Being an all-rounder is becoming popular in the world of theatre, where economic adversity has led to creative friction and a blurring of boundaries. But is this a new dawn or a sliding of standards? Peter Crawley reports
PHILLIP McMAHON is not easily caught out. But for a moment he seems thrown by one question: What does he tell people who ask him what he does for a living? “God,” he says. “Usually, I just tell them I work in the theatre.” To look at McMahon’s CV, even that seems like too narrow a definition.
For eight years, he was an actor. Then, in 2006, he wrote his first play Danny and Chantelle (Still Here) and performed in it. With its success he founded the company Thisispopbaby with Jennifer Jennings, for which he has now written three more plays, directed four others, programmed a tent at Electric Picnic, established the Queer Notions festival, held several art-club nights in the Peacock and, with this year’s Alice in Funderland, had his work produced by the Abbey Theatre.
McMahon’s protean career might be an extreme example, but it represents a shift within the independent theatre, where professional roles have become more elastic and harder to define. “I think so many people, certainly of our generation and the generation coming after us, are doing all those things,” says McMahon.
In part, it’s a response to the frustrations, limitations and sloth of the industry. McMahon’s debut play as a writer, he admits with good humour, was written largely as a performance vehicle (“I wanted to be a star”), but in straitened times it pays to have a flexible production model.
Following cuts to the Arts Council, the number of theatre companies has shrunk, while new works programmed by major theatres have grown more sporadic. These days, if you want to put on a show, nobody else is going to do it for you.
“It’s hard to find anyone who defines themselves solely as a playwright,” says Gary Duggan, whose new play Shibari marks his debut production at the Abbey Theatre during this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. This is an interesting observation during a year when the festival features several productions of new Irish plays.
“In Ireland, in particular, you have to realise there’s going to be a massive amount of juggling between writing for the stage, television and film to make a living. You’re constantly shifting your roles,” he says.
Duggan speaks from experience. His first play, Monged, was produced by Fishamble: The New Play Company in 2005, later winning the Stewart Parker Trust Award, a time that Duggan now views as the end of an era.
“It was the very end of a period during which writers like Mark O’Rowe, Enda Walsh and Conor McPherson had emerged, the last established playwrights who went on to have international careers,” he recalls, “and before the DIY years of theatre-making had begun, where companies like Theatreclub and The Company work collaboratively, switching up the roles of producer, writer and maker. I’m somewhere between the two.”
Duggan’s next three plays were all self-produced through start-up companies. Although it was rewarding, he considered it a last resort. “I never wanted to be a producer,” admits Duggan. “It was a case of necessity. Any writer emerging since 2008 has had to be a lot more pragmatic and inventive if they want to get their work on the stage.”
There are plenty of benefits to taking such a hands-on approach. As an actor, Phillip McMahon recalls, he couldn’t get arrested, but that all changed with Thisispopbaby.
“It was infuriating at the time. I’d spent eight years as an actor in Dublin and people who maybe never engaged with you are suddenly looking at you differently. But it also felt great, for maybe the first time in your adult life, to have control over your career. That’s a really addictive feeling, you know,” he says.
The gusto of fledgling companies with initially ad hoc divisions of labour is nothing new: Druid and Rough Magic were formed by university colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s respectively.
Their founding members were as likely to write, direct or perform. Conor McPherson began by writing, directing and acting for his Fly By Night Theatre Company in the early 1990s.
With regular funding for emerging companies no longer a realistic ambition, though, and international playwriting careers of the scale of Brian Friel’s or Marina Carr’s more unlikely, being an all-rounder is becoming the only game in town. Some see this, on one extreme, as a time for auteurs; some worry about a new era of the amateur.
Is it a new dawn for creative control and more ambitious productions, or a slide away from the defined roles of a “professionalised” sector and stable career plans? It is certainly changing the way theatre is made.
Being accustomed to working across all areas of production can make it difficult to then take a back seat, McMahon admits, something that was not without its tensions when Alice in Funderland reached the Abbey.
“We’re so used to being involved with everything from the design to handing out flyers that we insisted on being at every meeting. The creative conversations we had with each other were great, though, because I think both sides got something out of it,” he says.
Working on Shibari for the Abbey has been a different experience for Duggan. Commissioned in 2008, and slated for production in 2010, it is an episodic and edgy view of multi-cultural Dublin, which he doesn’t think could have been realised with the resources of an independent company.
Having previously written and staged plays within a matter of months, he recognises both the benefits and drawbacks of institutions that move slowly. “I’ve been paid appropriately. I’ve gotten feedback [from the Abbey’s Literary Department] where I needed it and each draft was given a workshop reading. The pressure of that process has been to deliver something that is good and justified. I’ve been able to let it develop without having to rush anything.”
Through those years, though, the play’s timeliness has been a concern. “I did wonder, Am I still going to be excited by the play?” The rigour of its development has given him a positive answer. “It has a lot to say,” Duggan says. “It still feels very contemporary.”
Mainstream method brings other pressures, Deirdre Kinahan points out. “I don’t think playwrights arrive fully formed, any more than anybody else does,” says the writer and founder of Tall Tales Theatre Company, which is staging her new play Halcyon Days during the Dublin Theatre Festival. “I think there is this notion that when a new play is produced in the mainstream it must be fully formed. That puts a massive pressure on it. That’s because there is no momentum or fire under new writing. It’s staged so sporadically.”
At an event marking the first year of The Lir Academy’s playwriting degree, held during the Absolut Fringe, Kinahan suggested the institution of a new writing theatre as one possible measure against fitful development. “I think we need a more consistent momentum behind producing new plays,” Kinahan told me later, describing her own career as the result of consistent development through regular productions.
She enthused about the new TheatreUpstairs venue, the work of Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Fishamble’s recent Tiny Plays for Ireland project and its Show in a Bag programme, along with a myriad writing courses.
“These efforts can only be sustained for a certain period. You need to get into the mainstream, not to make money, but to reach a wider audience,” she says.
Although Amy Conroy could empathise, she was also able to reconcile the multi-tasking of the new independent sector with the potential for mainstream acceptance. Her first play, I Heart Alice Heart I, which she wrote, performed in and directed, went from Fringe awards to a DTF revival, then transferred to the Peacock and toured internationally.
Conroy, who spent the first decade of her career as a freelance performer, established her company HotForTheatre in 2010 to escape the restrictions and typecasting of the industry. “I wanted to do more work and things that really challenged me,” she says. Her follow up, last year’s Eternal Rising of the Sun, is also being revived for the festival as part of its ReViewed programme.
“What are you now?” a senior industry figure recently asked her. “An actor? A writer?” “I’m an actor and I write,” Conroy replied with admirable patience.
Each of these people may resist an uncomplicated job description, but everyone feels that their various experiences as theatre makers make for better work.
Despite the “safety net” of an Abbey production, Duggan was undaunted by returning to self-produced projects: “It seems like the logical thing to do next, rather than wait for another commission. It’s something I can control.”
After some tweaking to the original script of Pineapple, McMahon was content to leave it to Calipo’s forthcoming revival in ReViewed. “The investment is still as clear,” he said, “but you just don’t feel as vulnerable. You get to see other people turn it into their own thing.”
Conroy describes the creative friction and blurring of boundaries in times of adversity best. She thinks that the economic context for making work is bleak, yet it is also enabling. “When things are bad, you make better art,” she says. “I hate to admit it, but it’s true. There’s a compression right now. But once there’s a compression, things can get explosive.”
Dublin Theatre Festival: Three to see
The Talk of The Town
Several things are striking about the biographical drama of Maeve Brennan written by Emma Donoghue for Landmark Productions, Hatch Theatre and the festival’s co-production. Chief among them is how fascinating Brennan’s life was, born to a fugitive republican father, coming of age in America, writing short stories of Dublin life for the New Yorker, and ending her bright life forgotten and debilitated. The second is how long it took for her story to be revived. And the third, to have seen director Annabelle Comyn’s work in progress last year or current publicity images, is how the exquisite Catherine Walker may have been born to play her.
The Wooster Group, which has spent almost 40 years at the vanguard of alternative theatre, has never performed before in Dublin. (It came closest when Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe performed in director Elizabeth LeCompte’s wryly provocative Emperor Jones in Belfast in 1998, which borrowed as much from Japanese Noh theatre and blackface minstrels as Godzilla movies.)
Here, while its Irish scion Pan Pan explores King Lear, the ensemble is turning its attention to the 1964 film of Richard Burton’s Broadway production, chasing the ghosts of its performance just as Hamlet pursues his own.
The Boys of Foley Street
Following the mesmerising form and amassed detail of the first two instalments of director Louise Lowe’s The Monto Cycle, a staggeringly ambitious project to document a century of life in the inner city, Anu Productions reveals its third production. Inspired by a 1975 radio documentary made by Pat Kenny, the new piece uses intimate encounters, installations and reality-augmenting technology to chronicle a tumultuous decade of recession, aggression and crime for an immersive journey through a living history.