Close connection and understanding … and the text


‘Birds’ from Amour, where Terri Leiber and Ben Townsend worked to create bird characters. (See the trailer for PlayActing Theatre’s Amour featuring the birds with Camilla Griehsel, Singer and Justin Grounds, violinist.)
Photo credit: Julia Zagar

It is intimacy and close connection, actor to actor, that I focus on in Blog 3, something that I am aware of creating and cultivating when I am working as an actor myself, as well as when I am a director encouraging this between actors. At the beginning it is about the actor herself in relation to the other actor(s) and then, it moves to the actor in relation to the audience, in my view.

Yoshi Oida is a Japanese actor who went to Paris and worked for many years with Peter Brook. His descriptions capture the connections and sensitivity that I seek to describe.

…Eventually we became silent, and then on a signal, we all opened our eyes. There were about twenty five of us sitting on the carpet together. It felt as if we had known each other for years, and yet we had only communicated through our hands and voices. (…) This communication was not ‘actor-to-actor’ but ‘human being-to-human being’. Later, I realised that this level of communication was central to theatre.

An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall, 2011, p 8.

This layer of involvement in the work of theatre and drama comes along with all of the work one does on voice, movement, text. And for me, it has become increasingly important––this extraneous focus on the ‘human-to-human’ connection through practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais. The self-awareness and being present that is central to these Eastern practices is the aid to bringing the theatre mantra of ‘being in the moment’ to fruition. All of this too feeds into this notion of collaboration and collective creativity I speak about. (For further reading, you might like to check out The Amadeus Project blog which I completed in 2019.)

Then the question, How does this collaboration and collective creativity impact on a play or performance … on text? You’ll see in The Amadeus Project blog that, after 38 posts, I hadn’t quite reached the end of the investigation process. Please read on to see the point where I position myself now, in October 2020. In another blog, I would also love to consider the difference between Performance Art and Theatre. What overlap is there with performance art in Peter Brook’s work


In creating performances, as a writer first and then as an actor, you are constantly checking the movement of the piece of writing (could it be best described as an energy?)––to figure out how best to shape performances for an audience. Rereading the writing constantly for this purpose––by reading aloud to yourself, by reading aloud to an audience, by having another actor reading your writing––all of these enable you, as a writer, to consider this flow and shape of the piece. Cue the actor then, where you consider the tone and the texture of the words (as well as the physicality), moving and fine-tuning it constantly, to create the best possible performance for an audience.

An Aside: What that will mean––the best possible performance––will surely have different meanings to each person involved. It may be the telling of the story is enough, or the reaching of the audience with pathos, making an audience laugh. Personally, I like it when an audience is moved to tears… Though, being sick from laughing comes a close second!

An Aside: I cannot recall the person who said this but I agree, that in working on our artistic practice, we are (simply?) seeking to be better at it, always working towards creating a piece of art that was better than before and then on to perfection!

This idea doesn’t take economics into account, the putting of bread on the table … nor does it take into account the scheduled date of an opening night!

In working on your own as a writer and solo performer, it is tricky in that you don’t have anybody else to rely on in that relationship with the audience. You learn to critique yourself … with a perspective that is separated in your mind from the part of you that is performing. I recall the moment in a theatre workshop when playing the role of a bereaved mother seeing her son during the Scottish clearances that, despite being very upset as the character I was playing, I realised that Karen, the actor, was not distraught, but playing a role. 

A director, or ‘outside eye’ will give you feedback during rehearsal on the structure, the presentation, and of course, in discussion on the audience reaction. But, it can be a lonely place.

Ri-ken no Ken’ literally means ‘outside view’. It is the opposite of ‘Ga-ken’, meaning the performer’s own subjective view of himself and his actions. To have ‘Ri-ken no Ken’ means that the actor is able to see his performance from the outside, as if through the eyes of the audience, and can accommodate his work to their perceptions.

I initially considered that this was a viewpoint from within the audience but then realised that ‘…this viewpoint is situated behind me. I watch myself acting from somewhere behind my head.’ 

An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall, 2011, p 40.

I often think of the work of theatre as a kind of sculpting … a shaving away of any excess of emotion or physicality that doesn’t serve the particular message you wish to make; or, on occasion, a putting on of extra pieces of clay, moulding it into the shape of the whole.

So, in the ‘Eileen’ Monologue (2014/15), I worked constantly to balance the humour of the central character, Eileen, in ordinary everyday life, with the intense pain of the loss of a baby, and coming to terms with childlessness. She coped with it through cleaning and being obsessively organised in running her Tupperware empire. Crucially, there needed to be a 50 : 50 balance of both humour and pathos. Otherwise, it was just too sad.

This insight came to me near the end of the rehearsal process when working with a friend. She brought it to my attention that the story for the character was too hard to bear and had thought it would be funnier. It led me into an acute consideration of what I was trying to convey. Being aware of managing that balance was very interesting and a constant challenge throughout all of the performances. 

‘Eileen’ and her Tupperware. Photo credit: Patricia Coogan O’Dell

Understanding and close connection in co-creation

Working with another actor brings a comfort in sharing the responsibility for the performance and the pleasure of the audience. The person that I have worked most closely with in this regard is Terri Leiber, actor and writer. She and I have worked together in various capacities: where I was her director, then the co-adaptor and director of her Monologue, ‘May the Force…’, and then, for six different shows from 2011 with a co-written and co-directed comedy / cabaret.

I had been invited to a writers’ party and had gone as the character, Eileen. There Eileen met Marilyn and a certain chemistry developed. We brought this to life the following Christmas and after that ‘The Eileen and Marilyn Experience’ was born, with six different theatre shows, plus some story writing, some short films, and a TV series. 

Through that long length of time, the connection built up between us as creatives; slowly, through hard work and laughing! All of the elements that I set out in Blog 1 are there (openness, sensitivity, fun, all 12 words that I set out) in relation to that relationship as writers, directors and joint performers; Plus, the elements relate to the enquiry in relation to the audience: how they respond to the story, to the characters.

I have said before that collaboration means something different to every person. For Terri and I, our collaboration was intertwined every step of the way. On occasion we would work separately and add one on top of the other, but we always connected in together regularly, to ensure we moved the story or ideas along. And from about half-way through the process of completing a project, the bounce came from the twosome together. If we couldn’t find an answer to a question ourselves, we moved into ‘Eileen and Marilyn’ mode and that shifted the creative energy.

What took some time for me to realise, and not just in collaboration with Terri, was the necessity of the moments of uncertainty, discomfort and feeling of disempowerment that is utterly part of this process. Little by little as a person, I have come to accept the slow unwinding of ideas that come about by openness, acceptance, confidence in my own creativity and continual working on the communication between us. Plus, there had to be fun included … a lot of laughing!

Eileen & Marilyn selfie at Electric Picnic, 2018. For fun from the duo see: The Wonders of West Cork @ Twig Clonakilty

We found for our work, there must be heart in the story, the satire on the social situations or the community reflection or the fun between ourselves or with the audience wasn’t enough on its own. Although, in one of our shows, we did see how far we could go in doing something really boring … in this case, we got the audience to compare 4 different types of tissues and comment on them. We were never disappointed with the enthusiasm the audience put into this comparison!

One other thing that was odd for me, was that the Eileen character had two different sides, one larger and moving towards caricature and the other, from where the stories stemmed, who was more serious and thoughtful … more realistic, though still communicating through humour and the comedy that arises from situations. Don’t ask me how this makes sense to me!!

Back to connection

Ultimately, the relationship between actors / characters on stage is the connection between them. And Oida’s description of ‘human being-to-human being’ encapsulates that connection for me.

On the stage… Just remain open to the other actors. Don’t fix your attention on any one aspect of the performance. Allow yourself to respond to your fellow performers, and then you will discover how your character reacts.

An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall, 2011, p 40.

This is something that recurs for me. This following extract from the second of the Monologues about the same character ‘Eileen’ has the same quality of intensity and connection that I am trying to clarify.  Mammy has had a ‘turn’ and this is Eileen’s response.

Extract from Mammy Through the Post Box.

And, looking at her and she so frail, it straight away reminded me of Daddy, that day in the hospital. It was one of his bad days when he wasn’t in good form. The staff would have been chivvying him along, getting him out of the bed and dressed so that he had some semblance of living a normal life. In another way, it seemed to be an unkindness too, because he was so low in his spirits he seemed like a scarecrow version of Daddy, dressed in his clothes but leaning a bit sideways and sagging like the stuffing was askew. 

I bent down on my hunkers to catch his eye, ’coz Daddy’s head was facing down. And then I thought, To hell with it, I’m just going to have to wash these trousers again, and I knelt down properly on the floor of the ward. 

And do you know what I wondered for years after, if I had been wearing a skirt that day would I have chanced the cold floor with bare knees?  Would I have taken that moment at all? And I’d never have realised that you have to make it your business to look your loved ones straight in the eye, forget about what people might think or how it looks or your good trousers, it’s looking the person in the eye and seeing them and them seeing you and hopefully knowing, if only for that brief moment, that you are there with them.

And what about the impact on the text?

At the very least, all of this practice will bring awareness to any play or performance, and can only benefit it. I believe that the more comfortable an actor is with themselves and, following on, with the other actors, then the better the performance will be.

In the analysis of the rehearsal process of Amadeus in 2019, the part of the rehearsal where the play had to be put on the stage became more formal than I wished for. The difficulties that arose because of character changes were partly to do with that, the anxiety of bringing the performance to fruition––after 10 months, with a cast of 18 and a production team of 38. You can check out the Reflections post (The Amadeus Project blog) on the process written in October, 2019, shortly after the run.

There is more exploration I have to do on the impact of collaboration and collective creativity on a text. I know that the impact of the work on the actors that I perceive is appreciable. I also know that the ability of the creative team around PlayActing Theatre, after nearly twenty years of working together, to improvise, be playful, join in, offer their artistry and wisdom, adds amazing richness to a rehearsal process and creates some of that collective theatre atmosphere of the Theatre Du Soleil that I spoke about in Blog 1.

Certainly, I think we need to do another play for further research purposes!

Podcast 2: Take a Chair: talking theatre and creativity

Chatting with Alyn Fenn, painter and writer, about inspiration and the work.

This podcast features Karen Minihan in conversation with Alyn Fenn, a writer and painter, and   a creative collaborator with Karen for over twenty years in projects which included: street theatre, an arts festival, in PlayActing Theatre and other theatre projects as well as many community arts projects.

Linking to Blog 2 in the series, entitled ‘Vision, inspiration…and enchantment’, the women touch on why one works creatively and Alyn speaks of where the inspiration for her painting and writing comes, the impact of her family background, thoughts on collaboration,  the physicality of working and her chosen chair.

In the podcast, Alyn’s uncle, a poet, is mentioned. His name is Alun Lewis.

Her mother was painter, Mair Fenn, and her father, Charles Fenn, the writer.

My ‘Alyn Fenn’ still-life painting.

(Opening and closing music features Camilla Griehsel, Singer and Justin Grounds, Violinist.) 

Vision, inspiration … and enchantment

Vision and inspiration first

As a theatre-maker in my ‘prime’ (as the Irish Theatre Institute would have it), it is almost impossible to comment in a succinct way on the myriad places I have found inspiration and that have influenced my work. 

Recently, in my diary, I wrote a list of fifty people who had a positive impact on me. Many of the people I named had fed my creative life and awareness: from the teachers who loved the literature we studied (Irish, French, English), the nun who encouraged us as six-year olds to write our own Christmas play, or those teachers who took on the Christmas play every year, giving me a chance to perform, both in Primary School and then the school musicals in Secondary School, not to mention Mrs Nolan, the revered drama teacher. As a teacher myself, I later came to realise the effort involved. What a gift to schoolchildren: the collaboration, the camraderie and the enchantment!

The highlight of the school year for me in Convent of Mercy Secondary School, Clonakilty.

And what about all the writers of my impressionable years?––the Frank O’Connors and Edna O’Briens, John B Keane and Brian Friel; writers whose voices reflected our lives and told stories that we could identify with as well as the writing of Shakespeare or Guy de Maupassant that brought us to different, harsher situations, but which also resonated.

And what about growing up in a community like Clonakilty, in west Cork, where involvement in plays, musicals, attending and performing in Kilmeen Drama Festivals, choirs, an orchestra. and street performances were commonplace; not to mention taking it in turns with my two sisters to go to the opera season in Cork with our parents, all dressed up and looking at the dress suits and frocks in the Grand Circle of the Opera House!

All of it creates the tapestry of influence and vision.

In this blog, I set out the places where I find inspiration for my work in more recent times as a theatre-maker; from a practical point of view as well as a more esoteric, creative perspective. I also point our what it is that appeals to me or resonates with my learning. 

One concept weaves through it all––the idea of reflecting society as it is now, to hold a mirror to our contemporary life.

I cannot include all the sources of inspiration. I am thinking here especially of the unscheduled conversations I have with other artists which result in a refining and developing of my thinking as I write or create, or the essential support from the groups of writers that I have been lucky to be a part of for many years, or those I meet on a weekly basis whose conversations provide direction and clarity.

For these generous friends and for west Cork where this society abounds, I am very grateful.


There are a few books that I carry with me all the time through the rehearsal process of a play or when teaching. They have provided practical games and a key to unlocking an emotional journey through drama classes and theatre rehearsals.

The bibles.

1 For a focus on group work, with games to bring a group together and techniques to create images. These enable a deeper enquiry into dramatic situations or themes.


theatre should be happiness, it should help us learn about ourselves and our times.


Augusto Boal’s approach, as evidenced in this book, was egalitarian and collective. There was a constant enquiry by the group into the work in hand and empowerment of the participants occurs as a natural consequence of this approach. His interest in addressing politics and situations of oppression, and creating images to explain and elucidate the points of discussion, is incredibly effective.

Hence his development of a way of working in theatre called The Theatre of the Oppressed, a system and means of communicating and exploring issues and themes through performance has been used and developed worldwide. And which also has the intention of empowering the participants.

The variety of games / exercises / activities are helpful in any group work. In particular, his use of Image Theatre, where a tableau is developed by the group and then animated in a small way by each individual member––this results in a powerful dynamic energy within this collective creation. And the reduction of ideas or themes into intimate images / statues / tableaux, by an individual or a group is wonderful and incredibly effective. 

As an example of this work, I took a Transition Year group in the 2010s. It was a fluid group and very challenging for drama, which blossoms on consistency and trust, built on a continuing and developing relationship within the group. This class were lively and only a few only had experienced drama. I asked the students to create an image of the ‘Junior Cert Results Night’,  no talking about the image or preparation of it, just a movement into position, one after the other, to create a group picture. It included drinking groups, Guards, a vomiting teenager, concerned friends. Immediately after this image, I asked them to create a picture of the ideal ‘Results Night’. This image was of groups of friends together, celebrating, some drinking, sharing the celebrations. 

2 A focus on the practice of the individual, understanding and developing sensitivity to oneself and to others, leading to greater sensate awareness. 

DAVID ZINDER BODY VOICE IMAGINATION Imagework Training and the Chekhov Technique

Each section in Zinder’s Body Voice Imagination Imagework Training and the Chekhov Technique uses exercises that move in sequence, one into the next. The self-awareness and reflection that they bring are very appealing to me and aid my analysis of theatre particularly in relating to the actor and the movement of performers. I use them in combination with other work, particularly when working towards an intense focus and connection between the partipcants. 

Zinder not only provides a clear line of exercises to follow, he provides insight and an explanation of the intentions behind the work and that of Chekhov, whose path he follows. 

For example, he describes states of being such as ’The Feeling of Ease’, which must follow and inform the ‘Feeling of Beauty’:

In his address to the students on the opening day of the Chekhov Theatre Studio of Darlington Halll, on October 1, 1936, Michael Chekhov said, “It is very important that during the whole lesson you must be very active at all times. Your figure (body) must be beautiful during the whole lesson. In whatever you are doing, you must feel yourself full of power, full of energy.” This is not only a wonderful concept on its own merits, but it is also an important one in terms of training the performer. The three crucial elements here are: (a) accepting the idea of living the life of a performing artist, whose body is his artifact, and therefore must be at all times beautiful; (b) understanding that every gesture, every move the actor makes, in workshop, rehearsal, or performance, is an integral part of his craft, and should––through the conscious effort of the actor––be imbued with a Feeling of Beauty, as it aspires to the condition of art; and (c) taking the greatest possible pleasure in having a body that moves and creates aesthetic forms in space. 

Zinder, Body Voice Imagination Imagework Training and the Chekhov Technique, p 134

These ideas and thoughts coincide with ideas that I have found in other classes involving movement, like yoga or somatic movement. All of this experience combines to extend the learning in relation to the body and how it can be developed in giving and creating expression.  Later in this series, I intend to look at movement and the body in the creation of theatre.

For now, I would just say that I believe, ultimately, all of these methods and practices search for the truth; how we can best portray it––whatever truth means––at the particular stage we are in our careers or development as theatre-makers.


Other perspectives on the art of theatre have been interesting to read and experience in live performance. It is always a pleasure to find a coincidence of ideas or thoughts on your practice in the words of others.

3 A sense of space, the actor in it and the interaction with the audience


….to share with you a fundamental idea: that theatre has no categories, it is about life. This is the only starting point, and there is nothing else truly fundamental. Theatre is life.

Peter Brook, The Slyness of Boredom, (from There Are No Secrets) p 8

I love Brook’s ideas around the acting space and the definition of it, and his analysis and exploration of the concept over many years. Theatre students and interested people have followed his analysis of making theatre for decades: travelling through Africa, engaging with local people in an exploration of storytelling and engagement with an audience; his work with actors, constantly seeking truth and the best possible way of communicating to others.

Sometimes he frames the performance space with carpet or, when I attended his theatre in Paris, the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, the central acting area––a large rectangle––was delineated with tape. Minimal props were used, the bare essentials for telling the story in ‘The Suit’ by Can Thembe. It is the actors that are his focus, in their performance and their engagement with the audience, with the stage area reaching into the auditorium. 

I love too his focus on performance, and seeking to constantly work to hone and fine-tune the actor; in their physicality, sensitivity and in the space. 

It is in fact very easy to be sensitive on language or the face, or in the fingers, but what is not given by nature and must be developed through work is the same sensitivity in the rest of the body, in the back, the legs, the rear. Sensitive means that the actor is at all times in contact with his entire body. When he initiates a movement, he knows the exact place of every limb.

Peter Brook, The Slyness of Boredom, (from There Are No Secrets) p 19

One of the moments that stood out for me that evening that I attended Les Théâtres des Bouffes du Nord in 2015 came at the end of the performance. When the actors came to receive the applause from the audience they didn’t bow to them, the cast stood and looked at the audience. Then they moved around the stage to see another part of the audience and, again, they looked directly at them, and received the response consciously.

Brook speaks often of the interaction of the actors and the audience, they are together in the performance, and that’s what it seemed to me at that moment. The lighting had been brightened at this point to ensure that there was a direct connection and ‘seeing’, one group to the other.

Always, the play is performed in relation to the audience, the flow of energy from the actors on the stage to them, each bound to the other.

4 Theatre reflecting social and political issues, through collective and collaborative practices, creating an entire experience


A theatre company is not an artistic entity cut off from life. A company is a group. A group is always a maternal structure. At the beginning I didn’t know that, but I’ve discovered it. I discovered that it is not enough for actors to be good creators. 

It is also necessary for them to be free and happy. And that’s not easy. Because there is constantly amongst us all a strange mixture of generosity and selfishness, of availability and reserve. There is an explosive which has to be handled delicately. It is passion in its pure state, It is life. It is restricting, certainly, but it is also wonderful.

Ariane Mnouchkine interveiwed by Jean-Paul Liégeois, ‘Ariane Mnouchkine: “Je mets Shakespeare devant tous les autres, même Molière”’,  Le Nouveau F. Magazine,  no 1, February 1982.

Mnouchkine’s vision of theatre is based on the ideal of a collective company of equals working closely together over a long period of time, collaborating jointly on the creation of performances. It may take many months for a performance to emerge in this process, as, step by step, all of the people involved research the theme and play with the material together. 

In Paris, she has created a place, la Cartoucherie, in the Bois de Vincennes in an old, large, munitions factory for the group, Théâtre du Soleil. When you attend, you take part in the food prepared, sit at long, or round shared tables to eat, and we were served by the members of the theatre group, some of whom had just come off the stage. Food that is wholesome and good. On the way in, we even passed some small wooden houses where, I assumed, the cast lived.

Actors and musicians as well as the production team are involved in the improvisation and experimentation that takes place in the development of any production, before casting is done, with everyone involved in that process. Music plays an important role in their work also.

On the evening, the productions were not directed by Mnouchkine herself but were by companies that she had worked with. There is a singular atmosphere in this theatre, it is raw and authentic, in my opinion. The two productions we saw that night dealt with the stories of immigrants. I wouldn’t describe the event as ‘immersive theatre’ but the entire experience from the moment we arrived felt like real life was overlapping with the theatrical experience and made it all the more enriching for that feeling. It settled the theatre into real life, rather than it being somehow removed, or elitist.

Because of my particular interest in collective work, I seek to find out what that means in practice to different theatre-makers or creative practitioners.  The collectivity evidenced in this group is really interesting, as it takes on the idea of collective living absolutely. And then, it is intriguing to consider how I can imbue my productions with some of the atmosphere and values that I observe, and to calculate how they impact on theatre-making and the participation of the entire team.

Adrian Kiernander, when researching Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil, spent one year in the company of the Troupe, in particular as they developed one project, L’Histoire terrible inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Combodge. It is from this book of his experience that these quotations come.

 ‘Collective’ means that everybody is concerned with everything….I do not evade any of my responsibilities. I assume, and I have never denied it, the direction of the troupe and the suction of stage director (metteur en scène). But that does not mean that I make decisions alone. Everything which involves the future of the company, all the choices, to produce Shakespeare or not, for example, are taken collectively in general meetings. I only have the job afterwards of executing the decisions. And the principles….So we have to do all we can to make the production good:respecting the audience by preparing two hours before the performance has become one of our rules. The ethic of the company includes several other elementary principles: punctuality, equality of salaries, no smoking during rehearsals, sobriety…’

Ariane Mnouchkine interviewed by Jean-Paul Liégeois, ‘Ariane Mnouchkine: “Je mets Shakespeare devant tous les autres, même Molière”’,  Le Nouveau F. Magazine,  no 1, February 1982.


Always, the enchantment of theatre is a fundamental element.

Enchanting images from the 2019 production of Amadeus: Lighting on the two Salieris, picking up the lines of the costume, their colours and specially-made brooches; Salieiri with Orsini Rosenberg––lighting picks up the back wall gold set paint; Confectionery made of builders’ filling and decorated deliciously, sit on a painted tile-effect floor of the walk-way. Photos of the performance by Jack Zagar.

I think this enchantment has to do with being in the presence of other people, bought together for this ritual, and being transported in your mind into a more creative space; to be moved emotionally, however that impacts on you as an individual.

Sometimes, it may be the use of light on a stage, or the impact of colours on a set. I’m not really thinking of spectacle here, which can transport you with the sheer scale of scenery, or use of film for example.

I am more taken with humbler offerings, where there is nowhere to hide, and you rely on the impact of the drama. Often, it is to do with the actor / performer being what they call ‘in the moment’. Then any subject matter touches us as an audience and we are utterly in that moment with them.

It may reveals itself as a smile––where you find yourself smiling and have no conscious part in doing that act.

Once, I attended a production of Othello by the RSC in Stratford. On leaving the theatre, I found I couldn’t speak about the play, it had moved me so much. I was utterly taken by whatever alchemy had taken place that evening, between those on the stage and those in the auditorium. Presumably, it had to do also with the months of rehearsal process and direction, and the production team and the particular connection between those people.

That is enchantment, in my opinion.

Then again, for me, it can also come down to the smell of the backstage of a theatre… Let’s move on from that thought!!

Podcast 1: Chatting with Julia Zagar, artist and designer, about collaboration and creativity

The first interview in the podcast Series 1 is with Julia Zagar, friend and co-creator of Karen Minihan’s for over 20 years. They have worked on many projects together, especially with PlayActing Theatre, a company that has involved their creative input with Alyn Fenn, artist and writer and Terri Leiber, actor and writer.

In the conversation, Julia chats with Karen about her creative practice as a textile artist and designer, with her passion for mood boards*. She considers the challenge and developments in the process of a year-long project to make ‘a piece of art a day’, plus another that is a one large, bedspread-sized apple, made while sitting on the floor. They reflect on what ‘collaboration’ means to Julia, particularly in the context of the many projects she and Karen have undertaken. And Julia elaborates on the chair she has chosen to speak about.

*mood board a collection of images around a specific theme, gathered in one place (eg a large sheet of paper, or a Pinterest site), as a source of inspiration.

A ‘Julia Zagar’ mood board and a snapshot of a portion of her ‘one-a-day 2020’ project.

(Opening and closing music features Camilla Griehsel, Singer and Justin Grounds, Violinist.) 

Collaboration and Collective Creativity: the evolution of a process of theatre-making in 12 words

Collaboration and collective creativity

In 2019, I had the opportunity to explore the application of collaboration and collective creativity while directing a large-scale production of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. The full record of The Amadeus Project, Schull, can be found at and the majority of the photos in this post come from that production, including this photo of the set.

When did I notice that I was interested in this idea of collaboration and collective creativity?

I’m not entirely sure. I know that when I applied to UCC in 2015 it was established as an idea, following a lifetime of involvement in productions as actor, street performer, director, teacher and facilitator. When I prepared my application for a post-graduate degree I was using this terminology and seeking to explore it further in an academic context.

What do I mean by the phrase: collaboration and collective creativity?  The dictionary definitions are:


    collaborate 1. work jointly, esp. in a literary or artistic  production. 

    collective  3. of or from several or many individuals
    creative    1. inventive and imaginative
                2. creating or able to create

            The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th edn. 1990


The words

Before I give you the definition I use as it currently exists, I will explain further to you in 12 words.

1. Connection and  2. Freedom

I had done a few drama courses in the 90s, especially with the Drama League of Ireland, which involved much analysis of plays and systems of learning with the other participants in the evenings. A lot of the thinking came from that learning. Despite working in industrial-type school rooms of Gormonston College, Co Meath, with little style, comfort, set or costumes, we created moments of magic through the performances and embodiment of the actors as we worked through the week and learned of various techniques and exercises, now commonplace for actors.

From then on, whenever I directed, I took a note of what I wished to do and to achieve, whatever games and exercises I used. And what my aim for the session was. 

Aims photo, Amadeus Rehearsal Day 2

Increasingly,  a sense of bringing people together was part of that planning—how to focus on the individuals in front of me so as to create a joint energy that would seem to come if we could access the sub-conscious.

I aimed each time to reach a connection where a sense of freedom permeated the work, building a collective feeling, where creativity flourished and moments of magic happened. 

Because freedom is fundamental––freedom to play, to disregard judgment, the freedom to fail.

This expression, the freedom to fail requires a longer explanation. For now, I’ll explain it simply, I wish to give everyone participating the freedom to get it wrong, to feel no pressure to be right, so they (and I) can believe that they can explore and have no negative consequences.

It is tricky for people to accept (why, I wonder?) and I wonder too about the negativity within the message…I am open to finding a positive perspective on it!

3. Co-Creation   

It is a whole life process, in my view. I can’t separate my life from my work. Each learning in one area imbues the other with understanding. 

Part of the evolution has had to do with being around others with whom I talk about the things of life. It could be my friends or colleagues, strangers or artists. We could be discussing work or how our creativity expresses itself. I speak to friends who are counsellors, therapists, coaches, foodies, friends who are really good at parenting. 

All people who continuously explore their lives. 

And I speak to a lot of teachers, especially when I was working as a drama teacher. Plus, teachers abound in my family!

For about a year in 2017/18 I organised a casual group of people to talk ‘creativity’ for an hour on a Monday morning. There was no other agenda, whoever came came––writers, artists: full-time, part-time––the conversation started without an agenda and it always flowed. 

For example, I particularly loved the discussion on when ideas come to creatives. One woman had to sit instantly wherever she was to capture the words (once in the loo!) or they would be gone. Another just worked and worked, consistently, determinedly. 

Whenever I meet people to converse in this way, with one person or many, I always leave having exchanged links to sites, poetry, artists, music… Invariably, one creative idea borrows another, the atmosphere increases in excitement and my work has a new impetus. 

4. Equality

The common thread is that I am learning from those conversations and so when the time is right, they inspire me to act in a different way. 

So, there was the kindergarten teacher who meditated on his class every morning before beginning his day and I began to do this too.  

There was the midwife who spoke of learning to horseride in middle-age and spoke of using a system which applies a ratio of 51:49 to the relationship between rider and horse––as close to 50:50 as is possible. I endeavored to bring this 51/49 system to my teaching, my directing, to facilitating. I retain a ‘holding’ role, for safety and respect, but otherwise, the sharing––the learning––is equal between students/ participants and me as the leader. 

5. Courage and 6. Openness

While the ultimate aim is the work of the group, the collective, I believe that one begins with oneself…as an actor / student of acting…

The renowned theatre director, Peter Brook, commenting on the theory of Jerzy Grotowski says,

The actor has himself as his field of work…. His hand, his eye, his ear, and his heart are what he is studying and what he is studying with.  

Peter Brook, “The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate”, 1996, p.59.

An actor will continue to explore themselves on many levels right through their performing life and presumably in their personal life also.  The success of any rehearsal process will depend on the openness of the actors and where they are in the personal development of their talents. 

It takes courage to open oneself on this emotional level. It takes self-belief and a willingness to be vulnerable.

Speaking of vulnerability, I couldn’t explain to you what the feeling is like post-performance or post-reading my own work. I don’t have the words to describe it. It is tortuous really. Personally I act through receiving the responses and there is no point in getting a critique at that time. I will only hear the negative feedback and hardly take on the positive. 

Yet, there is nothing else like the experience of being on stage performing or creating those experiences as a director––the exchange of energy with an audience, the constant searching for that one moment where that audience and you are in perfect symbiosis and the audience is in your outstretched palm.

7. Sensitivity   

Many of the exercises I choose when preparing group workshops involve the actor becoming more sensitive to themselves, searching for a greater degree of quietness and stillness within; the aim being to bring an added awareness to their training and exploration. 

Through the exercises, I spend time concentrating on making the actors more aware of others around them and how we humans interact with each other; bringing attention to the subtle means by which we interrelate, the subtleties that make performances credible. 

The aim is to make the participants more comfortable with each other. It often involves an acute mental focus or physical contact, which develops in intensity as the weeks of work move on. 

Planning how this progresses will depend on the particular group I am facing, their temperaments and stages of learning. Consideration of this plan is fundamental to any work. The choice of exercises and the intention for any class is an instinctive response to those involved and requires a consideration––a meditation––on the group. The exercises I employ, exploring the relationships with other actors as they work together, are very familiar to drama students.

8 Embodiment  

…we are aware that he is not really making the music, it is making him – if he is relaxed, open and attuned, then the invisible will take possession of him; through him, it will reach us.

Peter Brook, “The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate”, 1996, p.42.

As theatre-makers, we are obviously always considering movement and the body in performance. Practices such as yoga, pilates, dance or other fitness regimes are essential elements of that work. Increasingly, I am becoming attuned to embodiment in a deeper way, through self-awareness that comes with yoga over many years and other practices such as Somatic Movement or Feldencrais. 

The mind / body / energy axis brings a different awareness to me, makes me more at ease. And in a group, the more at ease each of the participants is, the greater the opportunity for collective creativity to emerge. 

9. Space and 10. Spaciousness

I have become fascinated with these words and the various layers of understanding and meaning that comes with investigating them.

This idea of space and spaciousness requires a consideration (in a future post) of how to unpack our experiences and understanding of these concepts that includes considering music, stillness, quietness and connection between actors, and between them and an audience. Even the amount of space I allow between paragraphs in this post!

From a theatrical point of view, what I also need to consider and allow is sufficient space––here I mean time––for our learning to settle and be absorbed by the participants; for the learning to take place with gentle energy in the execution of the actions requested in any rehearsal process. 

An acute awareness of the physical space that actors inhabit is also an intrinsic quality for me. When actors find their place in the setting, explore it for themselves and for the characters they are playing, this knowledge is enlightening and useful for the play development. 

This is linked too to an awareness of an artistic and architectural space in terms of the design of the set and the overall production, which should complement and be part of any process of exploration of the play in rehearsal.

11. Fun

I couldn’t find the place for the word ‘fun’ before now. But that shouldn’t belie its importance. Fun is intrinsic to my nature and essential to the way I work. It’s like an overarching principle of working for me. 

With the strong desire I have to work in a communal way, encouraging communication between participants through fun and laughter can bring a sharing that can break down barriers immediately. Finding a way to be playful is an essential key to the work. 

In fact, I have found that in writing for my own performances, though I like to consider poignant and difficult topics, my work is most effective when it is balanced equally with humour. 

  …theatre should be happiness, it should help us learn about ourselves and our times.

Augusto Boal, GAMES FOR ACTORS AND NON-ACTORS, 1992, p.16.

12. Synergy

The ultimate intention with this process of collaboration and collective creativity, is to create room––a space––where all of the foregoing elements brought together result in creating a synergy of creativity and connection that is encouraged to bloom and grow.

The Definition

So, to the definition of collaboration and collective creativity that I have eventually adopted: 

It is a quality of cooperation in a creative context that I mean by collaboration and collective creativity.  This process creates a working environment of close connection between people and that results in the minds and bodies of those involved to be free to play and create. It often happens in improvisation and can even happen in simple conversation, where parties are so open and aware that the sharing becomes a symbiotic flow of ideas and inspiration, one to the other. And a space is made where a synergy of co-creation occurs.