Little John Nee: Storyteller goes back to basics
DIY stagecraft and theatrical invention get Tuam performer out under Tilt of the Sky
There is “an intimacy with the roads that you can only get when you are hitching and you don’t get a ride”.
Every Thursday night at the Killaloonty Coliseum, Little John Nee takes to the stage to serenade a live audience who have gathered, individually and in small groups, on their computers across the world. Against the softly lit backdrop of a bespoke handmade set, Nee tells stories and shares songs about his life in the theatre and his life in lockdown.
The spontaneous theatricality of Nee’s improvised set-up sums up the creativity of this ingenious storyteller, who began his career as a street performer and has developed an inimitable theatricality over decades.
The “Killaloonty Coliseum” is in fact the garage attached to Nee’s home in the Killaloonty townlands outside Tuam, Co Galway. Insulated and soundproofed as a rehearsal studio, it has become his stage since the pandemic hit, he tells me over an animated Zoom call, a range of unusual musical instruments and eye-catching props just visible behind him.
With the theatres closed, Nee was faced with losing a whole year of work. As the cancellations started coming in, “I decided to experiment with going online, which wouldn’t really be a comfortable thing for me. I am not tech-savvy, so I had a lot to learn and I was on my own so had to do everything myself: from turning on the phone to figuring out lighting. For the first few times I did a live broadcast I didn’t even know if it was working.
“It was quite an existential moment really: here I was in my garage two weeks into lockdown talking to myself, telling stories to my phone!”
Since his first tentative broadcast on Facebook Live, however, Nee has become proficient in both the technical and performance peculiarities of creating new work for a digital setting. “I started to bring in bits of sets and to build things, setting up lighting bars and small theatre lights instead of domestic house lights, so it would be more interesting to look at.” In a nutshell, he “was trying to be as theatrical as possible”.
‘Strings and pulleys’
The limitations of lockdown life, meanwhile, forced Nee to take an especially creative approach, as he could only use things that he already had at home. He shows me a microphone stand repurposed to hold his phone and attached to a plant knee-rest on wheels. He gives me a demonstration of how it works. “I tie a string to it so that I can pull it towards me to get a close-up.” Later, under the dimmed theatrical lighting, I see it in operation and it works seamlessly.
Nee loves the contradiction of “operating all this new technology with strings and pulleys. It is a mix of sophisticated technology and primitive tools.”
He also quickly realised that he couldn’t necessarily just broadcast old material and expect it to work for his invisible audience. He began writing new material specifically for broadcast, using the audience to help him create new work at the end of each show. Viewers can submit words during each performance and Nee then uses their contributions to improvise “a makeyuppy song” at the evening’s end. It is a lot of fun, as well as an intimate acknowledgment of the liveness of the event.
As the arts world acclimatised itself to the new reality of social restriction, Nee found that formal opportunities to perform for audiences began to open up. He participated in the Culture Ireland digital initiative #IrelandPerforms on Facebook, which dovetailed nicely with his own online activities and exposed him to a wider international audience.
Last month he was approached by Earagail Arts Festival to create a new performance for its arts celebration, which takes place annually across Donegal. “I was actually commissioned to do a show for the festival this year, but that was a stage show and it had been scrapped. Then they came back saying would I do a video performance that would be streamed, but we had difficulty getting a venue.”
Performing inside would require a technician, which presents its own challenges to keep within Government guidelines. That reality gives Nee pause for thought about the long-term effects surrounding the challenge of reopening theatres in the future. “It is techies, those unsung heroes of the industry, who deal creatively with your creative problems day by day. It is the techies who are probably looking at the longest time out of work, as most of them are dependent on the theatres opening up to get back to work.”
As restrictions relaxed, then, “the idea sort of evolved into doing small outdoor performances”. The resulting project, The Tilt of the Sky, will be the live centrepiece of Earagail’s festival this year.
The Tilt of the Sky is inspired by “the weirdness of the pandemic. Tilt is showpeople parlay for a big top or tent; so the show is really talking about the tent of the sky. One of the things that came from lockdown was our heightened physical awareness of the world. The world stopped and the sky took on a different emphasis, so it’s this idea that we are all sheltered beneath the big top of the sky.”
Of course, Nee’s outdoor performance will also take place under the shelter of the sky, and the outdoor nature of it determined the way in which he could perform from both a technical and practical point of view. “Even though we will be outdoors there are still certain conditions we need to take into account to keep within guidelines,” Nee explains.
The 30-minute performance will tour to six villages in Donegal, but there will be no prior announcement of dates or times to ensure that crowds don’t gather. A final performance at Rathmullen House will take place in accordance with social distancing guidelines. It will also be broadcast on local radio to allow audiences experience the performance from the comfort of their own home.
The technical set-up for performances, meanwhile, will be managed entirely by Nee himself. His stage is a laundry trolley that he pulls along, with special home-made poles to hold up bunting to frame his performance like a stage. A battery-powered sound-system will provide a broader acoustic reach. As Nee acknowledges, his style of performance must adapt too: “The acoustics on the street are very different, and subtleties tend to be lost, so you have to go for broader strokes.”
Nee began his career performing on the street and is excited to return to this “old-style, travelling set-up. It is exciting to make and exciting to perform. There is a fluidity about performing on the street. Anything can happen: a dog can make an appearance, a baby can crawl across your stage.”
Once on Grafton Street, a policeman on a motorbike drove into the performance circle, becoming the star of the show for the 100 audience members. “Sometimes on the street,” Nee says, “things come into focus and it’s the shared experience of watching it that gives it a new context.”
The local tour will also represent a different kind of homecoming for Nee, bringing him to the villages he travelled around as a teenager, hitchhiking from his home on an estate in Letterkenny across the county, in homage to his hero Jack Kerouac. There is “an intimacy with the roads that you can only get when you are hitching and you don’t get a ride”, he concludes.
Before he gets there, though, there is a photoshoot to conduct in a nearby bog – under the canopy of a stormy Galway sky.
The Tilt of the Sky will be performed in Malin, Culdaff, Raphoe, Letterkenny, Dunfanaghy, and Gort an Choirce, July 21st-25th, as part of Earagail Arts Festival. A final ticketed event will take place at Ruthmullen House on July 26th. A performance will also be broadcast on Highland Radio (eaf.ie)
Earagail Arts Festival: digital programme
Earagail Arts Festival has put together a full digital programme of events under the theme of Srutháin (small stream). Watch out for Jazzlife Alliance (July 21st), Fidíl (July 23rd), Elma Orkestra and Ryan Vail (July 24th), performing on YouTube; Dermot Bolger in conversation on Zoom (July 22nd); and the work of Dragana Jurišic, who has taken over the Instagram account of the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny for the duration of the festival.
Earagail Arts Festival runs until July 26th.