BARBARA FIGGINS (Angela)
A native of Pittsburgh, Barbara’s big break came in 9th grade when she wowed Sewickley Academy in her star turn as Maisie in The Boyfriend. After formalizing her training with a BFA from Chicago’s Northwestern University, Barbara began her professional career at the legendary Kenley Players summer stock in Ohio and went on to regional work at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and The MUNY in St. Louis before settling in Chicago where she has established herself as a critical and audience favorite. In addition to work with notable local companies including Writers Theatre of Glencoe, Remy Bumppo, Victory Gardens, Timeline, and Jackalope, she has been an ensemble member of Irish Theatre Of Chicago since 2005, where favorite performances include Bold Girls, In Pigeon House, Dancing at Lughnasa, Our Father, Shadow Of A Gunman, and My Brilliant Divorce, for which she received a Jeff Award Nomination for Best Solo Performance. Barbara’s recent TV work includes NBC’s Chicago Justice, and Showtime’s The Chi.
It’s been three years since you last performed My Brilliant Divorce. Are you excited to return to the show?
Oh, I’m thrilled! It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to share My Brilliant Divorce with the Notre Dame community, plus the space at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center is just gorgeous. I’m also used to doing the show in very intimate venues, so having that huge stage to play on is a real treat. Okay… to tell the truth, it’s a little scary too (laughs), and it turns out there are huge chunks of the show that I had literally completely forgotten even existed, so it’s been an adventure rediscovering entire sections of this terrific play. But also, I’m in a different place personally than I was three years ago so I get to bring a fresh perspective to Angela and discover a lot of surprising things about her story that I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done this show a hundred times but, in many ways, the Notre Dame production feels completely new.
My Brilliant Divorce is a one-woman show but, in addition to the central role of Angela, you also play over 20 additional characters. How difficult is it to play scenes with yourself, all by yourself?
Well, I’m not completely by myself of course. Axl (Angela’s pet German Shepherd, played by a life-size stuffed toy) is also onstage with me, although sometimes it does seem like he’s not even listening. But because I get to talk directly to the audience so much in this play, it really does start to feel like they’re my scene partner and that I’m not alone up there at all. Usually, it’s my job to pretend the audience isn’t there so it’s a treat to be able to connect with people in real time. And whenever I catch someone’s eye and see that they’re really engaged in the story with me, it’s a really wonderful moment that we share. Over the course of the evening, I stop feeling like the people are an audience I’m performing for, and start feeling like they’re my new best friend that I get to share all these things with.
As for playing all the other extra characters, it’s a challenge but it’s also so much fun! There’s not a lot of plays where you get to do a role as terrific as Angela and play a whole range of additional roles from 18 to 80, male and female. I get to be a Vietnam Vet, a cockney shopgirl, a hilarious cleaning lady, a rude lawyer, just to name a few. I feel bad for Axl. He only gets to play a dog.
Speaking of Axl, they say you should never work with children or animals. Have you found that adage to be true?
Well, it can be a little intimidating to share the stage with Axl. He’s obviously very good looking and everyone loves the strong, silent type. It’s funny though, we’ve worked up some new bits just for this production, and more than once I’ve turned to the director and complained: “Well now the dog is gonna get a bigger laugh than me!” In the moment it’s easy to forget that it’s a one-woman show and that I’m the one getting the laugh, not him. Don’t tell him I said that.
The original production of My Brilliant Divorce received a lot of critical acclaim and you were even nominated for a Jeff Award for Best Solo Performance. Does something like that make you feel like there’s pressure on you to live up to certain expectations?
It was a tremendous honor to get the Jeff Award nomination, but knowing that I’ll be performing this at the artistic home of my director (Siiri Scott, Head of Acting and Directing, Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame) puts way more pressure on me than anything else could!
What do you like the most about My Brilliant Divorce?
I truly love sharing this very real and beautiful and funny story with people. It resonates on so many levels, and even though it’s a comedy it addresses some really deep questions. Like what it means to be a spouse, or a parent, or a child—not to mention the demands of juggling being all those things at once. There are so few plays that center on the emotional life of mature adults or that talk about the challenges we all face as we grow older, as our parents age, and as our kids move away, and I think there are even fewer playwrights that do it with the heart and humor that Geraldine Aron does in this play. I also just really love Angela. She’s a terrific person. No matter what the obstacles are, she just stumbles forward and tries to do the very best she can.
She has this amazing fearlessness and an incredible optimism. One of the things I love most about her is that she always chooses yes before she chooses no. That’s something I’ve learned from her, and something that I hope everyone who sees this play takes with them as well.
Although he was made in China, Axl considers himself a Chicago dog through and through. Not counting his cotton stuffing, which is also from China. A newcomer to the stage, Axl made his performing debut in Irish Theater of Chicago’s original 2015 production of Geraldine Aron’s My Brilliant Divorce, alongside actress Barbara Figgins, who received a Jeff Award nomination for her performance as Angela. Although Axl’s role in the play is non-speaking, he features heavily in many of the scenes and plot points of the show and serves as Angela’s constant companion throughout the story. We sat down with him at Chicago’s famous Chief O’Neill’s Irish pub to find out what life is like for this 3-foot-2 blond with the steely-eyed gaze.
Your resume states that you’ve taken obedience classes but no acting classes. However, your stage debut in Irish Theatre Of Chicago’s Midwest Premiere of My Brilliant Divorce was greeted by positive critical notice and very strong audience response. To what do you attribute your success?
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Okay, let me ask that another way. In My Brilliant Divorce your human co-star Barbara Figgins not only plays the central character of Angela but also plays over 20 additional male and female characters covering a wide range of ages and nationalities. You’re a quiet dog named Axl whose only job consists of playing a quiet dog named Axl, yet audiences seem to love you. Has this caused any backstage friction?
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Maybe that’s a sensitive topic. Let’s talk about your career. Obviously, you’re a hit as Axl, but no performer wants to get typecast. Do you feel there are enough artistic opportunities out there for stuffed toy dogs?
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Well, thanks so much for meeting with us, Axl. We’re really looking forward to welcoming you to town for the Notre Dame run of My Brilliant Divorce. Maybe we can meet up and chat again at Waka Dog, or Yellow Cat Café, or just take a stroll down Hound Trail?
Irish Theatre of Chicago presents My Brilliant Divorce
Settle in for the hilarious and moving story of Angela, recently deserted by her husband for a younger woman, as she sets out to survive and enjoy life on her own.
Thursday–Saturday, November 1-3, 2018, at the Philbin Studio Theatre, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.