Dallas actress Jessica Cavanagh isn't afraid to tackle a wide range of roles (just check out her résumé below). In fact, she's often a go-to when theaters are looking for a fearless approach to complicated characters (again, see résumé). Her latest project is no different: Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'night, Mother.
The 1983 play focuses on a quiet evening at home for Thelma Cates and her adult daughter, Jessie. What they talk about, however, is anything but run of the mill. Echo Theatre's production stars Cavanagh and Amber Devlin, both recent winners of the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum Award for outstanding performance by an actress. It's directed by Christie Vela, a resident actor at Dallas Theater Center who's beginning to build her directing cred around town.
Before she opens the show on September 9 (it runs at the Bath House through September 24), Cavanagh took the time to fill out our survey of serious, fun, and sometimes ridiculous questions.
Name: Jessica Cavanagh
Role in ‘night, Mother: Jessie Cates
Previous work in the DFW area: WaterTower Theatre: Outside Mullingar, All My Sons, Good People, August: Osage County, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play, The Full Monty, My First Time, Is He Dead?, Indoor/Outdoor, The Glass Menagerie, A Feminine Ending, Doubt; Theatre Three: Light Up The Sky; Stage West: Mr. Burns: a post-electric play, Talking Pictures; Undermain Theatre: Time in Kafka, Port Twilight, The Black Monk; Echo Theatre: Or, A Most Dangerous Woman, The Executioner’s Sons; Trinity Shakespeare Festival: Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing; Contemporary Theatre of Dallas: A Streetcar Named Desire, Right Ho, Jeeves, Shadowlands; Shakespeare Dallas: All’s Well that Ends Well; Second Thought Theatre: Some Girls; Risk Theatre Initiative: Angels in America
Hometown: I was born in Tampa, Florida, and still have family there, but I went to middle/high school in Tallahassee, so I kinda have two hometowns!
Where you currently reside: Big D, baby.
First theater role: I played the star of Bethlehem, which guided the Wise Men to baby Jesus in a church play when I was 4 years old. My character name was actually “Superstar” because this little play fancied itself to be quite cheeky. I wore a huge, cardboard, glittery star, which was bigger than I, and I was extremely pleased with myself.
First stage show you ever saw: The Nutcracker ballet, also at age 4. Huh ... I was clearly a very busy 4-year-old.
Moment you decided to pursue a career in theater: I remember the day: rehearsing for a play called Sister, Sister, when I was 14. The character was mentally disabled and my director was pushing me well beyond my comfort zone, and I simultaneously cried in frustration and fell irrevocably in love with acting that afternoon. (We’re all just gluttons for punishment, aren't we?)
Most challenging role you’ve played: This current one is up there. Marsha Norman don't play! Prior to this, though, it’s kind of a tie ... the first is Margie in Good People. She was a beast in every way an actor dreams of, and she forced me to learn to be comfortable in my own skin, which was a turning point for me, both on stage and off, I think.
The second is Jenny/Marge in Mr. Burns at Stage West, because that was by far the most difficult piece of theater I had ever worked on. At one point in rehearsals, I was truly convinced I wouldn’t be able to learn it all and I’d let my castmates down. Thank God I was wrong, but I don't know if I’ve ever worked so hard!
Special skills: I do a really solid Linda impression from Bob’s Burgers! (Does that count? I keep waiting for that to count.)
Something you’re REALLY bad at: Making decisions ... curse of the Gemini brain. And maybe driving? (My car’s in the body shop as I write this.)
Current pop culture obsession: Hamilton. Yes, STILL.
Last book you read: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s about living a life of curiosity rather than fear with regard to your art. Beautiful, life-changing stuff.
Favorite movie(s): Sense and Sensibility, Dead Poets Society, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, Born Yesterday (the Judy Holliday version), Monty Python and the Holy Grail … (Help me. I can't stop.)
Favorite musician(s): Brandi Carlile, Indigo Girls, The Beatles, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Sara Bareilles, Over the Rhine.
Favorite song: Remember the thing about how I can’t make decisions? Oy. Okay ... Chopin’s Nocturne #2. When played well, it’s always felt like the closest thing to the perfect piece of music to me. Melancholy but hopeful.
Dream role: Margaret in The Light in the Piazza. Might be time to hop back into some voice lessons so I could maaaaaybe be ready in a decade or so! Also, Lydia Mackay and I have a dream of doing A Streetcar Named Desire together again, and switching roles so I’d get a shot at Blanche and she’d get to do Stella. Just, you know, putting that out there, Universe.
Favorite play(s): Currently, The Effect by Lucy Prebble. I recently saw it in New York, and I really can't understand why everyone isn't talking about it. Fave play of all time, though, is still Streetcar. To me, it doesn't get much better than that.
Favorite musical(s): The Light in the Piazza, Jesus Christ Superstar, Ragtime, Into The Woods, The Last Five Years, Hamilton.
Favorite actors/actresses: Cate Blanchett, Ruth Wilson, Emma Thompson, Helen Mirren, Norbert Leo Butz, Paul Dano, Tom Hiddleston.
Favorite food: Pizza. God help me, I’m basically a teenage boy. Or queso! Really, anything with lots of cheese. Or, actually, maybe just cheese. Yeah. I’d like to change my answer to “cheese,” please.
Must-see TV show(s): Game of Thrones, Bloodline, Veep, Stranger Things, and anything to do with Bachelors or Bachelorettes, which I obsessively hate-watch. (I see you, Judgy McJudgerton — shup and let me watch mah stories!)
Something most people don’t know about you: I lived in Cluj Napoca, Romania, for almost two years in my early 20s.
Place in the world you’d most like to visit: I want to go back to Ireland. The land of my whiskey-drinking kinfolk stole my heart within 24 hours of my first (and only) visit, which was close to 20 years ago. I’d like to go back now that I can hold my liquor.
Pre-show warm-up: Depends on the show, but the staples are: shamelessly singing/rapping Hamilton at the top of my white-girl lungs in the car on the way to the theater; running any lines that scare me; and a lot of pacing and awkward bouncing around backstage just before curtain, or before my first scene.
Favorite part about your current role: Working under the direction of Christie Vela. She’s one of the wisest, most intuitive, and imaginative directors I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with and learn from. This play can easily be terrifying and overwhelming, but from the first day, while she’s handled everything with tremendous sensitivity, she also hasn't allowed us to wallow. Her wicked sense of humor is all over this piece, and it’s brilliant.
She also knows when and how to push us and when to let us off the hook, and she knows what questions to ask to get us where we need to go. In my experience, some directors never learn that stuff. Quite frankly, Dallas theaters should be falling over themselves to hire her, if they aren't already.
Most challenging part about your current project: The short answer is, the premise, and fighting the urge both to play that premise or to let it invade my psyche when going about my daily life. If you aren't familiar with the play, I'll leave that as a surprise. It’s a doozy of a thing.
Most embarrassing onstage mishap: I think I must block these out or something, because nothing comes to mind, and that’s hilarious, because there have for sure been mishaps galore.
Career you’d have if you weren’t in theater: Journalism. (It’s clear I was never destined to be rich.)
Favorite post-show spot: My couch.
Favorite thing about Dallas-Forth Worth: Tacos? But also the kickass theater community. But also, tacos.
Most memorable theater moment: Every second spent on stage with the Mr. Burns ensemble. Truly. Some on-stage memories fade quickly, even if you loved experiencing them at the time, but with that show, I have such clear memories of magic; seemingly literal magic happening in our midst. And all of us were responsible for it, and none of us were responsible for it. It was so unique, yet it’s exactly what we all hope for. Those people will always be my family.
That’s what theater is capable of doing, and when you’re lucky enough to experience it, all you can do is savor every second and commit it to memory as best you can. (Or, you can keep a Facebook messenger thread going with your castmates for a solid year afterwards. That works, too.)