From theatre virgin to grumbling veteran

 

. . . and in only a year. Until last year’s fringe, Manchán Magan knew nothing about acting, selling tickets, awards or envy. But he learned fast

MY WHOLE LIFE changed at 5am on May 15th last year, with the bing of an e-mail to my rented house in Tucson, Arizona. I’d been accepted to put on a production for the 2009 Dublin fringe festival.

This must be some mistake, I thought: I don’t have a production, just the vaguest kernel of an idea I suggested the festival might consider for future years. I ignored the e-mail for two days; it’s implications were too vast. If I accepted I would be propelled into the world of theatre, populated, I suspected, by egocentric actors, pretentious directors and grant-dependent lackeys.

I earn my living in the cut-throat world of television, where payment is based on ability to rack up ratings in as stylish, informative and entertaining a way as possible, rather than inflicting self-indulgent, airy-fairy notions on tiny theatre audiences. If I accepted I would have to find a director, lighting designer, set designer and costume designer – and, presumably, pay for them all myself. It was lunacy, and yet . . .

I took a plane home, went to meet Róise Goan, director of the fringe, and came clean about my complete lack of theatrical experience. She seemed to relish the news, and took me step by step through the fundamentals of theatre: the hourly rate of lighting designers, the cost of public liability insurance, how to negotiate with a production manager, how to run a marketing campaign, how to estimate ticket yield, and more.

Most of it went over my head, but one thing stuck: if I was to have any chance of not bankrupting myself I needed a sell-out show. The fringe would pay for the venue and Foras na Gaeilge offered some funding; I needed to pay for everything else. Attracting a crowd requires publicity, and the only way I knew of guaranteeing that is exposure – and by exposure I mean self-humiliation. Hence the photograph (right).

There was no going back: I would be writing, producing and performing my first play. So far what I had was more a linguistic conundrum than a script: could a play be presented in one language that was understandable in another?

It would be set in an Irish lesson that goes badly wrong, in which the teacher reveals too much through the words he teaches. I hoped the audience would learn enough Irish in the course of the show to understand the narrative.

I’d play the teacher, as I couldn’t afford a real actor, but I needed someone to play the student. A young dancer named Eva O’Connor, who was revising for her Leaving Cert, obliged, replying to my text with: “Yeah, yeah, yeah! Oh god yeah!”

Next step was a director. After sending a panicked letter to anyone I even vaguely know in the arts, Gerry Stembridge and Olwen Fouéré sent wonderfully encouraging replies within a day, mentioning people to contact and sharing other invaluable advice.

There followed two months of frenzy, during which the most promising director of his generation, Tom Creed, miraculously agreed to offer his services, embarking on six weeks of intense script editing, wrestling a story from my ramblings. He brought with him a set and a costume designer and a lighting designer.

Suddenly it was mid-September. The show, Broken Croí/ Heart Briste, opened to full houses, good reviews and two award nominations. I was swallowed whole into the theatre world, with offers of support and encouragement from every side. Project Arts Centre agreed to restage the show and commission a new work. Fishamble Theatre Company offered me a place on a writing course and any other support I might need.

I immediately regretted my previous misgivings about the theatre, and became smitten for a full six months – until the play got nominated for two Irish Timestheatre awards, one for best new play, another for best supporting actress. Then things turned frosty: our nominations provoking envy in certain quarters. The judges were accused of pandering to immature upstarts in favour of more polished, serious work.

Two months later, at the awards ceremony, the atmosphere was so fevered I was relieved when we didn’t win. The level of inebriation reminded me of cross-channel ferry trips in the 1980s. At one point, after wine was thrown at a distinguished artistic administrator, I worried for the safety of my teenage co-actor. Passions were fuelled as much by the recent Arts Council cuts to subsidies as by alcohol or the awards themselves, but it made for a grave night.

A few weeks later I was able to share in the frustration of my thespian brethren when my first Arts Council grant application was turned down. Considering how I’d always scorned artistic scroungers going cap in hand to fund their personal indulgences, it was hypocritical to have applied in the first place, but at least the refusal marked me out as a true artist, and I joined the rest of my cohort bitching about the narrow-minded, soulless automatons in the Arts Council who had no appreciation for artistic innovation.

Then three weeks later I was invited to be on an Arts Council funding assessment panel. I was spellbound by the integrity, idealism and selfless commitment of the organisation. I’ve since been told the department I dealt with, youth arts, was the shining star of the Arts Council, but if other departments have even a fraction of their integrity, this is the model on which all quangos should be based.

Despite the refusal of my grant, things turned positive again with an offer to bring the play to Cork Midsummer Festival, and an award from the Steward Parker Trust, including an invitation to attend a week’s writing course with a legendary dramaturge. I also got commissions from BBC Ulster and the Abbey Theatre, and spent a week playing a transvestite in Lotus Eaters, a feature film about London’s bright young things by Alexandra McGuinness, who spotted thatphoto in the newspapers.

All in all it has been a wild year – let it never be said that neophyte playwrights are not encouraged in this country. But what excites me most is the thought that in a week’s time this year’s Dublin fringe festival will have catapulted another inexperienced young individual or company into the spotlight – and they, too, will embark on a similar year of attention and encouragement. Good luck to them all, and thanks for the memories.


Oddballs: A Novel of Affections

Survival tips for fringe newcomers

  • Woo the box-office staff with whatever it takes: charm, frankincense, barbecued swan. They are your sales team; scores of undecided theatre-goers are influenced by their recommendations.
  • Shamelessly gayify your work. A ridiculous proportion of fringe audiences are young, gay men. Play up to them. And learn, as I did to my cost, that they do not like the sight of sandals on men.
  • Over 100 works are on stage: see as many as you can, if only to reassure yourself that you’re not the only one getting half-empty houses. Ask other performers and production crews for their highlights.