A Rough guide to directing
'Seeds 2' has nurtured the skills of three young directors. Now Irish theatres must give them their next challenge, writes Peter Crawley
The young director Tom Creed recently found himself introduced to somebody as "a Seedling". He didn't seem to mind. Like most aspects of Seeds 2, Rough Magic Theatre Company's development programme for emerging playwrights and directors, the title of its most recent graduates had already been thoroughly debated.
Rough Magic co-founder Declan Hughes suggested they might now be known as The Undergrowth. "Or some small shrubbery," proposes Creed. It's an odd tag to follow 18 months of professional mentoring, script readings, workshops, international research trips and the culminating project of a full production staged at this year's Dublin Fringe Festival. But if Seedlings, Shrubberies and even Undergrowths suggest there may be opportunity for further development, this programme, unique in Irish theatre, has conferred apt qualifications.
"In our profession you never feel you are finished," says László Marton, the world-renowned Hungarian director and principal mentor for the three directors of Seeds 2. "Because the most beautiful thing about our profession is the possibility to continue learning."
Sitting at a high window in his Dublin hotel, Marton speaks of directing with a European zeal. "The role of the director in this country, in a certain sense, is really not as important or as recognised, for instance, as the role of your wonderful writers," he offers. "And I think this programme is a kind of symbol of moving the whole theatre culture in this country into a new stage. That was the beautiful realisation by Lynne Parker and Rough Magic to rethink the role of the director in the Irish culture."
It's both a generalisation and a cliche, of course, to consider Ireland's a playwright's theatre and Europe's a director's theatre. But there's much truth in the distinction. Following the first Seeds programme, which yielded six plays from six playwrights (most of which were produced by professional companies), Rough Magic broadened the initiative to include new directors, a much-needed development in a country where, outside of a few university theatre department modules, there is no structured director training.
It also raised a new question. Where writers can be individually mentored by submitting drafts and receiving feedback, how do you make a director? "I think the idea from Rough Magic's point of view was just to expose us to as many things as possible," reflects Tom Creed. "Directing is dependent on other people. The task is more communal."
Two years ago, when Marton and Lynne Parker wondered how the director training might take shape, Marton remarked rather gnomically, "they will become a movement".
But in their accrued experiences the three directors - Matt Torney, Darragh McKeon and Creed - did become something of a movement, and an international one at that. Their first trip, two weeks after being selected through application and interview, was a visit to Stockholm where they watched Suzanne Osten's four-hour children's theatre production, The Most Important, a piece Matt Torney calls "one of the most incredible things I've ever seen".
"For me," Torney says, "European theatre is one which is very well designed, deeply self-aware about its theatricality, and involves productions of classics and new plays which are intensely thought-out and will say something about their own country to the world."
A journey to Berlin to see Falk Richter's work with the Schaubühne also proved eye-opening. "They have just decided to make contemporary theatre for the Berlin of the present," says Creed. "And they succeed by being astonishingly cool. People just want to go there."
But their most significant time abroad was spent with Marton, observing his rehearsals as director of the Vígszínhás theatre, as well as attending 36 productions ("in Hungarian," Darragh McKeon reminds me) in the course of just four weeks. In Budapest, they report, there are 40 theatres and all of them are full. Tickets can be as cheap as €2. Rehearsals take place on the theatre's stage with full sets. Even the audience applause, as Torney describes it, is a phenomenon unfamiliar to Irish theatre, starting with a chatter of claps, then merging into an ongoing rhythmic beat, an appreciative, enduring reward. "The Hungarian attitude to theatre was the most exciting thing I've ever been exposed to," Torney says.
Hungary has also left each director with something that can only be described as ensemble envy.
McKeon may outline arguments between the three directors raging on trams and in bars through Budapest ("we have very different ideas about the theatre, but when you argue about it, it becomes quite developmental"), but all three agree on the potency of the young Hungarian company, Krétakör, whose name translates as "chalk circle".
Arpa Schilling, director of Krétakör, has maintained an ensemble of actors, technicians and dramaturgs for the past seven years which allows them to perform productions of both classic texts and new works in a repertory system. A Krétakör actor may play King Lear one night and "man on the balcony" in a new play the next. "The value and commitment that the actors give to it, you simply couldn't get otherwise," says McKeon.
The ensemble method is something of an impossible dream in the harsh economic reality of Irish theatre: every new company wants to have one, but none can afford to keep one. Creed, however doesn't think the idea is that fanciful.
"When we realised what they were able to do with the ensemble structures, we were kind of jealous and blown away.And I don't think it's unachievable in this country. I think it would require a lot of thinking and serious balls on the part of the Arts Council to come up with something, but it might conceivably be operable on a smaller scale, with the right-sized auditorium and programme of work. It's not about temporary communities that get together for two months. It means that each production is able to build on the previous one."
As Marton explains, directors should similarly be engaged with ideas of succession. "Our responsibility, always, is to pave the way for new directors," he says.
With Creed's sparing production of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis ("a lesson in restraint" he calls it), the magic-lantern aesthetic of McKeon's production of the Hungarian classic Liliom (which gave him "a lot of scope for imagination and simple effects to really delight people") and Torney's politically-charged cabaret version of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck ("I knew it was going to be about the history of violence"), the programme concluded with modest-scale productions, showcasing their director's abilities and sensibilities. Now comes the next question.
"And this is the hard one," says Marton. "How the theatre community here is going to use the opportunity to have three young talented people. The whole idea of the Seeds programme is to spot talented people, to give them the opportunity to broaden their minds and theatrical knowledge, to bring them to a certain level." Now, he says, it falls to "the people who run the theatres of this country to give them the next challenge and the next challenge again".
Early on during Seeds 2, I put it to Lynne Parker that the 21-year-old independent company had become a powerhouse of new writing and for fostering theatrical talent. "It's pretty depressing if we are," she replied, "because we have so few resources."
When asked why they thought Rough Magic had taken it upon themselves to mount such an initiative, each director had a slightly different interpretation. "What Rough Magic are trying to do is address this lack of a voice for young directors," says Torney. "It was very magnanimous, they're just trying to nurture the theatre culture of Ireland and keep it healthy." "I think they noticed a gap in the market," says McKeon. "They did mention in the interview that there was literally no directing training and no impetus to bring on directors at all and I think they decided that they were in a position to possibly do something about it. And they did it."
"There's two things at work," says Creed. "There's a desire to educate and train this new generation, but also to actually bring these people into the marketplace, to offer them exposure. "And," Creed smiles, "there is something pointed, whether they admit it or not, in the fact that nobody else is doing it."
Each director will admit that they have changed as a result of Seeds 2, from observing European practices and assisting on one of Parker's productions, but the design of the process has not imposed a directorial voice on them. In Marton's phrase, the good mentor helps people "to find their own identity, to find their own ego, to inspire them to be themselves".
Marton also has a dream. He imagines a theatre in Dublin where directors could pursue further training and present their work as professionals. He already has a name for it: Incubator Theatre, where the Irish theatre community will allow its seedlings to peak out from the shrubberies, to rise up from the undergrowth.