ED2013 Interviews ED2013 Theatre ED2013 Week1 Edition

Haley McGee: Oh my, wild and absurd on the solo Fringe

By | Published on Tuesday 6 August 2013

Oh My Irma

In a compelling programme of one-person plays showing at the Hill Street Theatre this Festival, Haley McGee’s self-penned, self-performed piece ‘Oh My Irma’ is a stand out. “A woman, a man, a dog, and a murder. Yes, I did it! But it wasn’t my fault” reads the strapline. We spoke to Haley about the piece, its development, and its arrival in Edinburgh.

CM: ‘Oh My Irma’ sounds interestingly twisted – can you tell us a little about it?
HM: Haha! I never set out to write a play that would tread the absurd and bloody terrain ‘Oh My Irma’ does; it just happened. In the play, the protagonist finds herself before an audience, she’s covered in bruises, scratches and blood. She has just fled the scene of a crime she committed but which she swears adamantly wasn’t her fault. The play is her defence. Moving back and forwards in time, our protagonist cajoles the audience determined to get them onside, before she confesses what exactly she’s done.

She describes, explains and embodies the wild, strange, absurd and harrowing events that lead her to commit this crime. When her own words run out she bursts into beat poetry, tries to improvise a dance and performs a tiny puppet show — all in the name of absolving herself. It’s basically a play about someone who does a very extreme thing in an attempt to eradicate her loneliness.

CM: How did you come up with the idea for the show?
HM: I was part of a writing collective in 2008 and we were given an assignment to write two pieces: a truth and a lie. In one of those pieces my central character and her relationship with Irma was born. I wrote a monologue about a young woman obsessed with laundry who discovers a clothesline with white clothes stained pink with blood; the clothesline belonged to Irma. And then I just couldn’t stop writing until I knew the whole story.

CM: The central character is clearly a bit of a misfit – are there any elements of you in her?
HM: When I first created the character I said that if I could turn my skin inside out I would look like her. Now, though, I think she’s an aspect of myself — a small part — put under a microscope and morphed into her own being. She and I share a lot of things, but we were raised very differently; I think maybe that’s why on the surface we seem far from each other. But we share a love of language, a huge appetite for connection with other people, and a fear of doing something irreversible.

I saw her in full-form right away — and I knew that she would be kind of androgynous looking, because I knew that she was a twenty-year-old woman who hadn’t quite accepted that she’d gone through puberty. The physicality is informed by several elements: the character is a loud person who has been forced to tip toe and whisper her whole life; the character thinks she may be a bird; and I worked with my director with a series of images to create a movement vocabulary for the show.

The whole piece was created through performance. At first I had two minutes – then five then fifteen then 37 then 48, and now 60 — which I performed at scratch opportunities and cabarets and eventually festivals. Every time I performed a piece of it, the relationship with the audience would teach me something about where the story wanted to go and how the character handled revealing things to a group of people.

CM: Why did you choose to make it a monologue?
HM: I was a young playwright who kept ending up with nine characters in her plays. I was overwhelmed. I decided I’d try to tell ONE story from ONE point of view. So, in ‘Oh My Irma’ there is only one character in the play. As the actor I never transform completely into other beings. The character does impersonate all the other people she mentions, and she uses these impersonations to comment on them, but it’s very clearly her account of what happened and it’s up to the audience to decide how accurate she’s being.

CM: What is it like to perform solo? Do you enjoy it? You mentioned your director, what was her role?
HM: I love performing solo, because the contract with the audience is so clear. I never for an instant have to deny their presence (as I sometimes feel in other shows where the fourth wall is up) and their presence is essential to the performance, that is to say, it could not happen without them. I worked with director Alisa Palmer. She is a wonderful director, really intuitive and sensitive and always asking me questions.

CM: Some of the critical responses to the show have been incredibly positive – has this spurred you on to keep the production going?
HM: I am trying to be calm about all reviews, good and bad, and leave it with the audiences as a collective in the theatre to teach me about the show. But of course YES! Good reviews are like gold stars and positive re-enforcement, they put a spring in my step, they make me optimistic. Yes, yes they spur me on!

CM: What made you decide to bring the show to Edinburgh? Have you been to the Scottish capital before?
HM: I’ve never been to Scotland before. I wanted to come to the Edinburgh Fringe because it’s such an important theatre festival. I was curious to see the city, the Festival, the work of the other artists, and to be among them. I am here to meet the world and introduce them to ‘Oh My Irma’.

CM: Where will the show go on from here?
HM: In late September it returns to Brighton to play at Upstairs at the Three & Ten, and in early October it plays in Berlin at TheaterDiscounter.

CM: Other than your show, what are you planning to do while you’re in Edinburgh?
HM: Seeing a ton of other shows — as many as I can. I’m really looking forward to taking in ‘Red Bastard’, ‘Hirsch’, ‘My Pregnant Brother’, and many of the offerings from the Forest Fringe. I’ve already hiked up to Arthur’s Seat and plan to be traipsing around the countryside on my day off. And I have a lot of Scotch to taste and report back about. I got some advice from someone who worked here for several years, “say yes to everything”.  That’s what I plan on doing.

‘Oh My Irma’ was performed at the Hill Street Theatre at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

Photo: Tom Bateman