Why theatre takes centre stage for actress Orla

After her acclaimed performance in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Orla Fitzgerald was expected to determinedly pursue a film career.

Yet the Cork actress has remained true to her first love — the stage. A celebrated turn in Abbie Spallen’s play, Pumpgirl, had more impact on her career. Pumpgirl’s success in the UK, in 2006, prompted Fitzgerald to move to London and she has distinguish herself there since.

“After The Wind that Shakes the Barley, I did get an agent in LA and an agent in London,” says Fitzgerald. “But, over the last few years, I just happened to be offered great parts onstage or opportunities to work with great directors that I couldn’t turn down.”

Fitzgerald was introduced to theatre as a child, taking drama classes in Crawford Art Gallery, with Geraldine O’Neill. “I was quite shy as a child, so my mother thought the classes would bring me out of myself,” she says. “It was a 90-minute workshop on a Saturday morning, where we did improv and plays. It was all about fun and being creative and I loved it.”

Acting with Activate Youth Theatre followed. Then, in the late 1990s, Fitzgerald was cast in the second run of Corcadorca’s landmark production of Disco Pigs. Her career took off. Though still living in London, Fitzgerald is back on the old sod for Rough Magic’s revival of Declan Hughes’s Digging For Fire, in which she plays the lead.

When Hughes’s play premiered, in 1991, a stark decade of emigration and national crisis was ending and the first whiff of the Celtic Tiger was in the air. Re-staging it now should throw up some weird resonances. The play centres on the reunion of seven former college friends as they approach their 30s. Also among the cast are Ray Scannell and Jody O’Neill (daughter of Fitzgerald’s childhood mentor, Geraldine). While the play is an ensemble, Fitzgerald’s character, Claire — who must confront huge dissatisfaction in her life — has the greatest emotional arc.

“It’s very demanding, actually,” says the actress. “When you read it you go, ‘Oh, so she has to cry here and cry there. That’s grand.’ But then you get stuck in and you realise it is really draining. Claire is in crisis. Her marriage is a joke and she’s in a profession that she really hates. She’s searching for meaning and searching for that fire that she had in her belly before. Everyone thought that she was going to be a big writer, but she doesn’t even know if she wants to write anymore. She only knows that where she is now is not where she had imagined herself to be.”

It’s a point that many of us reach around our 30s. “I don’t feel as lost as Claire does, but at points in my life I definitely have asked myself, ‘what am I doing?’,” says Fitzgerald. “And you do look at your friends and realise that people have changed. All that fire that you had in your early 20s, that does leave you as you get older. You mellow.”

Unlike her character, Fitzgerald loves her profession. “This might sound wanky, but I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “Acting was always what I was going to do, and I would have been extremely unhappy if I hadn’t done it.”

*Digging For Fire runs at the Project Arts Centre, Apr 22 – May 4

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