Talking with Aida Leventak About New Irish Rep Show "Belfast Girls"
Last weekend, The Irish Repertory Theater had its exciting premiere in New York of Jaki McCarrick's Belfast Girls, which stars academy alumna Aida Leventaki (Class of 2017).
Belfast Girls follows five young women sailing out on their own as they venture from Belfast, Ireland, to Sydney, Australia, in 1850. They are seeking new lives now that their homeland is stricken with poverty following The Great Famine. The play focuses on their experiences while participating in the British empire's real-life program called the “Female Orphan Emigration Scheme,” which they use to escape the poverty as well as their own dark pasts. The program sent "morally pure girls of good character" away from Ireland and to Australia, allowing the women to work for the large number of rich men waiting to be wed there. Judith, the unspoken leader of the group, describes the rest of their lives by saying, "we're to be mistresses of our own destiny.” The journey across the sea was recorded taking nearly three months to complete, giving ample time for relationships to form and conflicts to arise between the women aboard.
Aida Leventaki plays the mysterious Molly Durcan. Aida was gracious enough to answer a few questions about herself, the rehearsal process, and the greatest impacts of the show.
1) What inspired you to be an actress?
I have always known that I wanted to be an actor. I grew up mimicking those around me. I loved to do impressions and perform in the living room for whoever would watch. One day I asked my parents how kids my age got on TV (6-year-old me heedlessly thinking I could be a better Teletubby than the adults on screen), and I ended up joining Pace Youth Theatre in Scotland when I was 10.
My parents work in animal welfare, and during my childhood, I witnessed them rescuing a lot of animals from the streets of Athens, Greece (Where I was raised). I imagine that had a big part in my obsession with understanding people’s emotions, helping me develop compassion and empathy. I was always trying to put myself in other people's (or animals…or Teletubbies) shoes.
2) What part of the rehearsal process is your favorite and why?
Research! The early stages are the times I feel most grateful I get to be doing theater. Nicola (the director of the show) is big on research, and it was so much fun being able to share findings with the cast and create a collective environment for the period we were entering.
I also love tech rehearsals (an unpopular opinion, I know) because whispering backstage with castmates and getting to spend time in our costumes on set always elevates the magic and makes me feel like we’re putting the final pieces of a puzzle together before we meet the audience.
3) Can you tell us more about your character and how she relates to the story?
Molly is one of the thousands of women in Ireland who have gained passage to board ‘The Inchinnan’, a ship heading to Australia with the purpose of fleeing The Great Hunger and starting a new life in the Colony.
She is uniquely radical and extremely driven, considering her circumstances. She is not only peculiar in manner but also in spirit and determination. All of these women are actively experiencing grief and trauma and, in true Irish fashion, are coping through distraction and humor. However, Molly’s coping mechanisms are far more cerebral, and this is what makes her a pivotal character in the arc of this piece. Her energy & knowledge (albeit irritating at times) provides the others around her with a certain solace and comfort.
Her dream for Australia is a life on the stage; she spends her hours reading poetry and Shakespeare and is determined to inspire the women she meets to dream bigger and brighter as she knows fine well that they are capable and deserving of more than what this life has given them.
Molly has a dark secret which I, of course, won’t reveal, but I do think she plays an integral role in the feminist throughline of the journey - there's a pretty rigid dichotomy between historically chronological feminism & what it means to be a feminist today. What Jacki does so well is marry the two together - Molly is every girl who ever decided to change their story and turn their life around.
4) What is your favorite line in the play and why?
“We’re just people who met on a boat” - simple as it may seem, this line has always been a favorite of the cast. Sarah’s excellent delivery of the line is a big part of this, but I love how amongst all this phenomenal rage and anguish, a sentence so simple can cut through you like a knife. It reminds me of how ruthless these girls had to be and how unnatural their circumstances were.
5) What would you like the audience to leave with?
A desire to head to the pub and unpack what they just saw! I would really just love for people to leave with a new awareness; sometimes, when you are digesting a lot of information (ancestral or not), you need time to process your perspective. I’ve spoken with a few audience members during previews that felt it took some time to take in what they had just seen. I’d say 99.8% of people who see this play won’t be familiar with the Orphan Immigration Scheme, but they’ll leave knowing all about its impact & maybe understand what trauma and suffering the Irish people have been through and continue to experience to this day.
6) What "tools from your toolbox" from the academy's training did you find yourself using while preparing for this role?
Uta Hagen questions are always a vital part of my character development, and I explore them with every role I take on. My daily warm-up from The Academy has been the most important step I’ve utilized - staying physically available and vocally healthy for a long and demanding run is the tool I’ll always be the most grateful for, especially when returning to theatre after a long break. In this process in particular our animal & color training helped me find Molly’s essence, she is a deer in the jungle of the Inchinnan. It’s always reassuring to begin rehearsals and feel all your tools kicking in; they don’t go far even when they’ve been buried away for some time. IPA saved me a lot of time too, when working on nuance with our dialect coach, Julie.
7) Why is this play an important story to be told in 2022, even if it took place in the 1800s? Are there themes/moments in the show that audiences can relate to now?
Unfortunately, yes. It’s slightly terrifying how modern this play feels for the actors and the audience alike. It’s one of the most interesting (and kind of painful) things about this piece. Working on these themes doesn't feel like a stretch; I have a line, “To be paid as men are paid, to be allowed to do the same things.” Women are STILL fighting for those basic freedoms and equalities 172 years later.
In Belfast Girls, we deal with women being forced to kill or abandon their babies. They are forced to take control of their bodies and endure unimaginable horrors as a direct result of the systems that continue to fail them. I struggle to put into words the importance of this narrative and the power we hold when we unite in our suffering and anger. As Ellen says in Act 2, “Who knows what dreams were born on the Inchinnan, huh? If it’s not us who will have those freedoms you talked of…then maybe our daughters will. That’s the important thing.”
We have a very touching queer storyline that is specifically the first I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing or taking part in. LGBTQ+ history is so often overlooked, and it’s such an honor to give this story the authentic depiction it deserves. People have always been gay! This play just chose not to ignore that - which I find really moving and important for people to see in theater & in historical writing.
As I’m writing this, I realize the privilege we have to reflect on these stories with a modern-day perspective, and the terminology we have to address deeply present societal flaws like that is a gift in and of itself - we are telling a story of women being trafficked before they knew what trafficking was.
There are still deep-rooted class prejudices in the national consciousness--Colonialism, racism, communism, disease, reproductive rights, prostitution, and immigration. All extremely relevant points of discussion for a 2022 audience.
8)What advice can you give upcoming actors when working with other professionals out in the world?
Be on time, be patient with others and listen to what’s going on around you. There are so many moving parts in this industry, and being aware that you are part of a huge collaborative effort is important. Don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy every moment of working with new professionals; you will always learn something from the people around you, and they will learn from you, too.
The show premiered on May 19th on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage in New York. The limited Off-Broadway engagement will run through June 26. Learn more and buy tickets here.