Tag Archives: The Sacrificial wind

Artist as Critic

Recently I put up a post on FB and then elaborated it on my blog about a show I had seen in the Galway Arts Festival, with a number of basic tenets and questions I felt the director in particular should have considered. As a director, theatre and voice teacher of decades experience and having paid for my ticket I feel I have that right to be critical or at least to raise these questions. Yet I know that many fellow artists feel reluctant to do this and I understand this reluctance because I feel it too.

I can understand why this reluctance exists. Artists are generally nice people and understand how hard it is to make a good piece of work. They also do not want to be considered as whingers and begrudgers. They could be accused of being bitter; they did not have the opportunity to involve themselves in this project with such enormous resources etc etc. Thirdly, of course, is the fear that if they do criticise, it may affect their chances of securing funding or other opportunities at a later date.

I well remember criticising a play in the Dublin Theatre Festival in a talkback where criticism was actually requested about the play from the audience. I felt as a published playwright with several professional productions to my credit that I had sufficient gravitas to comment. The talkback began and the usual wave of congratulations from the audience started. A specific question was asked which I felt more than equipped to answer. As I started to talk I felt the waves of hatred filling the theatre creeping up to drown me. I did not raise my voice but made some serious suggestions.  Recently in Cuirt, we began our talkback for Lorna Shaughnessy’s THE SACRIFICIAL WIND by telling people they could ask or say anything they liked.

I believe that we have a duty to comment on a piece of work, particularly if we feel it is not fulfilling basic standards. We need to be constructive. I actually made my recent criticisms as Notes to The Director  to be seriously considered, but I know they won’t be.  Often when you are involved in a piece with problems you know it yourself but you can do little or nothing about it because that improvement needs to come from the top. That’s what makes performers give defensive performances where they grit their teeth and use their gimmicks to get them through. I did it myself as an actor. I remember it well.

Artists are better placed almost than anybody to make constructive criticism and ask these tricky questions because we are involved with this work of theatre and love it with our hearts. If we are not able to criticise and discuss then how are things going to improve? How will standards be maintained? And by standards I am talking about vision, skills and direction.

I am not talking here about student productions or community work where the principal goals may be different; educative or trying to draw a community together to express something important which is vital and different to the goals of a professional production.

Members of the audience can leave dissatisfied and yet are not able necessarily to articulate why. We must try and open that debate more to educate them, so they expect more. It is our duty to comment.

Doing The Show Again

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Orla Tubridy  -Iphigenia

I have always found remounting a show a challenge. I suppose it’s the lazy performer in me. Inside me a weaselly mischievous voice is saying, “People liked it the last time, didn’t they? Just do it as you did it before.” Of course we all know that even if you have been too busy to give the piece much thought that the magic alchemy of time has stirred your imagination and your soul and that it cannot be anything like the same. And this is true not only for you, but everyone involved. Time has moved on, you all have a different perspective.

Peter Brook understood this all too well. He brought performers up to speed so that they could perform the play before an audience, before dissecting the work, learning from it and almost starting again, working towards their next performance. Despite current performance-as-research and other workshopping processes this idea is still rejected as either financially untenable or more importantly as an interruption of the director’s and actors’ ‘private’ process (as if you could learn nothing from performance at all and it was an invalid way of learning!). We were offered this opportunity by default. We had had our one performance and were now some months later, remounting it for a different occasion and a different space.

The first thing I did when revisiting THE SACRIFICIAL WIND, a dramatic poetry performance in this years Cuirt Festival of Literature, which had previously been mounted as an Arts in Action project for the National University of Ireland Galway in the new O’Donoghue Centre, was to reorder some of the poems. I also was in discussion about the ending, which both myself, the writer, and it turns out, the actors were not happy with and felt it didn’t work dramatically. This change highlights where we went next because having made that change, all the rest followed .

I need to explain; in the original, the final poem became a speech to the audience by the actors about the moral ramifications of what they had seen, which made the piece sound too didactic, rather than letting the characters speak. Once we cut that poem and ended the piece with Euripides’ final words, the intensity moved through energetically to the very end. It changed everything; not only the shape but the ethos and focus of the piece. It made the piece much more character driven than it had been, which in turn freed up the actors to embody the text as the characters, even more than they had before. This in turn greatly enlivened and intensified the work making the whole piece more edgy and unpredictable. This, and one or two other text changes fundamentally changed the form of the piece. Anyone who works with Michael Chekhov technique understands that two of the basics are the feeling of form and the feeling of the whole. If remounting this show has proved anything it has proved those tenets to be true. Not that I needed that proof mind you but the profundity of those structural changes and where they led us surprised even me.

Another thing that has intensified the work is the change of venue.The Town Hall Studio is a small 64 seat room; the O’Donoghue  where we performed first is a 120 seat venue which has a kind of formality about it. The new venue brought with it a rough, less predictable atmosphere, where the confessional nature of the characters became even stronger as they tried to justify their actions to the audience around the sacrifice of the young princess Iphigenia and their collusion in the start of a bloody and protracted war. As a result, the lighting became less formal and more dramatic as did the staging.

The packed house last night and the warm reception might mean that it is hard to get a ticket. It is only on for another three nights. I would advise you book through http://www.tht.ie or http://www.cuirt.ie if you are around Galway and intending to come! on Thursday night we are having a talk back after the show with Lorna Shaughnessy the writer and myself chaired by Tony Hegarty.

Me and Cuirt : The Sacrificial Wind

I have been involved on and off with Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway since 1995 not long after I arrived from England. At that time I was working a lot as a writer and had been joint winner of the Apples and Snakes Performance Poet of the Year. My first foray into Cuirt was at The Bardic Breakfast (with my performance poetry hat on) and was encouraged and supported by Mike Diskin who then ran Galway Arts Centre. Over the years I ran classes on voice work and performing poetry, I had forays into schools and but most particularly did three notable productions with Galway Youth Theatre as part of Cuirt; Alien Nation, The Trial and The Midnight Court.

Alien Nation is my own youth play about racism set in Ireland, now even more relevant alas than it was then. Using rhythm and chanting cut between short violent naturalistic scenes, we performed the play in an Art Gallery. The young people blew the room up with their energy and people queued up the street to see it. We had to put on extra performances. Many of these young people are now serious theatre and film makers themselves. The play has been used in schools all over Ireland, has had many productions and is published.

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The Trial

The Trial (Berkoff’s version of the Kafka novel) required energy and unbelievable ensemble discipline. After its massive success in the Cuirt where it got a glowing Irish Times review from Eileen Battersby, “this honours and defines the concept of theatre” The play was revived and we went to England with it.

Ciaran Carson’s gutsy version of The Midnight Court, the Irish classic which he rendered into English, was part of an incredible last night of Cuirt in, I think, 05. As I recall the Cuirt had part sponsored the version. On the final night, Ciaran Carson read from his text and then Brid NI Neachtain a highly respected Irish actress read portions in Irish. Finally we presented our raucous rappy ferocious 50 minute version to a massive standing ovation. It was for me an unforgettable event. Unfortunately as the event was on the cusp of  time before we recorded everything, no record remains of this once-off production. No video, no photographs, nothing.

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the Sacrificial Wind 2017

So it is with great delight that after a long absence I am back with my company, the performance arm of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland, to perform Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a dramatic poetry performance based around the sacrifice of Iphigenia who was killed to appease a goddess so the men could get a wind to take them to Troy. Performed in the intimate Town Hall Studio Galway, this intense piece mixes poetry, characters in cornered and dangerous situations, and asks questions of our response to the dangerous world in which we find ourselves.

First presented as part of the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway, the piece has grown in intensity and variety with its trio of dedicated and versatile actors, Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy.

It lasts 50 minutes and tickets are still available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

‘Take this sad tale where you will….’

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Orla Tubridy,Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning

What a fascinating exploration and discovery is The Sacrificial Wind, this small hard diamond of a piece by Lorna Shaughnessy,  which I directed at the New Theatre Space at the National University of Ireland Galway, which is shortly to be revived for the Cuirt International Festival of literature 2017 and playing in the Town Hall Studio Galway from the 25th-28th April .Tickets available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

It is an absolutely thrilling piece to revisit.

Like all Greek theatre, Lorna Shaughnessy’s examination of the characters around the story of Iphigenia in Aulis asks big questions; in this case about our sense of helplessness in the wake of war and cruelty, our collusion in those events and our sense of shame in that collusion. It asks what can artists do to affect these horrors? What have we to offer? It takes us through a panoply of heroes, soldiers and victims and all in fifty minutes and with three performers. Interestingly one of the rules of the Ancient Greek Tragic competitions was that there were only three actors who played all the speaking roles.

What’s interesting about working with a set of poems as opposed to a play, even when the poems are dramatic,  is that the structure is more subtle like music and we have to understand that. Each poem is like an aria , changing the energy and movement of the piece suddenly for two or three minutes before a new character twists the story, often violently, in another direction. This is incredibly challenging for both actors and director as each poem exudes its  own particular atmosphere. A number of the poems, like the final set where the family and the playwright Euripides are all devastated by the sacrifice of Iphigenia, work together as a distinct musical movement.

So unlike a conventional play where the structure of the story limits the choices to a certain extent, a body of poems has a much more serpentine structure with many more possibilities. It means you could go on and on and on exploring but we had a short time frame. The poems gradually revealed themselves . We had not only to consider character but, like a song, a style of delivery which depended on how each poem was written. this work was greatly enhanced by the soundscapes of Aranos, and lighting by Bryan Rabbitte.

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Catherine Denning as Clytemnestra

One thing I ditched very early on was the idea that any of the pieces would take place as ‘scenes’. The characters addressed only the audience. This did not mean that the other performers did not support the main actor but the principal acting partner was always the audience. This kept both a feel of Greek drama and a palpable collusion in the audience as to the Sacrifice and other decisions that the characters made. It was very direct.

This is not the same as doing a monologue to the audience, much beloved device of many modern playwrights, but a more Shakespearean take where the audience are asked to consider their role in the actions of the play . Shakespeare monologues are less reflective and more active. they are asking questions. Look at the ‘It must be by his death’ Brutus soliloquy  in Julius Caesar for one of many  examples . I was very aware of how our crisis – riven world is provoking the very kind of questions the characters ask.

Thanks also to Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy , the actors, who made such an incredible job of the work.

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.