Monthly Archives: March 2015

Witness: changing attitudes through theatre.

The other day I went to see a show called Witness written by Cecilia Parkert translated by Kevin Halliwell and performed by Andrea Kelly. It was a work-in-progress soon to be seen in full production in Galway Theatre Festival. She had been invited by the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway to perform this hard hitting 50 minute one person show for stuðents. The play concerns a translator working in Sweden during investigations of the war in Bosnia in the 90s.

 It was performed in a lecture theatre with no lighting or costume. The lecture theatre venue enhanced the power of the piece as there was no set, music or costume cushion to distance us from the action .

The translator character is to be disciplined by a panel after ‘crossing a line’ with one of the interviewees, a victim of atrocities. We the audience are the panel. During the course of this play there were a number of horrific stories that the translator had to translate for the therapist/counsellor interviewing the victims of these war crimes. Translation became an incredibly powerful theatrical metaphor as we the audience tried to deal with these tales of brutality and torture. Like the translator, we have to listen to acts of torture, dismemberment , degradation and murder. It made me question what it was to listen to these stories and what was the value of it?
After all I was not empathising directly with the real person to whom these horrors had occurred but to a character who witnessed these horrors. And then again this character with whom I was asked to sympathise was not the real translator at all but an actress speaking the lines of a writer who may or may not have had the experience of the translator in the first place.

To hear a person speak these tales of horror and human cruelty though, for me had phenomenal power. And somehow it did not matter that the stories were not told by the actual person, but that they were spoken live, that they were filling the energy in the air of that lecture theatre which created images and forced me to deal with them. The words seemed to be saying to me, ”These things are true. They happened. Deal with them.”

I remember decades ago, meeting a man in a pub in London who had been tortured in Uganda. I could not believe I was speaking to a man who had actually been tortured. He showed me where his torturers had driven nails into his hands. He told when he heard of his release he did not eat for days until he was out of prison, for fear they would poison him so he would not be able to incriminate his torturers later. I thought about him when I watched this play.

I thought about my own father who witnessed some true horrors until he escaped Nazi occupied Austria, and my grandmother who died in a concentration camp.

This play reminded me of these things, and then I thought, the war described in this play happened in what is now the EU, not that far away. It was terrifying to realise this. I thought of how valuable theatre was, how it could make horror just about bearable so we could really consider it; really consider how fragile our civilisation actually is; consider what we must do to keep it afloat.
On the other hand without a very interesting discussion, I do not think I would like to have been thrown out into the afternoon. There was a lot of heaviness, pain and complexity to digest.

People often ask, “Does theatre change anything?”,. Is it SO powerful that it can make laws, change attitudes? I think it can but paradoxically the more liberal society and the less popular a medium the theatre becomes the less power it seems to have. Television too seems to be losing its power. When I was a teenager in the 70s, watching TV. plays and films in my grandparents’ house, homosexuality, adultery, issues of conscience, the role of education in society and deep questions about faith and religion could actually end up in your own living room and even sometimes be discussed became something of a reality. It was a truly democratising influence. Theatre of course is more elitist, less accessible, both because we have to go out to it, and also because it has a class stigma attached to it.

One way in which theatre does change people strongly is through the participants. In the Galway Cuirt Festival in 2002 Galway Youth Theatre presented a play I had written and directed. It was called Alien Nation and concerned racism in Ireland , just beginning to become more overt. I was keen to meet an asylum seeker and through the One World Centre I met a young Roma woman. I based one of the characters upon her and though the character I created was younger than her she helped to keep the story authentic, and the young actress who played ‘her’ met her and heard her story . On the day of the first performance the young asylum seeker was to be guest of honour. I had a phone call to say the authorities had deported her that morning. I discussed this with the young actors and we talked a little about whether art can change anything . I decided that I would make a short speech about it before the play began. I am sure this had a strong impact on the audience as it did on the actors. But nonetheless the young woman was still on the plane.

It is hard to change things. Generally through art you can give people a different perspective, and rather like Witness remind us of the fact that regimes are corrupt and that humanity, in addition to being a well of kindness can also be unspeakably and unbelievably cruel. It is important that we face up to this reality as I felt myself doing as I listened to these unspeakable stories , and make me resolved to do something about it, in some way shape or form. I think that all drama should transform us or it is merely a diversion. Witness certainly succeeded in doing that.


More Light – Imagination and Simplicity

IMG_0780Beginning serious work on a play is for me like jumping into the ocean. You have to be alive and awake to the currents and yet at the same time find your own way. Your way is not only influenced by the writer’s imagination – in this case a spectacular flight of the imagination – the actors’ imagination, the design team etc, but something else, something intangible. Michael Chekhov says that as artists we ” make the intangible, tangible” I love this idea; that something completely unique and unknowable comes from this process, dependent on every single member of the creative team and their alchemical contact with each other , with the characters and the score that is the play. As a director I have to be open and yet focused. It is like living in a dream sporadically through the day.

The students on the Current Core Performance course and I are about to embark on the short play More Light by Bryony Lavery .We are working mainly with Chekhov Technique to produce this work. The play depicts an ancient empire where the Emperor is God. He arranges for a tomb to be built and all the artists and craftsmen who build it are left to die with the Emperor in the tomb. Along with the emperor are the concubines who have not borne him sons. They are expected to tend him, serve him – and die with him. Left in this terrible position the women take a momentous decision.

The world they create is like a crucible for the imagination, not without its terrible compromises and polarities but one in which the women for a while at least survive and thrive. Bryony Lavery constantly describes impossible stage images which only the most well funded company might produce but nonetheless her images make you gasp at her vision when you read them. Her vision is little short of audacious. The images are an important part of the fabric supporting one of the most important themes of the play, the place of Art and imagination in our lives. It seems to me now that we are going to mime many of these impossible images or create them with sound – in other words we are asking the audience to engage their imaginations as much as the writer and the creative team have done, in bringing this play to performance; that it will be a truly collaborative piece of work for the audience as well as for us. Only then will creating many of these extraordinary images, like the flying flock of origami birds become possible. Anyone who has seen a real origami bird knows they are, disappointingly, quite heavy !

So simplicity will be the key. Simplicity in fact is a liberating force. Simplicity and Imagination encourages magic in a way that literal presentation can hardly ever do. This of course does not mean that you eschew the visual aspect, in fact ironically, by simplifying , you can often enhance it. As Peter Brook said in a recent interview, ‘simplicity is not a style’ . You might check this deeply inspiring interview out on  if you have not seen/heard it.

Centres – an interesting discovery.

Me Teaching at The michael Chekhov Training in Dublin last year.

Me teaching at The Michael Chekhov Training in Dublin last year.

I taught my first class dedicated to Chekhov’s centres on my performance course the other day. Recently I have become aware that for some people exploring centres is one of the hardest exercises for them, yet in actual fact it can be produce the most fundamental results in terms of character.

For those who have no experience of this work, the idea of centres is to find a centre for the character, usually within the body, which is like the engine or soul of the character , a place from which all their impulses spring. A kind of source. This centre can be a colour or a shape or a concrete image of something ( a lighted candle for Juliet is a good example) . You connect everything to this centre, your limbs and your very being and see what happens as you explore the space, the character and the text operating from the centre. There is no ‘wrong’ thing to do; you just fully connect yourself to this image or centre and respond . It can produce amazingly transformative results.

It has come to my notice though, that this aspect of Chekhov can be hard to grasp. Not only have you to imagine an image but you are also imagining it is inside you and powering all you do. This is quite a lot of imagining to do all at once! There is a lot of explanation in the Chekhov books about inviting an image or an object into you but even then, this is quite advanced. Leave it till later, you might say, but when you are running a short course you have to balance your careful instruction with the fact that there is not much time. Besides which, working with a character centre can change the actor so extraordinarily that it for me goes to the very heart of what Chekhov Technique can do for an actor.

When I was considering this session the other day, I remembered an exercise I had used with Galway Youth Theatre for working on character, decades ago, before I had even heard of Michael Chekhov . I had done a lot of work with the group and they really trusted me – so I risked it. I asked everyone to pick an object in the space, examine it carefully for use and size and texture and where it was within the room and I asked them to BECOME it , to become it as fully as they could, to imagine it had a voice and character . Then I would interview them as the object for a few minutes each and they would tell me about their lives as this object. Some of the work with the youth theatre was truly moving and remarkable, and some very funny. But for some reason I never used the exercise again.

Until last night. I considered that this exercise might be a good bridge to understanding what having a relationship to an object or image might be in terms of character and how it could be useful. It encouraged everyone to have a serious relationship with the object, an absorption and a response in a way they would not have done as effectively if I had asked them to describe it or use it as a centre straightaway. Of course in a way “becoming it” is making the object your centre in a very literal way. I suppose that is it. It cuts out one area of imagining that the actor has to do when creating a centre which makes the process a little easier.

The interviews last night were touching and funny. We then took the same centre into the body, imagined it powering us, moved it to different places in the body and experimented with this. But what I felt profoundly was that stuðents had a much stronger understanding and identification with the image because they had done this bridging exercise of simply becoming the object first. .

When we moved on to exploring centres for the characters we were working on, it was a lot easier.

thanks, group!