Coming of Age at the Guthrie

Posted on Feb 21, 2017 at 9:33 a.m. by brianb

Actors Michelle O'Neill and Bill McCallum have been gracing the Guthrie stage for 20 years and counting. This winter they reunite in The Royal Family, a classic American comedy about the first family of Broadway, the Cavendish clan. Weeks out from first rehearsal, over drinks in the Guthrie's Kitchak Lounge, O'Neill and McCallum talked life in the theater with Associate Director of Marketing Rachael Crew-Reyes.

Rachael Crew-Reyes: You both have been part of the Guthrie community for a long time. What was your first experience here?

Michelle O'Neill: My first show was You Can't Take It with You. I'm not even sure when. '97 I want to say. You know, it's interesting - during You Can't Take It with You, I got engaged. And the first job I did after having my first child was here at the Guthrie, All My Sons, when my daughter was 4 months old. I remember she used to sit on the stage and play with the fake prop apples while I was learning lines. And I was pregnant with my second child, Tess, during Three Sisters.

Bill McCallum: That's kind of cool.

MO: It is kind of cool, isn't it?

BMc: My first Guthrie show, my son Sam was 6 weeks old when we went into rehearsals for Cherry Orchard, which was (former Artistic Director) Joe Dowling's first show.

MO: And how old is Sam now?

BMc: Sam's 20. He'll be 21 in March, which is crazy. I remember when we were in tech for Orchard, and we brought Sam in to see the theater, and Joe Dowling was holding him on stage. Sam was smiling in Joe's arms, and Joe, in his wonderful Irish accent says, "Sam's going to be a great orator someday." He could tell by the way Sam's arms were constantly moving.

RC: These are huge milestones in both of your lives, and they're aligned with different Guthrie productions.

MO: Exactly. And I've known Bill's kids since they were itty-bitty. And my kids have been here on stage. It's sort of wonderful because they feel they know all these very interesting, caring people around the theater.

BMc: You get to know everybody who you work with so well, and you follow each other's lives over decades.

RC: How many shows have you been in together?

BMc: Wow, that's a good question.

RC: And can you name them?

BMc: We were in All My Sons, we were in The Plough and the Stars, we were in -

MO: Winter's Tale, the Scottish play.

BMc: Skiing on Broken Glass.

MO: The Crucible. And we've understudied a lot together, too.

RC: So you have a really unique relationship as friends and colleagues, as scene partners. What's it like going into The Royal Family and being together again on stage?

MO: I have to say, when I heard that Bill was doing it, I thought, "That relationship is already there. I already know I'm going to have a good time."

BMc: I'm trying to remember ... you play Julie Cavendish, right?

MO: Mmmhmm.

BMc: So you're my sister, I think.

MO: No, you're my uncle.

BMc: I play your uncle?

MO: [laughs] I'll never let you live that down.

BMc: But I'm your really, really young uncle, right?

MO: After a couple of beers, I'll be calling you "Uncs." It's going to be a lot of fun.

RC: That's what makes The Royal Family exciting, because we haven't seen you in a big American comedy before.

BMc: There's a lot of funny stuff in Royal Family, but what attracts me to it are the darker, sadder aspects. To me, it's a really true play about what it is to be in the acting profession. My character, Herbert Dean, he's this guy in middle age who used to have a career, and now he's struggling and worrying about whether he's ever going to work again. It's wonderfully true to life in that way, and I think it's recognizable to our profession.

MO: I do, too. What I love about the play is that you have these passionate characters, eccentric people who are struggling with a huge decision: do they give their artistic passion away in order to have a different, maybe more stable life?

RC: Because their whole life is the theater. Shelly, you have a lot of actors in your family. Like you said, your kids have been on the Guthrie stage.

MO: My kids are probably going to go into this profession, too.

BMc: Are they really?

RC: [laughs] Do you want that beer now?

BMc: Just give her the whole bottle of wine, you don't even need a glass.


MO: I think what's interesting about being in the acting profession - what's interesting and difficult - is that it takes a lot of courage to do this and hold a family together. It's not 9 to 5, and there's no playbook for it.

BMc: It's very unconventional.

MO: But you're surrounded by people who are trying to do the same thing, and they're unconventional, too. One of my favorite things about the theater is theater people. And I don't just mean actors. I mean everyone who's involved in this kind of life.

BMc: It's about being surrounded by expressive and emotionally intelligent people.

MO: As an actor you raise your kids on stories. My kids saw Shakespeare and knew Shakespeare, and ran lines with me at like 9, 10, 11 years old. They won't do it now without payment, but ... Their idea of language and story was very full at an early age.

BMc: One of the things that I really love about this work is that you're constantly exposed to new things; you're constantly learning every time you get a new job or take on a new project. And if you have a life where you're relating with your family and kids, they tend to go along on that ride with you. It can be awesome.


Photos: Top: Associate Director of Marketing Rachael Crew-Reyes (left) shares a laugh with Michelle O’Neill and Bill McCallum (Lauren Mueller); Above: McCallum and O’Neill in The Winter’s Tale in 2011 (T Charles Erickson)