Played the title role of Salome in the Royal National Theatre production that toured Australia and Japan, appeared in “The Women” at the Royal Old Vic, Madame de Sade at the Almeida Theatre, and created the part of Constance in the London premiere of “Goodnight Desdemona.” She also played Salome opposite Al Pacino in Arvin Brown’s production at Long Wharf Theatre, and opposite Steven Berkoff in “Salome” in Tokyo and around the world. She originated the role of Barbarina in Julie Taymor’s production of “The Green Bird” at Theatre for a New Audience. She has appeared in several films and TV shows including “Le Secret de Jerome (Best Actress) at the International Film Festival in Belgium and Best Actress Award, International Film Festival of Baie Comeau, Canada. “Brothers (Best Actress Award-Drama Film Festival of Greece), as Ultra Violet in “I Shot Andy Warhol,” as Claire Clairmont in “Gothic,” and “Species Two.” As a director, Ms. Cyr’s productions include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the Greensboro Arts Alliance Summer Stock Theatre in Vermont,” the Community House of Hamilton and Wenham's production of “The Sound of Music,” “Little Women,” “Mary Poppins” at Stage 284, a staged reading of Jack Beatty’s “The Battle Not Begun: Munich 1938,” and “Simon Says” at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ms. Cyr is also the accomplished author of Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love.
You directed a recent production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at Mirror Rep’s Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency in Vermont. Why did you want to take that play on?
It’s a highly intellectual play and that’s the most difficult thing to put on stage because you’re trying to find the right emotion around the idea, and my job is to help the actors find the emotion in the moments. It was a complicated challenging prospect. I was very drawn to the fact that it’s an homage to Beckett. Stoppard’s play has an internal logic unique to itself even if one draws parallels; it is really uniquely its own work.
The humanity of the piece really spoke to me: how these two men are on a quest to understand what their place in the universe and they get bits of meaning but never quite enough to make sense of it all. Ultimately it’s all a quest of why we are here. Very few of us get a clear answer and the two of them are like every man.
What did you discover about Stoppard’s work?
Like most great works, the play remains relevant as it takes on new meaning through the ages. When it was first produced on Broadway Vietnam was at its height. The play hit a chord that resonated of these two men lost in the wilderness, trying to make sense of a world (the war) that made no sense.
How do you address the tragicomic outlook on human existence, the play offers?
We can only play specificity on the stage. Specificity is the gateway to universality. There has to be a specificity of intention and it’s about what you do to the other person and how you receive it and what they do to you. The overall concept is about that. It’s extremely important because the moments of the play are evenly written as little jewels. The comedy is found in the truth of the moments and that’s what makes it relevant to our world. The convention is that the players are artists that offer the key to understanding the universe. Their matrix is the universe of Hamlet. Hamlet equals reality or if you will – meaning to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s otherwise meaningless existence.
At the end of the play Hamlet kills Laertes and everyone dies. I chose to turn it into Star Wars fight, which is a metaphor since we’re always re-telling the same story over and over again. It’s filtered through our vision of the way we look at life and our experiences. The story of Hamlet has been told a thousand times but what makes it relevant is that we are all grappling with the same issues of love, loyalty and betrayal, and it’s the same for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s really a show about facing one’s own mortality; we’re all on this path regardless.
Did you do a lot of research?
I did but also part of my working process is always to work off what the actors have to offer. I didn’t know the actors when I came in. I had replaced a director and the casting had already taken place. I was mixing professional and non-professional actors at different levels. One of the challenges was to create a cohesiveness in acting styles and energies. A lot of the decisions were based on the actor’s energy.
Comedy is a very different beast than tragedy. It has its own rhythms and impulses and you must view it like music. I try and light a fire under the actors’ imagination and shape what they have to offer. Very much what is on stage comes from all of our contributions.
What Peter Brook says is a really important thing: theater collaboration is not something soft or weak. It’s a bringing together of all different points of view to create the ‘terrible’ thing called a vision. The production had to coalesce all the different points of view into making it a whole.
You’re also a prolific actress. What originally led you into the theater?
I started very very young. My mother’s dream had always been to be an actress; her parents didn’t want that and so, she devoted her entire life to the arts. She was also the first woman in charge of the broadcasting of arts in Canada.
She always instilled the love of the arts in all of us. My sisters and brother are also in the arts. I was very lucky in that I was offered great parts coming out of theater school (LAMDA) and was eventually in the enviable position of having choices. I became more committed to the principle of working with people who would help me grow as an artist.
Very early on, I had the good fortune to work with Bill Gaskill, artistic director of The Royal Court Theatre, and played the lead role, Suzanna in “The Marriage of Figaro.” He said to me: “Now it’s up to you to set the standard for everyone else.” I took ownership of being the leading actor. When you set the standard, you expect everyone to match it and you elevate the whole company, but you’re only as good as your weakest link. Everyone in the show has to be up there.
There really are ‘no small parts’ – that is the magic of the theater. You cannot operate by yourself for a show to truly to be successful – everyone has to commit to it.
You had the good fortune of working at the Royal National Theatre in some powerful plays. How did that particular process challenge you and make you grow as an actress?
I was a member of Steven Berkoff’s company and he was a great teacher. He taught me a lot of things. He was very much about form and simplicity of line and scarcity. A lot of my aesthetic come’s as a director from having been with him for many years. He was extremely rigorous and everything is choreographed – even how you hold your finger as an actor. Once you’re given that, it’s your responsibility to fill it and bring meaning to it.
When we look at the two tensions in how an actor works, it either comes from inside out, or outside in. At one point the two have to come together. How one accesses the other is a personal journey but for a performance to be complete both have to be connected. As actors, a method is only a process in how you get to the end result.
In Steven Berkoff’s production of Salome
You also have worked with Al Pacino in “Salome. How did that inform your work as an actress and as a director?
Pacino is profoundly devoted to the craft. His work is flawless and he expects the same level of commitment from those who work with him. It’s really an extraordinary experience. He is constantly alive on stage. I worked with him when we did “Salome” in repertory with a play which starred Ben Gazzara in Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie.” I had the privileged to see them both on stage many times.
I always feel the best way to learn is to watch good actors and to see the shows over and over. I have seen shows up to forty times; I believe that’s the greatest way to learn. Then you can see the evolution over time, through different circumstances and obstacles that each night presents. The one common thread is that they are uncompromising with what they are seeking to achieve.
You acted the role of Salome opposite both Steven Berkoff and Al Pacino. How did that affect your interpretation and change your approach to the role?
It was really fascinating. Berkoff works in an ‘exterior’ way, while Pacino is working from the ‘inside out.’ I couldn’t have worked with two more opposite points of view.
I feel that the work I had done with Berkoff prepared me well for the last part of my journey of the character with Pacino, and Arvin Brown was a wonderful director. He really brought home to me the fact of Salome’s adolescence; she’s a teenager..
The opening night in Sydney as Salome with Berkoff was quite an experience. I was about to go onstage in front of 2000 people, and for some reason Berkoff hadn’t seen my costume. Fifteen minutes literally before going on stage, he says: “I hate your costume!” He flew into a rage and ripped my costume off me from fringe to fringe. I ended up with a simple slip, and that’s what I went on stage with.
You directed a production of “Simon Says” by Mat Schaffer that had a successful run in Boston. What kind of a learning process was that for you? Were you pleased with the response to the production?
I have directed the play twice now. A friend of mine says a new play needs three productions to find its footing. I think she is right. We are bringing the play to New York in 2016 and I think we will have it right by then. We have been working on the play for many years and Simon Says rekindled my love of directing. My husband and I had moved to the Boston area and we started to have a family and it was impossible to act, so I wrote a book and went on a book tour. I met an interviewer who handed me a play. He told me: “I’ve written this play.” It wasn’t a fully-realized play but it was wonderful. It caught my attention. It’s all about the limits of chance and the afterworld. It asked the questions: Is there a soul after death?
So I embraced it and I worked on the play for a year, and the most extraordinary thing happened. A woman saw it at a matinee. She told us: “This is the most important thing I’ve ever seen.” She asked us how much money we would need to bring it to New York. I thought of the amount of $50,000, and she wrote a check! I mean, that never happens in the theater but it did, and that sent us on a quest.
But the play wasn’t ready yet. We rewrote it and it took five years. We put it on in Boston to see how it would fare. We got amazing reviews, so we worked on bringing it to New York. Because of “Simon Says,” I found my ‘voice’ as a director.
For me, directing brings together everything I love to do – concept, vision. So I started directing. I had never been attracted to musicals or done them as an actress, perhaps once. But I’ve become a director of musicals and have done “Mary Poppins,” “Little Women,” and “The Sound of Music” in the Boston area.
You’ve also acted in several notable films including “Gothic” and “I Shot Andy Warhol.” Was it challenging doing these films having come from a theater background?
Pacino taught me that. Whether you’re in the theater or making a film, it’s always about truth. That’s how Pacino really works. Everything is about telling the truth.
Working with Ken Russell one of the great British film makers was an amazing way to start in film. I ended up winning awards as a film actress, specifically for “The Secret of Jerome,” and won best actress awards at film festivals in France, the US and in Canada but I have always felt my true home was in the theater.
You’re also the author of the book, Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love, in which you show that Mariana Alcoforado did, in fact, exist, and as an educated nun of the period wrote the letters, and was their author. The letters were first published anonymously by Claude Barbin in Paris in 1669, and some scholars believe they were written by Gabriel-Joseph de La Vergne, comte de Guilleraques. You have also adapted these letters into a play which you performed in at The Culture Project. These letters continue to fascinate us. Why did they mean so much to you?
It was at the National Theatre when I first discovered them. I had returned to Montreal on a hiatus, and a classmate of mine was doing a performance of the letters. They had been done quite a few times, and Madeleine Renaud had also done a reading performance of them. In France, they are considered a rite of passage for actresses.
When I first saw them, I thought they were extraordinary and wanted to bring to them to the English world and translate them. I sat down with a director Lisa Forrell and told her about them. She’s a fantastic director and was excited by the letters. So the two of us worked on them, and then I did them in a one-woman show at The Culture Project in New York City.
An editor at a publishing company saw the show and told me this should be a book. Very soon I found myself in a bidding war between publishing houses. I finally went with Miramax books, and told them it would take me six months to complete the book. It ended up taking me four years to do the research. It was not what I had anticipated but when it came out, it was chosen as a ‘Book of the month’ by The Guardian newspaper. It’s now gone through three printings and has been translated in several languages including Chinese and Japanese. I feel very fortunate.
What do you feel we can we learn from them today?
The letters are discovered with every new generation. If you read them, you will discover and feel they were indeed written by this nun. They are too tedious and repetitive in parts to be written by a writer. She’s relentless about how unhappy she is. The letters charter unrequited love in an exquisite and painful way. They’re as relevant, as they were then. They are a piece of seminal international literature. Within a year of their being published they had 11 printings. They took Europe by storm and gave women a voice for the first time. The letters were published at very front end of what is called the Luminaries – the 17th century Age of Enlightenment. They remain as relevant today as they were then. If you have loved and lost, they provide you with a voice for your pain.
As a director what do you feel your responsibility is and what do you hope audiences take away from a production you’ve directed?
The number one responsibility of a director is to tell the story. Tell the story and the rest will follow. With “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” the goal was to take the audience on their journey with laughter and emotion, and if the audience leaves the play having laughed and having felt something and caught of glimpse of themselves somewhere along the line, then I think I’ll have done an okay job.
I truly believe I have found my calling, my passion. That Sabra (Jones) invited me to come to Vermont to direct last summer was a true gift. It was a wonderful experience. She has such a tremendous vision and what she is accomplishing is very exciting.
For me, it doesn’t matter what school you went to. It just has to do with the work. You can be the greatest technician in any modality of acting but at the end of the day if you’re not interesting it doesn’t matter. A technique is only relevant as long as it produces results. My job as a director is to find out what language works the best with an actor, help them find their truth and tell the story.