Learning the hard way
A few years ago Amy Conroy was in a rut. Now she has set up the HotForTheatre company, written three plays – including Break, at Dublin Fringe Festival – and toured the world. Could we all benefit from some creative thinking?
From staffroom to stage: Break was inspired by Amy Conroy’s time teaching drama in underprivileged schools
It is a week before their opening, and the cast and crew of Break are busy making something out of nothing. The play is set largely in a school staffroom, a place that is easily evoked with the merest suggestion: a scattering of chairs, some unfussily mimed actions and a surprisingly detailed sound design. If you had to pick out the writer in the rehearsal room, you would not immediately settle on Amy Conroy, dressed in a pencil skirt and playing a harried German teacher, Jan.
When actors stop to consider the intention behind a line, or to recall the order of an exchange, they turn to their director, Veronica Coburn, or discuss it vigorously as a group. The hierarchy here is nowhere as rigid as in a staffroom, but it still seems remarkable that the person who has created these lines, these roles and even the company producing the play is just one of the gang.
“I know the motivation for every character and every line,” Conroy says later. “So you have to be very careful not to impose that and let people find their own way through it. Then you see how remarkable actors are.” It was revealing to see them arguing on their characters’ behalf. “That’s a real pleasure,” Conroy says. “You take a real sense of pride from what actors do and what they are capable of being.”
That has been Conroy’s story and one that is conspicuous in her new play, the third she has written for HotForTheatre since she founded it, in 2010. Having worked as a performer for 10 years previously, Conroy had come to feel restricted, neither working often enough for her liking nor being considered for enough work. Writing was a challenge but not a daunting one: Conroy was an avid reader, a frequent deviser, had written for radio and, pivotally, had been one of the earliest participants on the Next Stage at Dublin Theatre Festival, an intensive-development programme which that year focused on documentary theatre.
Conroy was enthused by the programme but sceptical about the form. Nevertheless, she used documentary methods to tell the story of two women in their 60s, caught kissing by a documentary theatre maker. Their hesitant exposure became a gentle phenomenon. The play was I Heart Alice Heart I, a two-hander performed by Conroy and Clare Barrett that Conroy directed. A hit on the fringe, it was revived for the following year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, then toured the nation. Dates in Scotland, Iceland, New York and Australia followed; a new production in Poland is expected later this year.