Thursday, March 22, 2007

Annie Ryan's Games

Irish 'indie' theatre companies who learnt during the 1990s that running a theatre company was a lot like running a business, only got half the point. Running a theatre company is running a business, something that was never lost on Corn Exchange, one of the most durable companies to emerge from the once burgeoning independent theatre sector.

As the company sets off on its first large-venue national tour of Britain (after a quick stop in Tasmania, for performances at the 10 Days on the Island Festival) with their Edinburgh hit, Dublin by Lamplight, Corn Exchange, in the form of its Artistic Director, Annie Ryan, still has a hunger for expansion that would make the board of Starbucks proud.

"I suppose it is because we came up in the era of Patricia Quinn, of "innovation and excellence," says Ryan. "That whole approach really caught on with us, and we got ourselves professional administration and a board, and all those things you were supposed to do. The funny thing is, before that I used to think about administration the way I used to think about set designers: "you mean we get somebody to make something to distract you from watching what the actors are doing on stage? Why would we do that?"

But "the board" – and indeed set designers – came to be increasingly important to the company as it aimed its sites not simply for longevity, but to internationalise its activities. Broaden the definition of what the company does has lead, on occasion, beyond the theatre. When former city type, Kay Scorah, suggested that theatre education for business people might be an avenue worth exploring for the company, it set off a brand new branch of the business, and saw Ryan jetting off to (among other locations) Geneva, to introduce the top brass at Procter and Gamble into the dark art of theatre games.

"We've always used theatre games in our rehearsals, the sort of games that are in my bones, that I've been doing since I was 12," says Chicago-born Ryan, who has long had a reputation among Dublin actors for holding formidable workshops. "But it only recently occurred to me how good those games could be for all sorts of people…with Corn Exchange, we work in an ensemble fashion, which makes you look again at how leadership works in a group. Turns out, the ways we do can be applied to all sorts of things."

Ryan who trained in her hometown using the improvisational theatre games synonymous with Chicago, found one particularly game, called "Give and Take" worked particularly well with the executives. "In that game, one person has the stage at a time and the idea is to give it over to the next person as cleanly as possible. It's an abstract game – no words, no sounds – it's all about transforming a group, helping it really take off."

Even though Ryan admits that yes, this did involve top talent from companies like Procter and Gamble and Sisk running around in their bare feet, the rewards for all concerned were clear.

"I was really surprised how useful these games turned out for people. I was surprised exactly how much value what we had been doing all along had for people outside theatre. Because working in the theatre is so kind of not cool. Theatre is so old-fashioned, really. And nerdy. It was a big surprise that we had something that had great value in the real world."

PHOTO of (L-R) Karen Egan, Paul Reid, Louis Lovett, Janet Moran, Tom Murphy and Tadhg Murphy by Paul McCarthy.

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