‘This might be awful’: the Theatre Machine test

Each evening, audiences pay €14 to see four short works in progress. You might see a disaster or an embryonic hit

Theatre Machine: ‘It’s brilliant for young companies to test their work in an environment that’s not necessarily final or complete. It’s so important to have someone in to see your stuff before going into a final production’

This week, Theatre Machine, or to give it it's full title, The Theatre Machine Turns You On Volume Four, will be cranking into life. Sixteen theatre pieces, three gigs, and one "interactive sound experiment" called Sonic Whispers will be chugging into the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar. Things, however, will not run smoothly, and that's the point. Expect engines to break down. Expect spanners in the works. Expect the occasional glorious idea revving to life.

Established by TheatreClub, Theatre Machine is a starting point for work to peek out of the chrysalis before stretching its wings. Every evening, for €14, audiences can see four short productions at varying points of creation. Some will develop and move on to festivals. Some will disappear. Some will become hits. It’s an opportunity to experiment, to test, to see what works and what fails on a stage in front of an audience.

"For this festival we have nothing," says Shane Byrne of TheatreClub with regards to funding. "It would be nice to have some money from somewhere in future, for sure. I'm loving it, but I'm sick of having to ask people: 'Can you do this? And I can't pay you.' People will do it and there's a lot of goodwill, and it is important . . . but look at the effect [Theatre Machine] has, with shows touring around the country."

When they were young

The event has a solid track record of showcasing the hits when they're embryonic. One of the highlights of Theatre Machine volume two was I Am a Homebird (It's Very Hard), by Shaun Dunne. Volume three featured Dolls by Sorcha Kenny, which went on to win the First Fortnight Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2013. Hugh Travers showed Lambo, which got a one-month run at Bewley's Cafe Theatre last year.


Noelle Brown's Postcript toured for six weeks. And Dead Centre showed Lippy as a work in progress. It went on to win multiple awards at the Dublin Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, and the Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for Best Production. It opens at the Peacock on January 29th. If there were A&R theatre scouts running around Dublin, you would imagine Theatre Machine would be a first stop.

Pat McGrath won acclaim with Small Plastic Wars, a Fringe show that played at Bewleys Cafe Theatre. His new show, Always Going Home, will, he says, get a "kick up the arse" from Theatre Machine. It's about a man who decides he wants to walk the Camino de Santiago, "but he can't, so he decides to recreate it by walking between James's Street church and Ballymun. I used to live in Ballymun, and the place I lived in, at the top of one of the towers, is gone. It's just an empty space. And I think, I used to live up there somewhere. Lots of Dublin is like that for a lot of people; something is gone."

If he was left to his own devices, he says, “I’d be tooling around saying, ‘I’m writing a play’, and not writing it . . . It’s a chance to try something out.”

Humans and robots

At the rehearsal space for Players in Trinity, the team making Love+ is warming up for rehearsals. Nicolas Jaar's Almost Fell plays, a track that begins with a B movie-like voiceover: "A human figure slopes up from the ground, its toes touch the toes of its mirror image . . ."

Before the rehearsal, director Claire O’Reilly explains the piece. “It kind of imagines the potential and anticipated relationship between humans and robots and androids. We’re trying to explore what it would be like in a plausible mainstream society; your average Joe getting one of these and how that might work.”

For this bunch, Theatre Machine acts as a useful platform to trial O’Reilly’s future show for the Beckett Theatre.

Assistant director Darren Sinnott says, "It's brilliant for young companies to test their work in an environment that's not necessarily final or complete. It's so important to have someone in to see your stuff, to have it in front of an audience and see how it feels, get feedback before going into a final production, and then you see all those things like, 'Shit, I could have done that better.' " They repeat one scene over and over again, before moving on to another, trying it with a drum kit at the back of the room.

A week later, at another rehearsal, actors Maeve O'Mahony and Breffni Holahan are chatting about a scene that ends with them undressing. "That formation is right," says O'Mahony, "but I think you're right in that moving the boxes in our underwear is naff." They rethink the direction.

TheatreClub are idealists, and Theatre Machine has about 50 shows to its name. Byrne says the pressure is off in many ways, because everyone knows none of the shows they’ll be watching are finished. They support the artists, taking care of some of the grunt work.

“In some small way I think we’re contributing to the ecology of theatre and the audience experience,” Byrne says. “I wouldn’t write that down on a funding form, but that’s what I’m motivated by.”

In the Lantern Centre on Synge Street, the company Red Bear is rehearsing Harder Faster More. The show is about porn. On a freezing Sunday evening, they are sharing the building with a one-year-old's birthday. In the rehearsal room, there's an incongruously large glitzy chandelier.

Director and writer Tracy Martin starts talking about the show's content. "That was God leaving the room," she deadpans when the door rattles in the quasi-religious setting. "The aim would be that by the end of the year we would have a scripted play. We're kind of throwing everything in here, vomiting up for this.

“The best thing about doing Theatre Machine is that it gives us the chance to go through all of that first before we make the mistake of putting it up on the stage finished. Maybe I’ll go, ‘Jesus, I’m never f***ing touching that again.’ It’s a good excuse to have these conversations; otherwise I’d be on my own, writing.”

Producer Aoibhéann McCann says: “There’s an element where Shane Byrne has been saying, ‘Please, try not to polish these – dare I say – turds’. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s kind of liberating to think the people go in to that room going, ‘This may be awful’.”

Back to the rehearsal and they’re working on an introductory scene. “I’m going to rewrite this, especially the bit about the phones. It’s just first draft, I think it’s written a bit badly. I can do better,” says Martin. Between reads, the team chats constantly, dissecting the issues.

A few days later, Pat McGrath is upstairs in Rough Magic's office on South Great George's Street in Dublin with Barbara Bergin directing him. McGrath is running through a scene that has a gag about borrowing a lawnmower. "Try the joke again, but more stripped-back," says Bergin. He does. "Way better, Pat. Like that. It's just much tighter." Then they keep going. It's work in progress.

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