberta, played by Francine Deschepper) make great fodder for Irving’s probing mind. The two meet in a trashy bar, where each has gone to be alone. Danny is a violence-prone truck driver, and Roberta is a divorced single-mom living with her hated parents and a painful secret.
“It starts right off the top,” says Irving, “and it just hits really hard. They’re both really volatile and on edge, and they’re confronted with each other. These are two people that you would meet and think ‘there’s no hope in their lives, there’s no way things can get better for them.’ If someone described Danny to you, you’d think ‘well, the kind of guy who’d go and beat somebody to death, they’re evil.’ But then in the play you get to see, ‘No, he’s human and there’s reasons that he does those things.’ And if he can come to terms with those things, then he can transcend them. So through meeting each other and having their buttons pushed by the right person they find some hope for the future.”
Together Danny and Roberta have a chance for redemption. “It’s such a gorgeous journey,” says Irving. “The audience finds their humanity, and that’s what I love about theatre.”
With such an alluring love, it’s no wonder Irving never had any hobbies. Monogamy has its downside though, and as Irving enters her fifth decade on the stage she’s learning the pervasively unfair truth of what it means to be a middle-aged actress.
“I’ve just become familiar with the saying ‘as women turn 50 and onward, they become more and more invisible to men,’” says Irving. “When you’re young and you walk into a bar everybody kind of looks, and it just doesn’t happen as you get older. The same thing happens in terms of writing—there are tons of parts written for younger women, women in their 30s, then in the 40s you start getting into mother roles, but once you’re in your 50s you’re in this odd area of who writes for them? That’s probably why you get a lot of older actresses directing, because the roles start going.”
With three weeks of directing solidly under her belt, Irving is optimistic about her future in the performing arts. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea opens March 17 at The Crib on Gottingen Street, and Irving begins rehearsing the role of Little Mary Sunshine for Neptune Theatre’s upcoming production of Chicago the following day.Irving has no immediate plans to direct again, but she’s curious to see what the future will hold. Asked if she has considered trying her hand at writing roles for older women, Irving says, “Not yet, but I’ve always said that about directing, so I don’t know.
“I’ve always been completely intimidated by playwriting. I’m intimidated by postcard writing,” she says laughing. “I’m a terrible writer. But, you never know, out of desperation, what one does to create art.”