Tag Archives: performance

Balance and confidence: The tricky tightrope of being freelance

 

writing

It’s tricky, being a freelancer. We need to exude confidence but avoid arrogance, appear reliable and professional, whilst maintaining a creative edginess. We have a precarious vocation, but can’t be seen to court convention or the prosaic. Being the innovator or blue skies maverick often gets us jobs (and certainly pushes on form and content), but some ideas can be too ‘out there’ for commissions – and when the means to support ourselves relies on a regular income, the rope we tread is high and tight indeed.

Quite how we support ourselves in this increasingly challenging and, frankly, anti-arts and culture climate is a perennial problem. I have no solutions, just a steadfast impulse that we need to be true to ourselves. We write and create for many different reasons, and for me the sense of communing with myself, knowing my thoughts and reactions in response to the times I inhabit is a pleasure I can’t underestimate. This alone, however, doesn’t put grub on the table. In this capitalist system we need to work, and the product of our labour needs to be valued in monetary terms. How we go about making a living whilst having a life is a constant negotiation, but there are a few things I’ve observed which I feel don’t help.

For years I’ve seen artists and writers trying to second guess directors, producers, editors and literary managers, or considering shaping their emerging work towards whatever is currently doing well. It’s an understandable impulse, but deadly. Never try to jump on a bandwagon. Whatever is currently trending would have been seeded over eighteen months ago. By the time ‘your’ version amounts to something, it will be very much out of date.

I’ve also seen colleagues compromise ‘too much’ with the work, and that can leave a taint on the tongue. I’m all for collaboration and negotiation – I have grown substantially as a writer by exploring avenues I would never have travelled if left to my own navigation. It becomes a problem when artists or makers by their own admission feel they have conceded in some way, or given too much to a premise, aesthetic, or product not conversant with their concept or plan. Finding the balance between being a flexible and responsive team player and the assured primary creative is essential, and something that requires fine tuning. Again, we need confidence, but not egotism.

And as to what ‘they’ want…? What every director and literary manager and producer I’ve ever spoken to is looking for is fresh work made with energy and skill and passion, about subjects that matter to you, communicated in a way that has resonance to all, relevant to now. They want strong, developed, realised ‘voices’ with something to say. They don’t want mynah birds, or would-be mind readers. They want to be surprised, moved, excited. They want to hear what you think is important, in the form and aesthetic you want to use. Given the insecure nature of our profession,and the hourly rate which would defy any notion of ‘minimum wage’, much of our remuneration for the effort put in is not in financial form.  Even more reason to check the balance and trust your own voice and your own passions.

Why we need disabled and Deaf playwrights and theatre makers

In reaction to the cuts in Access to Work and the Independent Living Fund, and inspired by Jenny Sealey’s Guardian article We Will Not Let Government Cuts Make Us Invisible,  I wrote an article for Exeunt magazine: Embracing all the possibilities of human variety – why we need disabled and Deaf playwrights and theatre makers. You can read the article here

Several lives, several careers, changing form.

Maybe it’s my greed for experience, but I’ve always wanted to lead several lives, a desire made manifest through my choice of projects and parallel careers. I have been a physical theatre performer, a chambermaid, a live art practitioner, and a relief aid worker in war zones. I have written librettos, radio drama, short film, prose; sold shoes, meat, and advertising copy; directed film and dance theatre; been a writer in residence and Creative Fellow; and supervised postgraduate degrees in writing for performance whilst participating in Deaf arts, disability culture and the mainstream.

I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is never to perceive myself as one thing. This business will often try to label us, slap a convenient sticker on our forehead and file us away under a limiting, narrow definition. Although often seen as perverse, I pride myself on not being easy to define. I try to keep experimenting, taking on new challenges and developing my skills.

I’ve often found in the UK that diversity is seen as an anomaly, a vulgar excess to be treated with suspicion. Phrases like ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ damn the Renaissance wo/man. I know writers who have limited their careers and creativity by believing it’s inappropriate to try something new (‘stick to what you know. Why change a winning horse?’) or who believe that there are set patterns and processes to adhere to (if only they could decipher them), rather than inventing new ones.

When engaging with press to publicise a particular project, in my experience they will invariably do one of two things: simplify my career and back catalogue in order to focus the article, or make a feature of the fact I write for more than one medium – but not necessarily in a good way: ‘If it’s Tuesday, she’s writing a novel – the confusing life of playwright Kaite O’Reilly.’ This was the actual headline in a regional newspaper some years ago, which begged the question: confusing for whom?

Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but achievement or multiple skills aren’t embraced in the UK as they may be elsewhere – unless you’re also undermining your efforts by making a self-deprecating comment verging on self-loathing.

I personally love getting to know a writer through different genres or forms: The novelist who also writes award-winning screenplays and illustrates childrens’ books and sculpts and paints (http://www.markhaddon.com); the poet who is also a novelist (ee cummings and his harrowing novel of the First World War, The Enormous Room); the novelist who also writes and performs Haiku (listen to Jack Kerouac on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJdxJ5llh5A&feature=player_embedded).

I also think that this attitude is currently shifting – there seems to be more opportunity for practitioners to explore other form – or perhaps it’s becoming a financial or career imperative? Literary fiction writers changing form if not medium is considerably more common, with a host of ‘literary thrillers’ entering the market, and several scare stories of writers being dropped by their publisher and agent for not attracting enough readers, and so experimenting with a more commercial genre.

There are other more positive and nurturing projects aimed at extending the careers and broaden the opportunities for exceptional writers. I’m immensely excited in being one of the mentors on Y Labordy, a new tailored initiative for experienced Welsh language writers of theatre, film and TV, led by Literature Wales.

 

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

The objective of this ground-breaking initiative is to create a pool of contemporary writing talent with the capability of writing high calibre scripts for different media platforms and to broaden ability for writing from an international perspective. The tremendously talented team are Fflur Dafydd, Jon Gower, Dafydd James and Bethan Marlowe – and I’ve been fascinated and thoroughly engaged in conversations with Jon and Daf as we negotiate medium and cross form.

Such endeavours fill me with excitement and inspire me with possibility. Perhaps we’re back again to my greediness, but I just want more, more, more….

(This is revised from an earlier blog)

‘Stunning..’ 5 Star Review for ‘playing The Maids’

 

Regina Crowley and Bernadette Cronin of Gaitkrash, 'playing The Maids'

Regina Crowley and Bernadette Cronin of Gaitkrash, ‘playing The Maids’

The Public Reviews

Reviewer: Denis Lennon

http://www.thepublicreviews.com/playing-the-maids-chapter-arts-centre-cardiff/


If you are looking for a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids when you come to Chapter to watch Playing ‘The Maids’ you will find something else entirely, and may not get what you came for. What you will get, however, is a performance that engages and interrogates the notions of servitude within Genet’s world – a world where two sister maids play out fantasies to kill their Madame. For an audience, this production raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. It poses a challenge for the audience to scrutinise the power dynamics present within the 2015 zeitgeist. This is a refreshing break from the patronising didacticism we are all too often privy to in theatre today.
With this intercultural collaboration between the Irish Gaitkrash Company, the Korean Theatre P’yut and Wales based Llanarth Group, something of rare complexity, beauty and conviction has been created under the guidance of director Phillip Zarrilli and dramaturge Kaite O’Reilly.
“You look at me as if I am moving, it’s not me moving, I am being moved.”
The piece situates itself in a metatheatrical limbo: one minute we have one of Genet’s maids in front of us onstage, the next the same actor speaks her own name as stated very clearly in the programme on our laps. These transitions, from one reality to another, are not always obvious, leaving the audience in a constant state of questioning who exactly they are looking at, at any one moment. The way the company play with this ambiguity is inspired and had me (at times, literally) on the edge of my seat and still has me questioning the power dynamics present within the piece and, now, wider society.
All performers, including the musicians, in this production show a seamless cohesion with one another which creates an atmosphere and necessary moments of tension so palpable that the audience on the night held tightly onto any tickles in their throats to the end.
Apart from this wonderful production’s existential qualities, it serves the audience with an aesthetic feast from the belly-butterfly inducing crescendos created by cellist Adrian Curtin and sound artist Mick O’Shea, to the hilariously jarring Chinese night club karaoke of the Madame (Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo).
All this is interwoven by, sometimes subtle, humour throughout, for example when we hear the Irish sisters (Bernadette Cronin & Regina Crowley) threaten each other with a tirade of violent imagery, whilst always remaining sisterly or when the Korean sisters (Jeungsook Yoo & Sunhee Kim) display their fascination with the Madame’s beauty products with a hilarious, but poignant, childishness. These performances are all stunning.
If there is anything amiss in this performance, so much is the level of engagement that I did not notice it. Even the times I started to question any particular choice, such as the use of a distorted microphone to read stage directions, these choices were always justified later –it turns out the distortion of the voice serves a wonderful disembodied quality necessary for the metatheatricality of the piece.
This performance is something that will stay with me for some time and I urge you to see.

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

Thurs-Sat 19-21 February and Friday-Saturday 27-28 February, all at 8pm

02920 304400 / www.chapter.org

 

Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon

Thursday 26 February at 8pm

01874 611622 / www.brycheiniog.co.uk

 

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Friday 6 March at 7.30pm

01970 623232 / www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk

Intercultural Dramaturgy – playing The Maids

Playing The Maids

What follows is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Exeunt magazine on Intercultural Dramaturgy. For the full article, including reflections from Adrian Curtin, please go to: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/playing-the-maids-intercultural-dramaturgy/

The notes of an unexpected duet fill the studio. Ku-eum, literally ‘mouth-sound’, imitating traditional Korean instruments,and ‘old style’ Gaelic Sean Nos furl about each other like rising smoke. It is an astonishing aural collision, a resonant meeting of two diverse vocal traditions, and part of an international encounter initiated by theatre director Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group.

playing ‘The Maids’ is a new performance created between languages, cultures, and art forms; a collaboration between nine multidisciplinary artists, three performance companies (Llanarth Group – Wales, Gaitkrash – Ireland, Theatre P’yut – Korea), and four languages – Korean, Gaelic, Mandarin, and our shared language, English. I am one of the nine co-creators in this complex, culturally diverse production.

Although it name-checks the classic modernist text, playing ‘The Maids’ is not a production of Jean Genet’s play. Rather, it is an intercultural exploration of the themes, relationships, and power dynamics offered in the source text from the different social, cultural, aesthetic, and artistic perspectives of the creative team.

First produced in 1947, Genet’s The Maids was reputedly inspired by the real life story of the Papin sisters, French maids who killed their abusive mistress and her daughter in 1933, claimed by the Communist Party as victims of both labour and gender oppression. Genet’s text seethes with working class discontent, and created a scandal when first produced with its dark portrayal of sibling dynamics, gender constructions, and ritual.

playing ‘The Maids’ moves beyond Genet’s meta-theatrical text to create a layered and textured set of dynamics between ‘Madame’ (played by Chinese-Singaporean Jing Okorn-Kuo), and two sets of Irish and Korean sister-maids. Performatively, it interrogates who creates and controls whom using a broad palette of styles and approaches – improvisation, physical scores, choreography, a live soundscape, satirical observation, and economic analysis.Sibling rivalry and the related intense love/hate dynamics are universal, and in this time of European austerity, and what the media has termed ‘the Asian boom’, the source text’s themes of wealth, privilege, and service have an obvious resonance for us all.

‘A lot of people are suffering in Ireland through no fault of their own, but because of a corrupt banking system,’ Bernie Cronin of Gaitkrash says. ‘I think people feel very helpless and stuck – and Genet’s maids are stuck… They’re marked by their lack of agency; they’re marked by their lack of means. I think in this aspect, what we’re exploring has a very real relevance.’

What follows is my reflection on the process as production dramaturg, with end-notes by my fellow company member Adrian Curtin.

An International intercultural interaction.

The prefix ‘inter’ refers to the space between, where there is the potential for things to happen – good or bad. In my experience as a playwright and dramaturg, this space between has never before been so populated, and alive.

I have many metaphors for the job I do, and these shift according to project, company dynamics, and the actual tasks at hand, which are dependent on where we are in the process. I sometimes think of a dramaturg as the oil that swirls around all parts of the mechanism/body/engine, ensuring it moves in synchronicity and harmony (even if that ‘harmony’ involves deliberate counterpoint) and at its peak performance. A dramaturg ‘tunes’ the engine/body, ensuring all aspects are working together and doing the job in hand, moving in the same direction, with the same destination, with a consistency and ‘logic’ (even if that is illogical) flowing throughout.

playing ‘The Maids’ has been a constant negotiation of a potentially contested territory – the areas of overlap between the work of the director, dramaturg, choreographer, and devising performers, what Eugenio Barba called ‘the dramaturgy of the actor’, what I consider the task in the moment. In other productions, roles have been clear and the lines agreed and drawn – for example, I work as a playwright with a director, or the singular dramaturg with director and performers. In this fascinating collaboration roles have deliberately been as porous and overlapping as the creative process. All nine company members have taken equal part in proposing material, leading exploratory material-generating workshops responding to the source from our particular cultural and artistic perspectives, and creating structures (or scenes/beats). Although I am the ‘official’ playwright in the company, the director (Phillip Zarrilli), and cellist (Adrian Curtin) have also written dialogue, with additional text contributed by all performers.

As an international ensemble we have been aware of and critical of the oversimplification of intercultural performance as presented in the Patrice Pavis model of the hour glass: source and ‘target’ culture – as if the process was the simple binary of material pouring from one receptacle into another.

Rather, our studio process has been closer to the one described by Tian in his book, The Poetics of Difference and Displacement. The place in between is a site of negotiation. Notions, forms, and assumptions normative or usual to one culture or individual will be disturbed, challenged, or displaced by encounter with difference, and often replaced with something else. In our studio space we have been interrogating this space between, navigating complex territory.

It could have been fraught were it not for the mutual trust and respect between all collaborators, and the firm foundation created by previous collaborations between the various artists involved, such as the five female performers having trained (at times extensively) with Phillip Zarrilli in his psychophysical approach to acting, using Asian martial arts and yoga. These experiences have provided a common ground in approach and theatre language for the ensemble, enabling what at times feels like magical shortcuts in process for those outside this shared practice. It is a pointed lesson in efficiency and quality-management in times of funding cuts and squeezed rehearsal processes. For example, although the five women performers have never worked together before in this conjunction, sharing Zarrilli’s psychophysical approach to acting serves as ‘a grounding, a mode of being, of operation we all share,’ Sunhee Kim of Theatre P’yut explains.

Gaitkrash is a Cork-based company comprising of Bernie Cronin, Regina Crowley, and sound artist Mick O’Shea. The company are interested in the ‘liveness’ of performance, and new forms of theatre and sound. Together with cellist Adrian Curtin, Mick provides an improvised sound environment for the devising performers to respond to, exploring servitude and privilege. This creates another strata for the layered performance score, another framing device that ‘holds’ the action, yet as Mick and Adrian are in dialogue with the performers in the moment, extraordinary flexibility is possible, and space for something else to emerge.

Such dialoguing and encounter allows unexpected moments of resonance and complicity, which we then superimpose, juxtapose, or bind together dramaturgically.

Much of my time has been spent documenting and keeping track of the raw materials generated in workshops and improvisations. Structures ‘offer’ themselves into sequences and others need to be sliced into or interrupted, to create counterpoint and dissonance.

In the studio it is often impossible to say whether the work is ‘instinctive’ or ‘intuitive’, or whether knowledge and experience has become so ingrained as to become ‘second nature’ – and so options and opportunities ‘reveal’ themselves or ‘emerge’ rather than being consciously assembled. It is part of the pleasure and apparent ‘magic’ of being together in the moment: ‘something happening all by itself’.

An Example of Practice:

Jeungsook Yoo performs an adapted form of Salpuri, a shamanistic dance for the release of Han – a uniquely Korean concept and national cultural trait which has no English language equivalent. Han is collective and personal, a deep sorrow or grief connected to suffering which finds expression, explicitly or implicitly, in every aspect of Korean life and culture. Sunhee Kim describes Han as ‘a lens through which we see things.’

As Jeungsook Yoo moves through the dance, we plait in Sean Nos: Regina Crowley sings a Gaelic song dating back to the Penal Laws in Ireland in the seventeenth century, when the colonizing British passed laws prohibiting Catholics from buying land, owning property, entering certain professions, and practicing their faith. All Irish language, culture, music, and education was banned, leading to the Irish being impoverished, landless, and leaderless by the time of the 1841 census.

Suddenly through our interweaving in this space between, Sal Puri from Korean Shamanic practices finds its echo in Sean Nos – solo Irish vocal traditions whose roots are in the oppressive period of imperialist rule – connecting with the ‘fermented grudge’ of Han, in Jeungsook Yoo’s description of this particular Korean sentiment. Sunhee Kim completes the moment with Ku-eum, the ‘mouth-sound’ mingling and making counterpoint with the lamentation of the traditional Gaelic song. ‘Madame’ watches, as Bernie Cronin in her maid’s outfit kneels, her lips submissively smiling, but dissent and rage blazing in her eyes.

These ways of seeing and being can be shared and explored collectively in this space between, not through the appropriation or dilution of cultural form, but from each artist offering cultural, aesthetic, or artistic perspectives as resonance or counterpoint. Something shifts and is changed by this encounter, and collectively, without taking from the other, or insisting on one culture’s dominance, something else emerges – a poetics of difference, a moment of complicite.

For the full article, please go to http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/playing-the-maids-intercultural-dramaturgy/

Turning and turning in the widening gyre – Adrian Curtin on ‘playing The Maids’

Adrian Curtin, co-creator of ‘playing The Maids’ with The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash (Ireland), Theatre P’Yut (Korea), and Jing Okorn-Kuo (Singapore/Austria)  reflects on the final part of our collaborative process. What follows are his thoughts on process, form, and dramaturgy:

Flyer_playing_the_maids_FRONT

‪One of the fascinating things about this exercise in collective creation is the way the piece has taken shape. I use the phrase ‘has taken shape’ deliberately. It is not quite the same thing as ‘we have shaped the piece’. It’s a subtle semantic and grammatical distinction.‬

Maybe it’s an illusion. We have shaped the piece, obviously, and we continue to do so (having a dramaturg embedded in the process has been invaluable), but in a way it feels like the piece has taken shape without our complete or conscious understanding. We’ve proceeded intuitively. We’ve made something, and now we’re trying to figure out how we might improve upon it. And I, for one, am wondering about what it is that we have made, and what it might mean. I’m reminded of one of Goat Island Performance Company’s maxims: we have discovered a performance by making it. Effect, cause. Creation, retrospective understanding.

So what is this thing we have (un)knowingly made? I notice that we tend to call it a ‘piece’, not a ‘play’.

It’s certainly not a ‘well-made play’ in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. There’s no plot or narrative as such. It isn’t linear. There’s dramatic tension, but it’s not shaped in a conventional fashion (escalation, conflict, resolution or schism). There’s a scenario. There are characters, but they’re not stable characters. There are various modes of presentation.

Genet’s The Maids plays with a variety of scenarios, rehearsing action, and moves towards a violent conclusion. playing ‘the maids’ inhabits stasis for a lot of the time, like symbolist theatre (silence, stillness, waiting, inaction, gestures, whispers, listening, apprehending), though it resembles expressionist theatre too (phantasms, ciphers, chiaroscuro, unconscious desires, ecstatic self-abandonment). Things are perpetually put into potential, or actual, flux. It does not move toward violence but instead moves in on itself, both literally and figuratively. The (in)action is not resolved (shades of absurdism?); rather, it’s deepened, and what appears to be an intractable status quo, a permanently settled hierarchy, is revealed as a much less orderly state of affairs–mutual entanglement and complicity. Genet’s play rehearses and performs role reversal. One of the maids might ‘become’ Madame, taking her place, but that will not alter the system of power. The final scene of playing ‘the maids’ presents a more complex, and altogether more disturbing, arrangement of subjects. It replaces structure with anti-structure (choreomania?) and suggests that personal agency is a whirligig, a canard.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats’ articulation of situational chaos and barbarity is almost a hundred years old. Thinking about it in relation to the final scene of playing ‘the maids’, which one might read as a oblique commentary on capital in the twenty-first century, are we still “turning and turning in the widening gyre”?

What is a dramaturg?

In preparation for my work teaching dramaturgy in Singapore at the Intercultural Theatre Institute next month, I’ve been collecting definitions of what is often, in the UK at least, a slippery customer….

My seminars will be part of four perspectives – the playwright’s, the director’s, the actor’s and designer/scenographer’s. I’m excited, as part of the time I will be co-teaching with collaborators from actual productions of my plays, or performances we have co-created. We will be deconstructing the text, roles, and decision-making process, as well as sharing play texts and video/documentation of those specific performances with the students. I hope this will demystify what can be a perplexing and opaque process, and is the most holistic and revealing approach I have yet to come across.

The role of the dramaturg and the definition of dramaturgy can vary hugely. The understanding of the role in the German state theatre context is immensely different from many examples in the US repertory theatre system – and different again in the UK. To kick us off on what I hope will be a regular feature on this blog is a definition culled from the RSC’s ‘Radical Mischief’, Issue 02 from May 2014, and the associate dramaturg for the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief Festival, Sarah Dickenson:

‘The term “dramaturgy” refers to the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation: the means by which a story can be shaped into a performable form. All performance works have a dramaturgy, mostly sharing a set of base principles but diversifying widely within that. This dramaturgy is first created by the playwright/ makers when they construct a story for the stage, is developed in rehearsal by the director, designers and actors and then comes to full fruition in the interaction the performance has with its audience. This process varies, particularly if the piece is devised or physical, but the key points remain.

A dramaturg is concerned with supporting this process at some or all of these stages. In practice, that job might involve many different tasks, from the identification of performable work, to working with a playwright through several drafts, to hands on support in the rehearsal room. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a cup of tea with a theatremaker as they wrangle with a particularly tricky aspect of their piece. However, always at the heart of the dramaturg’s role is the ability to constructively, clearly and sensitively question a piece of work towards making it the best it can be, without confusing, overwhelming or blocking those making it.”

Sarah Dickenson in RSC’s Radical Mischief. Issue 02. May 2014.   @sedickenson

I will be sharing further perspectives and experiences later on this blog.