In the blood
Profile by Jane Ledwell
The best Christmas present actor, director, and drama coach Martha Irving ever received was professional stage makeup from her parents. “It was a realization I came to at about 13 years of age, that all my thinking—how I processed the world—was through the eyes of an actor. So I just started to build my life toward that.” The makeup kit was a sign that her parents—Island theatre cornerstone Ron Irving and visual artist Daphne Irving—supported her.
“Theatre was in my blood,” she admits, “but you only become an actor if that’s what you have to do. It’s a calling. If it’s a calling for you, it is a very challenging but very rewarding life. My father was in the business, so I knew what it was. I knew I’d never make any money (and that’s important to know),” she laughs.
When she got that calling to act, “I was so lucky to be on PEI,” Martha says. “My father taught at Boston University when I was seven to twelve, and I didn’t really get involved in theatre. When we came back to PEI, there were opportunities at school, and in community theatre”—even touring shows. “There was a lot of opportunity for me because PEI was small and inclusive.”
All the same, leaving PEI was as important as getting a start here, Martha recalls. “Here, I was ‘Ron Irving’s daughter.’ I had to do that (leave) when I was young, to get that independent identity.”
Now based in Halifax, where she is co-artistic director of Lunasea women’s theatre company and continues her remarkable career on stage and screen, Martha is home on the Island this summer for the one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress by Thomson Highway, playing at the Victoria Playhouse. “I just love the character so much,” she says. The play, she says, “has a likable character and has music. It’s funny. It’s touching...”
Recalling her first time in the postmistress role, Martha says, “It terrified me to take this job.” The (Post) Mistress is a one-woman play: “There’s no connecting with a scene partner – the relationship is direct with the audience. Judi Dench said she would never perform a one-woman show, and I would have thought myself the same way...” But, she has discovered, “There’s a connection with the audience you don’t get with any other type of theatre. To be able to craft—and to craft for the audience that’s there that night—what they need,” is an incredible experience.
This will be her second summer in a row adding to offerings at Victoria Playhouse. After a “couple years’ break” from playing in The (Post) Mistress, Martha brought the script to Pat Stunden Smith at Victoria Playhouse as a good fit for their theatre. They agreed. “This is a new production, directed by Catherine O’Brien,” Martha says. “I’m looking forward to working with her, re-examining the script with her. I’m five years older, and I have five years more experience as a lens.” Catherine is also bringing her skills as a choreographer into the show, “an added element for me.”
Summers home are a recent tradition for Martha. “I hadn’t been on the Island in summer for about 18 years – summers are when actors are always working,” she smiles. Then, from 2008 until last year, she spent summers on the Island for Anne & Gilbert, most recently as director. That musical, she says, “was a reconnection to my roots – a charming and beautiful show,” and through the children’s chorus was “a great opportunity for teaching and coaching, a connection with kids. There’s so much talent on this Island!”
Martha says, “Because it’s an island, PEI is very protective of its culture. Newfoundland, Cape Breton, PEI—these islands are teeming with the arts. You find it on the front page of the paper, where you don’t as much in Halifax... On PEI, as my father and mother always say, there are 20 things to choose from every night. I feel lucky to be part of that.”
And when she comes home to act or direct these days, Martha’s father proudly introduces himself as “Martha Irving’s father.”