NEW YORK — Clare Higgins, the British actress starring on Broadway in "Vincent in Brixton," was 14 years old before she ever saw a play. The convent school she attended took her class to Stratford-on-Avon to see Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale."
"I was enraptured by this incredible experience," she says. "I'd read it, but what's reading it when you've never heard it spoken, and people were speaking this incredible language."
She was especially smitten by Dame Judi Dench's performance as both Hermione and Perdita. "When she came on like Perdita, she was like the element of Springtime," Ms. Higgins says. "I remember bursting into tears. It was like a spiritual experience."
Now Higgins is the latest British theatrical diva to win America's heart. She is making her American debut as the unlikely muse of a youthful Vincent van Gogh in Nicholas Wright's play "Vincent in Brixton," which opened on Broadway last week.
The London engagement garnered a host of accolades, including Olivier awards for best play and best actress for Higgins. She brings impressive credits: lead roles in many of Shakespeare's plays, as well as several of Tennessee Williams's sizzling heroines, and TV and film appearances.
That teenage journey to Stratford started Higgins on her career path, but not as soon as she planned. She was so inspired by the performance that she tried to run away from home and join a drama school, but her family stopped her.
"My family was very academic. Theater was frowned on. Then I was sent to a boarding school. [They probably thought] 'Lock her up until she stops wanting to be an actress,' " Higgins says.
However, the dream of a stage career remained on her mind. At age 21, without ever having acted in a school or an amateur play, she auditioned for the flagship of British acting schools: London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
"My reasoning was, 'Well, they'd never accept me, so then I won't have time to think about it,'" she recalls. Not only was Higgins accepted, she was awarded a scholarship.
"I was so amazed when I got in and equally amazed when I left. I didn't expect to work. I think a lot of actors feel this [way]. After every job is finished, you never expect to work again."
But Higgins stepped right onto the stage, with only a few pauses in her career since she finished acting school.
For the show "Vincent in Brixton," director Richard Eyre, who has cast Higgins extensively in his shows, sent her the first draft of Mr. Wright's script and offered her the role of Mrs. Loyer, the landlady of the house in London where Van Gogh lived as a young man.
Van Gogh was working for the international art dealers' firm, Goupil and Co. He took a room in a boarding house in Brixton, kept by Mrs. Loyer and her daughter, Eugenia, who was Van Gogh's age.
Van Gogh wrote home about his experiences in this new culture. However, there was a six-month period of time when the letters to his family ceased.
"After that, his sister came to get him," Higgins says. "Van Gogh's father said, 'The secrets of the family, who are not as other families, is what destroyed him,' suggesting that his son was unhinged by what went on there. Of course, no one knows what went on."
The playwright suggests that Van Gogh broke off communications with his family because he was engaged in an affair with Mrs. Loyer, a widow who ran a children's prep school in the house.
The playwright pictured two lonely people: a woman depressed by her circumstances and a shy, awkward Van Gogh. Wright poses that the emotional bond between Loyer and Van Gogh fanned his talent into flame.
When the director of the Van Gogh museum came to London to see the show, he was "relieved that there wasn't some actor pretending to be a painting genius," Higgins recalled.
Higgins sat in on auditions to find Van Gogh among eight actors who had been flown over to London by a Dutch casting office.
"The door opened for the first one, and in walked Jochum ten Haaf [her costar]," Higgins says. "We looked at each other and said, 'He looks like him.' After he picked up the script we knew, but we still had to see the other seven actors."
In preparing for the role, Higgins studied the historical facts, including a photograph of Mrs. Loyer, but relied more on the actor's technique of dissecting a character.
"What I try to do is find the inner life of the person and not necessarily how they act with other people," Higgins says.
"All of us in real life have two sets of dialogue going on: the social one and the one that's really going on inside - whatever you'd like to call that, whether it's intuition, or God, or the voice. That's what I listen to," she says.