Actor, stager, theatremaker
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?
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.