In preparing for the current production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, I read Playing Joan, Holly Hill's collection of 26 interviews with actresses who played Joan of Arc in England, Canada and America. I thought it might be instructive to ask some of Hill's questions to Tarah Flanagan, the Rep's Joan. It was.
Dennis Brown: Winifred Linehan was the first actress to play Shaw's Joan. She later said that she was "frightened" of the role and "had wanted to run and hide during rehearsals." What sort of emotions did you experience during rehearsals?
Tarah Flanagan: I was intimidated, certainly, before we began. But right off the bat, Paul Barnes, our director, told us, "We cannot possibly be everybody's Joan. We cannot tell all of the stories. We cannot satisfy everyone. Our job is to tell this story that Shaw has given us. That's enough of a challenge right there." I found that very comforting as an actor.
Do you have a favorite scene, or a most difficult scene?
I don't know that I have a favorite. But I do find the trial scene particularly difficult. Because Joan feels things so passionately, I find it a challenge, both emotional and technical, to be so physically exhausted and emotionally worn out, yet at the same time spiritually and psychically centered, all the way up until a point when she isn't.
Do you hear Joan's voices?
Yes. I know what they say to me, I know when they say it, I know where they are. I also know that Shaw didn't necessarily view them as literal voices, but I don't trouble myself with that. In this play, they are real for Joan. So what I did was to let everything that Shaw wrote, and all the research I've done, the trial transcripts and Mark Twain's history, all the reading, seep like tea into my head, and that's how my voices came about.
Do you only hear them onstage?
That's interesting. I dream Joan all the time now and have since maybe a week before I came to St. Louis to begin rehearsals, and the voices are very much a part of those dreams.
Many actresses spoke about being swept "from one moment to the other." When you're onstage, does the play carry you?
It absolutely does, and I even felt that way when I read it. I'm not very good at reading plays. I really need to see them or be in them. But this play reads like gangbusters. It feels incredibly active. There aren't any battles onstage, there's no burning onstage, but it feels like forward momentum all the time. I hope it plays that way.
Shaw told Wendy Hiller to "hurry up and get on with it. There's no time to try and act with it." Does the play roll on the lines?
It does, and we actors have to learn that lesson over and over again. [Rep artistic director] Steve Wolff came in, saw a run-through and said, "You have to take ten minutes off the production." We had already cut the text, not huge chunks, but enough, and Paul didn't want to cut any more. So he said, "Let's do it again, and let's try to just act on the lines. Don't act in between the text." We did it again, and we took nine minutes off and it was ten times better. Oftentimes we actors feel that if something's not working we should try harder, when in fact we should just go a little faster. It works.