Sticking to what I Know

I’ve had such a great time with my motley collection of theatre plays over the last few years and next year is shaping up excellently too. It got me thinking and wondering a bit, which is not unusual.

I started asking myself whether I shouldn’t just stick to what I seem to know at least a little bit about.

Somehow, over the last ten years, I feel I have learned some stuff about writing for theatre. Of course I could be completely wrong and this post might just be the after-buzz of some excellent nights out watching my own words being played. But maybe it’s not. All the theatre I've done, the four plays I’ve acted in, the short plays I’ve written and directed, and the longer teen and adult plays, some of which have now seen a number of different productions. If only by osmosis, I seem to have got a feel for what might work in a theatre and what won’t. How long the audience’s patience can be tried, how to get the points across, how to make ‘em laugh and (much tougher) make ‘em cry.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more I reckon that the theatre space offers a language that I can express myself in.

And it’s such a rewarding thing, particularly for a guy like me who is a storyteller at heart. Storytelling seems harder to me when I am removed from the person who’s hearing the story. Things like prose and even Radio or TV involve beaming the story out into the ether and hoping that some meagre signal might, in some way, bounce back. Because storytelling is a two way deal, the listener subtly giving back something integral to the teller.

For me, the storyteller, the theatre can be an almost perfect place. Only, of course, when things are going well. When things are going badly, it’s another matter altogether and probably one for another day. My delight is to sit or stand at the back of the hall and take in the vista of the performance and the audience all together. In those moments when they become ‘as one’ it is almost like a dance and one that is lovely to watch. 

Even on the nights when I am not in the room when a play is being done, I am always aware of it. Wherever I am, I am always thinking stuff like ‘they’re going on now’ or ‘they’re half-way through’. Always wishing everybody in the room, audience and players alike, good things.

There is so much good in it for me and yet still I don’t fully commit to it. I don't commit to it in several ways. Firstly, I am the world’s worst at sharing my plays and at making them generally accessible. One of the plays is on a national database and that is the play that has been performed the most. Another is published in a book and that is the second most performed play. Generally, productions come about because somebody has seem the play elsewhere or heard of it by word of mouth. It’s surprising to me that I get the amount of action I do from such tiny and tenuous links. I see other writers with neat, collated, online information about their plays and I know I should do the same… I know it. (Stops to make a note to do it) (But won’t).

That’s not the main thing, of course. The real way I don’t commit is by not writing the next play. Granted, I have written a new 15 minute one for next year’s Claremorris Fringe and I wait to see if I might be accepted. The entry is stronger every year and some of these years I won’t get in, that’s only fair. Apart from that though, I haven’t written a new longer theatre play in a while. I like to tweak the existing ones after some productions when improvements and gaps present themselves to me from the stage but that’s it for the theatre writing. 

At the moment, I’m writing a new novel. I’m really enjoying doing it and I think it’s actually quite a good one this time. So that’s okay, right? 

But is it?

I haven’t proved anything to myself in the art of book writing, although I would dearly love to. Perhaps it just isn’t my thing. Perhaps I have more tools available to me for operating in the theatre environment. Perhaps my  desire to achieve the permanency of a book or three, as opposed to the transient, passing, nature of theatre, is keeping me from doing the work where I might actually one day make a serious impact on something.

I don’t have the answer. It’s just a question I ask myself when one type of writing is going well and I’m not doing very much of it.

I think it’s a game my head is playing with me. For me, writing a book is a constant battle against the urge to stop doing it. The anti-book-writing demons sit one my shoulder and tell me that I am not cut out for this game and that I should jack it in and go and write the next play instead.

I don’t think I’ll listen to them. 

Not just yet.

I think I’ll continue to take the time and get this new book to a presentable draft and then I will present it and see how the cookie crumbles from there. I know a book wouldn’t change anything much, except in my head. But it would change a lot there. It would be another major wall I'd have climbed. 

Plus the thought of somebody out there curled up and reading a really intricate story I had created would warm me like the theatre plays do on those long evenings when I can’t be there. 

That Was Some Theatrical Fortnight

What a fortnight it’s been.

Two of my theatre plays had productions in the last  two weeks and I managed to get out on the road and see both of them. It was a very rewarding experience.

One of the many joys of my lucky life is seeing my little theatre plays performed. It’s not an easy thing for anybody to do, the putting on of a play. In fact it’s quite remarkably hard. For me to see so many great people put so much time and effort into something I cooked up here at this tatty little desk... well, it’s quite the compliment. People often say how they feel humbled when lovely things happen to them. I don’t, I feel buzzed and elevated and as high as a kite. 

First up, nearly two weeks ago now, was The Hillside Players in Ardpatrick, Co. Limerick, who took on ‘Midnight in The Theatre of Blood’ for the Hallowe’en Season. Hillside are a well established group with a long tradition of great productions but this was their very first venture into Youth Drama. They didn’t do it in any half measure. The full body of the adult membership was evidently on hand throughout, mentoring, directing, producing, lighting and generally providing a remarkable back up network. They were rewarded with as large a cohort of talented and enthusiastic young people as I have seen. My compliments in particular go to them. They took on two plays for their show and the large casts in both required than many actors had to double up. That’s a lot of stuff to learn. A lot. The cast brought personality and fun and some genuine emotion to the evening and they all should be damn proud of themselves.

The good people at Hillside had a lovely seat for me right up the front and that was lovely… except I never want to sit at the front. My place is right at the back. There I can see what the audience is doing and that’s how I learn things from each production I see. Are there moments when my writing causes them to flag and look around? Where do they nudge their companion in a subtle acknowledgement that some small truth may have been told? Where do they throw their head back and laugh and, yes, where do they shuffle their bums and perhaps shed a little tear? It’s funny how I go along with the plays myself. Laughing and bum-shuffling. Just another audience member, delighting in the vista before me. 

Hillside have some great youth actors and I hope that the two wonderful evenings they all created together will encourage them to reconvene next year to delight their audiences yet again. I was glad to be a part of it this year. 

This week, then, it was on to Carnmore in Co. Galway for the second theatre production of ‘Conception, Pregnancy and Bert. This was originally written and produced as a radio play for St Patrick’s Drama Group in Westport. It went on the National One Act Theatre circuit last year and that’s were Compántas Lir saw it. Oisin Heraty drove down with me. It was he who directed it for Clann Machua Drama Group in Kiltimagh last year and we were both keen to see the new production. Little did we know the memorable nature of the evening we were driving into.

Even if nothing unexpected had happened, Compántas Lir put on a great show. The large community hall was replete with long tables and then we arrived, just barely in time thanks to a dense fog, the place was packed to the rafters with patrons seated along these tables in the expectation of good theatre, and cheese, wine, tea, coffee, biscuits and sweets at the interval. This was Supper Theatre. It was new to me and, boy, I liked it. 

I could tell from the first play that Compántas Lir were seriously good. There was an attention to detail and a care with the material that stood out. Their audience came along with them all the way and the performances were brilliant such that, by the time the interval and the cheese came, the place was fairly buzzing.

As my own play started, I felt my usual tingle of anticipation. How would it all go for them? Okay, I hoped. I needn’t have worried. The players and the director has evidently worked and worked this production, tapping the sides of my script for every beat they could find. The audience quickly adapted to my slightly unusual approach to narrative and we were away and flying. It was going brilliantly and I could not have been happier.

Then all the lights went out. 

The tables were candle lit so we weren’t in pitch darkness and the scene that the actors were in the middle of rather lent itself to the blackout. The cast continued through the scene, masterfully keeping the pace up throughout. Then somebody came on and announced that the entire area had suffered a power outage and there was no word, as yet, on when it might come back.  Nevertheless, the announcer continued, the show will go on.

I said, a few paragraphs back, that I could not have been happier. That wasn’t actually true. When the play came back on, lit by torch and mobile phone light, with sound effects and music by the cast and a back beat from the feet of the audience, everything just seemed to go up a further notch. A production that was obviously excellent to start with became a sort of a communal effort which had immediacy and a frisson of something unique being in train. 

None of that would have meant a thing if the production had not been so very strong. The performances and the direction were so adept that the technical challenges of the evening could never have caused the show to founder. In the end, I felt that many people in the audience went away thinking they had seen something special. I know I did.

So, thank you, to Hillside Players from Limerick and to Compántas Lir from Galway. Thank you for lots of things. For taking on my scribblings. For raising the tiny indentations on a page out and up to something magical. 

For letting me continue to be a part of the making of theatre.