Queerness, Brooklynese, and theatre on a budget: an interview with Hannah Bristow and Laurie Ogden

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to interview actors Laurie Ogden and Hannah Bristow, who are currently playing teenage sweethearts Connie and Francesca in the European premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn at Park Theatre, London. The play centres on an Italian-American family 1960s Brooklyn. It deftly weaves themes such as Catholicism, immigration, and domestic abuse, into a tight domestic drama. As Ogden neatly surmises, “it’s mainly about the love and belonging, from all different kinds of perspectives.”

Ogden plays Connie, a second-generation Irish immigrant. Her relation to the play’s central family is through Francesca. Francesca is the youngest of three sisters, a second generation Italian immigrant, rebellious and headstrong; Connie is her cautious yet trusting counterpart. Both characters are 16, touchingly naïve, Catholic, and closeted.

The romantic relationship between Connie and Francesca is one of the key storylines of the play. “The thing that really drew me to Connie was getting to play a queer character,” Ogden tells me. “The love between Francesca and Connie is so pure and young and joyful, and you don’t often get to see that in a young queer relationship on stage.” The exuberance and hopefulness of the two young characters is touching and childlike, as they hatch plans to escape America and be free to live openly together.

Bristow highlights how unusual a part like this is – “a lot of queer stories are about the trauma of that queerness; I’ve played a lot of queer characters on stage and it’s actually quite upsetting to do that.” In contrast, the pair tell me that they have always approached this storyline as a love story first and foremost. Ogden says that it was only after their first performance that the significance of the queer element became apparent. “We felt a reaction from the audience: it wasn’t a negative reaction but it was definitely that people weren’t used to seeing it and it made them slightly uncomfortable.”

From left: Laurie Ogden and Hannah Bristow in rehearsal

On the flip side, the two actors recall a review from one of their regional performances that referred to the “friendship” between their characters. “I was like, how did you get friendship?” Ogden laughs, before pointing out the double standard – “if Connie had been a boy and we’d played it like a friendship, without the kissing or anything, people would be like ‘they’re definitely going to get together.’”

Having seen the play, it is mind-boggling to think just how unsubtle a performance would be required to make the romance more obvious. Perhaps such a reaction is, in part, due to how embedded their queer storyline is within the play as a whole. It is rare to see queer storylines not forming the core narrative of a piece nor being loudly signposted in marketing material. Ogden views this as a step in the right direction: “As much as we need stories that centre on [queerness], I think it’s equally important to have stories where it’s not like ‘oh, this is a queer play.’ Like, I don’t think this play is a queer play, we just happen to exist within it, and I think that’s very positive.”

A more practical challenge of performing in ‘Napoli, Brooklyn’ is the straight-from-The-Sopranos accent. The actors tell me that they spent a lot of time with an accent coach and that it wasn’t as simple as having all the cast reproduce the exact same Brooklynese twang. “Tina, the eldest sister, she’s written differently than the younger sisters, she’s written with a broader accent,” Bristow explains. Tina is the least educated of the three girls and works as a manual labourer, “so that accent variant between the family is written in the script”.

Connie, however, speaks without an accent variant in spite of her father’s heavy Irish lilt. Ogden recalls early discussions with the accent coach and director in which they came to the conclusion that “it was important for me to be closer to Francesca in accent, to tell the story of us in relation”. Ogden’s advice on picking up accents is that “you kind of have to do it badly and extremely at first […] I think you have to do this really exaggerated version and then work with the accent coach to bring it down”. Bristow recalls honing her accent with her housemate, who was also auditioning for a part: “we spent a weekend just walking around the house like ‘hey, I’m walkin’ here!’”

Ogden and cast of Napoli, Brooklyn

Whilst learning accents, the pair also had to unlearn a few things to get back into the mindset of a 16 year old girl. “I think it’s about accessing the kind of pureness of all of your emotions, because it’s just love and anger and sadness, and  when you are a teenager you feel them so extremely,” Ogden muses.

This is especially prominent in Francesca and her temper, Bristow highlights – “a lot of the conversation with her father is about him saying ‘learn to take it in’ and she’s not learnt to do that yet.” I asked how Bristow channels such a realistic and immediate fear in the scenes where Francesca comes head to head with her father and she hesitates. “I think [Robert Cavanah] when he’s playing Nic is frightening […] He’s a big man and when a big man’s shouting at you, it’s scary”. Although she adds that in reality Cavanah is “such a warm, lovely man” that it is only a fleeting fear.

Both Ogden and Bristow went down the parallel route of doing an undergraduate degree in English before realising acting was what they wanted to pursue. For Ogden, it took a while to come to that realisation; “no one in my family is in the arts, so I don’t think it felt particularly possible but something kept scratching away at me, as this thing I wanted to do […] I was really embarrassed about it because it felt like something that wasn’t possible for me”. It was her experience training with the NYT REP Company last year (a free training programme) that enabled her to view acting as an attainable career.

Ogden hails from Merseyside and she knows that the cost of training and professional development can be unaffordable for some people: “You can pick the specific things that excite you and go be inspired by them, and take advantage of as many free things as you can, whether it’s [training opportunities at] The Mono Box, Roundhouse, Barbican, Apples and Snakes, whatever it is. Because the most important thing is you being inspired. You don’t have to have seen all of the theatre in the world to be a great actor, but you have to be creatively open”.

Bristow is keen to signpost the many ticket schemes for under 25 year olds, as well as alternative means of watching theatre: “You can YouTube loads of Shakespeare plays […] I’ve watched a lot of new writing on YouTube as well. You can go to the National Archive and see any play that’s been on at the National ever for free. You just email ahead. Anyone can do that.” They are both enthusiastic to impart their knowledge and help potential young talent, but when asked about the next step in their careers, the pair are more cautiously optimistic. As Bristow puts it, “it happened and it’s still happening and I’m going to keep doing it until it stops happening”.

‘Napoli, Brooklyn’ is on at Park Theatre, London, until 13th July. More information and tickets available here.

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