Miriam Margolyes Wants You to Turn Off Your iPhone

Miriam Margolyes will portray 23 different Dickens’ characters in a U.S. run of her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women. She wants you to stop texting, and behave.

Miriam Margolyes
Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes wants you to stop playing Angry Birds and read a book. Preferably, an entire book, made out of paper, and written by Charles Dickens. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award winner – also known as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films — will transform into 23 of Dickens’ characters this month, during the U.S. tour of her one-woman-show, Dickens’ Women.

TheaterMania caught up with Margolyes to chat about Dickens, television-induced Attention Deficit Disorder, and Chronic Texting in Theaters.

TheaterMania: How did you fare in this big storm we just had?

Miriam Margolyes: It’s turned me off New York. A New York without subways, without theaters, museums, and concert halls, is a very drab place. But I’m lucky to be here, and I’m safe.

TM: I’m glad you’re safe. Let’s talk about Dickens’ Women. You must have read a lot of Charles Dickens to portray 23 of his characters. When did his writing enter your life?

MM: I read Oliver Twist when I was 11. That drama, violence, and love transfixed me. I never stopped reading. If I hadn’t been an actress, I would have liked to have been an academic. A scholar. I studied literature at Cambridge. Literature has informed my life completely. Popular culture is not a part of my life. I don’t walk around with earphones. I read. I can’t bear it that this modern world is leaving literature behind. So my job now, as an actress, is to inspire people to go back to the books and read them.

TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Edith Wharton lately, and I’m a big fan. You were in the film adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Why not write a play about Edith Wharton’s women? Why Dickens?

MM: I’m also a big Edith Wharton fan. But she herself would say that she is not even on the same street as Dickens. She depicted the world she lived in, but she didn’t go beyond that. Dickens did.

The range and power of Dickens’ characters is extraordinary and interesting for an actress to attempt. He was able to go from the top to the bottom of the social scale. He could depict a prostitute. He could depict a lady. He could marvelously depict the minds of children. His novels were about the state of the world at the time.

Dickens came from a very poor background and moved up the social hierarchy. Not a lot of writers — not a lot of people — experience that. And I stress that in the show. It’s his story, not my story.

TM: How did you choose the female characters you wanted to portray in his story?

MM: I chose the characters I wanted to act. Then I chose the characters that bore some resemblance to the actual women who impacted his life. Dickens created 2,000 characters in his lifetime. I’m only doing 23.

TM: Two thousand characters. Is there some kind of prolific gene that only great writers have?

MM: I will never know the answer to that question. It’s one of those extraordinary moments in history when a great genius was born out of nothing. Like Shakespeare, Dickens was poor and uneducated. Yet he was able to create, purely out of the majesty of his imagination, these extraordinary characters.

TM: How is the experience of performing a one-woman show different from your other experiences as an actress?

MM: You are a tightrope walker. You can slip at any second and lose your audience, so your focus has to be 100 percent. It should be anyway, but when you are just one, you know damn well you can’t be distracted by someone coughing in the audience. [Laughs] What most infuriates me is the cell phones. If I see someone texting during the show, I walk off the stage.

TM: Do you think we experience art differently now? You know, with our iPhone earbuds?

MM: Yes. The younger generations are so used to being able to turn it off, to change it to something different. With television, attention spans have been shortened. It’s something we have to fight against, the dumbing down of the audience. To be part of an audience is a privilege. To be with the people on stage, to let them reach you. If you’re doing a million other things, they won’t reach you. One thing that people may not realize is that we can see and hear everything that goes on it the audience. We hear the crumbling of candy wrappers. We can see you kissing. [Laughs]

TM: Do you have a strategy for dealing with these distractions?

MM: Usually I just pause completely, or I walk off the stage.

TM: That seems like an effective strategy. [Laughs] When someone exits your show, what do you want them to walk away with?

MM: I want people to be open to the idea of sitting down and reading a Dickens book. They will also have a great time. They will see a brilliant actress in her prime, but it’s also a bit of romp and fun. It’s an exhilarating experience. Many women come up to me afterwards, when I sell my book and sign programs, and say, “I brought my husband, by force. He really didn’t want to come but he loved it.”

TM: Do you see the likeness of Dickens’ characters in the world we live in now?

MM: I’ve always felt that Donald Trump was a Dickensian character because he is so ridiculous. With his hair and his arrogance, he is certainly Dickensian in his absurdity.

Margolyes will perform Dickens’ Women at the Yale Center for British Art on Wednesday, November 7; the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City on Friday, November 9 and Saturday, November 10; the Herb Strauss Theatre in Sanibel Island, Florida, December 4-9; and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST), December 18–22. You can see her in the film The Guilt Trip, starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand, which hits theaters December 19.