Actor and aerialist Hannah O’Leary: ‘Playing Henry VI on a rope was my dream job’

Hannah O’Leary. Photo: John Clark

Hannah O’Leary trained as an actor and aerial performer. Now appearing in Omidaze’s circus production of Romeo and Juliet, she talks to Tim Bano about combining the worlds of circus and acting…

Why did you become an actor?

I grew up in west Wales, where I did a lot of youth theatre. At university, I didn’t do any drama, but in my mid-20s I did amateur theatre and decided to apply for drama school.

When did you start doing circus?

After graduating from drama school I worked as a professional actor but knew I needed to get fit. I searched the internet for “trapeze in Cardiff” and it came up with NoFit State Circus community classes. I started doing a general aerial class. I was really bad at it, as I didn’t have any strength. Acting can be really competitive, but there’s something satisfying about not being under pressure, feeling your body change, suddenly being able to climb to the top of a rope.

What do you enjoy about circus?

Circus has a supportive, community feel. Not that theatre doesn’t – it’s just much bigger in circus. When touring, you all eat together and live in caravans. It’s got a very social and political aspect as well: everybody is socially and environmentally conscious. It’s very accepting and there isn’t a need to behave in a certain way socially. You start to feel part of the company really quickly. It really makes it feel like a community.

How do you combine traditional acting with circus performances?

The process is really tough – in the best possible way. Playing Henry VI on a rope with an all-female cast of strong actors was my dream job. For Romeo and Juliet, Yvonne Murphy directs, Paul Evans is choreographer, and our voice and text coach is Jacquie Crago. I have to rehearse each scene in three different ways: focusing on text, physical vocabulary and character. It’s about combining physical language with text, so I’m delivering speeches as I’m moving around in the air.

What can the circus element add to classic texts?

The language and movement complement each other. Part of it is an exploration, what works and what doesn’t. It can be a bit abstract. The physical things support the text rather than overshadowing it. The desire is to attract audiences that might be put off by Shakespeare, opening a door and making it visually exciting. The hope is that it breaks down theatre’s barriers.

Is there an appetite for circus?

It’s a really exciting time, with theatre and circus borrowing from each other. We’re working out ways to explore narrative and visual worlds. We have to be able to do the physical work, but it’s really important to make sure work is put into vocal and text stuff as well. Voice can be neglected as a skill, because it’s not as obvious. You can see whether somebody can climb a rope or not. But whether someone can use text and verse properly is less tangible. Voice needs to be seen as a skill as much as rope. It needs the time and physical development that all the other skills have put into them. But there’s only so much time in the day to rehearse.

CV: Hannah O’Leary

Training: Birmingham School of Acting (2007)
First professional role: The House of Bernarda Alba, Theatr Pena (2009)
Agent: Regan Management

Omidaze’s Romeo and Juliet runs at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, until May 14

Part of The Stage special edition focussing on circus. For more circus coverage click here