Stella and Lou, and New American Drama at the Galway Arts Festival

On Sunday night I went to see Stella and Lou at the Galway Arts Festival. It’s a new play by Bruce Graham, produced by Chicago’s Northlight Theater, which came to Galway last year with another Graham play called The Outgoing Tide.

Both plays share a similar interest in old age and its attendant dilemmas. In The Outgoing Tide, Frasier’s John Mahony played a man who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Fearing the loss of his dignity and worried about becoming a burden to his family, Mahony’s character determines that he wants to end his life. The play becomes a debate between him, his son and his wife about whether he should be allowed to do that.

I chaired a post-show talk last year with Mahony, Rondi Reed, BJ Jones (who directed) and Graham. I’ve chaired a lot of  discussions before but none has ever been quite like this: the audience seemed both emotionally charged and ready to talk, and where normally some of that energy might have been caused by the celebrity of Mahony, here it was largely due to the subject matter. A number of people in the audience spoke about how the play had affected them personally, either because they knew someone who had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, or perhaps because they too worried about the prospect of the loss of memory. It was strange to find such a fusion of intellectual energy and emotional vulnerability in the room.

Graham himself made a strong impression on me. He is a former stand-up comedian, and it shows: in person during the post-show he was ebullient and charming. But he also had a very serious approach to the difficult subject of euthanasia. Rather than strongly propagandizing for or against it, he instead tried to assert the dignity of the person who chooses to exercise his or her will. We never felt that Mahony’s character was making a right or wrong choice, I think – but we did leave the theatre respecting his right to make it.

Stella and Lou deals with an issue that is less immediate and certainly less contentious – which is the question of what happens to people who find themselves alone in their late 50s or early 60s. The eponymous characters spend much of the play in debate about whether to get together: Stella is frightened of the prospect of being alone (of dying alone, really), and Lou is frightened of the prospect of loving again if doing so brings with it the loss of another person he loves (he is a widower). The play tries to find common ground between these two apparently conflicting fears.

It’s been said many times that our culture prioritises youth over old age. So it was interesting to be in a theatre where the characters on stage matched the age profile of the majority of the people in the audience, who were themselves mostly in their late 50s and early 60s. I kept hearing laughter of recognition in response to the play’s jokes about aging, and a bit of running commentary from the people around me about how the play reminded them of events and people in their own lives.

It had never really occurred to me before that theatre rarely focusses on aging in this way. Yes, there are many plays about dementia, especially in Ireland where it seems like every playwright has written at least one drama on that topic. But I don’t often see characters on stage who resemble so closely the people in the audience. Their accents are different and of course the play’s American setting introduces some cultural differences. But the play’s treatment of aging seemed to hit home.

I was also struck by how good it felt to watch some strong American acting. Two members of the cast have played with Steppenwolf, and it was refreshing to see that style being performed so well. It’s difficult to describe this kind of acting without either fetishising it or making it seem bland, but I’m referring here to a kind of heightened or stylised naturalism, whereby the actors talk in ways that seem absolutely credible, even though in reality no-one ever talks or moves like that. Everything is just slightly heightened, from the rhythm and cadences of delivery to the movement around stage. If you wanted to be unfair you could describe this as acting in ALL CAPS, but there’s plenty of room for subtlety in there too.

The style is also evident in the choice of play, which is an 80 minute resolution of a dramatic problem. The setting is the real world and if there is something a bit too reassuring about the raising of problems only to persuade the audience that they can be wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the discussion is usually stimulating and engaging.

The introduction of interesting American work has been a specialism of the Galway Arts Festival over the years. Bruce Norris’s Purple Heart is on in London at the moment, but it was seen in Galway some years ago when Steppenwolf brought it here. And one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the Arts Festival was a play by Craig Wright called Orange Flower Water back in 2004. Wright was one of the writers on Six Feet Under, and his play explored the ways in which sex and love ought to complement each other but can instead cancel each other out (rather like Six Feet Under, in fact).

Stella and Lou won’t be to everyone’s taste but I appreciated it for its focus on plot, character, discussion, realism and – most of all – first-rate acting.

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New British Drama and Playwriting in Ireland

Last week I was in London for a few days, doing some research. When I visit that city I always try to make time to visit the Royal Court bookshop. It doesn’t have as wide a selection of new plays as can be found in the amazing shop at the National Theatre – but what it does have is cheap scripts. Almost every new play the Court produces comes with a playscript that is usually priced somewhere between £2 and £5. So it’s possible when you visit to stock up on some great new writing for an affordable price.

That’s exactly what I did last week, coming away with new work by Lucy Kirkwood, Martin Crimp, Polly Stenham, Bruce Norris, and Bola Agbaje. Since then I have been reading and enjoying those plays – some of them very much.

I’ve been struck by a few thoughts while reading through that new work. The first is that so many of the best new British plays are being written  by women – not just people like Agbaje, Stenham and Kirkwood, but also really interesting writers like Laura Wade and Alecky Blythe. As I’ve already stated in this blog, that situation contrasts with Ireland, where women dramatists seem to find it more difficult to have their work put on.

I was also struck by the variety of styles and perspectives employed. Stenham’s No Quarter is about a well to do pair of brothers’ attempts to come to terms with their mother’s death; Kirkwood’s NSFW is about the way in which women’s bodies are used to sell magazines not only to men but also to women. Norris is not even a British writer, yet the Court chose to premiere his play The Low Road earlier this year – and that too contrasts with Ireland where we rarely see new British and American plays.

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These plays were all produced by the Royal Court, and it’s only fair to say that this theatre does not necessarily represent the entire British theatre sector. But we’ve been saying for some time now – really since the mid to late 1990s – that British playwriting is undergoing a renaissance or a new ‘golden age’. And it’s showing no sign of abating. Many British theatres are producing excellent new plays by exciting new voices – and when I see those plays being staged, they are usually in theatres that are close to being full, and usually there are a significant minority of younger audience-members present (people under 40 I mean). That’s particularly true in Scotland, where there are some brilliant new plays being produced.

Now, I know that every tourist risks idealising what he or she sees abroad, especially when those sights seem to contrast with deficiencies at home. And I am aware of the problems faced by the British theatre, especially in terms of funding and the desire of the British government to instrumentalise everything from education to culture.

Nevertheless, I found myself wondering why things aren’t quite the same in Ireland – a country that is supposed to have a reputation for producing great writers.

Of course there have been plenty of good plays in Ireland over the last few years – and last year’s nominees for the Irish Times best play award were all very strong (they were Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days, Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Morna Regan’s The House Keeper and The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle  by Ross Dungan). But there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of excitement about new writing as would have been the case from, say, 1995 to about 2003.

One explanation is that Irish theatre has taken to devising during that period. We’ve had quite a bit of debate about the “play vs. devised piece” distinction over the last year – and I don’t want to add to that debate except to say that I don’t think the distinction is all that necessary or helpful. Michael West’s Freefall was devised with Corn Exchange, but it’s also a brilliantly written play, for example.

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FREEFALL BY CORN EXCHANGE

And as Dylan Tighe has pointed out on a number of occasions, his No Worst There Is None may not be a literary text such as a Friel or a Tom Murphy might write but it was still written by someone who sought to meld its constituent elements into something artistic. Likewise, the most important work of the last decade is by common consensus the site-specific work of Louise Lowe – and although you can’t buy the script for Laundry or The Boys of Foley Street – and although you wouldn’t come close to understanding the performances by reading a script, the action can still be committed to print.

So I don’t worry too much about the amount of devised work in Ireland at the moment, simply because we’re kind of playing “catch-up” with the rest of Europe in introducing these practices anyway.

But I do worry that we are missing out on the exciting work that is being written in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. We’ve seen some of it, especially at the Galway Arts Festival which has in the last decade brought in new plays by Craig Wright, Bruce Norris, Bruce Graham, Che Walker, and David Greig. The Dublin Theatre Festival has brought in some of the bigger British hits of recent years – Black Watch, The Pitmen Painters, and Enron. And Rough Magic and Prime Cut – not to mention such practitioners as Annabelle Comyn and Tom Creed – did much to introduce us to new writing from abroad. But we’re not really seeing much evidence of such work inspiring comparable developments in Ireland in the way that David Mamet did in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I’m very excited by the devised work that’s being done in Ireland, especially by some of the younger companies. But I’m struck by the fact that there seems to be an imbalance now. For example, this year’s Galway Fringe Festival has a great programme, but from a quick glance at it, I don’t see any evidence of any company producing a play that has already been produced professionally somewhere else. And that hardly ever happens in the Dublin Fringe either.

In short, I’d just like to see a few more plays being produced in Ireland – not just new plays by new Irish writers, but also Irish productions of some of the great new work that’s appearing abroad. I really feel that Irish audiences and young theatre-makers would be inspired by this work: inspired to write new plays, inspired to visit the theatre more often. But they need to have access to it first.

The arguments we’ve been hearing over the last few years about devised work are actually muddying the waters, I think. We can continue to have great devised work and should appreciate and value it. But we should also do more to encourage the development of new plays, and to encourage the appreciation of what’s happening abroad. The devised work vs. new play argument is not an either/or – we can have both/and.