When Mairéad and Ionia Ní Chróinín were small, their father, Dáibhí, would read them the tale of Pinocchio, which had been translated into Irish directly from Italian by Pádraig Ó Buachalla in the early 1930s. Eachtra Phinocchio was, as Carlo Collodi's original story had been, somewhat darker and deeper than the fantasy created for cinema by Walt Disney.
Later on, their father was instrumental in bringing out a new edition in Irish, with illustrations. What struck his older daughter Mairéad was the appeal the story had for teenagers. Here was a marionette with an overwhelming urge to rebel, and a character who was “far more interesting for all that”.
And so, decades later, she and one of her younger siblings fashioned a bilingual version for stage, which has won critical acclaim, received a Stewart Parker award for Irish- language drama, and which enjoys its final outing this week, at the Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway.
"Well, we think it's final, but you never know." Mairéad and Ionia, co-directors of Moonfish Theatre, laugh.
They have good reason to feel cheerful. Just hours before this interview, they were informed that An Taibhdhearc theatre would stage their new production, based on Joseph O'Connor's novel, Star of the Sea, at next year's Galways Arts Festival.
As with Tromluí Phinocchio (Pinocchio: A Nightmare), their approach to this new project involves a number of developmental stages. And so, during the final weekend of this month's Galway Theatre Festival, they invited a small audience to an upstairs Taibhdhearc studio to view their "work in progress" on interpreting aspects of O'Connor's text. Sample scenes were rehearsed – such as The Monster, The Victim, Captain's Log – and the single-sheet programme came with a series of questions formulated by the ensemble.
“We really do like to work with an audience early on. There’s a model for theatre, but it was one that we didn’t feel very fulfilled by,” they say, acknowledging that their method can be a painstaking way of working.
The pair set up their company after an impromptu production at the Project 06 alternative arts festival in Galway seven years ago, when Ionia, a puppeteer and musician, had returned from studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now known as the Royal Conservatoire) in Glasgow. Mairéad, who studied politics at the University of Glasgow, was also back west with experience in stage management gained in Dublin.
Ionia, who is also involved with the Branar theatre company in Galway, spent a period with Danish practitioners who would take more than a year to develop a show.
"It was a series of blocks, if you like, where walking away for a time in between each segment was just as important . . . a bit like leaving an instrument down after labouring over a tune, and picking it up again days later to find you can play it so much better," she says.
"It's not a way of working that suits some actors, but it was one that we developed quite consciously with The Secret Garden in 2009."
That adaptation of the classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett was first staged at the Galway Theatre Festival in 2009, and the entire ensemble was involved in production, direction, costume choice, set design, construction, music and lighting.
“It’s very loose, no one is telling anyone what to do, everyone is encouraged to make suggestions, and so it can feel quite unsafe. Even with our morning warm-up, everyone takes turns, and we don’t hold auditions. Discarding ideas is as important as creating them, as those ideas that are strong enough tend to return.”
The Ní Chróiníns grew up in a creative and bilingual household. Their father, Daibhí, is professor of medieval history at NUI Galway and their mother, Maura, is the main mover behind the Galway Early Music Festival.
Music and language
Their approach in Moonfish extends to music – everyone seems to be able to sing or play an instrument or both – and the Irish language, which they prefer to see as limitless, rather than limiting, in terms of communication. Foras na Gaeilge, their main funder, clearly has no problem with that.
"We were involved in a co-production of Ibsen's Enemy of the People (Namhaid don Phobal) in the Taibhdhearc in 2009, where we used surtitles for those with little or no Irish," they recall. "We got a mixed response to that, because there is a view that one should not be doing this. But there are so many people with such goodwill to the language, who are so stressed about their perceived inability to use it, that we wanted to reach out to them."
Motion, image and expression are employed to transcend linguistic boundaries, and in Tromluí Phinocchio, the puppet's insistence on speaking English is integral to his teenage revolt.
Branar and other Galway Gaeltacht-based companies such as Fibín also use that kind of physical imagery successfully, relying on the intuitive sense that younger audiences have about a storyline in any language.
Baboró artistic director Lali Morris says current issues for young people, such as bullying and taking responsibility for choices and actions as they affect other people, are themes skilfully addressed by Moonfish in Tromluí Phinocchio.
"This is a group that is not just doing children's theatre for a while, but really wants to challenge their audiences of any age," she says. "What is striking about their work is their extraordinary energy, range of talents and, ultimately, their respect for the intellect of the child."
Highlights: Baboró children's festival
Baboró is the Galway-based international arts festival for children. Along with Moonfish's production of Tromluí Phinocchio, highlights of the festival include Collapsing Horse Theatre Company's Human Child, inspired by WB Yeats's poem The Stolen Child, and an Abbey Theatre production of Me, Mollser , the story of a young Dubliner (played by Mary-Louise McCarthy) who is struck by consumption during the 1913 Lockout.
Other shows include two by La Baracca – Testoni Ragazzi, the Italian children's theatre group from Bologna, and one by the Dutch puppet company Theatre Lejo, while American singer Tom Chapin, a periodic Baboró visitor, returns.
Also returning is the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company of Scotland’s Lifeboat, which first came to Galway in 2003.
A number of free events running during the week including creative activities
in the Exploratorium – a temporary activity centre that will focus on arts, technology and science.
The festival is introducing a “relaxed programme” for parents or teachers who may have concerns about bringing children with specific needs to public venues.
Pictiúr, the work of 21 leading children's book illustrators, will also be exhibited at the Galway Arts Centre, while author and illustrator Oisín McGann visits on Saturday.
Baboró runs until Sunday. baboro.ie