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Alumna stars in “My Fair Lady”

Q&A with Helen Carey

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Since graduating from the theater department in 1965, Helen Carey worked with various theater companies in the U.S. and spent time abroad with her husband and two daughters. Today, she lives in Washington, D.C. but is preparing for three weeks of performing her role in “My Fair Lady” at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.

Carey spoke with A&E assistant editor Kaitlin Majeski about her time at Marquette, her upcoming show and where her acting career has taken her.

Q. What made you want to take on acting as a career?

A. I’ve always loved it. It’s a wonderful art form, and it’s something that I was drawn to from high school on. I didn’t realize, or believe, that I could really make a living at it when I was very young. But, I grew in conviction while working with Fr. Walsh and a wonderful company of actors while I was (at Marquette).

Q. Tell me about your career after graduation.

A. I credit Father Walsh and his training and a lot of luck for being hired in May of my senior year to join (Guthrie Theater). The company was relatively new, it was founded in 1962 or 1963, and I stayed there for a while.

I had met my husband while I was still at the Guthrie, and his career was in foreign services in the government so I stopped for five years. In that time, we lived in Belgium and then moved back to Washington, D.C. where my daughter was born in ’72.

I didn’t realize, or believe, that I could really make a living at it when I was very young. But, I grew in conviction while working with Fr. Walsh and a wonderful company of actors while I was (at Marquette).”

— Helen Carey

We went to West Africa for two years and our second daughter was born … I came back to America to have her, but I brought her back to Africa when she was six weeks old. We left Africa when she was a year and a half, and we spent a couple years in Washington; and then we spent some time in the former Yugoslavia, where we served at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Then I started going back to work during the times that we were in the United States. I went back to the Guthrie, and I started working in Washington, D.C. at a mainstage and the Shakespeare theatre.

Q. Could you speak a little bit more about your experience at Marquette?

A. Well you know, any student that worked with (Fr. Walsh) realized that they were really working within almost a professional atmosphere because we did several full-length productions within the academic year, and he was wonderfully articulate and passionate about theatre and very nurturing as a director.

He was very encouraging and attentive. I learned a great deal from working under his direction and it helped me a great bit when I started working in professional theater.

Q. What are the differences in preparing for your roles in theater versus your roles on television and in film?

A. When you’re working in live theatre, you rehearse everything sequentially and you feel the whole story from A to B and B to C. But, when you’re filming, let’s say you’re going to have four scenes that happen in the park and three that happen in an apartment, and they may be all different developmental points in the storyline.

But, what they do is if you’ve got those four scenes in the park, they will stay in the park to film those scenes, so you have to be very vigilant with where you are emotionally in the storyline because you may still be in the park but you are at a different developmental point in the story. So you may not perform the scenes in the order that they happen.

I like the intimacy of the camera and the fact that, unlike theater where every performance is different, if you do something on TV or film, you have a record of it.”

— Helen Carey

Q. How did you go from being on stage to doing work in television and film?

A. I started trying to concentrate more, for a while, on television and film. I still really enjoy the process on stage because it makes more sense as you go along.

But I like the intimacy of the camera and the fact that, unlike theater where every performance is different, if you do something on TV or film, you have a record of it.

Q. What was your favorite show, either on screen, on stage or both?

A. I did the Broadway opening of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which was an award-winning show in London … they decided to recast the play for a New York company, and so I spent 14 months doing that play. That was slightly over 400 performances. So that was 8 shows a week for a pretty long time.

One of the highlights of film, I did a movie called “Julie & Julia” and getting to work with Meryl Streep was quite wonderful. She’s a very talented, very wonderful person. So that was great fun.

And then there were a couple of TV series … I did “Seinfeld” and “The Good Wife” and there was a lot of good variety.

Q: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: I think it’s really being able to tell the story or take the audience on a trip through a story, a trip that they might never take. And, in that way, their life experience and their sense of empathy for things that happen in the world that might never actually happen in their worlds will give them a better understanding of all the different aspects of life that people go through.

Not all of them are shared, but they can be shared. I think that’s one of the most important things that theater does – it takes you outside of your world and makes you think about other possibilities.

Q: How long have you been preparing for My Fair Lady?

A: We are towards the end of our first week, and it’s been quite manic … There are really, I would say, more than 80 people that all have to be on the same page to get this thing launched.

So, it’s a big endeavor and our time frame in which we have to get it ready for the audience is three weeks.

To put it in context, you usually have five weeks. We rehearse every day, it’s an eight-hour day. The only day we don’t rehearse is Sunday.

It’s really (about) being able to tell the story or take the audience on a trip through a story, a trip that they might never take.”

— Helen Carey

Q: What is your favorite part of your role in “My Fair Lady?”

A: It’s a wonderful role. Most people know Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, and Henry Higgins’ mother (Ms. Higgins) has a role in the play.

And it is fun to see that the apple, Henry Higgins, doesn’t fall far from the tree. They are rather eccentric people.

Q: Have you been to any Marquette shows since you graduated?

A: I haven’t! You know, I’ve been working and the closest I’ve been was the Guthrie; but because I was working, and you only have one day off, you’re tethered pretty much to the Twin Cities when you’re working.

And when I’m working elsewhere it doesn’t offer a lot of down time. But, you know, I hear about it, and I hear about the things that are happening on the campus. I hardly recognize the pictures I see!

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