A Conversation With Kate Heffernan

Writer Kate Heffernan talks about her work, her thoughts on Irish theatre and advice for people considering a similar career.

Photo by Senija Topcic

Photo by Senija Topcic

Tell us a little about what you do.

I am a writer – a ‘yes but no but yes but’ writer – contrarily uncomfortable calling myself either theatremaker or playwright, but comfortable with the makerly meaning of the word wright. When not agonising over definitions, I write texts for performance. I also do lots of other work to supplement this questionable lifestyle choice, such as graphic design, bespoke show programmes, writing and editing and producing support.

How did you find your way into your field? Was it something you always had an interest in?

I haven’t always been a writer. I’ve worked in lots of different capacities over the past twelve years, from running a box office for an arts festival on an island at the other end of the world, to stage-managing a site-specific dance performance in hotels across this island, to my most recent role as Assistant Producer at Project Arts Centre. My first job in theatre coincided with the opening of Dunamaise Arts Centre in my hometown when I was 16, and I worked as stage-manager for a production by Shake the Speare, a brilliant young ensemble led by Cabrini Cahill. My interest started right there, and I then just said yes to every job that came my way – tearing tickets and unloading sets and putting season brochures in envelopes and hanging lamps while reading English at college lined my pockets, informed by thinking as a writer, and the vast range of performance I absorbed at the same time fuelled my imagination.

You just finished a year as Artist in Residence at the Dunamaise Arts Centre Portlaoise with Maisie Lee, could you tell us a little about that?

Home was a project by, for and about the people of Laois. We encouraged people from all walks of life to get in touch, to make contact, to share their ideas. We spent the first half of the year meeting with groups and individuals of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds from all over the county, discussing and workshopping ideas of ‘home’. We became very interested in exploring radio as a medium that could reach people in their own homes. The residency culminated in Hometruths, a series of six fictional texts for radio, written by me and directed by Maisie, based on all of the ideas collected throughout the year. Recorded for broadcast at Dunamaise and various locations throughout Laois, five of the pieces were performed by a local cast. Hometruths was broadcast live from Dunamaise by Midlands 103 last December.

You had a successful run at the 2013 Dublin Fringe Festival with your play “In Dog Years I’m Dead” for which you won the Steward Parker Award. Could you tell us a little about your experience of writing it and having it in the fringe?

That was a whirlwind. One second Maisie and actor Marie Ruane and I are chatting semi-absently about shared anxieties surrounding turning 30, the next second we’ve made a play about it with the collaboration of actor Rob Bannon, its on in the Dublin Fringe Festival and its selling out, its revived for a month-long run at Bewleys Café Theatre and its winning the Stewart Parker Award. Or at least it felt like two seconds. That was about 18 months in reality, a period in which I took a terrifying leap from being a secret writer to a public writer, with the unwavering support of the brilliant Maisie Lee, and also the incredibly enabling encouragement of Róise Goan, then director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. All of it feels a bit whirlwindy, apart from one moment at the top of our very first preview, Maisie and I glancing uneasily at each other as we stood behind our very first audience, uncertain about what way it would go. That first moment when you feel an audience connect with what you’ve tried to achieve is overwhelming, that energy in the room, whether it’s a laugh, a gasp, or a still silence. That’s the feeling that makes time slow down. And the drug that will keep me coming back for more.

What has your favourite theatre moment of the last 12 months been?

I’ve wrestled with this, and have decided there are just too many to reduce it to one! I was struck by the beauty of L’apres-midi d’un Foehn by Compagnie Non Nova (at the Ark as part of Dublin Dance Festival), in which Jean-Louis Ouvrard transforms plastic bags into a troupe of prima ballerinas. The simplicity of its artistry will stay with me, a simplicity that in my own work always seems just out of reach. The ethereal vocals of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Sonya Kelly’s smart slant on immigration, love and a lamentation for avocados in How to Keep and Alien (both as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe), the hypnotic words and fractured world of Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities at the Traverse during Edinburgh Fringe, the irresistible joy of Fabulous Beast’s Rian at Dunamaise for Culture Night. Two design moments will stay with me: a stunning singular second in The Company’s The Rest Is Action, when Rob McDermott as Cassandra, begins to have visions of the future (at Project Arts Centre as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe); and the opening sequence of Schaubühne’s Hamlet, a simple diffuse water hose adding a layer of tension to the farcical burial of Hamlet’s father, and just one of many engrossing sequences during that incredible production (at BGET as part of Dublin Theatre Festival). The Dublin Theatre Festival offered so many moments: the weird growing-up-in-a-small-town vibes of Jonathan Capdevielle’s Adishatz/Adieu, the letter-perfect choreography of BERLIN’s Perhaps All the Dragons, and Pan Pan’s often off the wall, always coherent, unwaveringly engaging (and sometimes tutu’d) production of The Seagull and Other Birds.
Good grief, I’m fierce longwinded.

What do you think of the current state of Irish theatre?

Lots of brilliant things, lots of less brilliant things but – with improved strategy, policy, vision, ambition and rigour at every level – lots of space and possibility for more brilliant things

If you had to pick one change to make to Irish theatre, what would it be?

Less polarity in our thinking, in our language, in our preoccupations: less of centre versus periphery, funded versus unfunded, pre-2008 versus post-2008, new work versus new writing, playwright versus theatremaker (Oh give it a rest, Kate!), self-produced versus every-other-kind-of-produced, emerging versus established, traditional versus contemporary, absolutely incredible versus total shit! And so on, ad infinitum. And by saying less, I imply more: more informed, rounded and active engagement with everything that’s happening by everyone involved. Is that a bit airy-fairy?

What advice would you give to a person considering pursing a similar career to yours?

Don’t be too hung up on gut. I’m not sure I ever had one to follow. Some decisions are hard, some are easy, very few singular decisions will alter the entire course of your life, make the decision that’s right for now, and things will slowly slot into place. Don’t beat yourself up for not being in the place you thought you’d be if indeed you ever thought about such a place. Read a lot, see lots of different types of work, but don’t passively consume it or lazily dismiss it. Think about the artists’ intentions not as a critic might but as a fellow maker does, think carefully about your responses – articulate them. Try and keep a notebook, but don’t worry if it’s not for you, plenty of writers don’t. Find someone who you can share your work with, a reader whose opinion you trust, but not someone who is either too critical or holds such a lofty position in your life that it is crippling rather than enabling. Read Stephen King’s On Writing. Read The Paris Review interviews and keep your favourites close to you during the bad times. Make things – always make things. I had a blast reading English but it stopped me dead in my tracks as a writer, turning me from maker into self-doubting critic, and it took (is taking) years to come back around from that. Don’t stay away from studying literature, but keep creating, being careful not to let your literary analysis skills overcome your skills as a maker. Take all advice with a large flake of Irish Atlantic Sea Salt.

Thanks to Kate Heffernan for sharing her thoughts.

A Conversation With Karen Fricker

Karen Fricker, theatre academic and critic talks about her career, her views on current events and the future of theatre.

Karen Fricker web headshot copy

Tell us a little about what you do.
I am an assistant professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. The focus of my research is on the ways in which globalization is affecting contemporary theatre and performance. Before I became an academic I worked as a theatre critic and arts magazine editor, and maintain a keen interest in theatre criticism and how it’s changing in the digital age.

 

How did you find your way into your field? Was it something you always had an interest in?
My mom sent me and my sister to a summertime drama programme at our local university when I was 12 and I have been hooked ever since.I studied English and Drama at university and didn’t find my way to criticism until after graduation, as I slowly realized that what I most loved about theatre – going to seeing shows and thinking and talking about then afterwards – could be something you do for a living.

 

What are your thoughts on the role of the critic in today’s society? How do you see it changing?
The received wisdom about criticism today is that thanks to the internet, everyone’s a critic. In fact everyone has always been a critic, inasmuch as the capacity to respond to the arts thoughtfully is part of what makes us human. But the rise of digital technologies means that pretty much anyone with a computer and internet access can broadcast their viewpoints. At the same time, and for related reasons, the number of paying jobs for professional critics is in decline, and some media outlets now privilege consumer/citizen reviews over expert ones. This is perceived by many with stakes in professional criticism as a situation of dire crisis. I prefer to see it as one of transition – expert voices will never be silenced. But just how they’re going to make themselves heard above the cacophony of online conversation is something that’s still playing itself out. It’s an exciting time.

 

What has your favourite theatre moment of the last 12 months been?
Ooh, I love that question. The most beautiful and moving performance I saw in 2014 was the contemporary circus piece Acrobates by the French company Le Montfort. I wrote about it extensively on my blog (www.karenfricker.wordpress.com) so I’ll not go on about it here — but I will say that contemporary circus is extremely vibrant at the moment and that maybe if Ireland gets really lucky, Willie White will program Acrobates in the Dublin Theatre Festival. That’s a hint, Willie.

 

What do you think of the current state of Irish theatre?
From 1997-2007 I lived in Dublin and was in the thick of things in the Irish performing arts, but now I only make it back twice a year so it’s hard for me to comment comprehensively. If I can say what work I most regret having missed in the years since I left it’s that of Anu Productions — their immersive Monto Cycle has been acknowledged as a major achievement. I am very sorry I never got a chance to see those productions.

 

If you had to pick one change to make to Irish theatre, what would it be?
Improved government funding.

 

You have worked a lot with young people, as an assistant professor in Brock University and on projects such as NAYD’s annual Young Critics programme. What are your thoughts on the future of theatre having worked with some of the practitioners, critics, academics and audiences of the present and future?
Working with young people is a great privilege, because through their eyes I see theatre as a space of limitless possibility and creativity. It’s impossible to get jaded! At the moment I am particularly interested to see what the next big thing after the post-dramatic (others may already know – please tell me!) and how digital criticism is going to continue to change my particular area of focus.

 

What advice would you give to a person considering pursing a similar career to yours?
Total, utter cliché but – follow your gut, follow your passion. If you feel like there’s something that needs to be said or done and you can’t figure out why no one is saying or doing it, that’s your cue. Do it yourself, say it yourself.

 

Thanks to Karen Fricker for sharing her thoughts.

Review – Hamlet

Just Friends Theatre Collective

Smock Alley

12/12/14Hamlet

This production directed by Aisling Smith with Just Friends Theatre Company, was the second Hamlet I have seen this year and it couldn’t have been more different from the first. Where Ostermier’s porduction with Berlin’s Schaubuhne was a loud, large scale production that tried to shock the audience at every turn, Smith’s Hamlet was a relaxed, engaging and accessible piece. The costuming and setting was unusual with modern dress being worn and the various levels of the Boy’s School space being used to great effect. However, apart from these and the paring back of the script, this was a show that was primarily concerned with telling the audience the enduring story of Hamlet.

For the most part, the performances were very competent, with Rory Doherty finding the balance between Hamlet’s mask of madness and his determination to discover and act upon the true facts of his father’s death, Michael Mullen and Lauren McGarry playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a young couple and engaging performances from a host of other characters, especially Horatio and Marcellus played by Colm Kenny-Vaughan and Jimmy Kavanagh.

In terms of design, there were some beautiful moments of lighting by Paraic McLean, particularly the final tableau and the lighting of the ghost. Unfortunately due to the placing of the ghost in an archway behind the audience only certain portions of the audience could fully see the striking image. The sound design was unfortunately not as effective as it drowned out certain lines and did not add much to the piece overall.

In terms of direction, the production was overall very good, with only one scene that jarred with the rest of the play. The death of Polonius verged on pantomimic in its execution and detracted somewhat from the drama of the moment. More precision and subtlety would have made this scene much more effective.

Overall, this production of Hamlet was an entertaining and engaging evening’s theatre and I am interested to see more work from Just Friends Theatre Collective.

#LoveTheatreDay

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As any theatre lovers on twitter probably know, it’s Love Theatre Day (or perhaps more properly #LoveTheatreDay!). Today is a day in which we appreciate theatre in all of its forms, promote theatre, explore the industry and reach out to new and old audiences and practitioners alike. I’ll be spending the day in Modernism lectures learning about Dadaism and Surrealism, presenting a performance based on a dream and watching my classmates performances, attending a committee run of a DU Players show that I am operating, working on an essay on gender and power in A Doll’s House and Medea, and writing a review of the Abbey Theatre’s Production of Sive (Which I will post here in the near future, so keep an eye out for that!).

What about you? Are you seeing any performances, working on any productions or getting involved in theatre in any way today? Whatever you are doing, you can follow all of the #LoveTheatreDay events and goings on by following the three hashtags: #BackStage, #AskATheatre, and #Showtime. I’d love to know how you are spending the day or what you think of the initiative so please comment below and share your thoughts!