Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov Technique

Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

Keeping those Cucumber Sandwiches Fresh! Working with Chekhov Technique

IMG_3278When rehearsing/performing a well known play, artists often  behave as if the audience already know every single twist and turn of a story.  It is unconscious – people often do not even know they are doing it. That dreadful mistake completely blunts the immediacy and urgency of the playing, flattens the pace, and often bores the audience who may applaud but leave the theatre unsatisfied without necessarily knowing why. It often belittles the work by making something very cosy out of something which can be much more visceral. This is a massive issue in Shakespeare but equally with Wilde, which I am working on with my group of fellow explorers in the comedy Chekhov and Cucumber Sandwiches course. It was only when we started to tell the story of The Importance that we realised how complicated the story actually was, how the series of ‘reveals’ occurs, and how it initially unravels the lives of Jack Worthing and the others.

The thing is that even if the audience have studied the play and do know it, you have to play it as if they don’t in order to keep it fresh and potent. This may sound so obvious that it is not worth saying and yet this simple fact is often totally disregarded. I have seen many a production of Shakespeare when this development of the plot is lazily and glibly presumed, and not in the way we know the ending in a Greek tragedy, say, where the foreknowledge adds to the import and weight of the tale. Do not misunderstand; this complaint is not an excuse for protracted ‘table work’,  but  the actor’s inability to be able to respond to impulses .

I remember when I was working on Macbeth in Galway decades ago, this was the first thing I said to them; we have to treat this as a play that was written last week. no one knows he is going to die; no one knows she will kill herself; no one knows he will become King and ‘get away’ with the murder[s]; no one knows that Lady M will not wake up during the sleepwalking scene and have the doctor and gentlewoman killed; No one knows that Fleance will escape. If you remember this, much of the play is delivered to you.

One of the great things about the Michael Chekhov Technique is it immediately rockets you from your comfort zone both as a performer, director and designer. A few years ago I ran a weekend on Importance and was staggered at its potential depth of situation and character. This is somehow often ignored in favour of the incredibly witty dialogue and the sophisticated veneer. One has to ask oneself of course, is this a comedy of manners, about a whole society, or is it also about the idea of people struggling to find their hearts in a privileged rigid world of do’s and don’ts, a kind of gilded prison of their own making? What ultimately should the audience feel at the end of this play? A smug satisfaction that everything turned out right ? A despairing comment on the folly of convention? As the group potentially working on this play we need to know. Michael Chekhov alerts us to the fact that we must know what we want the audience to take away when all are united and Lady Bracknell’s privileged world is saved from disintegration by some extraordinary coincidences.

Last night we made some extremely interesting discoveries through the intense ghost exercise, something I learned at MICHA (The Michael Chekhov Association) many moons ago; a character called Jack with dark and terrible secrets which are gradually exposed  only to eventually have the very key to his happiness within his secret life – as he uses his wealthy ward as a bargaining chip to buy all the young people their happiness; a woman called Lady Bracknell desperately holding on to a sense of Order; Miss Prism carrying within her her grief at the loss of a baby; Algernon, a fixer who plays the system but then who unexpectedly  falls madly in love with a beautiful young girl etc etc. This exercise not only enabled us to explore the darker possibilities of these characters but also find a whole trajectory for them. A great plus for the Chekhov work is how very very fast it is and how you can uncover things about characters and the play if you will but commit wholly with your imagination and your body.

The challenge for us now is to explore through the feeling of ease and the alchemy of the play, the possibility to transform these serious journeys into comedic possibilities. This is already starting to happen.

Comedy cuts

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Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond’s The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen. Me being VERY SERIOUS INDEED

As a young student actor I could never get the hang of comedy. For one thing, the kind of comedies we ended up exploring were so far from my experience (The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton was one) that I simply could not take them seriously. Even before classmates I would get the giggles when performing. I simply could not help it. I comforted myself that Laurence Olivier had had a similar problem as a young actor and hoped for the best that this giggling would stop. It took a long time and I comforted myself further that I was really a dramatic actor and that comedy was not my thing. I remember hating the idea that in comedy you were really,  it seemed to me, out to get the audience’s approval; that the result needed to be laughter or at least, a smile, and you knew whether you had succeeded or failed almost immediately.

Looking back, there was a misunderstanding of what acting was which caused the problem. For me at that time, acting had to be ‘real’. I was good at being emotionally true to my inner life, as narrow as it was, given that it was completely defined by my version of my young self. I had difficulty understanding the relationship between character, play and audience clearly; to understand that, whilst you had to enjoy the game of the play and enjoy making people laugh, you had also to work from an inner truth; that it was actually possible to do this. But you had to work on all of these levels at the same time to be effective. I would explain this now as truly activating the Higher Ego, as Michael Chekhov explains it, and developing the ability to shift the attention from the audience, the character, a consciousness of the humour and back again. It’s needed for all theatre work but for comedy in particular.

At LAMDA I remember exploring the Idea of comedy with an extremely interesting but misguided teacher who asked us to create something comedic out of a real tragic incident of our lives. This was an extremely unwise basis for an exercise and left many of us angry and disturbed. We attempted to recreate a tragic incident in a fellow student’s life who as a boy had hit a cricket ball which had struck and killed one of the fielding team. He had felt that he had killed the boy. This must have been extremely stressful for the student and was in addition very unsuccessful. All the improvisations based around this exercise were a failure. However, despite the fact that I strongly disapprove of leading a student into such tricky emotional territory, comparing tragedy and comedy is often a good place to start in order to define comedy and get a sense of what comedic energy actually is. Chekhov explains this simply and effectively. There are lots of safe ways to do it.

Then, when working on a student production we took to Edinburgh I began to get a feel for comedy, whilst working on a Japanese play when I played a messenger. I knew I was being funny in a stylised, physical way which felt more comfortable because I was not trying to pretend this was ‘real’. It broke a boundary for me and I enjoyed it and began to gain confidence in comedy. I got even more safely into humour in several tv plays as a young professional because there was no audience to contend with and through that I became much more aware of my own sense of humour and started to feel safer with it. Also, on TV,  I was able to hang on more firmly to the sense of ‘truth’ because there was no immediate feedback from an audience.

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not subtle but sharp and funny . Malcolm James as Simonides and me as Gnotho in my version of Middleton and Rowley’s OLD LAW 1990 . Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. director Tony Hegarty photo Amrando Atkinson.

But it was only later when I truly experienced the full contact with the audience that I started to truly understand the game that is comedy.; the constant movement of energy; the playfulness… and I started to really enjoy it. It was as if comedy required a complete acceptance of the theatrical experience which I felt at the time could somehow be ignored in drama or tragedy. I now understand that even with the most ‘realistic’ work, a degree of ‘radiation’ is essential . In other words, ‘real’ never quite cuts it – whatever that actually is. One of the things I found so liberating about the Chekhov Technique, something, by the time I found it I already knew, was that theatrical artistic truth is a completely different animal to ‘real’

Very much looking forward to my course Chekhov Comedy Composition and Cucumber Sandwiches which starts on Tuesday in Galway

The Image Is The Action.

When I ran Commonweal  a classical theatre company in the UK with my partner Tony Hegarty many moons ago, we got a sponsorship to run an r&d workshop exploring Shakespeare. This was long before I had heard anything about Michael Chekhov. Tony and I were both aware that actors were not fully engaging with the language in a visceral way and wanted to explore why that direct contact with the language was missing and how to breathe life into Shakespeare’s verse. In productions it seemed the text was either meaninglessly mellifluous or drearily ‘realistic’ and flat.

We were working on Macbeth. I remember Tony was running the session and was trying to get us to engage with the language more, so he asked us to take a line or two from the text with images which demanded an action and perform that action when we were speaking it. That, had I but known it, was a psychological gesture which used the image from the text directly to create a psychological gesture, enliven the language and the psychology of the character.
I will always remember in that workshop a young actor speaking the lines

“I would while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out,”

while she acted as if she was performing this horrendous act. It blew me away. She was truly inhabiting the image, the language sounded brutal, desperate and full of loathing. Prior to this it had sounded like text. Voice is movement.

There was a famous, it feels almost forgotten, theatre academic and practitioner called G.Wilson Knight whose books The Imperial Theme(1951), The Crown of Life(1947) and The Wheel of Fire(1930), were once essentials on many an English syllabus. One of his principles with regard to Shakespearean text was the idea that ‘the Image is the action’ ; that poetic symbolism was not merely poetic for its own sake or to paint a picture but that its very formation gave us a key to the character and more particularly the psychology and inner energy of the character. In other words the images were the how and the what of the character. Of course this may not well have been conscious on the part of the playwright but was dictated by the very practicalities of the theatre at that time.Words, language and imagery were all powerful.  In a theatre with no scenery to speak of and no lighting, the words had to create scenery, time, weather and atmosphere.  But the words were also instruments of transformation. They were not something to hide behind; but to expose.

Some directors will tell you that in Shakespeare there is no subtext. This is not true. It is true that the characters nearly always ‘level’ with us, the audience, even when they are not being honest with the other characters – Iago or Macbeth for instance. But it is the imagery which gives us the key to subtext and psychological depth in a way that any actor’s psychological identification with the character could not, And like the young actor above, as soon as you inhabit that image with your whole being, body, voice and imagination, then the character is opened to you. I talk a lot about this work in my book Teaching Voice published by Nick Hern Books, when working with young people.

Michael Chekhov says in On The Technique of Acting that gesture can be used to enliven a word; but there is a subtle difference to finding a psychological gesture for the character first and deciding whether it feels right when you speak the text, rather than inhabiting the word and image, physicalising that, and through that finding the psychological state. There is no right or wrong here, but if you want to stay true to the language I would say the latter approach is more useful with Shakespeare.

May I say though that I am not talking about what to my mind are weeks of stultifying table work here, but a physical exploration- just in case anyone misunderstands what I am saying.

16797114_10210868896951296_608268461551876115_oSo for our workshop Giving Voice to the Imagination , May 23rd – 26th in Dublin which I am giving with Hugo Moss of Michael Chekhov Brasil, one of the things we we want to all explore is to find the voice of the character through images and psychological gesture . Places are limited and the course is filling up so if this aspect of the work is useful to you you might want to book up. info is on this blog on the Dublin Workshop page or on http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com You need to fill in the short application form and send it to chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com .

The rest is silence; poses and pauses

IMG_3037 copySo for the final weekend in the series of Michael Chekhov workshops, we embarked on an exploration of silence, of pauses, in a play. We began with the whole question of ‘What is a pause?’ And how do we find that ‘what’ in our bodies, so as to better understand it? As Chekhov said, a pause is a place of great inner movement even when the character is physically still. Often when we watch a play, actors pause because it says so in the script, or because the director has asked them to, or sometimes one of the actors feels a pause is right and the other doesn’t. The unwilling actor tries to look meaningful when the actor who wants to take the pause does it. Often the pause has little or nothing to do with the character or situation but has more to do with the actor’s ego. When this happens the unwilling actor struggles to support the other but the pause is ultimately empty and meaningless. These are ‘poses’ rather than pauses. A pause has to be organic.

Within this apparent stillness of the pause there can be an entire universe of experience; of battle; of understanding; of love;of defeat.

The only time there is no movement of energy through and within us is when we are dead. It’s inner movement. Very violent sometimes. It has direction and power. There is usually a change of psychological direction and quality after a pause, even if it is very subtle. So pauses are less about stillness than change. A useful thing to consider is when you get bad news. The energy comes into you and plunges down and back. When you get good news it usually goes up .

A pause is to do with the invisible, with energy. Michael Chekhov says it is often to do with something that is going to happen or a response to something that has happened. It has an impact. We do know that when there is a pause,something happens. Even when we are stunned by news we feel an impulse to make sense of it, to journey round or through the information we have just been given as if it was some kind of material terrain like a maze or jungle or barbed wire. There is an ocean of energy swirling around us and between people. That is often how it feels anyway, and if we want an audience to feel the full potency of that, we need to believe it.

So we started to explore this movement of energy in our bodies, to explore the nature of a pause and stillness. At first I asked everyone to stand still and asked them to consider what happens. Do you listen to the birds? the rain? Do you zone out your eyes? Do you close your eyes. Do you start thinking? What about? what happens.

I suggested people might move if  they wanted to. What happens? They change the atmosphere by moving don’t they? You want to move too, yes? Or if you want to stay still you need to somehow increase your efforts to somehow block out the moving person.

I suggested they walk slowly then Stop; walk fast, then stop. Then I asked them to sense the nature of these pauses and how did they change when you changed the tempo of the outer activity? Then I asked them to try stopping and then deciding to change direction. Changing the direction of energy gave us surprising feelings.

I asked them to explore making an action and just stop doing what they were doing and then continue. THE QUALITY OF THE ENERGY CHANGES OF ITSELF You cannot go on as you did before .You cannot keep it the same. Your whole being demands difference.

With exercises like this we listened to our bodies; radiating and receiving; opening and closing.We found that a pause was an ending or a new beginning. When you listened to your body this all became abundantly clear. The invisible became something of palpable experience. Something we could perhaps talk about and change.

One of the big moments for me over the weekend was our work using personal atmosphere and pausing. I asked the group to work in pairs with their text from THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (no better a play to work with silences). At first I asked them to experience their personal atmosphere as they worked with their scenes facing their partners. Then I asked them that every time their character spoke they were to imagine that their personal atmosphere almost engulfed their partner so they were,yes, responding to their partner, but also attempting to somehow control the other with their words, to make them compliant with the speaking character’s world view. This resulted in some excellently filled moments of pause because this to-ing and fro-ing of personal atmosphere does not just happen when we speak but in the silences between words. and it does not only happen between personal atmospheres either but between the personal atmosphere and the general atmosphere surrounding the characters.

It reminded me of the nunnery scene in Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE when the debauched Lucio arrives at the nunnery to persuade Isabella to come and plead for her brother’s life. Here we are in this holy cloister when this man brings in his personal atmosphere of the brothel. It collides with this overpowering general atmosphere of the cloister. As the text goes on and he becomes more serious, there is a real palpability in the idea that it is the atmosphere of where he is that makes him be more serious. This possibility that personal atmosphere is a serious player in not just how a character does something but what they do is an interesting consideration of how characters and we as humans operate.

A fabulous weekend. Thanks to all. As someone said at the end of the weekend, ‘I found out that the pauses were at least as important as the words.’

My next Chekhov School is to be with Hugo Moss from Michael Chekhov Brasil. Registration is open. The title of the workshop is Giving Voice to the Imagination. May 23rd-26th. You can find more information on the Dublin Workshop page of this blog. or visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

Chekhov Teaching, beginning and learning

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Participants in Body and Imagination First, the opening of a series of Chekhov Workshops this spring here in Galway.

So here’s a new crop of Openers for this year, an exciting and very international group with people who hail from Greece, Italy ,Turkey, Spain as well as from nearer home . Last weekend we concentrated on some opening body and imagination exercises in Chekhov technique and using an old song Cruel Sister to explore them with. This doom laden song full of bitterness, jealousy and karma has resonances with Cinderella but is more of a revenge tragedy.

It is always an exciting time for me when I help people to make their early forays into the Chekhov work. To many it is a revelation. I find it both humbling and thrilling. It reminds me of when I first found the work and a light went on in my whole being. someone said this weekend, “it just makes acting so effortless”.

I feel a great sense of responsibility to the Technique and to be true to it especially when working on these profound beginning tenets.This does not mean I do not create my own exercises nor work intuitively when I teach but that I have to feel true to the principles. As an experienced teacher it is always vital to remember not to skip over nuts and bolts.

Of course everyone has a different starting place. Does one start with concentration, qualities, focusing on imagination, the ideal centre, radiating receiving, energy body, what? For me the first goal is to show people how the connection between body, sensation, feeling , voice, imagination works inside them, and how, in a sense, easy it is to express that. That does not mean I think it is all easy, especially at first, as we are constantly getting in our own way; our bodies house tensions and blockages; our minds block us often from trusting imagination and body. Strapping the intellect into the passenger seat is often a hard call.

I am a firm believer that the teacher needs to keep seriously training at home and in other courses. As a teacher I find I need time to be a student; to not be the leader; to be challenged encouraged and critiqued. Chekhov Technique , despite the fact its effect on the performer is powerful is like anything really worth its salt, a life long study.

Many teachers behave as if they do not need to train themselves, or keep any training a secret, for fear it might belittle them in the eyes of their students. On the contrary I feel doing your own training enhances you in the eyes of any right-minded student because they see you as constantly developing. You are also setting an example. By training yourself you are saying ‘look I do not know all this stuff, you need to go on and learn with others or with me.’ Of course you learn from your own practise and from the art of teaching yourself but it is not the same as being a student. The problem is the older and more experienced you are the harder it is to feel you can properly put yourself into the student role. It is easy to feel angry, jaded or bored when the teacher does not matchup to your own standards.

So in a few weeks I will be packing my bag off to Hamburg to attend a week long course run by Michael Chekhov Europe taught by amongst others the Master teacher Lenard Petit, who runs Michael Chekhov New York. His book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook, is for me one of the great books on the Chekhov technique. Lenard’s teaching was a revelation to me when I had the privelege of being in his class some years ago in that he was sufficiently challenging on the one hand and warm and encouraging on the other.

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Ciara Brady and William Loughnane  as Titania and Oberon

Another challenge to being an experienced student more used to leading workshops is coming fresh to material. In the Hamburg workshop we are going to be working with Midsummer Nights Dream. It is hard to come fresh to it. I have directed it twice. I played Bottom when I was 8 in a trimmed down version, the first piece my first drama teacher gave me was Pucks Aria in Act 3 sc 2 and I frequently use the play for teaching.

So how will I choose a character I like, learn some text from the character in a fresh manner? It’s a challenge but I have always found the Chekhov Technique opens for me some fresh doors even when I approach a play I know incredibly well. I often try to place myself in the situation of ‘what if I had never met this play before? Which character would touch me?’

A way that works for me for courses is to choose a character I would not be asked to play because I am the wrong gender or too old. I am considering Helena but Bottom and Egeus [whom i might well play] are also calling.

Continuers courses on March 24-26 in Voice and Chorus and based upon my book Teaching Voice and March 31 – April 2 in Using Silence are still booking here in Galway.
and on May 23-26th Hugo Moss from Michael Chekhov Brasil and i are running a four day workshop in Dublin ,Giving Voice to the Imagination. contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

More on Dublin in the next post or go to the Dublin workshop page on the blog!

An experience more than a play? David Greigs Bacchae

As we move into the final week of rehearsal for David Greig’s THE BACCHAE I wish rehearsal could go on for longer. This is such a deep piece, as mysterious as the God Dionysos whose story it tells. As I watch runs of the play, I get flashes of extraordinary paradoxes as Pentheus the young and headstrong Prince, terrified of his shadow side collapses with exhaustion at one point refusing to acknowledge that there is any such thing as spirit, refusing to recognise that he is actually sitting next to a deity.

THE BACCHAE really allows us to consider and grapple with the conflicts between the material and the spiritual. Interestingly, as I watch the play, I find myself moving from one protagonist to the other, sympathising first with one and then the other. Ultimately though in the final section of the play we are left with a real woman having to come to terms with a horrible reality. Interestingly the point is made that it is not the wild abandon itself which causes the atrocity but her refusal to acknowledge the God and her subsequent repression of ecstasy. I suppose it is what happens when people get drunk and the demons are released.

What this play is is first and foremost is an experience. It does not feel like a regular play at all to me. It opens your mind and emotions in the way Dionysos says he does himself. Yet it does not do this in any kind of pofaced way. It is both ironic and funny

When I was starting my training in Chekhov Technique, I remember Fern Sloan, one of the foremost Chekhov teachers saying to me, “How could I really use my personal experience to access someone like Medea?”.  This is so true. When I consider the dark places to which the Bacchae ultimately travels, to ask anyone, and particularly young actors, to ‘go there’ without effective technique based on body and imagination, is to my mind both dangerous and irresponsible. What the technique brings up, though still profound and deep, is not tapping into the actor’s personal experience directly. Working this way, through body and imagination first to access feelings, qualities and sensations, allows the performer access to that depth without hurting themselves.

Of course this does not mean that actors who use Chekhov do not have to be cautious, and the issue of really shaking out the feelings from the body is a very important part of the work, to cleanse the body.

Check out the promo

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-O6Ksjqib_SU3c3NHlQYWdjME0/view?usp=sharing

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Sarah O’Beirne and Shannon Mchugh [photo Melinda Szuts]

Come and join us in the Bacchic Dance!  The play runs from the 14th-18th of February in The Mick Lally Theatre performed by students of the NUI Galway Theatre programme. Tickets are available from Socsbox (091 492852) and Druid ( https://druid.ticketsolve.com/#/shows/ .