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Savoring roles as mother, lover of life

Josephine Hogan is terrified at the thought of playing Vivien Leigh on stage next month, but don't let that fool you. Just as on every other opening night of her 30-year career, Hogan will walk in fear on stage, and then hit a home run.

Growing up the daughter of a postman in working-class Dublin, Hogan arrived here on Dec. 29, 1989, to fulfill a dream she shared with her actor husband. Over the years, that dream would come to be known as Irish Classical Theatre Company.

Today Hogan has reached out on her own with Red Thread Theatre, a company producing plays with women in mind. You can catch her one-woman show, "Vivien," starting Oct. 20 at New Phoenix Theater. In the meantime, watch Hogan as Princess Conti on stage at Irish Classical.

>People Talk: Solo shows must be the ultimate challenge.

Josephine Hogan: I'm nervous, but I'm also excited. It's a while since I've done a one-woman show, and I'm actually a very shy person. But I love theater and I treat my characters as being not me. Out of ourselves we can not pass, but I like to disappear into other characters.

["Vivien"] is based on a biography by Alexander Walker. People who knew Vivien Leigh were very close to canonizing her. We want to give an objective view, because she was a very sick woman, especially with manic depression.

>PT: How do you spend the day of opening night?

JH: Apart from praying? I pace. I can't eat from midday. I just have the butterflies all day. And I stand there backstage -- every time -- and I say: "Oh my God, I could be home safe sitting by the fire. Why am I doing this to myself?" But when you go on, and the audience is with you, it's like a communion.

>PT: Define yourself as a person.

JH: Well, I always don't see myself as an actress. That's what I do for my job. I think of myself as a mother and a lover of life.

>PT: Tell me about your children. Do either plan to follow your stage lead?

JH: They've never been encouraged to do that, because it's a very difficult life. At the moment, Jamie, my son, is studying engineering at UB. Laura is studying law at Columbia. They both learned a long time ago they wanted jobs that make money -- as opposed to being in theater.

>PT: Times were tough when you moved here?

JH: We were living on a drug street for a long time. I was beaten up when I was on my way once to the Calumet to do a show. We had several break-ins at our old house. People used to party in the backyard. So many times I wanted to get on the plane and go back home to my mother. I kind of grew up when I came here.

>PT: Off the stage, Josephine, what do you do best?

JH: I'd like to think I'm a good mother. I adore my children. I'd throw myself off a cliff for them.

>PT: Such a drama queen.

JH: Well, I think my mom and dad were like that with all six of us. They were devoted to their children. And I'm a proud helicopter mom.

>PT: What else is there room for?

JH: I go out to dinner and relax with friends. I must say I like to meditate. I did a lot of yoga when I was growing up, and that helps me as well when I'm acting. Apart from that I don't have a life.

>PT: Describe your marriage.

JH: Vincent [O'Neill, her husband] and I are extremely close, and we are both devoted to our family. We like to keep our private lives private. We have a wonderful working relationship. I mean we've been together for so many years.

>PT: What have you learned from him?

JH: The value of love and friendship. We had a spectacular adventure.

>PT: What do you consider your finest moment professionally?

JH: It's been an ongoing process to watch Irish Classical grow to the stage it's at now. It's lovely to look back on and to say we did it.

>PT: Tell me about Red Thread.

JH: There weren't a lot of roles for women, and there are some plays out there that have been neglected, left unnoticed. I wanted to start a company that would do those neglected plays, and have roles for women. Red Thread is not a feminist company, and it is not just for women.

>PT: Where do you look for inspiration?

JH: I lived in London for a period of time, and Maggie Smith was a huge inspiration to me. I went to see her several times in the West End, I studied her very closely, often going back again and again to see the same play. I learned so much watching her perform as I sat enthralled in the dark.

>PT: What is your dream role?

JH: "Vivien." I've been in theater for over 30 years. I never played Elizabeth Bennet ("Pride and Prejudice"), which I would have loved, and now I've grown too old. There's nothing really out there I really have to play before I pass on.

>PT: Do you save the playbills?

JH: No. I think when I started off I kept a scrapbook, mostly because my mother cut all these pictures out of the paper. But I've done so much stuff over the years. I live the experience and I'm onto the next. Theater is ephemeral.