'If you can't be honest, nothing will change'
Aaron Monaghan has established himself as one our busiest actors, and with good reason - so why does he think Irish theatre is in crisis?
Aaron Monaghan seems determined to get himself into trouble. He has a genial and calm disposition, but he also has some controversial opinions about contemporary Irish theatre and he isn’t afraid to share them.
Monaghan is currently touring the country in Ride On! with Livin’ Dred, the Cavan-based touring company, after almost six months on the road with the DruidMurphy project, and his current role will run concurrently with rehearsals for his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which opens at the Ark on Saturday.
So it is with the caveat of someone who “has been very lucky to have consistent work” that Monaghan vents his anger about the working conditions of actors, the trends dominating new work in Ireland, and the “snobbishness” that attends “commercial theatre, amateur theatre, popular theatre, which is thriving . . . it’s the professional theatre that seems to be having a crisis”.
When Monaghan moved from Cavan to Dublin to train at the Samuel Beckett Centre at Trinity College, he “hadn’t had much exposure to theatre at all”. The key moment of meaning during his studies came not in the classroom, but when he went to see Tom Murphy’s play A Whistle in the Dark at the Abbey Theatre in 2001.
“We had this theatre history class and we were learning about things like pathos and catharsis, but it wasn’t really until I felt it in the theatre that I understood those words,” he recalls. “I remember thinking when I walked out of Whistle that I was a completely different person than I was when I walked in. Coming from a working-class background, I had thought that theatre was for educated people or middle-class people, and in some ways that was what the play was about.
“I remember thinking, this play is about me and my family. Even though my family wasn’t the Carney family at all, the characters were saying things in a way people in my family would express themselves.”
Performing the play with Druid earlier this year, then, was hugely significant for the actor, who has worked consistently since graduating in 2002. Much of his best work has been with Druid, under the direction of Garry Hynes (Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World, Billy in The Cripple of Inishmaan, Harry Heegan in The Silver Tassie, and three key roles in the recent Murphy cycle) and Monaghan clearly enjoys the experience of working with the informal ensemble that Hynes has gathered together over the years.
“What you are always hoping for as an actor is a conversation,” Monaghan says, “and a good director like Garry enables that. I love the first day of rehearsal when you have an idea of what the play is going to be and then you start talking and it all changes, so that by the first day of preview you realise you have something different but you are still part of it. It’s very boring if that contrast between your expectations and what you end up with doesn’t happen.”
Methods for actors
This is not always the way that theatre is made in Ireland, Monaghan explains, which makes him value this dialogic way of working even more. “In certain companies, all the decisions have been made before you get into the room, and not just in terms of design. Sometimes the director has already decided what the story is, how it’s going to be told, and that can be difficult, because you are not really expected to, not allowed, to have your own vision of the play. When you are working in that way it can be easy to feel that the actor is the lowest rung on the ladder.”
This is not the only challenge an actor faces, Monaghan continues, on a roll now. “I can’t complain personally,” he says clearly, “because I have been so lucky with work. But there are so many actors out there struggling to make a living. And even though I am working a lot, I am still pretty poor most of the time, so I can only imagine what it must be like for other people.
“It is frustrating when you are working in a theatre and you see so much money being spent on the upkeep of a building. And in the grand scheme of things, you look around sometimes and wonder would it be better to be an administrator, where you have a contracted job, a pension. As an actor, you can feel that you don’t have control over your life in terms of security, and it can be difficult to make plans, having a family and stuff.”
Monaghan has tried in his own way to champion actors in the work he does with Livin’ Dred, which he set up with director Padraic McIntyre and Mary Hanley in 2004. Although he has “a shifting role in the company”, depending on his performing commitments, the company’s modus operandi is to put “the artist and the audience at the centre of what we do. With Livin’ Dred we make sure as much goes on the show itself and paying the actors decently.”
The eco-system of Irish theatre
Monaghan also speaks defensively about Livin’ Dred’s place in the broader eco-system of Irish theatre.
“Basically, our aim is that as many people come to the show as possible. When we first started the company, I wanted to do experimental work, but I am relieved that I wasn’t listened to. Our first challenge was to build an audience, and it was one that might not necessarily come to the theatre, so we had to give them plays they could identify with: a Billy Roche play or a Martin McDonagh, a world that they would be familiar with.
“Then, when you have won them over, you can give them something experimental and they’ll go with it as long as you have given them something they can hang on to. It’s a back and forth, to and fro type of thing. And the thing is, if you win them over with something familiar, hopefully they’ll go and see something else. If you get people in, it trickles down.”
The current production, Monaghan says by way of example, is a crowd-pleasing play by Seamus O’Rourke, who developed his craft on the amateur dramatic scene.
“Amateur theatre is thriving, commercial theatre is doing well, it’s just the subsidised stuff isn’t doing well,” Monaghan says. “And you can’t be snobbish about it. There is an audience for this type of local work and they need to be heard, too.”
A lot of contemporary theatre, he continues, “is being made for a very particular, young, hip audience; shows about the theatre itself. But I am tired of going to see shows where everyone is playing a version of themselves and there are only 40 people in the audience. We have to do better than that. “If more people won’t come we have to ask, why not? What are we doing wrong? And why do that stuff if no one wants to see it? With Livin’ Dred, we get a very small amount of money to do what we do, but it is taxpayers’ money, so 40 people just isn’t good enough.”
Monaghan knows he will probably “get into trouble” for being so outspoken, but composed and pleasant as he is, he doesn’t care. “Sometimes it can be hard to have a real open dialogue about these things, because people are just being too polite, but if you can’t be honest, nothing will change.”
Ride On! is on national tour until December 15th. nomadtheatrenetwork.ie. A Christmas Carol opens at the Ark on December 1st