Barbara Tirrell's Eulalie: Awakening creativity in "The Music Man"
There's a lot of star power packed into the actor Barbara Tirrell. As Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor's wife in "The Music Man" at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., she's fabulously funny and surprisingly layered in a role that could easily slide toward buffoonery. In Tirrell's care, Eulalie is a woman with an inner glow that has been snuffed by Iowan provincialism - but awakened in the show by the traveling con man Harold Hill. Even before Hill 76-trombones his way into River City, Eulalie is larger than life. Tirrell fashioned her that way based on memories of her own Irish-Italian background growing up in Nahant, Mass., not far from Boston. Her parents were both engineers, and Tirrell went to the University of Pennsylvania to study chemical engineering: She wanted to be the first female astronaut. She got sidelined to theater on a dare: A classmate challenged her to audition for a play. She did. She got the part. "And so began this journey," said Tirrell when we spoke recently. "The only thing I really looked forward to every week was the stuff I did with the Penn Players. At the end of the first year, I said to myself: I think I want to do this, and if I don't try, I'll wonder my whole life if I was supposed to do it." Clearly, she found the right answer. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. "The Music Man," directed by Arena's artistic director Molly Smith, plays through July 22.
How did you develop Eulalie's personality?
Early in rehearsal, Molly asked each one of us to create an improvisation. Every member of the cast had to come in with a five-minute improvisation including a reference to a star, a piece of music and some turning point for your character. I took this to mean: These are people who have dreams. It's not like Harold Hill brings to this town something that isn't there. What he does is awaken something.
And the turning point?
For Eulalie, the turning point is when it is suggested she be the head of the dance committee. I created an improv of her as a child loving to dress up in all the family's clothing and dance around her living room - until her mother said, "You look stupid. You're a Mackecknie. Don't do that." The book "The Four Agreements" talks about how you only have to say once to a child in a moment of anger: "God, your singing sounds awful. Stop it!" You can never un-ring that bell. But once the child is awakened in Eulalie again, she doesn't care anymore what people think.
Are there other ways you developed your understanding of her as a character?
We had the rare opportunity to have our costume fittings on day one. My costumes informed me as an actor as I created this part. That big Columbia costume: I have to fill that. I can't fight it. I can't fight my clothes. I know who she is: She's a woman who chooses to wear these clothes. If you as an actor ask if you will look silly or foolish or like a buffoon, if I stand in judgment in any way, then I can't create her heart. I'm probably not as confident as Eulalie. She thinks she's stunning. She's teaching me a little. I'm enjoying being in her skin. She has joie de vivre. It's a wonderful opportunity to play a character that has her creativity awakened.
Do you ever feel doubt about yourself onstage?
You will never overcome doubt. Doubt is something that follows every actor. I don't think doubt will ever go away as a performer, but you can't let it stand in your way. You have to let yourself off the hook. I know I'm scared. That admission is important.
Where does Eulalie come from inside of you?
It's up to me to look at her story and imagine she's not here to tell it. So I am tasked with it. I would want her to say: "Thank you. You told that well." That's what you have to look at: A character as a three-dimensional person who just isn't able to be here today and says, "I can't be there, you've got to tell my story for me." And you can't tell it any less than you would if you were telling something earth-shattering. Characters have a story, and we have to tell it.
Why is "The Music Man" timely right now?
It shows how artistic expression awakens exponentially so much more in people. There's so much more acceptance that happens in this play once this world of art happens, there's so much more forgiveness, so much more possibility. Once we start to think creatively, you see so many more options. You no longer see in black and white. I think we all - especially in this political climate - could all use a little bit more of that. We don't have to close ourselves off. There are artistic solutions.
Tell me about working with Molly Smith. I've noticed her musicals have very tight ensembles.
She is stimulating, inspiring and open to everything. As a result, we brought her everything. If you look at a director as someone who is sculpting and the cast members are responsible for bringing her some clay, she opened the doors for so much material to be brought to her.
What can we learn from Eulalie?
I welcome the opportunity to play a character that can be played as a caricature, who has a broad function in the play. I understand what the function is in the play. And yet I have the opportunity to ground her in an arc, in a joyful trip she takes. She sure is a different person in the end of this play than she is at the beginning. That to me was what was important. She starts out in one place, and she comes to stand up to her husband for what she believes in. She comes to reconnect with her creativity.
Photo by Joan Marcus