In the new theatre space, there’s no room for an emotional vacuum

We’re seeing a revolution in form in theatre, but content is what keeps audiences engaged

Oona Doherty’s Hard to Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer at Dublin Dance Festival. PR photograph: Luca Truffarelli

Oona Doherty’s Hard to Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer at Dublin Dance Festival. PR photograph: Luca Truffarelli

 

In 2014 I was asked to take part in a theatre conference at NUI Galway called “Pushing Form”. My paper was on my own experimental work, exploring form utilising Stanislavskian techniques while I had been artistic director at Focus Theatre, the well-known Stanislavskian theatre in Dublin.

At the conference I said that form alone was not enough – it must work in tandem with content, otherwise you risk losing the engagement of the audience. Content is the emotional life created through the imagination and the body of the actor. It is the director’s job to co-ordinate both. This is at the heart of the Stanislavskian system.

Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian director and actor. He pioneered an approach for the performer which allowed him or her to create an emotional connection or inner life while working on stage. The result also creates an experience for the audience. To quote Tom Hickey, a founding member of the Focus and Ireland’s leading Stanislavski stage actor, “The deeper the actor’s inner experience of his or her role, the further will be the audience’s involvement.”

A research trip to the Moscow Art Theatre in 2004 had exposed me to installation and physical theatre-based productions with classic plays. I also witnessed other venues producing immersive productions of plays by Chekhov, where the audience sat with the cast as the drama was taking place around them. Soon afterwards I set about rethinking the Focus programme to update it for the 21st century. It was not popular with some of our older audience members nor with some of our older associate artists, but it was necessary for the longer-term artistic relevance of Stanislavski in Ireland whilst still maintaining a modernist policy. We managed to hold on to our audience as well as appeal to a newer generation of theatre-goer.

Currently, mainstream Irish theatre is going through something similar but on a much larger scale. The old guard have stepped away and a new approach, new vocabularies, and new formal concerns are necessarily being explored. Irish theatre of the 20th century was marked for the most part by our preoccupation with the land and with peasantry, and to culturally define itself against the old imperialist regime. So, our National Theatre had an Irish cultural agenda rooted in language. The programme was limited and could be inward-looking. In 1990 Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel was the last hurrah for the peasant drama. By the mid-1990s we were in the era of the “post-Irish play”, with the punk Dadaism of Martin McDonagh, the deconstruction of the play by Conor McPherson, the urban poetic grotesqueness of Mark O’Rowe and the feminist perspective of Marina Carr.

Formalist revolution

Now, in the late 2010s, we are in the throes of a formalist revolution, and it is more than just the play that is being reconsidered. The new concerns in theatre embrace space, strong visuals, physical images, responses to established works, collaboration, installations, immersive theatre, deconstructions of classic stories, pop culture and digital technology as metaphor, dance fusion with drama, site-specific, generic specific, live art as well as post-dramatic theatre. We can also add inclusive, age-friendly, ethnic theatre, intercultural and gender-blind, all moving into what was once the terrain of the literary Irish play. No doubt the list will continue to grow.

Conor Madden as Hamlet in Gavin Quinn’s production of The Rehearsal – Playing the Dane for Pan Pan Theatre. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Conor Madden as Hamlet in Gavin Quinn’s production of The Rehearsal – Playing the Dane for Pan Pan Theatre. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Just as the Impressionists broke from the academic and classical forms of painting, just as Picasso and Braque created Cubism, just as Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery space and created conceptual art, for better or for worse we must embrace the changes. In rock music of the 1970s the guitar band was at its peak of popularity. Electronic music as pioneered by Germany’s Kraftwerk had a niche following. When the British band The Human League released the album Dare in 1981 they combined experimental electronic sounds with broader melody and rhythm with the emotional accessibility of Abba. Electronic music crossed over into mainstream consciousness. Guitar bands did not disappear but it did revolutionise the way pop music was created up to the present day.

In the 1960s there were calls to abandon traditional painting and sculpture. Many schools did. In the early 1970s major figures from the visual arts world such as designer Bruno Munari made the prediction that “this is the last farewell to techniques that no longer had anything to say to modern man’’. Years later, traditional forms of visual expression were reinstated at art colleges as too much had been lost. We can learn from this. As much as pushing form and content and how it is created is necessary for the development of live theatre, the form of playwriting should not be lost. We would lose too much. Besides, there are Irish writers blazing a trail on the post-modernist world stage, such as Brian McAvera whose work has a European sensibility incorporating visual arts and science as metaphor for the human condition. His plays are produced and translated into more than 21 languages. He is just waiting for mainstream Irish theatre to catch up with him.

Irish theatre managers, practitioners and audiences also need to be patient as we discover how the new work is created. That Human League moment has yet to happen. It may never do so. All the artist can do is try. We may go down a few cul-de-sacs. It is necessary in our journey of evolution. To stay relevant, it has had to widen its form, but what about content?

Emotional content

A maker of new work can be preoccupied by form at the expense of emotional content, making it hard for audiences to stay connected in the theatre space. Certain kinds of new live theatre may be more effectively produced in a gallery space, in smaller, black theatres or other non-traditional theatre spaces. When they are moved into traditional proscenium arch spaces they can lose their vitality.

It all comes back to the skills base of actor or dancer and how they are directed in a space with a specific design

Sometimes very good pieces of new work which are put in the wrong space can get lost. I can think of Silviu Purcarete’s Decameron that died a death in the 1993 Dublin Theatre Festival when it was presented in the Tivoli. Similarly, the excellent part dance, part installation-based show Hard to be Soft, presented at the Abbey recently as part of the Dublin Dance Festival, was a visual feast for the eye but at times lacked emotional connection for the audience in that particular auditorium. Much of the emotional content was being conveyed through a sound installation of voices spoken by actors – rather like a radio play. It would have worked better in a gallery space or in a more intimate environment. At times it felt remote from the audience. A 19th-century proscenium arch theatre requires a different kind of performance skills-base to hold the audience for the duration of a show. Having said that, Oona Doherty’s choreography was some of the most sophisticated community-arts work I have ever seen and should be commended.

Hugh O’Conor, Charlie Murphy, Oona Doherty and director Enda Walsh in Arlington. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Hugh O’Conor, Charlie Murphy, Oona Doherty and director Enda Walsh in Arlington. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Similarly, the visually exquisite Arlington by Enda Walsh, on the same stage, had a wow-factor on first impact but, after 20 minutes, it left the audience struggling to stay with it. Again, the show’s formal concerns, a smorgasbord of technology, music, dance and spoken word – impressive as they were in the moment – lacked the emotional content to keep the audience hooked. Abstract intrigue is not enough, no matter how much technology or how big a budget may be used. It all comes back to the skills base of actor or dancer and how they are directed in a space with a specific design. The work needs to be given circumstances. A needful reason is required for the performers’ presence on stage. The environmental aspects of the show also need to be integrated through the performers’ imagination to activate the visual statement of the piece. If that does not happen, the performer looks as if she or he is floating separately from the physical space and there is no content. The audience interest does not continue beyond a moment of visual curiosity.

Watching Ophelia in her state of madness handing out empty cigarette packets and crushed aluminium cans instead of flowers was deeply affecting

An example of physical theatre that worked well was the recent revival of Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche at the Abbey, directed by Caroline Byrne. It had extraordinary physical images that impacted on the audience at a deeply primal level. There was real emotional power as we watched Katie digging in the dirt. She was spiritually imprisoned by the cold, marble-like splendour of the house. The installation design was very powerful too, with more than a sense of a guillotine, suggesting that Katie as a force of nature was about to be destroyed by leading a conventional life. The design was more than just a passive image in the space. The actor and director worked to activate the relationship between the story, the image and the space.

Post-dramatic

One of the most successful of the post-dramatic works in Dublin of recent years was Pan Pan’s The Rehearsal – Playing the Dane, directed by Gavin Quinn. It was first seen in a different space and was hugely successful. It was recently revived for the Abbey stage. The show was engaging, playful and, despite itself, at times profound. Watching Ophelia in her state of madness handing out empty cigarette packets and crushed aluminium cans instead of flowers was deeply affecting. The image worked not only as a reinterpretation of a classic scene from Hamlet using other objects but also said something about our current consumerist age. Her death scene at the hands of abusive patriarchs showed her falling out of a bin, then being discarded, soaking wet and covered in flowers. It was worth the price of the ticket alone. The image still haunts me weeks after seeing it. It worked because the context of the actual events of Hamlet was invoked at an imaginative and emotional level through the actors in the most potent way. The specifics of the scene were contextualised and played truthfully by a great cast. The transformation of objects in scenes was imaginatively utilised, so that the symbolism resonated beyond the surface of the material objects. Again, this worked because the actors believed it to be so. It was a sublime moment of theatre. It is also pure Stanislavski.

We are making huge strides in mainstream Irish theatre, but patience is required as we create the new paths forward. Not all of it is working, but making mistakes along the way is a necessary part of the creative process. Artists need to be allowed the freedom to experiment. Countries such as Germany, France and the UK have proper actor training in place as part of their mainstream theatre. Ireland has started this process but we still have a way to go. However, it is the integration of the emotional content along with the imaginative, and formal concerns, that are crucial to its success.

Joe Devlin is a Stanislavski teacher and theatre director. He lectures in performance on the contemporary-theatre BA course for Wolverhampton University at Coláiste Dhúlaigh. He will produce Brian McAvera’s new work-in-progress Bridge Into . . . as a reading at this years’ Ranelagh Arts Festival, at the end of September, with Directions Out Theatre Company, and is curator of a live-art collaborative event at the same festival

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