Fight Back Festival and Theatre in Lockdown

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.

It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.

As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.

The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.

The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.

Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.

When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs,  the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option.  As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”

The Ghost Light Glows On

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Originally published on takeyourseats.ie.

Earlier this month, the safety curtain abruptly dropped and our stages went dark. Artists, company managers, box office staff, technicians, marketing teams and every other person in our industry scrambled to figure out the staging for this unexpected rewrite. An unwelcome rewrite.

Just as theatres closed their doors against the Plague in the 16th Century, today our auditoriums lie empty and our stages are silent due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has swept in and changed our lives more swiftly and thoroughly than a deus ex machine in the final act of a Greek tragedy.

As scripts are sadly consigned to desk drawers for the time being and sets sit gathering dust, things can feel a little hopeless. Simon Callow wrote in the New York Review’s “Pandemic Journal” last week, “The whole point of theatre, since the Greeks, at any rate, has been to gather the citizens together, to remind us, as Shakespeare so incomparably put it, that ‘we are not all alone unhappy.’” Though we cannot gather people as we usually do, we are all still doing what we do best – creating, inventing, imagining, connecting.

Since the theatres and other cultural institutions closed, there has been a wave of generous creativity. Companies, venues and individual artists have had steam coming out of their ears with the speed at which they have been thinking up new ways to bring the joy of theatre to everyone in their homes.

We may not be able to do what we do best, in the way we do it best, at the moment but with live streams, creative challenges, new online creations, and plenty more in the works, we are certainly doing the best we can.

Times are tough but every show, even the most painfully dull and lengthy ones, must come to an end, and so too will this. We will keep this imaginative generosity going, and let the glow of the ghost light remind us that when this passes our auditoriums will be filled with the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd once more.

Cupid Enters Stage Left

Originally published on takeyourseats.ie

Cupid’s bow is strung, florists are awash with red roses, and primary school students up and down the country are painstakingly gluing heart-shaped confetti to elaborate cards – yes, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.

I’m sure that, on Friday night, auditoriums will be full of couples contentedly fed by special pre-theatre menus and complimentary chocolates, enjoying a date in honour of St Valentine. While a trip to the theatre can undoubtedly be a romantic evening (provided you don’t go for something like Prometheus Bound or 4.48 Psychosis), and anyone who knows me is well aware that theatre trips are a clear route to my heart, but the romance of theatre does not only unfold on one side of the fourth wall.

From the enduring tales of romance in Japanese Kabuki Theatre, and courtly love of Medieval European stages, to the turbulent relationships of Tennessee Williams’ characters and the chaos that invariably ensues whenever love is invoked by Shakespeare’s pen, love in all of its forms has graced our stages for millennia. As the Bard of Avon himself wrote in As You Like It, “the sight of lovers feedeth those in love,” and romance on our stages is not simply a diet of saccharine coconut-ice representations of love, but the mundane Monday-morning toast type and the unripe-apple sharpness of the unrequited sort too.

My favourite story of love in theatre is the madcap tale of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Puck and his motley crew create a theatrical chaos, and the faeries and lovers create a muddle of their own, the realities of theatre and those of love are married in hilarity. Theseus puts it best when he says “the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.” There are few other places where we can let go of reason in the same way as we do when we tumble into love, but theatre is certainly one of them. The highs, lows, laughs and tears of the theatre, are also those of love.

As theatre holds a mirror up to our society, each and every one of us can find a tale of romance that speaks to our hearts. Whether you want to get lost in a flurry of feathers and heartache with the Moscow City Ballet’s Swan Lake at the Bord Gáis, indulge in a smorgasbord of romantic tales at Scene + Heard festival in Smock Alley, split your sides laughing with a loved one at Dirty Dusting in Visual, Carlow or enjoy some Cole Porter classics as Lili and Fred feud in Kiss Me Kate at the Lyric Theatre, there is a Valentine’s day theatrical treat for everyone.

Night Paintings

The Cello Factory

London

In his essay on Simon Streather’s exhibition, Night Paintings, Jean-Paul Martinon writes that the paintings are “embodiments to keep the possibility of the possible open, which is nothing else than keeping art and life moving a little further still.”  Standing in the airy, open space of the Cello Factory, surrounded by Streather’s small but striking works in watercolour and ink, the sense of the possible is ever-present.

The paintings are spaced out across the gallery, mounted simply on white paper rather than framed. In this minimalist presentation, there are not works crammed in to fill every available wall, but rather the ones that have been chosen have been carefully placed and given their own space. Despite this sense of the deliberate in the exhibition overall, each painting presents a feeling of fluidity, like one might turn around and see an almost imperceptibly different painting to the one that was there moments previously. To my mind, these works are snapshots or embodiments of the varied states of a mind in the quiet of night. Distilling the ephemeral onto a small photograph-sized piece of paper, Streather presents internal moments captured, but not frozen. As Martinon writes, “these paintings are not just beautiful marks or stains on paper, they express, like all human beings, an allergy to rest, an aversion to dead-points and repetition.” One piece, with flecks of yellow catching the eye through its layers, feels as though something might happen at any moment as you look at it. Another, which I gravitated towards immediately and repeatedly, emits a sense of fleeting serenity in its minimalism. There is great variety in the paintings, and yet there is a strong undercurrent that draws them together.

Of course these readings are just the reactions these works evoked in me; everyone who I spoke to at the opening had experienced them slightly differently, which is the beauty of this exhibition. A conversation made up of exactly the same observations, and even the same words, will be very different depending on who it is with; similarly, these paintings, though they are static as any physical object, communicate something different to each pair of eyes that greets them.

In Night Paintings, Streather has created and brought together captivating manifestations of mutability which convey moments I would have thought too ephemeral to capture on paper.

The Ten Fringe Commandments

Originally published in TN2 Magazine as: Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Ten Fringe Commandments. A Heavenly Guide to Navigating the Holiest of Fringes

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Ask anyone interested in the arts what they think of when they hear “Edinburgh” and what will they say?

(Don’t say Trainspotting or Jean Brodie, you’ll ruin my point.)

Yes, that’s right, it’s the Edinburgh Festivals.

For four weeks every August, the city is taken over by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, though I have yet to attend that one). Both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were established seventy years ago in 1947 and, with the recent news that the Scottish Government has pledged an additional 10 million in funding for the Festivals; they are set to continue for a long time yet. The International Festival was founded in the wake of World War Two by Rudolph Bing and Henry Harvey Wood as a curated festival where high-quality theatre, music, dance and opera productions are brought from across the world to Edinburgh by invitation of the Festival Director. However, Fringe had a more interesting beginning (and arguably a more interesting future), and so it’s the Fringe that I am here to write about. The Fringe had a less official beginning in 1947 when eight theatre companies arrived in Edinburgh, uninvited, to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. Though they were not there under the official auspices of the Festival, they made use of the already-present audiences and staged their work in alternative venues on…you’ve guessed it…the fringes of the International Festival. These performers set a precedent for others to imitate them in following years and the Fringe grew as a volunteer led event until 1958 when the Festival Fringe Society formed, formalising the Fringe’s existence and has continued to grow since then to become the World’s largest arts festival. To this day the Fringe Society follows the same basic principles of the original Fringe; though they will organise bookings, programmes and co-ordination of the thousands of productions that are staged, there is no vetting process like there is in the International Festival. As they say on their own website, the will include in the programme “anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”

Despite that torrent of information I just delivered, and the fact that I am a massive theatre addict, until this year I had never been to Edinburgh during festival time, but with both the International Festival and the Fringe celebrating their 70th year in 2017, I chose the right year for my first visit. As I was over reviewing work at the Fringe with the Network of Independent Critics for the last week in August, I had a jam-packed week in which  saw twenty-two shows, wrote many words, and walked many, many miles. I dived in at the deep-end, programme clutched to my chest, and spent a week sprinting from venue to venue up and down the city’s many hills and steps, fuelled by coffee, baked potatoes and a wild enthusiasm for theatre.

It was fantastic.

However, with 3,398 shows running at Fringe this year (and probably as many if not more next year), and the streets filled with excitement, performances, posters and, well, Fringe, it’s easy to find yourself drowning a little in the deluge of flyers, choices and chances, so I have put together a wee list to let you learn from my mistakes and get you acquainted with Edinburgh and the Fringe.

 

The Ten Fringe Commandments:

 

  1. Thou shalt not plan thy Fringe to the very last minute.

(There are always a few gems you may have missed in the programme. Leave yourself time and space to discover new things.)

  1. Thou shalt not narrow thine options.

( Sure, you may not think you’ll like that Morris Dance show about Madonna and existentialism, but you might surprise yourself. The thing you take a chance on may be terrible, but you might just stumble upon the next Pythons.)

  1. Thou shalt sleep.

(This is the voice of experience. You feel invincible at the start and going to that breakfast show after going to that gig that began at 2am seems entirely reasonable, but remember to pace yourself. By the end of a week you’ll be glad you pencilled in time to sleep.)

  1. Man cannot live on hasty snacks alone.

(Same as above. Nature Valley bars are great, but have at least one decent meal a day. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, cook and freeze a few basic meals in advance, and remember that Edinburgh has a lot of delicious places to eat; leave space in your budget to explore a few of them.)

  1. Thou shalt remember to wear layers and comfortable shoes.

(Prepare for every season and lots of walking.)

  1. Thou shalt check and double-check thy venues.

(You don’t want to be left racing from Pleasance Courtyard to Pleasance Dome at the last minute.)

  1. Thou shalt leave thyself time.

(On a similar note to the sixth commandment, make sure you have time to get between shows and leave yourself some contingency time. I thought it would be no problem to trot the five minute walk between venues in the ten-minute gap between shows, but I forgot that the five minute walk was up a sizeable hill. I could have lit the whole show with the glow from my beetroot, breathless face.)

  1. Thou shalt talk to strangers.

(No, I don’t mean the scary ones down dark alleyways, but chat to the person next to you in the queue at box office or when you’re hanging around venues. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to discover exciting work you might not have heard of otherwise.)

  1. Thou shalt remember that there is more to Edinburgh than the Festivals.

(With all the festival-ing, don’t forget to take some time out to clear your head. Lots of people decide to climb Arthur’s Seat, but if you’re looking for a less strenuous escape take yourself for a picnic at the Botanic Gardens or have a wander round one of the city’s many museums and galleries.)

  1. Thou shalt enjoy thyself.

(The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world; throw yourself in, enjoy the unexpected, make memories and have fun!)

Now, my young Fringelings, you have a year to prepare. Go forth, write plays, save money, play “Yes, and…,” get excited for Fringe and let these commandments help you on your way.

Little Acorns

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Last month I went to Theatre Forum’s All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (APAC) for the first time and it was brilliant. I left Sligo having done the seemingly impossible and become even more excited about my career choice and even more enthusiastic about the arts. The spark for this was the torrent of ideas and that flowed over the course of the two days. There were myriad inspiring and interesting talks from practitioners and people such as poetician Brigitta Jónsdóttir and Sir John Tusa and, just as importantly, there was constant conversation flowing around the venue, in the hotel and even travelling to and from Sligo. The conversation made its way onto Twitter and Facebook and just a few days ago podcasts of the talks were published on Theatre Forum’s website, giving anyone and everyone with access to the internet a chance to engage. (The podcasts are available here. Have a listen to some of the fantastic speakers, and keep an ear out for yours truly!)

This sort of sharing of thoughts, opinions and ideas is invaluably important in the arts. All too often ideas are kept in little locked drawers until they are perfected, until the finished product has been completed, and I think this needs to change. I’m as guilty of hiding away some piece of work that I may love but can’t entrust to anyone else until it is finished. But it never is. Art is always evolving and changing. Take a show for example; does it stay exactly the same for every night of the run? Of course not; the performers and crew change it slightly each night whether consciously or unconsciously reacting to events and surroundings. A song will change with every performance, with every voice that sings it. A poem will never be read in exactly the same way by two different people. A painting will look different from every angle and in every kind of light. Just like this, an idea will never quite be the same for each person, and that is the beauty of it. As soon as you share an idea it begins to grow, it takes breath and energy from whoever sees it from a similar, but refreshingly different angle to yours.

So I say talk to someone about your grand idea. Read a friend that poem that you think is a bit rubbish. Tell your housemate what it is that you have been cooped up writing for the past three evenings, only emerging from your room to replenish biscuit supplies and refill your teapot. Release your idea into the world, like a kite soaring into the sky guided by the string in your hand.

As Goethe once wisely said:

“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward: they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”