Dramatic awakenings: the theatre that changed my life

Five nominees for Irish Times theatre awards recall a performance that inspired them and informed their own approaches


We asked some of this year’s nominees for The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards to recall an influential piece of theatre that helped to shape their views of theatre and their place within it. The responses include the effect of seeing a familiar space transformed by a legendary travelling theatre group; the career-changing example of a famous Irish performance; encountering a new kind of worship in a mysteriously darkened church; and the experience of opera, divinity and heavy-duty machinery in a windswept spot at the edge of the world.


Designer. Nominated for Judge’s Special Award for leading the Waking the Feminists movement

My mother brought me to see the legendary travelling theatre group Footsbarn doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a tent in the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, when I was a young teenager. I think many of the magical theatre moments I’ve had since are echoes of that night. The shivers I got from seeing a place I knew well, transformed by festoons and firelight – being welcomed, as if to a new world, by an internationally diverse troupe, a true travelling community.

I knew little of Shakespeare other than the dry reading from my Junior Cert. I’m not even sure I got the story as I watched it. That made absolutely no difference. I remember it as a feeling, as lights and colours, as costumes and masks, as straw on the floor and hand-painted signs, as being talked to directly by the performers, as being part of an enchanted crowd.

Soon after I wrote to the company to say I would like to work and travel with it. I got a very polite and encouraging letter back saying that I should probably finish school first.

It feels like a strong moment in a trajectory towards doing work experience the following year at the now sadly defunct Team Theatre, and later joining Newpark Youth Theatre – also now gone – where, for the first time, I found the place I wanted to be and the people I wanted to be with.

The experience of being involved in theatre for me has been central to how I’ve been shaped and have shaped myself. My confidence, my sense of wonder, my communities, the eyes I see the world with, all come from how theatre has taught me.

Giving young people the chance to experience good theatre is one of the most important things that we can do as theatre-makers.


Actor. Nominated for Best Actor for his role in the Gate Theatre production of The Gigli Concert by Tom Murphy

In November 1990 I was considering giving up my job as a chemistry teacher in Cork to become a full-time professional actor. I travelled to the Abbey Theatre to see an actor I had heard a lot about. That actor was Donal McCann and he was playing Frank in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. I couldn’t believe that one actor on a stage that size could stay so still and just tell a story. I can only describe the experience as spiritual. I was riveted.

Although the material is the most important thing, the actor still has to stand up there in front of an audience and captivate it. Before I saw McCann’s performance I didn’t think that was possible. I learned a lot about stillness, voice, focus and emotional truth from watching him. I realise now that McCann had the bravery to expose his inner self on stage. At the end of that academic year I packed my bags and moved to Dublin to become an actor.

Over the years I have had this performance in my vision as I learned my craft, and it is still what I aspire to. I have also learned that this does not come easy; it requires a lot of hard, repetitive and patient work to make a performance truthful.

I have found that the harder I work, and the more prepared I am, the more enjoyable the process is and the more confident you can be when you reach the stage.

I once overheard a story about McCann, who, when asked by a young actor how he did it, said: ‘I’m the hardest-working actor in town.’ I assume he meant by this that although he made it look easy he had spent hours and hours in preparation. As he said himself, ‘It must be done right’. Not a bad principle for any actor to live by.


Writer, director and performer. Nominated with Dead Centre for Best Production for Chekhov’s First Play

Derevo – a group of artists from St Petersburg – staged a performance in, I think, 2003 called Islands in the Stream. They worked from a text by William Burroughs inspired by Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine. I saw the show at St Stephen’s Church in Edinburgh during the Fringe festival that year.

It affected me for a few reasons: it was in a church and seemed to be godless; it involved a black-out so entire that you could not see the hand in front of your face, you could not see your thoughts; they did not bow during the curtain call but instead presented themselves in various formations and then moved towards us, through the audience, and out of the church doors into the night. In my mind they are still performing that same show from that same evening.

To encounter the performance in a church seemed to me to reclaim mankind as the object of mystery and inquiry, setting God aside for the time being. Also, “seeing” a total black-out gave me the courage to pursue technical effects that most theatres won’t allow.

Finally, their “acting”, their movement, struck me as pure theatre: although they were extremely physically disciplined, there wasn’t anything in principle that you or I wouldn’t be able to do. But they found a mode, a mysterious manner, a purgatorial set of gestures that seemed to evoke feelings that could not be described in words, only shown.

That became one of my ideas of theatre; do something intrinsically theatrical that cannot be explained in words, something that can only be shown. And strangely, I thought there might be a way to use words that still could not be explained using words. Whatever that means. The last words of Islands in the Stream are, “We’re not made to stay, we’re made to go.”


Designer. Nominated for Best Set Design and Best Costume Design for the Abbey-Lyric production of The Shadow of a Gunman

Stabat Mater, directed by Dorothy Cross, in a slate quarry and Marian grotto on Valentia island, Kerry, is a production that stands out in my mind. The collaboration between the artist and Opera Theatre Company took place in August 2004. Soprano Lynda Lee and counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, accompanied by the Irish Baroque Orchestra, performed Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s beautiful 17th-century arrangement in this remote location to an anoraked and standing audience of about 200.

The performance was at dusk at the mouth of the cavernous working quarry, with the singers emerging in hard hats, overalls and hi-vis vests from the darkness of the cave, where large machinery loomed silently. The setting was minimally and brilliantly lit by a few enormous spotlights. As the natural light waned, the starkness of the landscape came into sharp relief.

The beauty and powerful delicacy of the music stood in contrast to the rough-cut and industrial environment (watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary, hovering 90ft above the heads of the audience), while the elements drove in hard from the Atlantic below.

The darkness, the light and the long journey to come to this place at the edge of the world to see it all made for a dizzying feeling. The mad, art-induced reverie is then shattered by loud industrial noises. To this soundtrack a huge screen starts to move from the back of the cave, with video images of the quarry machinery cutting and digging, superimposed by a mouth mouthing, bringing us back to earth. We are reminded where we are. The otherworldly sensation is blasted from our minds and we make our way back down the hill to the ferry; the same, but different.


Director. Nominated for Best Director for the Druid Theatre and Lincoln Center Festival coproduction of DruidShakespeare

When I was a student I worked in New York every summer for about three years. I saw a lot of the off-Off-Broadway movement of the early 1970s, which turned out to be the end of a great era: Joe Chaikin performing Woyzeck, work by Meredith Monk and La Mama, and the premiere of The Tooth of Crime by Sam Shepard by the experimental Performance Group, the forerunner to the Wooster Group.

It was so extraordinarily different from any sort of experience I’d had until then – and I still had very little experience of theatre in Ireland. I saw people making theatre who looked like me, young people making theatre in small rooms, where you could be close to the actors. The Tooth of Crime was one of the first “environmental productions”, where the audience followed the action around the room. I didn’t have any idea what to expect of this kind of theatre. It was all incredibly new to me. So all of that was essentially the spark for what became Druid.

My experience of that show made me look at texts in a different way. And the combination of these experiences – of directing plays at university and of seeing the work in New York – just tied together in my head. I didn’t realise it, but from that moment on I was going to be in theatre.

It’s well over 40 years ago now, but I remember the raucousness, the sheer in-your-face quality of The Tooth of Crime. I remember the electricity of it and being beside other people experiencing the same thing. I walked out of there and my head was spinning. Looking back, it was a kind of synergy between who I was, where I was at the time, and what was happening around us. If I hadn’t had those experiences in my life, I wonder if I would even be in theatre now. I’m not sure I would.

  • The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place on March 6th at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Tickets €20 from nch.ie
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