Brokentalkers: ‘Art often has this fascist set of ideas attached to it’

Feidlim Cannon and Adrienne Truscott on Masterclass, their parody of ‘great artists’

Adrienne Truscott and Feidlim Cannon, of Brokentalkers Theatre Company: Their Masterclass show is an attempt to lampoon the culture of reverence surrounding the “great artist”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Adrienne Truscott and Feidlim Cannon, of Brokentalkers Theatre Company: Their Masterclass show is an attempt to lampoon the culture of reverence surrounding the “great artist”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

It is exactly six years this month since Feidlim Cannon and Adrienne Truscott first met at the Sydney Fringe Festival. Cannon was visiting the festival with Brokentalkers, the theatre company he runs with co-director Gary Keegan. He was performing in Have I No Mouth, a personal story about his father’s death, which he starred in alongside his mother. The New York-based Truscott was also performing at the 2015 Festival, in her controversial comedy show, Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!

Cannon remembers “We were both invited out on this yacht by the festival organisers, and we got chatting over champagne and oysters, and we hit it off. I was struck by the humour, the rigour, the physical skill in her work, so it was a bit of no-brainer that we would stay in touch and hatch plans to work together in the future.”

Truscott has her own version of the story. “We were both performing in the same little venue, and we got talking in that post-show festival-bar way, where you are trying to find out who you get on well with, who would be fun to hang out with, who will be your ‘festival family’. I loved Have I No Mouth, and the way [Brokentalkers] used people who were not traditional performers, the way they blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography. As someone who hasn’t always worked from a text-based place, I knew it would be challenging and fun to make work together, and we stayed in touch.”

Later that year, Brokentalkers decamped to New York for a three-week residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, and they invited Truscott to join them in the workshop room to play with a music-based theatrical idea that revolved around “a band making a play, or a play that involves making a band, and it felt very simpatico”, Cannon recalls. (Truscott is also a performer with cabaret duo The Wau Wau Sisters). They had lots of fun, but the project faltered. Still, when Brokentalkers returned to Dublin, the creative relationship continued online, “checking in to see what was coming up, when we might have free time to start playing, always with the intention that we would find something to make together someday”.

‘Idea of authorship’

The fruits of this creative correspondence has now come to fruition with Masterclass, a parody of the form that has brought so many “great artists” to our screens over the last 18 months, as we have struggled to stay connected to our creativity in an online forum. (I myself have watched many and participated in two.) Despite the prescience of the idea, it actually predated the pandemic. Indeed, the production was actually scheduled for last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival, but the global health crisis got in the way of their plans.

“One of the things we had been discussing over the years of our conversations,” Cannon explains, “is the idea of authorship, and the power of authorship, particularly when it comes to theatre. How when it comes to casting a play, how attached playwrights can be to a particular idea of their work, when it comes to casting a person of colour say. Art often has this fascist set of ideas attached to it, that goes against anything we believe in as artists, basically, and that was something we thought worth investigating. Who owns power when it comes to creating work? Is a play text gospel? If that’s the case don’t write a play.”

“The whole idea of ‘masters’ is problematic; often, we are seeing these people who are looked upon as the greats, but in 2021, they might not be so great,” says Adrienne Truscott.
“The whole idea of ‘masters’ is problematic; often, we are seeing these people who are looked upon as the greats, but in 2021, they might not be so great,” says Adrienne Truscott.

Cannon and Truscott are chatting from the rehearsal room for Masterclass, where they are “still trying to figure out what the show is” as Truscott puts it dryly. “Well, we know what it is, but we aren’t sure yet where it is going to end up.”

They appear on either side of a computer screen and both sport oversized glasses that are very cool and slightly clownish, which seems a fair summation of both Truscott’s and Brokentalkers’ theatrical style. Together they describe the show as an attempt to lampoon the culture of reverence surrounding the “great artist”. 

They are prepared, so far, to commit to describing its form. “At the beginning at least, it takes the form of a masterclass,” Cannon explains. “Adrienne is the master and I am the interviewer, and we are both dressed in drag.” It sounds like lots of fun, but the greater point that they are trying to make, Truscott explains, is that “The whole idea of ‘masters’ is problematic; often, we are seeing these people who are looked upon as the greats, but in 2021, they might not be so great.” The masterclass form, she continues, “is a purposeful relationship between two people in positions of privilege” based on an imperative to “perpetuate a myth, to continue those notions of masters and authorship. But there is a certain culture that has to be present to continue the greatness.” Basically, until we start questioning, we are all complicit. 

‘Ego massage’

As research, Cannon and Truscott have watched and listened to dozens of recordings of masterclasses. “They tend to be an exercise of ego massage and hero worship,” Cannon observes, “two white dudes chatting away and telling us how great they are. About 70 per cent of the text we are using in the first part of the play is actually taken verbatim, [but] we have cut it up and restitched it for our purposes. So a lot of crazy stuff you hear on stage has been actually said.”

In case their critical stance is misconstrued as superior, they are keen to admit that they are very aware of how easily they can fall into similar patterns when talking about their own work. “Inevitably,” Cannon says, “the lens was turned inward and [we started] going at each other about our own work a lot. I wasn’t always going to perform in this play, but when we started improvising, it turned out to be a really natural thing, and we have both really enjoyed being awful to each other.”

“Adrienne is the master and I am the interviewer, and we are both dressed in drag,” says Feidlim Cannon. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
“Adrienne is the master and I am the interviewer, and we are both dressed in drag,” says Feidlim Cannon. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Having spent the last 18 months communicating digitally, they are clearly enjoying what Truscott calls “the creativity and spontaneity of being in a room together”, and they cannot wait to get in front of a live audience. “There is a different set of considerations when you are playing live,” Truscott says. “You have the writing, but you are making energetic choices in a room based on instinct, what you feel from the audience around you”, which makes every iteration unique. There is a Covid contingency plan, of course, Cannon admits, politely and playfully refusing to say more. They are far too optimistic about the future, about meeting a new “festival family” this year as they step off the stage into a dingy post-festival bar.

Masterclass runs from September 10th-17th at the Project Arts Centre, as part of Dublin Fringe Festival; and on September 21st at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray

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