How Moira Driscoll left New York but held onto her acting career
On a chilly Saturday in February, Moira Julia Eleanor Driscoll worked her third straight day of doubles in downtown Portland. She left her first job, where she had spent a full day trying to coax along a new project very specifically tailored to her talents, then swung by her house and ate a half a tuna sandwich. After that, she headed to Congress Street, hunting hard for parking near the next job, where she would be required to jump into an atmosphere so full of mayhem and masculinity that only someone like Sam Shepard could have dreamed it up. Yet she was not complaining.
“It’s fantastic,” Driscoll said. For an actress who left a thriving New York City career to raise a family in Maine 15 years ago, this double shift of wall-to-wall acting was about as good as it gets. She’s traditionally commuted for roles, nipping down to Massachusetts for parts in the Oscar-winning Spotlight and HBO’s adaptation of Olive Kittredge or taking a combination of Concord Coach and the Fung Wah buses to get to New York for voiceover work or Law & Order auditions. But this winter Driscoll hit a sweet spot in the Maine acting world; being busy in her hometown.
She spent most of February at Portland Stage, learning the part of Helen, a community college secretary with a huge heart and a propensity for tinkering with her colleagues’ lives, in the new Monica Wood play, The Half-Light, which began a run in late February and plays through March 24. But for the first part of the month, that overlapped with her gig at Space Gallery, performing the role of “Mom” in director Sean Mewshaw’s remarkably, sold-out adaptation of Shepard’s True West.
She could have done more than take five on those double-booked days. The character of “Mom” is only on stage at the end of True West, so when Mewshaw cast her (“unquestionably the first person I even wanted to ask”) he told her she was welcome to show up late, after the two male leads have established the dangerous dynamic between brothers Lee and Austin. But that’s not how Driscoll rolls. “I want to be with everybody,” she said. Or as Mewshaw puts it, “making the team feel like a team.” At the same time, the script for The Half-Light was calling to Driscoll. “It’s humming,” she said in early February. “‘I want you to learn me now.’”
Wood credits Driscoll with the crucial push she needed to try writing her first play, Papermaker, which became Portland Stage’s bestselling show of all time in its 2015 run. “Papermaker wouldn’t have existed without Moira,” Wood said. As Wood remembers, the two first met at Longfellow Books, where Driscoll and other local actors were doing a reading of Wood’s Ernie’s Ark, the novel that ultimately inspired Papermaker. Driscoll encouraged Wood to try turning it into a play. “She talked me through the process from the actress’ point of view, which was essential,” Wood said. Wood loved theater but didn’t even know how to format a script. Driscoll handed her a bagful of plays to show her how. Driscoll had brought her knowledge (and her library) from New York, and her love of drama was infectious. Wood and Mewshaw have both participated in social readings of plays, just for fun, over dinner and drinks. They started with The Seagull at the home of writer Lewis Robinson and his wife CC. That’s where Mewshaw, whose film credits include Tumbledown, first bonded with Driscoll. “We had so much fun playing off each other in the reading,” Mewshaw said.
When it came time to write The Half-Light, an original work, Wood created a character for Driscoll, who she calls the consummate character actor. “Moira was born to play Helen,” Wood said. “I think she is the best actor we have in Maine. There is a reason why she gets work in Boston and New York. She prepares so well.” Driscoll has been an invaluable resource on The Half-Light. “She questions everything,” Wood said, “But it is always in service of the story. It is never about her ego.”
The part of Helen goes well beyond the role of sidekick to the romantic leads–although Driscoll was getting laughs even on the cast’s first read-through. Helen’s adult daughter, the fourth character in the play, is battling addiction, and Helen is battling her desire to help with the need for tough love. The play becomes a quartet because of the weight Wood gives Helen. “I love Monica for that,” Driscoll said. “I love that Helen’s is not a peripheral story. She’s not there just for color for happy hour.”
“I think she is the best actor we have in Maine. There is a reason why she gets work in Boston and New York. She prepares so well.”
By middle school, Driscoll knew what she was going to do with her life. As a child she was a natural mimic (spend 10 minutes with her and you’ll get a taste of how that gift hasn’t faded). When she wasn’t trying out Glenda Jackson’s British accent she was using her grandparents’ farmhouse in New Hampshire to stage her own version of The Little Princess. “Sarah Crewe in the Attic.” Her first play was Chicken Little Revisited (third grade, she was Henny Penny). Her big family, with five siblings stretched out across 11 years, served as fertile ground for observation.
Despite the odds against make a living as an actress, her family didn’t try to dissuade her. Her mother was an art historian. Her father had been the assistant to the director of the Boston Public Library before a massive cerebral hemorrhage left him paralyzed on his left side when Driscoll was 12. An uncle was a music producer. The world of loving art and literature and not making a whole lot of money was something they understood. At Amherst College, she performed in a “ton” of productions. It wasn’t applause she sought, but the constant connection with the audience, the way a performance moves back and forth between stage and seats. “The feedback loop of it,” Driscoll calls it. Her search for that magic has never changed.
In the summers she’d wait tables and do local theater in Massachusetts, feeling envious of the students who could spend a summer being unpaid interns at places like the Williamstown Theatre Festival, filling their resumes and making connections. “It’s funny,” she says. “You all meet each other eventually. Once you get to New York, you kind of figure that out.”
She went right to New York after graduation and worked as an editorial assistant jobs at publishing houses and studied her options. It was the 1980s. Landing a starring role was easy in college, but not in New York. “It was daunting.” Eventually she got headshots, quit the publishing job and began waitressing and going to auditions. She met her future husband, David Pence, a Maine native who was working as an editor and like Driscoll, taking acting classes at the William Esper Studio. Then she and a friend from Amherst, John Michael Higgins, started doing sketch comedy together in the West Bank Cafe and in the process, got discovered by a voiceover agent. She and the future star of movies like Pitch Perfect and Best in Show did voiceovers for Manufacturers Hanover Trust. A whole world of commercials and industrials opened up to her. Hanes. Maidenform. Lysol. Ethan Allen. Sara Lee. American Express. She went back and forth between the corporate gigs and the commercial work, shifting accents and modulation. “Industrials have a lot of authority,” she said, demonstrating by turning her voice into something in the realm of very patient honey.
Not long after her first child, Owen, was born, Moira and her husband started talking about moving to Maine. There were a lot of reasons to leave New York. Even with steady money from the voiceover work coming in, they couldn’t afford to buy a place. But she need persuading. “I was a snotbag. Like, ‘There is no good cheese. Nobody is funny there.’” Arriving in Portland she was determined to make sure she hadn’t reached the end of the road. “I was extremely motivated to not be a person who left New York and left acting.” They moved on a Friday and by Monday, Driscoll was sitting down with Anita Stewart, the artistic director at Portland Stage. At that point, nearly 15 years ago, Portland Stage was the only place for an Equity actor to do stage work in Maine (being an Equity actor means better pay, but in a small place, fewer opportunities).
So she began a life of commuting, planes, trains and automobiles, figuring out how to get to New York and home, sometimes in one day, while negotiating motherhood (Owen is 22 and her daughter Mabel, 18). Only once did a pending blizzard mean she had to turn down an audition. Sometimes, she has felt as if she missed out. “It wasn’t the easiest thing,” Driscoll said. “There are times when you read about a play in The New York Times and you say, ‘That is a part I was definitely going to be up for.’” She’s watched colleagues she worked with in those early years, like Kenneth Lonergan, Lewis Black and Higgins became names. But she has a highlight reel of her own. Being strapped to a device that made her fly while Gus Van Zandt directed her in an HBO pilot about witches. Having Frances McDormand invite her to share Fritos on the set of Olive Kittredge while they were shooting a scene together. Navigating puppetry during Peer Gynt at Portland Stage.
And being in Maine has given her the kind of grounding she passes on, like to her co-stars in True West. Maybe made her less “needy,” she said than had she stayed in New York. ”Living in some different place is very energizing to an artist.” And in terms of theater, her adopted city has grown around her, fertile with fresh faces like Mewshaw and evolving talents like Wood. “As the years have gone on it has been better and better,” Driscoll said. “This is a warm yeasty spot and a lot of stuff is growing in it.”
No matter where she’s working, the intensity of performing doesn’t change. “That first preview,” Driscoll said in the days before The Half-Light opened. “I’m getting a little short of breath thinking about it.” Her heart beats faster. She thinks about that time she was quaking as she was about to go on in Molière’s complex play The Misanthrope and another actress noticed, “She said, ‘Just look at me. I’ve got you.’ It was so beautiful and such a simple thing. Acting is reacting. We’re doing it together.” So she takes a breath, steps on stage and catches the wave.
Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine.