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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Monday, October 16, 2006

REVIEW: Everyday (Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin)

Have you see this man? You’re bound to remember if you have. Strange fright wig, face painted all over in white, maniac grin carved out in shades of blue and red?

The Corn Exchange theatre company theatre company’s latest production in the trademark style – a hybrid of commedia del’arte, steeped in Chicago improv -- is set in a contemporary city rather like Dublin, and features a set of urban nomads who might just turn out to be me and you, and everyone we know.

There’s the abandoned starter wife of the successful property developer, drunk in city centre hotel: hasn’t she noticed she’s surplus to requirements? Get a load of the Bowie-loving muso who forgot to learn to play an instrument. He really should know better than to start teaching Lolita to his uncomprehending TEFL class. Look out for the Aussie office bitch terrorising her simpering staff: she’ll do the same for you if you come across her, four sheets to the wind in a snazzy bar. And – a word to the wise -- beware that new mother: there’s cocaine in the breast milk around here.

This fine set of characters roam the stage, sometimes performing little solos, sometimes miming in silhouette, sometimes stumbling across each other as they go about their business, in a series of short, sweetly interlocking scenes. At times, it can call to mind the Fast Show, or indeed Little Britain, with sadly human characters only partially obscured by the grotesque comic ticks and monstrous makeup.

Everyday is not, all the same, as deeply rewarding as some of the company’s previous shows. The contemporary setting accounts for part of this. For the first time since Carshow, the dramas, little triumphs and abject failures are rooted in a world around us, something that ends up grounding the excitement a little. Perhaps the grotesques are simply a little more familiar than is useful: after all, the gap between Rosaleen Lenihan or Twink at their worst and these cartoon exaggerations is not all that large.

All the same, performances from the ensemble cast (Corn Exchange first timers Derbhle Crotty, Louise Lewis and Simon Rice, along with old hands and true believers, Andrews Bennett, Janet Moran, Mark O’Halloran and Tom Murphy) are crisp and inventive, by turns poignant and very funny. And unfair as it is to single anyone out, O’Halloran’s big, head-to-toe performance may leave you with an grin on your face that just won’t wash off.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michael West's "optimistic look at loneliness"

“We are always trying to scare the pants off ourselves every time we make something new,” says Michael West of Corn Exchange. “And we certainly did that this time. But the funny thing is, I think for a lot of people who like Corn Exchange shows, it might look quite familiar.”

How exactly their audience might react to a new show matters to Corn Exchange, not least because they are in the rare position (for a Dublin theatre company) of having a loyal audience. Achieving this has been greatly helped by the fact that the company also have a style and a look that is instantly recognisable. They are not quite the Blue Man Group, but when you see one of the company’s characters in full war paint – white faces with extravagant cheekbones, graphic eyebrows and a menagerie of weird lips – they are hard to mistake.

“It is funny, we always seem to start off deciding to do things very differently,” says West. “But then, after all the months of work, find that lots of familiar stuff has come in through the back door. We are always starting off on a show saying, ‘well, we won’t be using comedia, using makeup,’ but then ending up doing exactly that.”

“I think this is less of a feelgood show than Dublin by Lamplight, which was sort of a tragic farce, but which had a certain lift to it,” says West. Everyday, on the other hand is: “an optimistic look at loneliness.”

It was a show, West says, that that proved difficult to explain to people at first. “I told someone when we started that it was about alienation and despair,” he says. “But not to tell anyone.”

How exactly a Corn Exchange show will finally appear is, according to West, not at all certain when the process begins. This is not, after all, a company that traditionally takes a script, rehearses and presents it. Instead, intense periods of cast improvisation and discussion, which West, as the writer, then captures in regular drafts, have given rise to recent shows, such as their previous hit, Dublin by Lamplight.

One of the directions in which the company has been moving in recent times is towards applying their knowledge and experience of high-pressure collaborative projects to off stage areas. So this week, as well as opening their new Dublin Theatre Festival show, the company will also run this week the inaugural Corn Exchange Workshop for Business Leaders.

“We wanted to try to look at our own strategies and organisation, in a way that we have to if we want to work in the way we do, with long rehearsal periods,” says West, who is married to the company’s director, Chicago-born, Annie Ryan.

“We started on this show in February and there was absolutely nothing then, no script, nothing. And to get from that to here as quickly as we did involves dividing the work up very intelligently between different aspect of the production, like design, lighting, costume and having lots of different people working away. Then, when you bring all of that together again, you can get something enormous.”

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Mark O'Halloran fills Dublin with Lamplight

“I’m middle class and I’m a middle class culchie at that -- the worst sort of middle class person,” says Mark O’Halloran in partial explanation of how he came to write the script for the Dublin junkie film, Adam and Paul. Being a middle class culchie, it seems, has some distinct benefits.

“I’m from Ennis,” says O’Halloran “so when I came to Dublin I saw something different from Dubliners, they almost couldn’t see the junkies on the streets, whereas I would notice them. We didn’t have junkies in Ennis…”

The actor has already two further scriptwriting commissions underway (both for Adam and Paul director, Lenny Abrahamson) but now O’Halloran is taking the time to work once more with perhaps Ireland’s most innovative theatre companies, Corn Exchange. The subject, however, remains rather similar: Dublin lowlife, although this time the ne’er-do-wells are from 1904.

Dublin by Lamplight, which chronicles the efforts of an imaginary theatre company to stage a play in turn of the century Dublin, has, according to O’Halloran, its fair share of scangers. The capital was, according to O’Halloran, still a location of a grubbiness familiar to those who have seen Adam and Paul. And them some.

O’Halloran plays a fading English actor in the piece, but some other opening available at the time were, apparently, even less desirable. “We came across some really odd jobs when we are researching Dublin at the time, like the Dung Dodgers, whose job was literally to shovel shit from the tenements.”

Part of Corn Exchange’s raison d’etre has long been the workshops the company ran for actors, inculcating local performers in the traditions of company director, Annie Ryan’s native Chicago.

The techniques Ryan brings into play include everything from improvisation, to an updated version of the version of the Italian commedia del’arte technique, complete with garish whiteface make-up, live music and an interesting habit of turning and staring hard out into the crowd when delivering a speech. The technique can be decidedly unnerving for anyone sitting in the auditorium but, according to O’Halloran, has a very significant effect.

“Those stares out at the audience when you are speaking are extremely cinematic,” says O’Halloran of the show’s style. “They are the closest you’ll come in theatre to a close up.”

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