Tag Archives: National Association of Youth Drama

Poetic Power

When I won the first Apples and Snakes Performance Poet of the year back in ’94, in truth I was joint winner, I knew then that there was another exciting way to combine rhythm and poetry and theatrical performance. Of course I was not the first to discover it (grin) but right then anything like poetic drama seemed to be either from another time or extremely avant garde, pretentious and have nothing to do with the real world . It was around that time that things started to change, especially of course with the advent of rap.

Poetry makes a small cast into an epic production. The heightening of language takes us to places naturalism cannot go easily. It is so thrilling and powerful and really digs in to the stuff that is going on underneath. Naturalism is powerful because it dwells on the specific realism of a situation but poetry helps us to find a myriad of truths and levels.

In 1996 I wrote a radio play about racism for the BBC called Albion Tower which went on to win a Sony for best production and an award from the Commission for Racial Equality for best radio play on racial issues. The play which had Peter Jeffries, James Ellis, and Nicholas Bailey in the leads took place in a tower block in the Midlands of the UK . It was almost entirely in verse and had a story based around the Tower of Babel. The young black British boy Edison at the centre of the story played loud rap and reggae in his hard-to-let tower block flat, driving his neighbour Bill, an old white widower, mad. In order to fight back, Bill starts to play World War 2 themes through the wall and slowly but surely everyone in the block adds their own music creating chaos. Eventually the music stops after a distraught child throws herself off the roof of the block. Edison, the young boy, thought entirely in rap, though his ‘realistic’ dialogue was everyday. This was very experimental at the time and was unusual in its use of poetry in a realistic setting.

Subsequently in Ireland I wrote a play for youth theatre called Alien Nation, published by the National Association of Youth Drama in Ireland about racism amongst young people and used a whole range of rap and rhythm in conjunction with short sharp scenes to explore the subject. I still find now that when I am working with young people they key in to this rhythm work quickly and easily.

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Right now I am working as a director with poet Lorna Shaughnessy and three actors on a series of her poems about the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, The Sacrificial Wind. What’s fascinating here is the way it melds the universality of themes with strikingly relevant and beautiful imagery. Interestingly Greek tragedy only allowed three speaking actors (though there was also a chorus). The actors wore masks of course so one actor could easily play many roles, and it is another connection that our piece also has three performers too.

It is powerful stuff and relevant; beginning firstly with Euripides the playwright in exile pondering on writing a version of the Iphigenia story in order to say something about war and his time, he asks us what can we actually do in times of cruelty and war? Does he show her sacrifice in all its gory detail to shock his audience or does he show the other version where Iphigenia is snatched away by a goddess just in time to spend the rest of her life as a priestess in a foreign land to make them feel more positive about the story? The poetry takes us through the sacrifice and all the major players in that decision; how they collude, permit and act so that the engine of war and vanity can be pursued. Like many acts of unbelievable brutality a juggernaut of violence is set in motion that no one seems interested or able to stop. It sounds grimly familiar. The second half and I believe the heart of the piece deals with the consequences, most especially for the damaged women of Agamemnon’s family.

It is having one performance on November 24th at 1pm in the Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance (next to the Bank of Ireland Theatre) though we are expecting to have more. It is part of the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway and entrance is free.

Talking Teaching Voice

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a member of Dublin Youth Theatre works with gesture and language – photo Sean O’Meallaigh

Yesterday  I had a launch of my book, ‘Teaching Voice’ at the National University of Ireland Galway. I had just come back from teaching my 2nd year Voice and Shakespeare class which had been a great exchange of energy and learning. In fact, a student said something which I am going to make the centre of a blogpost soon.  After a lovely introduction by Marianne Ni Chinneide, whom I have known for many years both as a youth theatre member and an MA student many years before she became a colleague, I said this [ with a few embellishments to clarify further]-

 

‘Before I came to Galway, I had had some success as an actor but had enough of acting and was starting to make a name for myself as a playwright. What do I mean by, ‘had enough of it’? I was worn out by ‘the business’ and the destructive and ridiculous cliches with which a young actor is encouraged to live. Cliches like  ‘talent will out’, that if you work hard , you will make it in the end, whatever ‘make it’ is supposed to mean. I knew that despite some success, that somehow the love for acting had somehow been seriously eroded and I was losing my way,  that there had to be some other route forward for myself. I had done a bit of teaching but really wanted to explore teaching theatre and particularly voice.

My first contact in looking for a place to teach theatre was actually here in the university, though of course no drama programme existed. I remember meeting Kevin Barry, then Head of English,  who sent me off to the feisty and determined Rebecca Bartlett, the founder of the Galway Youth Theatre, which was actually a part time programme for young people here.  After a talk with her  I decided that what they needed was a specified voice programme. It was only a few hours per week but it meant a serious improvement in performance skills, and to begin with, that is how I viewed the voice training. Despite the fact that voice can often be perceived as tedious – I can remember dreading double voice on Monday morning of my second year at college – I was determined to make it as energetic and joyous as possible.

Working there was a big part of my life for the next twelve years, with subsequent directors Niamh Dillon and Andrew Flynn, teaching voice, ensemble, and directing many productions there. It was exciting and I found that I loved teaching. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And whilst I still love to direct and write, teaching is what really fascinates me because as we discovered the other day, when you are in a class you often do the best work, the most subtle and the most exciting. The reason for this is perhaps, as one of my students suggested, because your ego is not so much in the way. And I, as the teacher, am priveleged to get to see and nurture that work . For instance in my Continuers Michael Chekhov class the other day I experienced a most beautiful nuanced version of ‘Our revels now are ended, “ from the Tempest. I have rarely heard it done as movingly.

The more I worked in this sector of youth theatre, eventually being sent by the National Association of Youth Drama all over the country to a massive variety of youth theatres , the more I understood that voice work is essential, not just for acting or for the myriad of jobs and situations in which the voice is important , but also into making us a whole person. If you connect your voice, imagination, feelings and body you operate holistically, completely. That’s got to be good for you.

Further work at the Blue Teapots Theatre, a programme for adults with learning difficulties with a thriving theatre company, taught me not only about teaching voice, but also the art of teaching itself. I realised that teaching was not just about me imparting knowledge but was an act of service.

Students were not there to garner my pearls of wisdom or simply learn skills, but to really truly develop they need to be encouraged by my care and enthusiasm for my subject and for them. It taught me that you cannot just expect students to do as they’re told or to ‘know what is good for them’. That as a teacher, it was as they say, ‘not about me’. You might say that about all group endeavours actually. Even directing a play is not ‘about me’ either. Its more about ‘me’ than teaching is, but still…

Later I discovered that whilst it was my job to build a bridge between the knowledge and the students in a way they could appreciate and build on, it was vital at the same time not compromising your knowledge by making it so ‘cool’ that it became unrecognisable; that there was an integrity there.

On the other hand, as I learned from that wonderful Michael Chekhov teacher Ted Pugh, students have to find out. It is their job to find out, and you as the teacher cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. I find this balance actually can be quite challenging, and of course it varies from class to class, from student to student. Of course I can say these things, because in drama I have the luxury that the classes are invariably small. And of course the learning you do through drama can often be life changing quite quickly, so the impact, when a light goes on in a student’s learning, can be immediately visible though of course it does not always last.

As some people might know I have taught a number of voice courses to lecturers here and in other colleges as well; what was ostensibly a voice class became also something about the philosophy of teaching, how we actually feel about teaching. Whilst I was not trained to be a teacher myself, I do now understand that teaching is a skill, it’s a generosity and an offering, whilst at the same time setting limits and boundaries. Its an art form in itself.

This book of mine, in addition to being a book of workshops and exercises, which covers a whole range of themed sessions on different aspects of voice, including acting with poetry, rhythm, delivering presentations, Shakespeare, working in productions, holds some of that ethos. It’s for anyone who works with young people and wants to help them express themselves, to help them find a voice, especially if you have only a little training and are working in a kind of keyhole situation  as you might be in the college environment.  I trained at drama school and did five hours of voice per week for two years. I am running a class here where the students have two hours contact time per week and have to practise daily  without me. That course however is still invaluable especially if people do practise. It is not wasted time. With limited time you can still do something useful.

And learning is not linear either. I remember driving down to facilitate  at a youth theatre project a few years ago with Miquel Barcelo, an excellent movement and ensemble teacher, and he and I were discussing training . He said something which I kind of knew but was a good reminder. He said when he was training at Lecoq there were many things he didn’t understand and sometimes it was only when he thought about them years later that he truly understood them. Sometimes it takes years to sink in. Truly understanding something is not about instant gratification.

That’s certainly been true of my own learning.

Teaching Voice is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased from their website  and is available in, as they say, all good bookshops!