As occupational hazards go, nothing is more debilitating for professional actors than stage fright. It can ruin more than performances, extending beyond the theatre to affect everything from sleep to relationships. Many actors won't even discuss the subject -- the problem is worrisome enough without dwelling on it. But now that she's successfully "come out the other side," Lucy Peacock is more than happy to address it.
Peacock, of course, is one of the brightest lights at Ontario's Stratford Festival. Now in her 18th season, she's tackled some of its most challenging roles, including Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Desdemona in Othello.
This season, she's starring (with Peter Donaldson) as the lead in the Jerry Herman musical Hello, Dolly! (opening Tuesday) and, with Seana McKenna, in an early Noel Coward comedy, Fallen Angels (opening next Thursday). The two shows are part of a week-long series of openings that include The Tempest, As You Like It, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Into the Woods, The Brothers Karamazov and Wingfield's Inferno.
At their worst, the anxiety demons that plagued Peacock for several years could occur at almost any time -- "before going on stage or while on stage or even getting into the car to drive to the theatre." The problem came to a head, she said during an interview this week, during production of The King and I in 2003, "based on an absolute accumulation of stuff building over about three years. And it's taken more than two years to get over it."
Peacock says she knew where the problems originated. "There were deaths I had not had time to properly mourn. Three people very close to me died, and I simply wasn't dealing with it. I became allergic to adrenalin, and adrenalin was kicking into my nervous energy. My body was saying to me, 'Check engine.' And being a working mother [she and husband Christopher Thomas have two sons, Harry, 14, and Ben, 9, and live on a horse farm outside Stratford, Ont.] I really don't have time to go into therapy."
Occasionally, the anxiety attack would precipitate a raging migraine. "That's my definition of hell," she says with a laugh now. "Doing The King and I with a migraine."
What brought relief? Several things. "Knowing I wasn't alone, for one thing. . . . A chiropractor helped a lot. And my diet. I gave up caffeine, although now I'm back to drinking tons of tea. So I dealt with the externals, but I also finally dealt with the internals."
Now, anxiety-free for 18 months, Peacock says she is "really happy performing again."
When she took on the role of Anna in The King and I, Peacock hadn't sung professionally in 15 years. To prepare, she worked extensively with Stratford vocal coach Janine Pearson. "But it's really no way to live, so this year [preparing for Dolly] I did not use her as much. I just wanted to enjoy it. I'm a very disciplined actor, but I also believe in kicking back and having a glass of wine."
Peacock calls the Dolly role a gift. "She's a wonderful character, a middle-aged widow, scraping out a living by being inventive and bohemian and a businesswoman."
Based on Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, the musical (directed by Susan Schulman) tells the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a matchmaker hired by millionaire Horace Vandergelder to find him a wife. She has picked out a suitable candidate but, enterprising and pragmatic, soon resolves that Horace would make a good catch for someone very much like herself. "She thinks she'll marry him for his money," says Peacock, "but then she falls in love, which is not what she expects. She has to allow herself to move on."
Schulman, who also directed Peacock in The King and I, says "Lucy's classical training enabled her to find things in the book that I never would have imagined. And vocally, the part is right in the meat of her voice."
Although both Peacock and McKenna have been at Stratford for years, Coward's Fallen Angels, directed by Brian Bedford, marks the first time the two will share the stage. Peacock calls Fallen Angels "the immature Coward. I think he was 23 when he wrote it, but it's great fun and we're getting the most out of it."
If anyone at Stratford can be said to have theatre in their blood, Peacock can. She's the fourth generation of her family to make a career of it. Her late father, David, a former actor, headed Canada's National Theatre School in Montreal (of which Peacock is an alumna). Her mother, also an actress, was the niece of Dame Sybil Thorndike, among the leading ladies of the 20th-century stage. And her maternal grandmother was British actress Rosina Filippi.
"There's also some family lore," she says, "that there's an illegitimate connection to [19th-century Italian actress]Eleanora Duse."
Peacock says Dame Sybil "is the most present and obvious influence. I've read and reread the biographies. [Director]John Neville used to tease me, saying I was getting 'very Sybil' on him."
This summer, Peacock's son Harry will become the fifth generation of the family to tread the boards, playing young Prince Edward in Edward II (opening Aug. 12). Of the theatre's magnetic pull on young Harry, Peacock says she is "proud and a little nervous and, yes, encouraging."
In November, when Stratford's season ends, Peacock plans to mount a one-woman show, The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead (by Australian playwright Robert Hewitt). Directed by Geordie Johnson, she'll play seven parts. She plans to stage it at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., and then, she hopes, to tour.
Although the Hewitt piece is modern, Peacock's style is more traditionally classic. "Gil Wexler, the lighting designer, once told me I was an old-fashioned actress. I kind of loved him for recognizing that. Because that's sort of what I am -- an old-fashioned repertory actress."