The revolution will not be theatricalised
Ireland's young theatremakers need to ask themselves one question: what are you rebelling against?
In the bustling first days of The Theatre Machine Turns You On: Volume 3, a two-week mini-festival curated by Theatreclub, its savvy young organisers seemed too busy to rethink their revolution.
Presenting four shows a day in the small space of the Project Arts Centre is a logistical challenge. Theatreclub’s directors, Grace Dyas and Shane Byrne, were in constant motion, offering clasps of reassurance to participants, dealing with enquiries so frequently that carpal tunnel syndrome seemed one email away. But this activity all seemed familiar.
So, too, did much of the work at the festival, which tends towards sparse and playful documentary theatre where real people investigate various subjects – often themselves – while incorporating numerous cliched tropes of postdramatic performance: an office desk; an overhead projector; a microphone downstage left, or sometimes right.
“Revolution is a change of mind,” runs the tagline to this year’s festival of new and emerging artists, but in the few months since Theatreclub began receiving applications for the festival, the identity crisis they hoped to address seemed to have spread from society to its art form. Following a series of surprisingly heated online exchanges among theatre practitioners in December, the worth of experimental theatre itself was in dispute, dismissed (or defended) as, “theatre about theatre” and “shows where everyone is playing a version of themselves”. The counter-revolution was on their minds.
“I do see where they come from,” Dyas says of alternative theatre’s detractors. “I just don’t know if their criticisms are useful.” The Theatre Machine’s revolution, she thinks, is a gentle one. “Maybe it doesn’t need to be bloodshed in the streets; maybe it’s a revolution in thought, something so small you don’t even notice it until later. We wanted to give people the space to ask questions.”
To judge from the work featured in the first week, those questions concern the politics of identity, language and contemporary feminism, but it is unclear what those questions were.
Dizzy with videos, computers and slideshows, Neil Douglas’s We Didn’t Care When, an autobiographical report of his response to his mother’s cancer, seems more engaged with its methods than message, leading gradually from flippancy to guilt but never seeming less than self-absorbed.
Gerard Kelly, a sympathetic performer with the body of a heavyweight, does something more intriguing within a mock-heroic report of childhood, infused with boxer and superhero fantasies.
Though it errs on the side of comedy, it contains teasing games involving the manufacture of masculinity and identity (“Thinking back, I was finding a persona,” Kelly says of his teenage years, and the show suggests an actor’s search continues). Yet it is loath to reach further: “I don’t want to leave you with any big message.” He isn’t alone.
There is much to admire in the writing of Oisín McKenna’s Writer/Performer/Salesman, a piece about finding the room for creativity within workaday retail jobs, which McKenna describes, aptly, as “more of a long-form poem than theatre” (and which director Oonagh Murphy tries to coax further towards the stage).
It is also articulate about its own political hesitancy. “Try never to speak with too much authority about anything floating outside of the boundaries of your own experience,” goes one line. “Don’t try to speak for whole classes or groups whose experience you don’t have rightful access to. Talk about boys, drugs and working in retail, going to nightclubs and going home early.” That resounds like a self-critique, but McKenna is genuinely wary.