On a piece of headed paper from the 1990s, found among a file of assorted scripts and notebooks, a tagline sets out a vision for the then newly formed Pan Pan Theatre Company. It read, “Noise and people, people and noise”. Close to 30 years later, Pan Pan’s tagline still lends itself to the creative energy of producing theatre and of the elements of what makes a live experience. The simple piece of company letterhead is a reminder of the collaborative act of theatre going, as well as of theatre-making.
Pan Pan was established in 1993 as ‘Ireland’s first fully professional ensemble of hearing and deaf actors’
The archive of the award-winning company has been deposited at University of Galway library archives. Established in 1993 by Gavin Quinn and Aedín Cosgrove, it has attracted national and international recognition as one of Ireland’s premiere theatre companies, touring throughout Ireland, Europe, the United States and from China to Australia. The Pan Pan archive is now fully catalogued and available to researchers at University of Galway library. A new digital exhibition, curated by a project team of myself, Aafke van Pelt and Eimhin Joyce will share hundreds of items from the archive with a global audience freely online.
The archive consists of annotated scripts, production notebooks, photographs, designs, programmes, posters, and a vast collection of digital show recordings, filling more than 50 boxes. The papers document the early years and development of the company led by Quinn and Cosgrove who have directed and designed the majority of its productions.
Pan Pan was established in 1993 as “Ireland’s first fully professional ensemble of hearing and deaf actors”, producing work for and with deaf practitioners and audiences and creating a new space of accessibility for Irish theatre in the mid- and late-1990s. Early flyers state that “Pan Pan’s overall objectives are to broaden the definition of theatre and performance ... and the exploration of the languages of theatre in the context of cultural relevance and the needs of different individuals. We are essentially a modern anthropological laboratory”.
This was a radical departure for Irish theatre as its founders set out to create new plays that were “written in sign language and translated into speech”. The objective was to “open new doors in language and imagination, enabling audiences to see words as they are spoken”.
In the archive is a poster for one of the first collaborations by Quinn and Cosgrove, a piece called Negative Act, performed at the Samuel Beckett Centre, Dublin in 1991. By 1993, Pan Pan was officially formed and with two new pieces produced: a lunchtime play called The Crystal Spider, and an evening piece called The Man With Two Kisses. In The Irish Times review of the production, Gerry Colgan commented: “As experimental theatre goes, this is unusual and interesting.”
New works in following years included A Bronze Twist of your Serpent Muscles (1995) written and directed by Quinn and designed by Cosgrove. Starring Charles Kelly and Patrizia Barbagallo and produced at the City Arts Centre, Dublin, it won Best Overall Production at the Dublin Theatre Festival Fringe in 1995.
The growth of Pan Pan in the early 1990s coincided with the rise of a number of new and contemporary independent Irish theatre companies, with the likes of Rough Magic in 1984, Fishamble (then known as Pigsback) in 1988, and Charabanc Theatre Company in Belfast in 1983. The Scotsman newspaper noted in 1996 that “the arrival of Pan Pan Theatre announces the most exciting new Irish theatre since Druid”, who had formed in 1975. Early themes addressed by the company’s productions include isolation and solitude, madness and the fragility of human relations. Later productions such as Cartoon (1999) highlighted the absurdity of male political bravado, which ultimately leads to cruelty, chaos, and collapse of stability and social order. Written by Andreas Staudinger, Cartoon presented the character of Mussolini Frog, “a little man who strives for world domination within the confines of his bedroom”.
In 1997, Pan Pan established an International Theatre Symposium that would, over successive years, bring a new and varied programme of international artists and theatre-makers to Dublin for workshops, dialogues and productions, creating new creative partnerships and exchanges of ideas that rippled outwards into Irish theatre far beyond the confines of the symposium.
One: Healing With Theatre (2005), a performance project and film involving 100 actors, was a mammoth undertaking which asked each performer the same question: “Why do you think you became an actor?”
The responses became the basis of a live performance at the Digital Hub, in a maze-like set constructed by Andrew Clancy, with 100 actors situated in 100 rooms and with 100 audience members. The images and text of each respondent were published as a book by the company, becoming an important historical record of Irish actors. Clancy’s set designs as well as contact sheets with thousands of photographs from the One project are in the archive.
Major international tours followed in the early 2000s with plays which asked questions of a changing and increasingly media saturated society in which crises, personal as well as global, were being drowned out in a new digital environment of internet chatter and reality television. Adaptations such as Oedipus Loves You (2006) by Simon Doyle and Gavin Quinn, and The Crumb Trail by Gina Moxley (2008) which presented a take on the death of the fairy tale in a grim digital faux reality, as well as an all-Chinese cast of The Playboy of the Western World, performed in Mandarin in Beijing and Dublin, brought Irish theatre into new territories of globalising stories grounded in universal myths and experiences.
The Pan Pan archive collects an important body of work within a form of Irish drama that is not always readily documented. Such experimental and devised theatre provides another form of cultural memory, a performance archive that goes beyond “just” the text, but to the heart of a Pan Pan production – to the visual, the emotional, the psychological, and to the people and the noise, the noise and the people.
Dr Barry Houlihan is an archivist at University of Galway