Tony Award nominated actress Hannah Yelland talks Brief Encounter and more

Born and trained in the U.K., Hannah Yelland, is a bright newcomer to the New York theatre scene. After scoring rave reviews last fall in what The New York Times called, “a captivating and ingenious” adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1945 film, Brief Encounter; the play has earned two Tony Award nominations including Best Sound Design and Best Actress in a Leading Role. At center stage, there is a giant screen projecting images and leitmotifs from the film. The actors literally jump inside and out of the frame in a refreshing and ultimately enchanting use of theatrical staging. I caught up with Hannah just days after her exciting news to talk shop and get acquainted after her marriage to a New Yorker and moving to the states.

First of all, Congratulations on your nomination for the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play. Did you ever expect to be in the running for New York Theatre’s highest honor?

Of course I was really delighted to hear that I had been nominated. Having just moved to the U.S., it is particularly special for me to be recognized in this way, but also, as Brief Encounter closed in January, I was so happy that the show, and my performance, seems to have remained with people. I loved playing Laura so much, and so to be in the running for a Tony?! And for something I was so proud of…t’s really beyond fantastic.

How does the New York theatre scene differ from the London theatre scene?

I think one of the main things about theatre is that in any theatre community there’s a kind of unspoken language that exists and a common feeling. I think if you understand and love theatre then wherever you are you can find kindred spirits! But as I was in a British show that came to the U.S. with both English and American actors and musicians, but was also working with crew and managements from the US, we became a sort of hybrid, if you like. I think there’s certainly a different feel to the scenes in New York and London, but it’s difficult to pin down what it is… They are both thriving, wonderful, theatrically diverse places with their own unique heartbeats. I’m so lucky that, due to happy circumstance, I’m able to work in both countries.

Most of us in the U.S. have never seen the film, Brief Encounter. Do you recommend seeing it before attending the play?

Sadly we are not running anymore, but I would definitely say see the film if you haven’t already. It’s a British classic, but it was interesting to find that although many people who came to our show had actually seen the film, an equally large number wanted to come to the show fresh, with no preconceptions. There were so many theatrical delights and moments of surprise in the show that, in a sense, even if you had seen the film, nothing could prepare you for the theatrical experience of our Brief Encounter! Of course the film, with a screenplay by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, had started as a one act play called Still Life which Coward wrote as part of a series called “Tonight at 8.30.” So it made complete sense to incorporate both mediums and to pay homage to the story and the script whilst setting about making it very much its own theatrical piece.

What was it like working with Director/Adapter, Emma Rice, and how involved were you in the adaptation?

Emma Rice is a visionary. Kneehigh Theatre, where the show originated, is a company that prides itself on telling stories which are passionate, emotional and rich in meaning. There is also a lot of real play and fun involved when working with Emma. I remember an early rehearsal where we had to disappear behind a door and come out dressed in a costume we were given as the character, whereupon Emma would ask us questions as, in my case, Laura, and we would have to improvise our story and create our own personas with, at that point, only the script to go on. This was early in rehearsals, but the qualities we initially found in our characters were so useful to remember when we were running for a long time. It helped keep us all in the moment and thinking as these people for the first time each night. It was a privilege to work with someone as imaginative, and so deeply connected to her work and her own vision. And of course it was SO much fun!

The story line is so well adapted from film to stage. We know that film acting is more subtle than stage acting, but in this case you were doing a little bit of both. How were you able to maintain the same level of restraint while successfully conveying inner turmoil?

Of course, acting on film and acting on the stage are different, but they both are based in truth. If you can be truthful, which requires an acceptance that you will be vulnerable, then the character should have a successful effect, whether it is based in comedy or tragedy. Brief Encounter had both comedy and tragedy in it, juxtaposed, which accentuated the common message of the play- the belief in love in it’s many forms: thwarted love, new love, or love based on a knowledge of its reality. My intention every night was to truly feel Laura’s emotional journey. If I did that then I would feel like her inner life would reach the audience, and that they would invest in her and in the love story between her and Alec. As far as the restraint goes, I believed it was essential to stay true to the time in which the play is set. People were more restrained, at least publicly, and it was most definitely less common for a woman to explore other routes than marriage and children. Laura’s love for Alec comes as such a surprise to her, which is why, when she has to accept it, it is so painful for her as she is a good and loyal person. But the depth of her feelings cannot ultimately be suppressed.

When was the moment you knew that you wanted to perform for a living?

My father is an actor, and in fact, very recently, he discovered, by doing work on our ancestry, that three generations ago a whole family of actors existed! In other words, my great, great, great grandmother, Ellen Cornwall, as she was, was one of five children in a group of traveling player siblings. It was a wonderful discovery. We’d wondered, my family and I, where this had all come from, and this could explain some of it. But in terms of when I decided- it sort of happened over a long time… I performed a lot at Cambridge, I dabbled in directing, and then returned to acting when I realized I wanted to be in the play I was directing. Then I joined forces with friends and we developed a piece of theatre to which I invited my now agent… And he’s been my agent for 13 years.

If you could go back in time and catch any show in the world, what would it be and why?

I think now I’d have to say that I’d like to see Noel Coward on stage. I’m sure no one can speak Coward like Coward himself. I’d like to ask him what he really thought of our play. I think he’d have been pleased- it was full of humor but also pain. Two things he was a master at conveying.

Current performers you admire and would drop everything to go see.

Is it soppy to say I’d drop everything to go and see my friends in plays? And my father? Well, I would, and I usually do. It has become harder since moving out here, but I know how amazing it is when a friendly face appears at the stage door. It means a great deal.

What is your favorite music or most played song on your iPod/mp3 player?

Well, the summer is starting, so I’m already more relaxed. I’m not a winter person AT ALL! So I’m listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell again; Jeff Buckley.. and Alexi Murdoch..”Love You More” is a beautiful song. That’s my most played song on my itunes library at the moment. Also I’m discovering Ane Brun- she’s fantastic. Oh yes, and The Bad Plus.. I saw them at Village Vanguard recently…they were amazing. One of their tracks- “Flim”- became an anthem for us all in the cast. I still can’t listen to it now without getting all emotional. I really miss them all.

What are you working on now? Any roles that you are dying to play?

Anything that says something! I know that’s a broad answer, but things that reach people just really excite me: emotional characters that can make people feel comforted, knowing their feelings exist in others. I am a huge “Dexter” fan, and admire actors like Michael C. Hall and John Lithgow, actors who move between film and theatre and are equally compelling in both.

A really cute touch to the production was when the actors not only broke the third wall but handed the audience members small cucumber sandwiches at the end of the play. Tell the truth, how many leftover cucumber sandwiches did you gorge on?

In all honesty? None! By the time Annette and Dot got to me they were all gone, or had been snatched away by the front of house staff! I have a feeling they would be the cucumber sandwich culprits. Occasionally the bar staff would make us a cocktail to drink while we were jamming after the show, and that was much more welcome!

It must have been extra cool to perform at the newly renovated Studio 54. Did you learn any secrets?

If I did I’ve been sworn to secrecy! No, seriously, it was an amazing place to work. It has so much history, and it was the perfect place for Brief Encounter– there were definitely good ghosts flying around. It has so much atmosphere, and again, a sense of fun embedded in its walls which suited the piece hugely, as it was at once conventional and cutting edge; at once a theatre and a club.

Forget the theatre! What is your favourite thing to do in the city?

We’re talking New York here, so it’s pretty difficult to narrow it down. What CAN”T you do in New York City?! I’d have to say, though, a favorite after show place of mine during the show was Joe Allen’s- such a classic theatrical haunt. I have been going to his restaurant in London for many years- it has such a great atmosphere- the food is tremendous and the staff are so welcoming. Steak frites and a glass of red wine- that certainly replenishes the red blood cells and soothes the soul after the highly charged experience of playing Laura every night! Though obviously I didn’t do that every night! Other than that? I’m an avid walker- I love walking and hiking, and now I have a dog so it’s even better. I spent many days before shows walking Henry round Central Park, and on the weekends my husband and I would go up to his family home on the Hudson and hike in the mountains. It was the perfect antidote to the high octane, adrenaline filled existence in the theatre.

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