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.
A superficial view is that Conroy began writing to supply herself with better acting opportunities – and, indeed, she was excellent as Gina Divine, a beaten-down Dublin woman who found new purpose in dance in HotForTheatre’s 2011 fringe follow-up, Eternal Rising of the Sun (also revived for Dublin Theatre Festival).
It’s closer to the truth, though, to say that Conroy was reluctant to let go of her creations. “I wanted to do it myself,” she said of I Heart Alice last year. “I really wanted to control it. If that script had gone somewhere else it would have been a very different piece.”
Writing had been a more significant solution, a discovery of agency and inspiration. “You have to make yourself realise that the only difference between you and them is the doing of it. It may sound basic, but it actually requires making quite a big switch in your head. At some stage you have to just jump.”
The threat of inertia and the potential for radical change are the substance of Break, where the death of a student, and the ensuing crisis, may provide an opportunity for creative thinking or a slump back into institutional malaise. “I wanted to make it for quite some time,” Conroy says of the play, her first ensemble piece, for which she took inspiration from her time teaching drama in underprivileged Dublin schools. “There were young people in that room with me who were only speaking in violence and depression. That was the only way in which they could communicate. That was then mirrored by the teachers themselves. I don’t mean that they were physically violent, but everything was aggressive: bark, bark, bark. So it became this cycle, and no one seemed to be able to break out of it.”
It was a system, Conroy felt, that created “absolute exhaustion or absolute bitterness. People don’t arrive that jaded. It happens over time. We’re pulling at that – this knot – within this piece. If you don’t acknowledge that knot, that big tangle, you don’t acknowledge the giant calamity that’s happening.”
There is a broader societal metaphor in that knot, she acknowledges, but she prefers to convey politics on a personal scale. “That’s the type of theatre I like to make: doing something big in a really small way. That way you don’t just understand it, you feel it. It’s about the people in the situation.”
Break is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until Saturday, then at Draíocht, Blanchardstown, on September 27th and 29th