There are no Irish Women Playwrights..?

I was reading a blog post recently from Joanne Harris, who writes about the problems with the category of “woman’s fiction”, especially as used by booksellers. “We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women,” she writes. “Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.” She then continues:

It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.

It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)

It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population. […]

Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions. The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.

Harris makes a number of suggestions about what should happen:

Please, everyone, say after me:

Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.

Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.

Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.

The full blog post is here:  http://joannechocolat.tumblr.com/post/84707533631/capitalize-this

Alison Flood wrote a follow-up blog post on the Guardian about this –

what really caught my attention was [Harris’s} claim that “‘Women’s fiction’ is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note)”. I knew it was – or had been – on Wikipedia. There was a controversy about that last year. But Amazon? Really? I checked it out; she’s right. There’s a category for “Women writers and fiction” on the site, and within that for “Women’s literary fiction” – hi Rachel Joyce, Charlotte Mendelson, Maeve Binchy, Kate Morton and Virginia Woolf – and “Women’s popular fiction“. I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.

Flood’s post develops Harris’s in some telling ways. Harris is careful to distinguish between women authors and the genre of “women’s fiction”, as it’s defined by the industry. Yet Flood shows that, at least on Amazon, the two terms mean the same thing: women’s fiction is fiction written by women – Joanne Harris features with Maeve Binchey and Anne Rice and Donna Tart and Eleanor Catton, despite the fact that all write in distinctive genres and for very different audiences.

This debate seemed pertinent given that it coincided with the announcement of the winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange prize. The rules of that prize are as follows:

The Prize is open to any full length novel, written in English by a woman of any nationality, provided that the novel is published for the first time in print form the United Kingdom between 1 April of the year before the Prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the Prize is awarded. We encourage publishers to submit books from all genres.

In other words, the main shortlisting criterion is gender, followed by the book’s being written in English. And of course the books must be “good”, however that word is interpreted.

That prize has often come in for criticism. Most famously, AS Byatt described it as sexist, and has forbidden her publishers to submit her novels for consideration:

“You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.”

Yet the defenders of the prize claim that it gives visibility to books that might otherwise struggle to get an audience.

And to be fair, this year’s winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, certainly merits the high profile it’s received as a result of the win (I think it’s the best Irish novel I’ve read in many years). And the other books on the shortlist also deserve to be better known, especially Americanah and The Lowland. I’ve read four of the six (have not read Audrey Magee or Donna Tart’s books yet), and think that, contrary to Byatt, they are not unified by any kind of reductive “feminine subject matter” though all articulate in different ways a feminist perspective on such matters as sexual agency (stunningly so in McBride), political power, race, and the link between work and identity.

But aesthetically they are very different from each other: McBride’s inventiveness with language is very different from Adichie’s incisively politicized prose, which in turn is very different from the formal elegance of Lahiri’s writing. I don’t know if I could say that any of these books is “better” than any of the others because they are all so different from each other. Nevertheless, I am glad that many people who might not have read those works will now do so.

ANYWAY. What I’ve been wondering is how the debate initiated by Harris – and focused by the Bailey’s prize – might apply to Irish drama.

Back in the early 1990s, a festival was organized by Glasshouse Productions called “There are no Irish women playwrights”. I’ve heard two different stories about where the Festival got its name – perhaps someone involved can tell us which, if either, is true. The first is that an American academic was in an Irish bookstore and asked to be directed to the section for Irish women playwrights. The academic was told that such a section did not exist because: “there are no Irish women playwrights” (most Irish bookstores place Irish drama on the bottom shelves of their poetry sections, so our playwrights generally don’t fare well even now). The second story is that a question was put to a director in a post-show discussion about why there are so few plays by Irish women on Ireland’s stages. And again the same answer came back.

Either story is perfectly credible, of course, and different variations of these comments are made all the time. But the response of Glasshouse was to organize the There are No Irish Women Playwrights festival, which consisted of a reading of extracts from the works of 12 Irish women writers at the City Arts Centre, and which was (I believe, but am open to correction) followed by performances at the Irish Writers Centre.

Again, there were questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. In a Theatre Ireland report on the event, Caroline Williams refers to a Sunday Tribune review that criticized the plays for focusing on “alcoholism, wife-battering, babies and war”. “Surely,” moaned the reviewer, “the human condition as experienced by Irish women playwrights encompasses other sensibilities?” The reviewer’s suggestion is evidence of a common prejudice: one of the most frequent criticisms of women’s plays by (usually male) reviewers is that the topics are not sufficiently “universal” (we men tend to assume that what is normal to us is “universal”).

That same year, Theatre Ireland ran a special issue about women in Irish drama – one of that journal’s last ever issues, if I remember correctly. In addition to the article mentioned above by Caroline Williams, it also featured important contributions from Helen Meany and Victoria White, among many others. There’s also an interesting interview with Katie Mitchell, then at the start of her career, who had been asked by Garry Hynes to direct at the Peacock. While writing this blog post I had a quick glance at some of these articles, and what is particularly noticeable is that, aside from some superficial topical references, most could just as easily have been written today.

Since then, there have been other important interventions. Cathy Leeney produced Seen and Heard, an anthology of plays by Irish women, in the late 1990s. Melissa Sihra’s edited collection of essays Women in Irish Drama is useful in many ways, especially for its inclusion of a list of plays by Irish women – which runs to several pages and which will contain numerous surprises for any reader. And Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick are about to publish a new anthology of plays by Irish women with Syracuse University Press – http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/fall-2014/irish-women-dramatists.html

Yet the problems identified by Joanne Harris persist in Irish drama. As I’ve written on this blog before, roughly one in four Irish plays produced since 1990 has been by a woman (this figure has increased to about one in three in the last five years). Yet plays by women have shorter runs, appear in smaller venues, are less frequently reviewed, are less frequently published – and thus are less frequently revived, and less frequently written about by academics, which in turn means that emerging playwrights in our universities tend to read fewer plays by Irish women. And in the recent consultation for the revised Junior Cert English curriculum, there were very few plays by women (let alone Irish women). So “the canon” remains male-dominated, which in turn has an impact on how young Irish dramatists, both male and female, conceive of their own writing, their own place within the literary tradition.

Women writers are also more likely to write (or to be commissioned to write) plays that are less valued than the “conventional” play – they write proportionately more plays for children, for community groups, and for outreach purposes; and they are also more likely (in general) to write as part of a collective (which is why it took so long for the plays of Charabanc to appear in print – issues of copyright and “ownership” proved difficult to unravel, I’m told).

Furthermore many plays by Irish women are marketed specifically as “women’s plays”: as a great night out for “the girls” (this despite the fact that the theatre audience in Ireland is predominantly female anyway). This was explicitly the case for, say, Marie Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT but a lot of this is much more subtle. For example, we’ve also seen – since the nineteenth century really, and not just in Ireland – that when plays are perceived as being “for women” they are much more likely to be linked with advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, “pampering” (I’m quoting in using that word), and the leisure industries generally.

Yet when the theatre industry here attempts to challenge this problem, they are accused of sexism, rather as Byatt accused the (then) Orange prize. For example, when about five years ago the Abbey staged a series of readings of short plays by women called The Fairer Sex, they were accused variously of ghettoizing and patronizing the writers whose works they were trying to promote.

There have been some improvements since 1993, but it might still be possible to host a festival in Ireland called There Are No Irish Women Playwrights – not because this statement is literally true (just as it was untrue in 1993) but because so many of our women writers have been rendered invisible – or more difficult to see, despite some important work by, among others, Fishamble, Rough Magic, Tinderbox, and (in more recent years) the Abbey.

One of the most prolific, challenging and politically-orientated Irish dramatists around at present is Stella Feehily, for example. One of her short plays appeared in Fishamble’s Shorts about ten years ago; Duck premiered at the Peacock shortly afterwards. And her excellent O Go My Man toured briefly to Cork. But we haven’t seen any of her subsequent plays in Ireland, and I don’t think I have ever heard a conference paper about her work or read an academic article about her either. In part, this is because her plays have mostly been produced by one company during this period (the UK-based Out of Joint). But it’s astonishing that she’s not more celebrated here.

Likewise there’s the case of Nancy Harris, a writer whose debut No Romance was praised almost universally for its inventiveness and originality when it appeared at the Peacock. Her short play Love in a Glass Jar appeared very briefly at the Peacock but her other plays have been staged in London, and her recent play Our New Girl got glowing reviews when it appeared in London and has just been staged in the Atlantic in New York – check out this New York Times review . By going to the Atlantic, Harris is following a pathway taken by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. And we heard a lot about the success of those writers at the Atlantic. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen so much as a tweet about Harris’s success there, despite Isherwood’s review having appeared two days ago.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that we hear less about the successes of Irish women dramatists than we do about, say, McPherson or Walsh or McCafferty. Why is that?

There are other problems.

There are many more Irish women writers who are far better known in Britain than they are in Ireland. Ailis Ni Riain, Nicola McCartney and Ursula Rani Sarma spring immediately to mind, but there are others.

Also notable is the critical indifference and hostility that has greeted Marina Carr’s more recent plays: she was praised when working within conventional (some would say “patriarchal”) forms such as tragedy (even if she aimed to problematize and rewrite those forms from a feminist viewpoint), but her more experimental output since 2008 has been met with bafflement.

I’m also thinking of the fact that Christina Reid ha spoken publicly about the difficulty she has had in having her plays produced since the mid-1990s: the end of the Troubles meant that her works were no longer seen as politically relevant, and thus theatres lots interest in her as an artist. Why did this happen to Reid but not to Friel’s Translations or Freedom of the City or Parker’s Pentecost?

Some of this, of course, is a result of the problem of “the new play in Ireland” at present, something that we heard a lot about from Irish writers at last year’s Synge Summer School. There are so few venues for Irish writers to produce new work that there is an expectation that every new play must be fully realized, must succeed with critics and audiences and everyone else. This removes space for innovation and risk-taking: playwrights need to be free to fail occasionally – as shown in the example of Carr, who has spoken about how the failure of Ulaloo (pulled from the Peacock stage after only a handful of performances) forced the reinvention that led to The Mai. Every Irish playwright has written something that was considered at the time of its premiere to be a false turn or a failure – Friel’s Faith Healer being a prime example. And while many Irish plays do still fail, there is less acceptance of such failure as being normal and even necessary. Theatres can’t afford it, aside from anything else. And more simply the problem is that we don’t have the kind of venues that can allow new plays to be produced in a way that will allow writers to make some sort of a living..

Yet despite the fact that there has been so much talk of the Irish play being in crisis, there have been a great many successful Irish plays by women in recent years, from such writers as Morna Regan, Deirdre Kinahan, Sonya Kelly, Marie Jones, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacy Gregg, and many more, including those mentioned throughout this post. (And if you think I have omitted anyone, please use the comment box below to add details).

The phrase there are no Irish women playwrights is thus both a challenge and an aspiration. We need to do more to draw attention to plays by women, simply because so much of this work is unjustly neglected – and so much of it has to fight for the attention and respect that many male authors are able to take for granted. We need to ignore those who ask the trivializing questions that accompany all of the innovations mentioned above (“when are we going to get a festival of new plays by men/a special issue of Theatre Ireland about men/ a collection of academic essays about male authors?”). We need to praise those who take small steps rather than critising them for not doing more: a season of readings is better than nothing, even if full productions should be the norm (though of course we must also be critical of token gestures and lip service). And, following on from Joanne Harris, we need to aspire to a situation where calling someone a woman playwright is merely a descriptive statement rather than a political or aesthetic judgement.

It’s now 21 years since the There are no Irish Women Playwrights festival was staged. Things have improved, somewhat, but there’s still much more to be done. As a community – of theatre-makers, writers, producers, scholars, audience-members – we need to get our act together on this one, I think.

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Eight Irish Dramatists Discuss Irish Playwriting Today

I’m just back from the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum in Wicklow. I’ve been directing that event since 2008 and because this was my last year in charge I decided to invite eight Irish dramatists to come and speak about Irish playwriting today. So we heard from Stuart Carolan, Deirdre Kinahan, Mark O’Rowe, Owen McCafferty, Marina Carr, Dermot Bolger, Declan Hughes and Enda Walsh. Rita Ann Higgins also attended and while she is better known as a poet, she has also written plays. And we went to see Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed! and heard him and Gavin Kostick speaking about it afterwards.

This is something we’ve always done at the Synge School: although most of the talks are by academics, during my time as director we’ve also had occasional interviews/readings with Sebastian Barry, Una McKevitt, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor, Bernard Farrell, Louise Lowe, Pat McCabe, Christina Reid, Billy Roche and Conor McPherson.

But this year I thought there would be some value in dispensing with the academic perspective altogether and hearing only from the writers.

In programming the event I was motivated by some of the thoughts expressed elsewhere in this blog: a feeling that if Irish playwriting is not exactly in crisis, nor is it as healthy as it used to be. I wanted to find out how Irish dramatists see matters – and I wanted to give people an opportunity to focus on the excellence of contemporary Irish drama: something we don’t really give enough attention to these days.

We heard a huge amount about each writer’s career, and Irish theatre generally, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But there were some general patterns that I found interesting.

I should make clear from the outset that all opinions below are my own and unless explicitly stated otherwise are not those of the writers or participants. I also should state that the comments below are based on my memory of events over the last few days, and may therefore be subject to correction. But leaving those health warnings aside, I hope the observations below might be of interest.

On Getting Started

We heard a lot from the writers about how they got started as playwrights.

I was struck by the fact that for some, the ‘lucky break’ arose because of fortuitous personal contacts: Stuart Carolan was able to give his first play Defender of the Faith to Noel Pearson, for example – while Owen McCafferty gave his first play to Martin Lynch, who was running a workshop that one of Owen’s relatives was attending.

Mark O’Rowe spoke about how he went around from one theatre company to another, pushing copies of his script into letter boxes. “I didn’t even get rejection letters from most of them,” he said – but Fishamble replied and told him they wanted to do his play.

Deirdre Kinahan, Enda Walsh and Declan Hughes had to do things for themselves: Kinahan and Hughes had set up companies and gradually began to write their own work; Walsh likewise was working with Corcadorca and gravitated towards writing. And Dermot Bolger has done an enormous amount to foster new writing of all kinds in Ireland, as a publisher and commentator.

I was also very interested in what writers had to say about learning how to write. Hughes, for instance, spoke about how he had spent a number of years directing and performing – first in Players at Trinity and then with his own company Rough Magic. A conversation with Declan Donellan at the Dublin Theatre Festival inspired him to write an adaptation of Woman in White and that in turn gave him the confidence to write I Can’t Get Started.

Hughes’s talk underlined  for me the value of having great international plays in the Irish repertoire: he spoke about how his work on the “Howards and Davids” (Brenton, Barker, Hare and Edgar) in the early 1980s fed into his own development as a playwright.

In contrast, Enda Walsh spoke about how in his early years he would produce short bursts of writing for Corcadorca – sometimes as much as one piece a week, each lasting maybe five or ten minutes. The company would stage these short plays and would then come back out on stage and talk to their audience about what they had done and how they could improve. Walsh said that he found people stopping him on the streets in Cork to give him notes. So what was crucial here was the freedom to experiment. I asked Walsh how he found an audience for such work. “We gave away tickets,” he explained – pushing them through letter-boxes, giving them out in nightclubs, and so on.

The overall point here is that no-one will ever succeed by sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. This will be obvious to everyone who works in the theatre but is perhaps not sufficiently well appreciated outside the sector. I was constantly struck by how many of these writers had to go out and carve out opportunities for themselves before the Irish theatre ‘took them in’, so to speak.

On Transitioning

We had quite a bit of discussion about how playwrights’ careers develop over time.

Declan Hughes and Dermot Bolger both spoke about times in their lives when, for various reasons, they felt that they’d had enough of writing plays; both went off to do other things but have since resumed writing drama.

Enda Walsh spoke about how his own career had distinct phases. Bedbound in 2000 marked a new development, as did Walworth Farce in 2006. He’s working on a new play at the moment, he says – and that too represents a new direction.

Likewise, Mark O’Rowe told us about his forthcoming work, saying that although he is very proud of his last play Terminus, his new play is a significant step forward.

We found ourselves spending a surprising amount of time discussing the business of how playwrights transition into new periods in their writing life. An example given by one of the participants is Conor McPherson’s play The Veil, which was greeted with disappointment and some bafflement when it appeared at the National in London in 2011. The comment was that the play was actually very good – it just didn’t seem like a typical Conor McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps critics and PR people) didn’t seem to know what to make of it.

The problem here is that many Irish writers became well known for a particular kind of play – and have since found themselves encountering negative or indifferent reactions when they’ve tried to move into new areas, as McPherson did with The Veil. We’re in a bizarre situation where we criticise playwrights who keep doing the same things, but then ignore their work when they try new things.

Marina Carr was especially interesting on this subject. She became famous for her five midlands plays The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats, On Raftery’s Hill and Ariel. Yet she decided after Ariel appeared in 2002 that she didn’t want to write any more plays set in the midlands: she needed to do things differently. Her subsequent plays have not always been well received, partly because (I think) of audience expectation and partly because of other problems such as direction (and this is my opinion, not hers).

Listening to Carr reading from On Raftery’s Hill and then Marble, I was very struck by the continuities in her career rather than the disjunctions: the humour, her focus on power, the way she treats familial relationships, the way she creates brilliant scenes that display women in conflict with each other… and so on. If we look beneath the surface of Carr’s plays – beyond the midlands accent, for instance – there is a very clear trajectory in which important themes are being developed. We just haven’t been paying attention to those themes up to now.

Owen McCafferty was also very interesting on career development. He pointed out that, especially in the north, there is great support for the discovery of new plays. But he also called for more support for playwrights across their career.

This proved a recurrent theme: it’s often said that it’s easier to have a first play staged in Ireland than a second play. But hardest of all, perhaps, is getting a tenth or eleventh play staged. Carr spoke about the difficulty of having new work produced in Ireland – and we also considered the case of Frank McGuinness, whose last five original plays have all premiered abroad.

The overall suggestion was that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a career as a playwright in Ireland.

On Directing and Being In Control

Another recurrent strand was the desirability of having control over one’s work. Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh have both been directing their own work, and both spoke about the value of directing the first production of their own plays (something that Conor McPherson does as well).

Marina Carr also said that she’d love to direct her own plays – and indeed other people’s plays (she’d love to direct Tennessee Williams and some of the Greek tragedies, she said).

Other writers discussed their relationships with directors: Deirdre Kinahan spoke warmly about David Horan, for instance, as Dermot Bolger did about Ray Yeates. And Owen McCafferty said that although he has directed his own plays, he values the objectivity brought to the process by a director.

Stuart Carolan was very interesting here too. He acts as Executive Producer of Love/Hate, and it was very clear from listening to him that that show is good precisely because he’s given the freedom to do things his own way.

But we also heard other stories during the School about the frustrations of having one’s work interfered with or dismissed, often by people who are not themselves working from an artistic perspective  – such as TV and film executives,  critics, and others.

One good example of this issue was the use of music. Stuart Carolan and Declan Hughes both spoke about how important music is for their work – how the choice of a particular song is essential for the communication of a particular set of sensations or emotions. Other writers spoke about how their choice of music is often treated as a kind of ‘optional extra’ which directors are sometimes inclined to ignore or overlook.

In general, the old view that writers shouldn’t direct their own plays was fairly thoroughly dismissed during the School. As someone put it, just because Brian Friel got a hard time when he did it in 1997 doesn’t mean it should never be done. Someone else made the great point that Conor McPherson had been directing his own plays with success for years – but when The Veil appeared, critics immediately said that the production showed why playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work. The general feeling was that there are benefits to having writers direct their own work.

On Devising

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, there is a view around at present that there is a clash between devising and playwriting. Over the course of the four days, we saw evidence of a much more nuanced approach to that subject. Both Kinahan and Walsh spoke about how they began their careers by doing work that would now be seen as devising, for instance. And in general at the School there was respect for devising as a process of making theatre (though of course there was some dissent too).

On this subject, the overall point I took away is that devising is like any other kind of theatre – some of it is good, and some of it is bad. The writers all spoke about the need to be rigorous in their own work: it takes up to two years to write a play because there’s a need to be very precise and detailed with language, and so on. We’re all aware of devised work that meets those kinds of rigorous standards (and, as you’d expect, Louise Lowe’s name was cited a few times in that context).

So just as there are some conventional plays that need more work, that aren’t ready when they go on, and that could have been more rigorous, the same is also true about some devised work. We just need to have more good work in Ireland, I think (and again this is not a criticism of anything currently being done and is my own opinion).

Kinahan put it well when she said that there doesn’t have to be a clash between playwriting and devising, but there could be more mutual respect.

A Playwright’s Theatre and the Audience

Many of the writers spoke about the need for a theatre in Ireland that would be dedicated exclusively to the regular production of new work, and not just by new playwrights. Of course people admire the work being done by Theatre Upstairs – and I kept hearing people talk about how important Fishamble have been for them at various times in their career. And there was also some appreciative discussion of the new writing that has been emerging from the Abbey/Peacock in recent years.

But we don’t quite have anything like the Royal Court  or the Traverse – a high-profile and well resourced theatre (or theatre company) that would produce 10-12 new plays in Ireland every year, by a mix of established and emerging voices. So it’s important to say that no-one was criticising the existing provision in this area, but we were all just expressing the wish that we had something a bit more intensive.

Many people present at the School (not necessarily the writers) expressed their doubts about whether such a theatre might be viable – the fear seems to exist that there isn’t a big enough audience for new plays out there.

I wonder if that’s true. I am of course aware that new plays represent a risk for theatres and that this is in many ways not a great time for theatres to be taking risks. And I’m aware of examples of new plays that have not done well either critically or commercially. But if an audience trusts a theatre – as they do the Royal Court and the Traverse – they are more prepared to take the risk, I think. It’s easy for me to say that, I know, but perhaps more can be done here.

As I write above, no-one was being critical of existing provision, but there was a wish that we could find a way to do more for new playwriting in Ireland, so that established playwrights can actually make a living out of their writing over a longer period of time.

On Adaptations

Also notable is that so many theatres are now mitigating risk by commissioning adaptations. Many of the writers spoke about how they’re being commissioned to adapt novels – or to change existing works of art into something else (quite a lot of musicals seem to be in the works).

Other Issues…

We spoke a lot about the status of women dramatists in Ireland (improving but still much more to be done), of the importance of London as an outlet for the production of Irish plays, of the impact of Hollywood cinema and new American TV, about the importance of good storytelling, and much more. I might try to write more about some of these during the weeks ahead. And my hope is that others present might also do some blogging… Ciara O’Dowd has already posted a great entry here which has some thoughts on Dermot Bolger and Stuart Carolan’s contributions.

What Next?

All of the people we heard from were honest about the difficulties writers encounter, from financial to artistic to practical challenges. But all of them spoke about their work in progress with a lot of optimism and positivity.

Stuart Carolan, for instance, was very exciting on the future of Love/Hate (but when pressed to tell us what has happened to Darren he wouldn’t say anything!). Deirdre Kinahan told us about a play that she’s writing which is trying to do something I’ve seen in the cinema before but never on stage. And every other playwright had interesting things to say about their forthcoming work.

I left Rathdrum feeling very excited about the coming years: if every play that we heard about is produced in Ireland during the next 18 months, we could be in for a really great period of new writing – perhaps one that could push us back towards the spirit of that mini-Golden Age from 1995 to 2003.

But there are challenges too, the biggest of which is that it’s getting harder for playwrights to have a career.

I find myself wondering if perhaps we need to slightly refocus our priorities  in Irish theatre. I know how important it is to find and nurture new voices. But are we doing enough to nurture our established writers – to help them to develop, to move on, to keep writing? This isn’t an either/or – we can do both, of course. And again, I’m not criticising anyone who’s involved in doing this work at present – but perhaps there’s a need for a more systemic (that is, system-wide) consideration of playwriting.

It was an amazing experience to share a space with eight extraordinarily talented writers at the Synge School: they are all doing great things, and can continue to do great things. We just need to find new and better ways of letting them get on with it.

What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.

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.