All ready to act together

 

Recent developments have helped actors realise that to defend their craftthey need to take action off-stage, writes Belinda McKeon

The participants at a series of public and round-table discussions on the state of Irish theatre certainly needed a laugh. Gathered at the City Arts Centre last December as part of that (currently closed) venue's review process, and with Barabbas frontman Raymond Keane on the Engaging Theatre panel, laughs seemed guaranteed.

Sympathising with the anger and frustration of actors seeking solutions to the financial, spatial and artistic limitations on their creative energy, he quipped: "how about a 'Keep Fit with Raymond'?"

Except, as anyone who has ever witnessed the manic athleticism of a Barabbas production would know, Keane wasn't quipping.

With a background in mime, clowning and a variety of Eastern disciplines, he rates physical intelligence and agility in an actor as highly as the ability to read a script. Which is just as well, because City Arts Centre director Declan McGonagle wasted no time in offering the space and resources to make the passing suggestion a reality. Within two months, the Performance Training Inquiry - a free daily workshop for out-of-work actors - was underway, and Keane was spending his mornings puffing and panting in a small studio at the Moss Street venue with 30 young film and theatre performers.

After four strenuous weeks, Keane's charges are much changed. No longer an uncertain bunch of strangers, they have become a community unto themselves, confident and articulate. Assessing the workshop with McGonagle, they are keen to put forward more ideas; they should write to the Government and the actors' union, Equity, seeking greater support; they should join that union, and make changes from within. Most of all, they should remain together as a group and organise more training for themselves with a variety of teachers and in a variety of styles, along the lines of theatre ensembles which thrive in other European countries, but which are difficult to sustain here.

McGonagle's offer of the space of the City Arts Centre for the preliminary meetings of any such ensemble is welcomed with excitement. There is a sense, says Keane afterwards, of a "new energy", of possibility. This is an empowered group of actors.

And yet it was the lack of such empowerment which had been among the issues most forcefully spoken of at Engaging Theatre. There, one of this country's foremost performers, Olwen Fouéré, painted a depressing picture of the state of her art:a fragmented, frustrated non-community, discriminated against on many fronts. Not only by the Government which, in both its funding structures and its welfare system, discouraged the long-term ensemble work in which actors can flourish as artists in favour of a culture of freelance practitioners taking one job and one company at a time, but also from within the art itself which honoured only writers and directors as the visionaries, listened to only their opinions and included only them in the process of making decisions on productions and policy.

Earlier last year, deep frustration at this situation had prompted Fouéré and other prominent members of the performance community - Cathy Belton, Jane Brennan, Monica Frawley, Anne Layde, Pat Kinevane, Simon O'Gorman, Robert O'Mahoney and Amelia Stein - to establish a body to articulate what they saw as a crisis for Irish theatre practitioners, and to lobby for change.

Formed in May, ATA (Associated Theatre Artists) has had three public meetings to date at the Project Arts Centre. High on its agenda, Fouéré explains, is the lack of opportunity in Ireland for performers to claim artistic responsibility for what they do. "You no longer consider yourself an artist, you just consider yourself another part of the workforce, and therefore you don't make strong artistic statements. You stop thinking that way, and it affects the work."

For practitioners like Fouéré, passionate about the development of theatre as an art form, there is an important difference between the work and the workforce.

One director who appreciates this difference is Jason Byrne, of Ireland's foremost ensemble theatre group, Loose Canon. He talks of his modus operandi as "getting people into a room and working for a very long time" to achieve "an authentic reaction onstage". Yet during the 10 months of daily physical and vocal training rehearsing for their last production, The Duchess of Malfi, not one of the ensemble's core actors appeared on any payroll or had any job. Their job, as they saw it, was to develop their art.

It's a philosophy with which Fouéré is in wholehearted agreement. "The only way the form, by which I mean the actual experience of theatre as a highly charged event, can develop is if the performers have continuity. It's like a canvas that needs to be kept very taut. And I think here, it has become very sloppy."

"I think that the most talented actors are the ones who don't work sometimes," suggests Raymond Keane. And indeed, at his post-workshop discussion, there were calls for performers to be brave enough to sometimes resist the urge to work.

Is this a case of systemised slacking? The Government certainly seems to believe so. A recent presentation by Equity to a committee from the Department of Social and Family Affairs focused on the frequent spells of unemployment faced by actors, and their ongoing struggle to convince welfare officers that auditions are the equivalent of job interviews and workshops the equivalent of industrial training. This may have "shocked and stunned" some committee members but it seems to have had little impact on the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Coughlan TD, who stated in the Dáil that actors between roles were obliged to seek work in other areas or face the loss of their unemployment benefit. Gone are the days of the 1980s when Keane and his contemporaries were setting up independent companies and working to devise and develop ideas for months at a time, with the dole serving as an unofficial funding mechanism.

Coughlan's point, that to treat one group of unemployment benefit claimants differently would be inequitable, seems a fair one. But the Government has failed to match tighter conditions in the welfare system with a more open outlook in the funding system to encourage the developmental work of theatre ensembles.

What has developed is a scene dominated by jobbing actors - actors working for themselves, moving from company to company with long, jobless intervals in between, constantly watching for the next part.

For most actors, the prospect of closing themselves away with a group and devoting months, even years, to the slow and complex development of a piece of theatre, is too daunting a prospect to contemplate. Such work can only be undertaken in absence from the constancy and assurances of what Fouéré calls "the workforce".

One aspect of the spirit of the 1980s, however, may be set for a revival. Vincent McCabe was a co-founder of the actors' centre which existed on Dublin's Ormond Quay from 1983 to the early 1990s, providing the performance community with information, advice and space for development as well as for production. He was among those running this weekend for the position of Equity president in the union elections, and his clear aim was "resuscitating the essence of what the actors centre was".

Given that the previous actors' centre stood as a definite equivalent to Equity, getting 500 members in its first year, many in the acting community will be surprised to learn that McCabe's plans revolve around the building in which the union is based - Liberty Hall. Some feel that Equity, which celebrated its 50th birthday last year, is woefully out of touch with its members and with the times, with an old-school ethos and a dated communications system which has only recently updated to cyberstatus.

The same practitioners understand, however, that under-staffing and under-resourcing have left Equity facing alack of continuity and a difficulty in generating a consistent energy not dissimilar to that experienced by the performing community itself. And some positive moves have been made: as well as the recent presentation to the Oireachtas, which at least raised awareness of actors' social welfare problems, the current president Kathleen Barrington has negotiated, in the last year, two raises in the minimum rates of pay for the union's 1,600 members, from €320 to €381 per week. The Actors' Club, a fortnightly social event run by Equity at Liberty Hall for performers and their guests, is an attempt to infuse the fragmented scene with some sense of community. And despite their overall disillusionment with Equity, many actors, including members of ATA, appreciate that it is only as strong as its membership, and have attempted to initiate change from within rather than simply criticising from afar.

That the participants in the Performance Training Workshop have managed, from their four weeks, to whip up a proactive spirit with which to tackle the problems dogging their profession rather than simply to bemoan them is due in a large part to Keane's holistic approach. This concentrated on pooled energy rather than isolated efforts, co-ordination rather than conflict, and, when the small space of the studio became a crowded morass of running actors, peripheral vision rather than useless panic. What they are realising is what Fouéré, Byrne, and Keane all stress: that their craft would seem to require that an actor act and take action, not just on the stage, but far beyond it.

"Talk of just being a puppet is dangerous - that's where you become a victim," says one workshop participant. "You have to be able to have your voice and opinion and drive forward an industry in the direction you feel is the way forward. The arts are there to challenge society."