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.

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.

THE ESSENTIALS 

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.

AUGUSTO BOAL   GAMES FOR ACTORS AND NON-ACTORS

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

AUGUST BOAL, GAMES FOR ACTORS AND NON-ACTORS, SECOND EDITION, p16

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.

THE THINKING

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

PETER BROOK

….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

ARIANE MNOUCHKINE

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.
p12

THE ENCHANTMENT

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!!

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.