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 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.)