The Irish actress Lisa Dwan is visiting the Broad Stage in Santa Monica one bright morning when she asks theater staffers one key question: “How is the blackout coming along?”
For five shows beginning Thursday, Dwan will perform three short plays by Samuel Beckett, including “Not I,” an anguished monologue delivered “at the speed of thought” by a disembodied mouth floating in absolute darkness. The actress, 38, is petite, blond and blue-eyed, and in her black leather jacket, jeans and 4-inch heels, she could be playing Sandy in “Grease.” The staffers, looking as dazzled as Danny in “Grease,” imply that they may not be able to turn off all the house lights, especially the exit signs. They mutter about fire codes and workable alternatives.
Dwan has played Mouth in “Not I” all over the world for the last 11 years, and now the Broad audience will see her swan song in the role: She has decided to retire it permanently, or, as she puts it, “hang up the lips,” after this American tour.
Notoriously challenging to watch (audience members have been known to weep and occasionally faint), “Not I” is even harder — physically and psychologically — to perform. Dwan delivers the torrent of stream-of-consciousness in a record-breaking 81/2 minutes while strapped onto a board with a hole for her blackened face, her arms immobilized in brackets, her eyes covered by a mask and her ears plugged. Photographs of her in the contraption evoke a torture device.
“Well, it is a torture device,” concedes Dwan, who says she’s a bit embarrassed when reporters focus on the injuries (neck compression, hernia) she has sustained. For she — not Beckett — devised this system of restraint and sensory deprivation as a means of summoning the character’s existential panic. Beckett’s stage directions don’t mention a headboard, and when he directed the actress Billie Whitelaw, his late-in-life muse, in 1973, she performed it in 14 minutes from the relative comfort of a dentist’s chair.
Even so, Whitelaw suffered four nervous breakdowns while playing Mouth.
“Once she had a breakdown during rehearsal,” Dwan says, “and Beckett ran over to her and said, ‘Billie, Billie, what have I done to you?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know how to answer that, Sam.’ And he said, ‘Well, never mind, back you go.’”
Dwan and Whitelaw met in 2006, soon after Dwan first performed “Not I,” when she was still in her 20s. The elder actress coached the younger, passing on Beckett’s notes and observations, commiserating with her in the darkest moments of the journey. (Whitelaw died in 2014.)
Dwan punctuates this Beckettian turn of phrase with a husky, infectious laugh. At this point she has kicked off her heels and curled up on a heap of sofa cushions in the Broad Stage’s second-floor lobby. She informs a staffer bringing her a cup of coffee, “You are gorgeous.”
She seems remarkably serene for a person who regularly inhabits the darkest places an actress can visit. Not even Whitelaw performed “Not I” together with Beckett’s similarly harrowing “Footfalls” and “Rockaby” in a single evening, as Dwan will do at the Broad Stage. This trilogy was the brainchild of director Walter Asmus, one of Beckett’s favorite collaborators, now 75, and earned raves in London and New York before it arrived here.
After seeing Dwan in “Not I” in London, “twice, of his own volition,” Dwan recalls, Asmus proposed combining it with the other two plays.
“Lisa’s excitingly authentic and personal approach to ‘Not I’ cried out for seeing her do the other two dramatic poems,” Asmus explains via email.
The actress says they had to make a case to the Beckett estate to perform the works together, as well as for Dwan to play two women in “Footfalls.” Once the estate granted the rights, Dwan and Asmus went to a cottage in Ireland to rehearse. They left “Not I” more or less as it was and focused on the other two. The intense collaboration took a toll on both of them.
“Walter had to begin again,” Dwan recalls. “Of course he could re-create any one of Beckett’s performances with his eyes closed, but that would have been a museum piece, and Beckett would have hung us out to dry. We had some tricky times together. I remember screaming at him, ‘I’m not … Billie Whitelaw!’ It had to be my nervous system, my landscape. I had to pull up memories that traumatized me, because, as Walter kept saying, ‘We need to see you bleed up there,’ and my own wounds were the stuff that would work. Walter started to get into my head and see the memories. He’d say to me, ‘No, not that memory. The other memory.’”
It all sounds kind of intense, and not super glamorous, and Dwan is aware that her career wouldn’t appeal to everybody. (“I mean, it must be bizarre — a blond, blue-eyed woman in her 30s going around with black shoe polish over her face, tying her head to a piece of wood.”)
“Beckett’s characters are slices of the universe. You see me here today, and I’m blond and high-heeled. I get to leave all that behind, and I become consciousness. From womb to tomb, I’m a soundscape of home, of Ireland, of every wound in history, of time.”
Society and culture want her to look younger, to eat less, to be less, she says. “We just take these little anorexic nibbles out of what identity can be. And as a woman, it is the most gratifying and spoiling compliment that Beckett wants more and more and more from me. It’s so hard to leave that behind.”
But she’s kissing only the lips goodbye, not Beckett himself. She’s planning a one-woman performance of his prose at the Old Vic Theatre London. Meanwhile, she’ll relocate from Ireland to the United States, where she will be artist in residence at NYU and Princeton University and split her time between New York and L.A.
“I’d love to take all I’ve learned and translate it into film,” she says. “I would love to find roles equally as spoiling. But I’m not going to hold my breath, because I’ve been spoiled rotten.”
Does Dwan, the living repository of Beckett’s vision, feel a responsibility to pass on her knowledge?
She pauses. “I think we have to be careful of this kind of Dalai Lama, laying-on-of-hands stuff with Beckett,” she says. “I find all of that kind of … the church of Beckett and the nonsense around that to be deeply unhelpful. I think it will choke the work. Where Billie Whitelaw was so successful is not the way people think: the laying on of hands. She demystified a huge amount of rubbish surrounding Beckett. She gave me the keys to access him in here. It would be very worrying if that got confused with a kind of dynasty.”
And what of Mouth, who will be set adrift, no longer attached to any body at all? Does Dwan feel obliged to appoint her successor?
She gazes into the distance for a beat. “The truth is, I don’t need to worry about that. Beckett will root her out.”
Where: Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
Info: (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com