Podcast 5: Chatting with Ger FitzGibbon, former Head of Theatre and Drama Studies in UCC, director and writer, sometimes actor

There are many areas in which Ger FitzGibbon has been prominent in theatre in Cork city–-as one of those responsible for setting up and becoming the Head of Department of Theatre and Drama Studies as a director and writer for theatre in Cork.

We focus a lot in this discussion on the city and how the theatre scene has evolved over the past 50 years–-the struggles, the achievements, the politics, the Arts Council––we discuss his involvement in Dramat in UCC, in CTC, the Ivernia, Meridian, the Everyman, as well as the many actor and designers he has been influenced by and created with.

Ger has been described as the father of theatre in Cork; he is well known for his generosity and support to the many actors he meets.

Another enduring legacy is his participation in Graffiti–– the specialist theatre company for young audiences and which has survived nearly 40 years at this stage. As well as being one of the founding members, Ger has served as Chair and as a regular board member for about 30 years. Graffiti has made a significant difference in Cork to the possibilities for theatre-makers––the actors, designers, playwrights, etc.––by providing professional opportunities, seasonal work and, for some, long-term employment. And of course to the thousands of children in Cork city and county that have benefitted through outreach projects or programmes such as the Beag programme, or Fighting Words.

In this podcast we discuss what excites him for the future of theatre in the city as well as his take on collaboration, design, mask-making, his secret passion as a bricoleur, and the Captain’s Chair. He also quotes Shakespeare beautifully!

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1396912/episodes/6656932-podcast-5-chatting-with-ger-fitzgibbon-former-head-of-theatre-and-drama-studies-in-ucc-director-and-writer-sometimes-actor

Details of Ger FitzGibbon’s past plays can be found at PLAYOGRAPHY Ireland, from the Irish Theatre Institute:

The embodiment of hearing

An old chestnut

I have an unusual surname, it is not rare, though not common either; It is the spelling and the pronunciation that are rare.

Where I grew up everybody was familiar with it and so there was no issue. But since I ventured further afield, I must deal with, respond to, cope with, people seeing my name and calling me by what they assume it is.

Do I correct them? Often this seems churlish, or unkind or embarrasses people, or irritates people who cannot understand why it makes a difference.

But fortunately or unfortunately for me, I would consider my hearing to be my strongest sense. And so, when my name is said, and it is pronounced in the way I learned it to be pronounced (the correct way??) the sound sits on or in my ear in a particular, welcome way, and I am aware that my body leans slightly into the communication with the pronouncing person; leans into the connection and the conversation.

I don’t know if this is unusual or not. But, if you doubt the impact, please know that when beginning her career, politician Kamala Harris, now destined for the White House, released a video outlining how to pronounce her name.

And closer to home, we have the very talented Zambian-Limerick woman, Denise Chaila with a similar issue!

“Say my name,” Chaila says, in her song of the same title.

“I hear you, Chaila!” I reply!

So, bring this to the stage. In the last blog, I discussed finding your voice––the practice and awareness of this process. Here, I consider hearing your voice.

If I have to navigate regularly the issue of hearing my surname, Minihan not as Minihan but as Meyenihan (note no ‘e’ at the end either, AND in some parts of west Cork and Kerry the surname Moynihan has the exact same pronunciation as we do––go figure!) then what impact does the hearing of your own accent and idiom from a more powerful position have on you as a person? Either by the hearing of it, or by not hearing it, because you are not represented.

That goes for TV and radio presenters, casual and more serious news-type programmes, politicians––and from my perspective––the Arts. I think it applies to film, music, and of course, to theatre. And the argument applies equally to ethnicity, gender, race––issues that are rightly front and centre of the semiotics of our society as we learn and progress.

Theatre examples

I went to see Carmel Winter’s play, Best Man, performed in The Everyman in Cork city, and was surprised to hear south County Dublin accents––I recall being disappointed. Why was that?–-of course we shouldn’t be limited to writing in a particular accent. Universal classic stories––Ibsen, Shakespeare, Miller––can be performed in local accents and work perfectly.

But I had been so glad to see Carmel’s play, B for Baby, on its first run in the Peacock Theatre, and recognising my idiom and turn of phrase; and being really delighted to hear it on the stage of the National Theatre.

I love the Cork accents in Young Offenders and that surreal humour that is peculiarly Cork city like the moniker “fake Billy” and the tableaux of Corkonians singing “After all I really love you …” (after having the Tanora!) in the sing-song scene in the double-decker bus.

These scenes put me in mind of Frank O’Connor’s The First Confession, with the breadknife-wielding grandson under the kitchen table, escaping from his grandmother, or the woman who thought she was a seagull walking down the aisle at Sunday Mass, from Patrick Galvin.

Could Dancing at Lughnasa be performed without a Donegal accent? Or the words of John B. Keane sound as rich without a country Kerry or west Cork accent?

Recently, during the “Play It By Ear” season––the response of The Everyman, Cork to COVID restrictions––I listened to the Four-Faced Liar by Ger FitzGibbon. It wasn’t intended as an audio or radio play apparently, but it worked beautifully in this genre. Rich and various Cork accents from the cast of six Cork actors placed us firmly in the city. In the final podcast in this Series, to be published next week, writer and director, Ger FitzGibbon speaks about what the accent means to him, as a native of Cork city––the variety of accents, the sound of it, and the way words are used.

Coupled with that audio richness in his play is the sense of Cork as a place, the narrative roamed through the streets of Cork with the characters themselves; the city and the river Lee equal members of the cast as the people characters in the play.

I also asked Ger about the sense of place––the importance of that for him as a playwright. I think this is a fascinating question that deserves more than a few lines … another blog post planned!

Comparisons

When I translated my Monologue Eileen from English into Irish, I was astonished to realise the way I speak English is so influenced by the irish idiom and syntax; the incidental words thrown in for emphasis, the construction of the sentences as I write them in English. While I love Gaoluinn and speak it regularly, my reading as Gaeilge is a fraction of my reading in English, so I would have thought that the influence would not be as great.

Compare these extracts, from Eileen and Eibhlín:

It was the divorce papers this year.  That did it rightly, destroyed Valentine’s Day. Not that I’d been expecting much from Valentine’s Day anyway. In they came, no warning from his Lordship, no sitting down with me like they do in the films to say ‘Honey, I have to do this, it’s for the best’, only a message from the reception desk at work. Can you believe that, he sent it to me at work, half past ten in the morning and I had to go down to receive this letter from a skinny eejit from An Post.

Ba iad na páipéirí colscaradh a fuareas uaidh i mbliana ar lá Valintín. Chuir sé sin isteach go mór leis an gceiliúradh, creidim. Ní rabhas ag tnúth le cóisir, adhmháim, ach éist le seo, tháinig an litir mór chugham ar maidin, gan focal ó mo dhuine. Ní raibh rabhadh uaidh ar chor ar bith ag rá: ‘Eibhlín, a chroí, caithfimíd rud éigin a dhéanamh, níl an rogha againn.’ Ní ná é, ach teachtaireacht ó rúnaí ag an deasc fáiltithe, ag rá go raibh litir domsa ann.  Cuimhnigh air sin, leath uair tar éis a deich ar maidin agus bhí orm litir a bhailiú ó scroglachán amaideach ó An Post. 

They are not the same length, Irish will always have more words, but there’s something about the run of it, the rhythm, that is similar.

Take the final sentence:

“Can you believe that, he sent it to me at work, half past ten in the morning and I had to go down to receive this letter from a skinny eejit from An Post.”

“Ní ná é, ach teachtaireacht ó rúnaí ag an deasc fáiltithe, ag rá go raibh litir domsa ann.  Cuimhnigh air sin, leath uair tar éis a deich ar maidin agus bhí orm litir a bhailiú ó scroglachán amaideach ó An Post.”

It begins with the same little filler clause “Can you believe that,…” / “Ní ná é,…”. (In my head, I use precisely the same tone when saying these two phrases!) … not to mention the English pejorative description “skinny eejit” versus the Irish “scroglachán amaideach”.

Photo of Eileen

Eileen spent a lot of time cleaning her Tupperware in order to deal with the stress of divorce! Photo credit: Julia Zagar

Sensibilities

Terri Leiber, whom I chat with in Podcast 3, wrote her one-woman show, May the Force… which we co-adapted for the stage. The play was semi-autobiographical and has a clear accent and sensibility. This story of a child of a “copper” is peculiarly English, in that the policemen were housed together in certain areas and mainly socialized together, keeping to themselves. The voice is of 8 year old Tracey and the accent and words are from Dorset.

The sensibility of May the Force… is different to the upbringing I experienced. And yet, at the end of the day, there is universality in a young child trying to make sense of an adult world: the half stories we hear, the emotions and the vibe, the hippocracies we pick up on, despite not being entirely aware of what is going on, that add to our knowing.

Terri and I both worked on these two Monologues around the same time. It is very interesting to see the similarities and the differences in the sensibility I speak of and the humour. For example, Eileen will never speak openly about sex, or intimacy, and yet, in her veiled way, we know that she and her ex-husband, Jerry, have once loved each other, and that the physical side was important. The coppers’ wives are mainly in each other’s company, so we get a collegiate, female, ribald response to men and authority figures.

Interesting too how that sense of place was so strong for the two female characters. For Eileen––the country village in west Cork in which she has lived as a married woman and is really a ‘blow-in’ and for Tracey––the copper estate and the standard houses that went with that. Moving from estate to estate featured strongly in the play also. (Back to the place of place in writing and theatre!)

Terri Leiber as Tracey. I was utterly convinced by her as an 8 year old. Photo credit: Julia Zagar

Why Theatre? Why Now?

As our world globalises and we embrace technology, I believe it is more important than ever to be sure of our own voice. In general, I have no worry for our confidence in that voice … those voices. Our record of book writing is superlative, and in films and TV we are having a wonderful period of creativity, with efforts being rewarded on the world stage, and further projects (films, TV series, animation) happening here in Ireland.

What of the stage? Why theatre now?

COVID has given the theatre world an opportunity to consider their practices. While devastating in its impact financially on many and psychologically in respect of worry for the future, it has also allowed a compete re-evaluation of the way theatre communicates. There is serious work being undertaken to stream live or recorded theatre productions, to adapt work for the screen. I know this is not always a positive experience for theatre-makers, many do not wish to embrace this means of communication (just as there are many teachers who do not wish to go online with their offerings.) But, as I have said to many artists this year, COVID and the changes that have come about because of it, has allowed me access to institutions and colleagues that I would otherwise not experience. While living in the most beautiful region, we are quite a distance from the Dublin-centric theatre world. And this is a view I have also heard expressed by artists with disabilities.

Theatre-makers are worried that audiences will lose touch with that experience and stay with the other types of entertainment that have featured during lockdown. But I believe that we are missing live performances. Theatre is a unique art form for the intimacy and connection that being in the same room with many others and being moved by the words and the embodiment of an actor, hearing stories over a longer period of time, where there is opportunity to develop it and where you see the impact physically of the acting on the actors.

I am hopeful that we can provide material that will excite and engage audiences in the future, and have every confidence in our ability to tell stories and be creative in that telling. And I think there is room for more voices to be heard, all the diverse groups and people mentioned above. As the final blog in this Series, it is appropriate I think to leave on a positive note! The final podcast will be published next Thursday, 3rd December, 2020.

Podcast 4: Chatting with Jeremy Massey, writer of novels and screenplays

With twenty-five years experience in the film and writing business, Jeremy Massey gives an oversight of his creative process in working through many screenplays, one novel, published by Penguin US, The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley, an historical novel in writing, Isolato and another in progress, Paddy Buckley’s Dance with the Devil.

He discusses his use of structure and form; how he came to the different voices for his characters; how his career in writing has evolved over time; working in collaboration with others, particularly on a documentary addressing child sex trafficking; and how to write with a plethora of ghosts for company. He generously speaks of the writers he revers, for their ability to bring the mind of a reader on an incredible, unexpected journey.

As the interview progressed, we moved from sunlight to darkness, and it seemed like this was metaphorically how the interview progressed also. Hence, the ‘dark’ photograph that features at the top of this page! As the son of a funeral undertaker and having worked in the business in his early 20s, themes of death permeate Jeremy’s writing and we discuss how these present themselves to the viewer.

In choosing to listen to the podcast, you might note that, while the conversation is never depressing and is always entertaining, the language is regularly very colourful!

Finding your voice … Finding a voice …

We read to know we are not alone.

Often attributed to CS Lewis, but written by William Nicholson for the screenplay Shadowlands, which was about Lewis; words that resonate.

Finding your voice

It was one of the hardest things for me to figure out what my voice was. I didn’t understand what was meant by the word or the concept. It was only after many years of practicing that I realised the meaning: that the way you write must be yours only.

Although here I break apart my thoughts on finding a voice, I believe that, like most things to do with writing and creativity, we do it without thinking. Not everyone has to analyse in this way before they set out to write something, but rather do it instinctively. This brings me back to the work I do in theatre, on collaboration and collective creativity, where I seek ways to understand how people work instinctively and use that in the rehearsal and creation of plays.

IN THE BEGINNING …

I was always aware that some times it was easy to write. Like, in the olden days when we wrote letters, there were times when the writing swirled out of your hand, a certain flow occurred, words came easily, you were in that certain frame of mind (what is now called a ‘zone’?). It was a pleasure to write and know that this letter was heading to another person who would receive it after a few days, and they would pick up on your mood and excitement. 

We are all influenced by what we have read, what we are exposed to as we grow up: the books, the plays, the talk, the TV, the films. One evening about twenty years ago, I was travelling over the county bounds from Kerry back home on a summer’s evening. For the Book on One slot on RTE 1, the reader started Alice in Wonderland and, I swear, I was transported back to my childhood bedroom in Clonakilty as I read that hardback book, with a green colour with the sketch of Alice on the front cover. It felt like I was seeing the exact same images that I saw in my mind as a child, like that file had been retrieved from the back of my computer mind where it hadn’t been opened for a long time. It was quite a weird experience … though joyful too.

My mother never throws anything out …

WORDS THAT RESONATE

It is only very recently that I am aware of what resonate means … it’s one of these over-used words that, again, I haven’t quite understood. But, when a word or words really mean something to you, really make you stop and take note, really explain something that is almost impossible to put into words, then, that’s it, that is the resonance, in my view. Of course, because of my interest in music, I see resonance as relating to vibration, and my imagination takes me to the place where my body is responding to the words on a physical level … vibrating electrons–– if that’s any help to you!! In relation to the music analogy, it also reminds me of those songs where you are listening and one note that comes in an unexpected place will make you stop, or hits somewhere within you.

She was a summer dance at the crossroads.

She was a card game where a nose was broken.

She was a song that nobody sings.

She was a house ransacked by soldiers.

She was a language seldom spoken.

She was child’s purse, full of useless things.

Exerpt from Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett.
The words in this poem have always resonated for me…in me.
Is it the words themselves that make this poem so appealing?; or the images created?; the understated loss that permeates the writing?

One of the earlier lines in the poem is ‘I loved her from the day she died.’ That is a relief to me as a reader … especially since I have come to know the value of a ‘child’s purse, full of useless things’!

The parts involved in practicing …

It was always said of the uilleann pipes that it took twenty-one years to learn to play the instrument: seven years to get the basics, seven years to practice and the final seven to play and become proficient. I think that may be true also of writing. As you continue to write, to ‘show up to the page’ you become more confident of the words and arranging them in the way that is best for you. 

Part of the practice is copying the work of others, unknowingly, and certainly as you start writing. The style of a Frank O’Connor or Seamus Heaney. Can we help that? I don’t think so. It’s that resonance again. How they speak to us, what these favored authors choose to write about. All in that writing we respond to must be tried and splurged out. 

Part of the voice is the tone in which you write––how you put the words on the page, how you order them, what feeling you will convey. A piece of writing by Bredan Behan will be very different to James Joyce, not only in its subject matter but in its tone.

In relation to the matter of tone, part of the figuring out in my own writing has to do with the tone of the particular piece of writing I am working on at any time. That could be the more serious version of ‘Eileen’ or the more caricature version when she appeared in the comedy / cabaret shows. I think part of my difficulty has been that I have a variety of tones I use. For example, how and when I write poetry is utterly different to my other writing, it’s far less playful and far more serious.

So too the lexicon you use becomes part of your voice. Of course, we need to work on making the writing clear, and often this can be done simply, with words that are familiar and unchallenging. But I also believe in working and reaching for the best possible sequence of words. Sometimes one must find the precise word to convey what it is you are saying. Unless you know the words how can you find them?

Apart from the trusty Dictionary, Thesaurus and Mr Google for synonyms and antonyms, writerly friends with great vocabularies, I’ve now come across The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. I don’t have it yet, but Christmas is coming!!

Similar to that is this Writer’s Emotion Circle.

An internet image, uncredited.

Also included in this area of practice is the question of timing. Does it comes from my interest in music that I note the timing of the words, the sounds of them as they run––on the page––as they are read aloud. Reading your writing aloud to yourself (or through a computer program for this purpose) is recommended by most writers, to hear how it is outside of your brain.

Recently, my sister-in-law gave me Silence by John Cage. Remember, he was the composer who gave you 4′ 33” of silence! It’s just another way of thinking entirely … his ideas on his processes, written as he would compose a piece of music. But, it makes sense, somehow. I read them with the pauses that he has created with space and punctuation.

Did you see the title of this piece of writing from Silence by John Cage––’Lecture on Something’??

Speaking of punctuation, this blog is just not long enough for what needs to be said about the joys of the comma … not to mention the semi-colon!

And I am curtailed also in looking at space and spaciousness, these too need a longer space in order to set out the thoughts. Another blog!

Finally, I come to structure. looking at the overall frame of the writing or the piece you are working on. And through the work of writing again, rewriting, honing, shaping, editing, reviewing, receiving feedback, accepting and trying again, you find that voice

I presume others find it more quickly. For me, it took a long time to process and understand. 

Finding a voice

And then, when you have all of this figured out, what your voice is … you have to turn to each of your characters to find a voice for them, you have to find an overarching voice for your piece of writing.

This comes from understanding your characters deeply–-doing the work to ensure that you do know them. I think it also comes from the practice of writing, as you build your understanding of the craft, the skill of writing and confidence growth. And then you know … somewhere in your body, that it is right. As you mature in your writing, you have a greater sense of confidence that the aim will work, you have certain tools or techniques to help you get there, or you just set it aside, knowing that this will not have been a wasted effort, but any practice brings you forward in your learning and understanding.

For example, Jeremy Massey speaks about his fantastic character, Paddy Buckley from the book The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley and the difference moving from the 3rd person to the 1st person point of view changed the book for him. From being removed from Paddy, he as the writer, and consequently the reader, is right bang in the middle of Paddy’s mind and his thoughts, we are intimately with him as he moves through his crises and the decisions he makes.

Hearing your voice

It’s another matter entirely to consider hearing your voice. I mean by this, how important it is to hear your story, your accent, and your interests reflected back to you in word. I mean in film, on the radio, on the TV, from journalists, reporters, in books. And if you don’t hear it, then what impact does that have? And what does it mean for your viewpoint and your perspective?

There’s an issue of responsibility for me, on the part of those making the decisions and in positions of authority and power. But this is a discussion for another day … I’m just planting the seed!

Can I just make one political point here please?? I note in writing these blog posts that the greater portion of the literature and other art influences were male and masculine. I am searching for the feminine as I write … I have mentioned Edna O’Brien and Lady Gregory. Nell McCafferty too featured strongly from a political viewpoint, and Maria Callas, a beloved soprano voice in our house, with Mary Black coming later, but there weren’t too many female playwrights, or writers. Thankfully, that is now being redressed.

Podcast 3: Chatting with Terri Leiber, writer and actor (actor and writer) about co-creating

A long-term co-creator with me, this chat with Terri Leiber is the third in the Series, and the final conversation with the PlayActing Theatre team. As well as acting in classic plays where I was the director, we have collaborated as writers and actors since 2011 in The Eileen and Marilyn Experience on six different comedy / cabaret shows and other one-off performances. We were ‘big’ in west Cork!

This podcast links to blog post 3 in this series, Close connection and understanding…and the text.

With this podcast format that is new to me, I consider regularly the delicate balance of interviewer and contributor to the conversation. In this chat, because of our longstanding working relationship and the particular chemistry between us, I believe that this podcast has far too much of me in it and far too much laughing! I apologise now!!

Terri speaks about being a creative person as a writer / actor, and as a teacher and director, she talked about writing novels and the pleasures of collaboration (especially with me!!).

Terri Leiber as Tracey in May the Force…

(Photo credit, KM)

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

Close connection and understanding … and the text

CLOSE CONNECTION IN COLLABORATION

‘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

Understanding

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.) 

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 karenminihan.wordpress.com 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.