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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