She Believed She Could: How Passion Carries Marsha Mason Through New Challenges
For Marsha Mason, versatility has been the name of the game throughout her long and acclaimed career. The award-winning actress has tackled projects on screen and on stage, along with stepping out of the spotlight to direct on several occasions. Beneath it all, though, is the same genuine passion and willingness to tackle new challenges.
Like so many others, Mason's Theatre Dreams began early. She describes how she was fortunate to attend a high school with a thriving arts program, and she got involved from the very start. At the time, that included high school drama club - she recalls a freshman-year production of Babes in Toyland as one of her "debut" roles - as well as debate club and even one-act play festivals. By the time college rolled around, she was hooked.
Although she's been formally trained and had a considerable career, Mason points to some very unexpected experiences as key to developing herself as an artist and, more specifically, as a director. For 20 years, she lived in New Mexico and had her own organic farm. While taking this time away from the spotlight, she developed a whole new set of skills that, eventually, translated well to her return to the theatre.
"That period out in New Mexico really gave me some tools and experience in management and organization and entrepreneurship; all the things that the farm required helped gain me insight as an actor [and director]," she explained. "Having to manage [the workers] and learn about business really rounded out my personality and experience... those new gifts and perspectives make a better director."
Getting outside of a comfortable bubble, Mason says, is crucial to improving one's self as both an artist and just as a human being. It's not just about the skills of the craft, but about finding compassion and empathy for others.
"You have to expose yourself to the world and to different worlds, different parts of the country, different ethnicities, outside your own consciousness so that you gain understanding and compassion for the world," she says.
Mason has been directing for years, ever since her early-career work directing Juno's Swans at New York's Second Stage back in the 1980s. She describes directing as something that she fell into almost "naturally," but her career took her in different directions for a while. Most recently, though, she was the associate director on this past season's revival of All My Sons, working with director Jack O'Brien. It was the experience of working on that play that led her to her latest project, acting in Little Gem at the Irish Rep this summer.
"Coming off of All My Sons, I found a real need and desire to express myself as an actor and challenge myself. And just then, Irish Rep came along," she explains. The play presented a new set of creative and craft challenges, which Mason embraced wholeheartedly.
"Little Gem is a series of monologues - and they're huge. The play is about three generations of women in the same family, in Northern Dublin in early 2000, and the other women, Brenda Meaney and Lauren O'Leary, are just fabulous... I wanted to keep my mental facility active, and then I'm also dealing with an accent and a completely different sort of cultural background. It's just such a rich tapestry of experience and discipline."
Mason's experiences themselves are quite a rich tapestry, spanning decades in film, TV, and theatre (and earning her no fewer than four Oscar nominations along the way). She's seen a lot of change in the entertainment industry over the years, especially when it comes to the treatment of and possibilities for women.
"Young women today are much savvier by nature than I was. I was fairly naïve, and when I was coming up, we didn't have social media or as much information, and the #MeToo movement has changed the dynamic," Mason notes. And in terms of the material offered to women, she points out, theatre is ahead of the curve somewhat. "Women my age aren't challenged as much in film and television in terms of the material."
Despite these changes, Mason's underlying philosophy hasn't changed much. It's about the craft and the hard work, yes, but ultimately about a deep-seated passion to carry artists through an industry that puts everyone through the wringer at some point.
"Underneath all the changes, what you still have to have is a deep passion for what you do," she advises. "You have to truly remain true to yourself, no matter what somebody tells you. You have to be confident enough to believe in yourself in the face of a lot of difficulty and competition; do it for the joy of it and not just the success. You have to do it for the sheer joy of it, that passion has to be deep enough to make the pain worth it."