‘Always be beautiful. Always be dynamic. Always be welcoming’
A Japanese mentor helped to inspire Conor Hanratty’s online short play War Paint
Conor Hanratty says he found the limits of the Tiny Plays 600-word format “scary but liberating”.
When Conor Hanratty was a teenager, he came upon a documentary that featured clips from the work of legendary Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa, which his mother, “a teacher and cultural magpie”, had recorded late one night on television. The documentary was about Greek tragedy and, despite the esoteric subject matter, had a profound shape on Hanratty’s life.
He started studying Greek, decided to pursue a drama degree at university and, on graduation, moved to Japan for two years, determined “to find this fella who has basically changed my life”.
It took a year for Hanratty to find his way into Ninagawa’s rehearsal room, but the director would become both mentor and inspiration for Hanratty’s multifaceted career.
Despite the fact that his professional life as a freelance theatre director has been put “permanently on hold”, Hanratty has been as busy as ever over the last few months. At the end of March he published his first book, Shakespeare in the Theatre: Yukio Ninagawa, an academic study of Ninagawa’s illustrious 60-year career and the cultural fusion of his Shakespeare productions.
This week, his short play War Paint will premiere as part of Fishamble’s Tiny Plays 24/7 initiative. War Paint is not Hanratty’s first play; he wrote a short play for the second instalment of Fishamble’s initial Tiny Plays for Ireland series in 2013. At the time he “had no intention of being a playwright, but I always thought that if I had an interesting notion for a play I might give it a go”. That play, Ground Meat, was a weird and disastrous dating drama that pointed out the contradictions between online images and reality.
War Paint is also preoccupied with personal image.
“It was the early days of lockdown,” Hanratty says, “and, like everyone, I was just looking for something to do. All my work for the year had been cancelled. Fishamble were sending out prompts for Tiny Plays on Facebook and one week the prompt was something that struck a chord, so I decided to give it a go.”
War Paint tells the story of a drag queen who, like Hanratty, is “faced with the bleak fact that the clubs and theatres where he works won’t be opening for the foreseeable future, so he has to find a different way of making a living”. Hanratty’s play observes the performer in front of his mirror as he prepares for a job interview.
It is different creating something using technology. It is very social but very distant at the same time
Despite the extremely contemporary setting, the character’s predicament speaks to the past as much as the present. “He is HIV-positive,” Hanratty explains, “and is still living with the effects of the previous global pandemic, so he has an interesting attitude to it all. The idea of social responsibility, or who is taking the necessary precautions, this is the language he already speaks.”
War Paint, like all the Tiny Plays, is 600 words and Hanratty says he found the limits “scary but liberating. With a limited word count and limited time with the audience, you have to know what you want to say, and you have to say it as precisely, as clearly, as possible. Because [the play] is so short, there is no pressure to take the temperature of the nation or write your soul into it. The limits mean you must have focus.”
Hanratty took some lessons from his hero Ninagawa in how to engage the audience. “Always be beautiful. Always be dynamic. Always be exciting. Always be welcoming. That’s the most important thing. You never know whether this is the audience’s first time in the theatre so you have to be welcoming. You have to entertain.”
War Paint is one of four plays in the 10-part project that will be presented using digital technology. Directed by Jim Culleton and performed by Matthew Cavan, “it was filmed on Matthew’s phone, and rehearsed on Zoom”. Hanratty and Cavan had previously worked together for NI Opera, on Jacques Offenbach’s short work Tulipitan and the prior relationship made a big difference. “I won’t say I wrote it for him,” Hanratty jokes, “but I basically wrote it for him.”
Hanratty also observes the different processes involved in creating live theatre and a recorded performance. “It is different creating something using technology. It is very social but very distant at the same time.” The collegiality between collaborators, he elaborates, is similar to the one he gets from those who engage with his weekly instalments of The Hamlet Podcast, a close reading of Shakespeare’s play in 20-line segments, which has kept him busy during lockdown. This week sees the release of the 136th episode of the series. “You know people are listening but really you are a voice in the dark.”
Hanratty has also been watching the digital innovations of live theatre over the last few months with interest. “There is a lot to be said for some of the pieces that have been created using Zoom or different technologies.” He cites the Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland series as a particularly strong example, where “the immediate response spoke to how we are feeling in a very immediate way. It was a snapshot into life right now, that you might recognise or feel is alien to our own experience, but is still relatable.”
He also mentions the “democracy of availability” that online streaming has created: “the reality is, you can reach a far greater audience, and that is something that definitely needs to be considered.” However, the new digital theatre is ultimately “a necessity, a means to an end, not something that theatre-makers aspire to”.
Hanratty does not know when he will get back to making work for live audiences again, “but that’s what I’m waiting for”.
Tiny Plays 24/7 premieres online on Fishamble’s YouTube channel on July 24th. It will be available to watch until August 3rd
Shakespeare in the Theatre: Yukio Ninagawa is published by Bloomsbury
Producing theatre in a pandemic
Fishamble Theatre: The New Play Company was having an unusually busy spring when the pandemic struck. They were halfway through a national tour of Pat Kinevane’s solo show Before, and their 2018 production of Sebastian Barry’s feted play On Blueberry Hill had just opened in the West End.
“It was a strange few days,” the company’s artistic director, Jim Culleton, remembers. “Theatres closed in Ireland on the 12th [of March] but we had a few days in the West End where the show was still up and running. But we knew what was coming and we knew we would have to find new ways to work for the foreseeable future.”
As future projects, such as the planned production of Catriona Daly’s Duck Duck Goose at the Dublin Theatre Festival in September, began to be cancelled, Fishamble considered ways to “honour our commitments to the people we would have employed if we were working in our normal way”, Culleton says.
“The last time we had a major crisis [the 2008 economic crash], we ran a project called Tiny Plays for Ireland, to give artists an opportunity to respond to the change the country was [going] through.”
It was a hugely successful initiative, and “we thought it would be worth revisiting the model again, as it allows us to engage with a lot of people rather than just one individual writer”.
Fishamble provided weekly prompts for writers over a six-week period and in the end received 500 submissions from across the world. Thirty-five of the 600-word plays were shared on Fishamble’s website and the company will stage 10 of them this week as Tiny Plays 24/7. While several of the selected plays were written with technology in mind, most of the selected took a more traditional format.
As director of the project, Culleton was delighted to be in a position to stage these plays in a theatre rather than on a platform such as Zoom. “Even if the audience couldn’t be live, the actors could be.”
Filmed at the O’Reilly Theatre following strict social distancing guidelines, the company took an innovative approach to ensuring actors’ safety, by casting actors who are members of the same household.
Real-life partners Aaron Monaghan and Clare Monnelly, and Kwaku Fortune and Gill Buckle, play couples feeling the stresses of lockdown in Ryan Murphy’s Ragnarok and Lora Hartin’s Before the Storm, while actors John Olohan and Catherine Byrne are joined on stage by their son Jack for The Wonder of You, Eric O’Brien’s examination of grief in the time of Covid-19.
The experience has given Culleton and his colleagues confidence to move forward with an ambitious two-part programme of live events in autumn, including an indoor cabaret-style performance at the Dublin Fringe Festival and the premiere of a new site-specific drama from Deirdre Kinahan in October.