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The first day that I went along with my colleague Declan Mallon to run a once-off At the end of our six weeks, the participants put together a fifteen-minute
workshop in the local rural hall, one tall, shy young man sat at the back and initially improvised drama in the hall – but without an audience, to camera only. It was a
declined, very politely, to join in. He would subsequently go on to become national family drama set in 1957, the year when Louth famously won the All-Ireland football
president of the organisation. While their experience of presenting off-the-shelf championship. In the evaluation that followed this short, intense ‘pilot’ season,
dramas on the One-Act competitive circuit was a badge of pride for the group, it there was unanimous agreement that the methods were good, the project worth
was not an ideal preparation for the new challenges of improvisation and devising. pursuing but that the themes and content should be more contemporary. We then
But this was ‘a good group’ and the space afforded by their openness and readiness worked over several months in 1999, and created a full-length drama about a
to work at an advanced level, allowed me to push out and consolidate my own modern Wedding-From-Hell, entitled Tunnel of Love. Then, in 2000, the group sought
emerging methods in practice which I now apply with all kinds of groups at all and were awarded an Artist in the Community Scheme grant to re-engage me on a
kinds of levels. more advanced project, with roughly the same group of participants.
Upstate Theatre Project began its relationship with Termonfeckin Macra in 1999. All through the Tunnel of Love and Zoo Station projects, the same basic principles
There is no doubt that access to a dedicated arts resource is helpful for a that had been tested in the first six weeks held fast:
community group wishing to develop arts capacities, be it a local arts centre, a
college faculty or the outreach facility of a production organisation. In the case of
physical exercise as a precursor to every session, including those exclusively
Upstate, the company was dedicated to action research in the field of community-
given over to cerebral or written work;
engaged Theatre, so the partnership was of great mutual value. From the outset,
collective improvisation and occasional group discussion as the starting point
there were always two professionals in the room. My colleague Declan Mallon
for all ideas;
played the flexible role of Facilitator, in this case not only liaising with the
participants on matters extraneous to the art but, critically, leading games, warm-
inclusiveness and generosity whereby the less confident grew comfortable
ups and improvisation exercises. He also shared responsibility with me on broad
and adept at contributing ideas.
narrative development as the process began to funnel towards a production. To
I was driven partly by the challenge of finally defining and claiming an aesthetic for
have such a poly-talented partner in the room was a rare luxury in this area of work.
an approach to drama which, prior to 2000, had been acclaimed (by some anyway)
My role became to lead more focussed improvisations, storytelling exercises and
for its social, educational and civic values, but never yet in the matter of form, idiom,
creative writing work that were directed, more and more as the months proceeded,
staging, structure and so on. All too often, community plays were lazily written off
towards an eventual play. In the course of time, I morphed almost seamlessly from
by critics and indeed disinterested arts funders as little more than exercises in
writer-in-residence into the production director.
socio-economic therapy. Artistically, it was claimed, the very fact of having multiple
In our first season with the group, we set an initial target of just six weekly sessions
authors; the fact of ‘needing to offer equal parts’ to participants regardless of ability
of exploration. These would involve getting to know one another: testing the
or without reference to the perceived ‘rules’ of dramatic structure, inevitably
members’ responses to the artform, the methodologies, and the challenges of
militated against community drama ever achieving some mythic standard called
playing silly games among their own neighbours and so on. We applied the simple
“Good Art”.
rule that theatre is all about playing the fool, and that it is the one who hangs back
My influences as an artist included Gerhart Hauptmann whose towering
and declines to dip his toe into the silly-pool who stands out as odd. This worked
masterpiece of Naturalism, The Weavers, I had recently directed for Upstate Live. A
very well until one Sunday afternoon when we became aware that two impassive,
definitive academic critique of this nineteenth century playwright has a chapter
middle-aged farmers were gazing in the window as the participants pranced about,
entitled “The Community as Hero”. And, while they had slipped out of fashion, what
led by imaginary helium balloons. We closed the curtains and recovered ourselves.
about the Expressionists and Bertolt Brecht and Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl
and Peter Weiss with their various versions of loud, collective, sensuous theatre
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