The great Irish actress Fiona Shaw has been wowing New York theatergoers for more than 20 years, best known most recently for her turn in The Testament of St. Mary on Broadway. (Or, you might know her as Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia, or the Wiccan coven leader on the fourth season of True Blood.) She’s performed at BAM since 2002, and just started a run there of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (through December 22) in which—similar to her award-winning, one-woman performance of The Waste-Land in 1996—features her reading Coleridge on stage. Well, not reading so much as performing (alongside a dancer), “bounding across the stage while transforming Coleridge’s luminous language into an exhilarating lived experience,” according to the theater. We talked with her about her favorite spots in New York, about Brooklyn vs. Manhattan, and what there is to learn from the subway system.
Where are you staying while you’re doing Rime at BAM?
The Marriott in Brooklyn, which gives me a chance to discover a new New York.
Where do you like to stay when you’re in NYC?
I love staying at the Beacon Hotel. It’s close to Central Park, where you can decompress and the lid comes off your mind. I’ve also been lucky enough to stay with friends on the Upper East Side and in the West Village over the years, discovering the multifarious neighborhoods. I’ve loved them all.
Do you discern a difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan? Aesthetic, temperamental, whatever?
I think Brooklyn is like being in 19th-century Manhattan—it’s transforming itself into a cultural Mecca. There are new theaters around BAM appearing literally every year. And most of the people I meet from the arts-world seem to live in Brooklyn. The mix of people surely make it less like the Vatican.
What’s been your favorite theater to perform in?
Without a doubt the Harvey. It wraps itself around the performer, and welcomes the audience so that both sides of the stage are having a party.
Where do you like to shop while you’re in New York?
When I arrive, I always run to Bloomingdale’s for the sheer shopaholic potential. I don’t shop in London. I also love Saks and Bergdorf Goodman; however, I go to Banana Republic for jeans. Oh, I would buy everything in Restoration Hardware, if only I could fit a sofa in my suitcase.
Where do you like to eat?
Anywhere! From Fiorello’s to all of the tiny restaurants around BAM. But the portions are so large I usually have put on a stone by the time I return home.
Do you go out drinking?
Cocktails are something I only do in NYC. When I was [directing an opera] at the Met, we gathered often at the Lincoln Film Center or Rosa Mexicano for a drink. We’d sit outside—sipping and worrying…
Do you ride the subway?
As often as I can. I love it, because if a Martian landed on Earth, they would learn everything about beauty and ugliness, kindness and terror from the NYC subway.
Do you still do tourist-y things?
I have a one-year subscription to MoMA, which I feast on when I come. I recently went to the Cloisters, which is a beautiful trip to make. (I came back by bus.) This medieval gift is there to “escape you” for all of NYC. It’s only a subway ride away, and it’s another world: woods and the views of the palaces makes you feel miles from the city.
New York remains without a doubt the most exciting city I’ve ever visited. After 20 years, when I come into the airport, my heart lifts as I see the cathedral towers of the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings, and I know I’m going to have a great time. It also has some of the nicest people I have ever met.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart