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  • Chris ORourke

Youngbloods: The Corps Ensemble

Youngbloods, profiling the best of emerging - and, in this case, often experienced - Irish talent, returns with The Corps Ensemble. Currently rehearsing in The Lab and The Viking Theatre, The Corps Ensemble’s founding members, Rex Ryan and Edwin Mullane, are being put through their paces by director Jed Murray. Revisiting their hugely successful production of Mark O’Rowe’s “Made in China” before taking it on a national tour, The Corps Ensemble have a game plan in mind and they want everyone involved.

TAR So, The Corps Ensemble, where did the name come from?

RR We think we're so clever with this name, so it'll probably be our downfall as a theatre company. It was a play on words. At the very beginning of the theatre company myself and Edwin were doing physical theatre workshops in UCD with Finola Cronin, Tom Hickey, and a group of other actors. It started as a group of people meeting up on a Saturday and exploring a bunch of techniques. Finola would give a workshop one week, but other people would do workshops with us too. One week you might be doing Stanislavski, next week Finola might do a dance workshop, next week Tom might do something. From that I approached Ed and said I wanted to start a theatre company, and I think there are people here who would want to be involved.

TAR So from the outset the importance of physicality in the process was present?

RR From the beginning it had that grounding in physicality. When we were thinking about the name, after a lot of talking back and forth, a lot of late night What's App conversations, we said The Corps Ensemble because it means core, as in the body, but it's also Corps as in a military corps. A group. I love the military aspect of it. For us, we talk a lot about rigour. As a theatre company, we meet up and do workshops together, and that's how we develop. The Corps Ensemble has grown from us simply getting into rooms together and working with each other into something more. Though everybody now calls us The Corpse Ensemble. Still, the name's kind of good, it makes people think.

TAR When did you first get started?

EM The workshops were about two years ago.

TAR Was that part of a program with UCD?

EM No. I was talking to Tom (Hickey) saying I really wanted to learn more about physical techniques. There didn't seem to be a space where I could learn those skills. I put out a message to a lot of different actors, Jed included, and Neill (Fleming). They responded, and when you get a lot of likeminded people in the room something is going to happen. And it did. Initially it was about working with people who, number one, wanted to be better actors. Wanted to learn new skills. It wasn't related to specific plays or a specific production. Nobody was thinking, “I want to use this for this part,” they wanted to explore what it was to be an ensemble. And some of the teachers had had great experience of that. Finola, for example, had worked with Pina Bausch, so she brought a lot of experience.

TAR Were there any other influences?

EM Both Rex and I had done a lot of work in the Viking Theatre in Clontarf, and one of the things that got us talking was the aspect of community. We both felt that when your art is rooted in a community, and you engage an audience, then something comes up for you to say. A lot of companies often try to manipulate a reason why they do their work. But we both felt that we had a theatre and an audience, so we thought, “let's start the conversation. Let's see what we can bring here.”

Made in China. Photo The Corps Ensemble

TAR What were each of you doing before you started working together? I know you, Rex, were involved with the production “Pilgrim” and have been nominated for an award in Manchester.

RR Yeah, nominated at the Manchester Theatre Awards. Myself and the writer, Phil Doherty, went over to Manchester’s Lowry Theatre with “Pilgrim.” They’d seen the show in Edinburgh and invited us over. A couple of people from the Manchester Theatre Awards came to our opening night. It was funny, Phil joked with me on the boat "imagine we got nominated!" We’re delighted we did. I was so delighted that Phil got some recognition on that. I love that script.

TAR What about before that?

RR I’m out of drama school about two and a half years now. I studied in the Gaiety School of Acting, but before that I did a three-year business course. Once I was out of drama school I was straight into working on a load of new scripts with Phil. I've been lucky in that I got to do a lot of plays, as well as a little bit of film. EM I studied English first of all. I came at acting because no one else wanted to be in the plays I was writing. I started producing shows before I really knew what I was doing. But it was invaluable. From college, I did a one man show that Tom Hickey directed, which I took to Edinburgh that proved to be a huge success, called "Whacker Murphy’s Bad Buzz." That got me hooked. I decided I wanted to up my craft, so I went down to the Focus Theatre for two years. There I was getting cast in other shows, but the majority of the stuff was either stuff I was writing or producing myself. Doing it yourself, you learnt how to make stuff possible. You realise there is stuff you can do, and you don't have to necessarily wait for funding. During that time, I built good relationships with venues. A lot of those relationships arose out of that work.

Michael Bates. Photo The Corps Ensemble

TAR That would have been at the tail end of the Focus Theatre, before it closed?

EM Yeah. I worked with some fantastic people there, such as Michael Bates, who is part now of The Corps Ensemble. I trained with Michael there. TAR What about you Jed?

JM I did a Show in a Bag about a year and a half ago before hooking up with these guys. I also directed “Terminus” which I also acted in. Before that I was working with ANU for a long while, seven or eight years, since the inception really. I also teach a lot and work with people in recovery. Ed was working in the Findlater Theatre at the time I brought “Terminus” out there and we just seemed to click. TAR So how did you decide what kind of work you wanted to do, and how would you describe your approach to the work?

EM That's constantly growing, changing and evolving. For me, personally, one of the big realisations was how exciting it is working with this ensemble. Having this group of people in a room together, exploring what we can do. Exploring that energy. We’re not always 100% sure exactly what it says, or does, but the idea of an ensemble, a group of creative people working in one room, or on a stage together, what that bond does to the work, and what happens when the audience are met with that energy, that’s crucial to how we work. It's only happened to me a few times in the theatre when I felt that energy and exchange between the audience, and they’re the moments that burn into my brain. For me, that's what theatre should be.

RR We are constantly asking why. Asking questions like, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? I’d say, at its most basic, this gig as an actor is about telling stories. We start from that base. How do you get really, really good at telling stories? You surround yourself with a group of people who want to be the best they can, as an actor and at telling stories, and start from there. For us, the ensemble model was the best way to do that. I think too, maybe we weren't always happy with some of the theatre we were seeing and we thought there was potential here to explore some things.

TAR What was it you wanted to see that you weren't seeing? You've done two productions to date, Tracy Letts's “Bug” and Mark O'Rowe’s “Made in China.” What was the thinking behind choosing those particular plays?

Redx Ryan and Mary Murray in Bug. Photo The Corps Ensemble

RR With “Made in China” we wanted to start with an Irish writer whose work we loved. We wanted a script that would challenge us. We also wanted to do something that would ground the ensemble from a practical point of view, give us something to get our teeth into from the beginning. And we believed in the story and in the way we could tell it. We felt we could do something with it. Outside of our acting friends, our other friends don't go to theatre. They just don't go. With “Made in China” we felt we could bring our skills as storytellers to the script and we could get a whole new group of people into our local theatre, a whole new audience. Tell them the story in a way that they would go away saying, “fuck me, the theatre can be exciting. There's a reason I should go and be in a room with these people.” We wanted to get those people in. And with “Made in China” we did. And that was hugely uplifting. TAR This would be in the Viking Theatre in Clontarf, above The Sheds pub on the coast road, where you are now company-in-residence. How did that relationship begin?

EM Funny story: I was the first person to ever perform in the Viking. “Whacker Murphy’s Bad Buzz” was the first play to open the theatre on their opening-night. And it was packed. To be honest, at the start, I didn't think a theatre was going to work there. I didn't have the imagination owners Laura (Dowdall) and Andy (Murray) obviously had.

TAR This idea of doing theatre in the community and for the community, in a local theatre, what does that mean for you?

RR For us, it's hugely important. A lot of the companies we would have modelled ourselves after, they all had a spiritual home. A grounding somewhere. This again comes back to that question of why are we doing this. Our desire to bring a new audience in while not alienating the audience you already have.

EM I think one of the reasons The Viking is such a success is they gave the community a theatre and the community became invested in it. Some people go to shows twice. What they've done is amazing. Our friends are now coming down and love coming down. There is a pride there.

TAR Could there be a worry about quality? Do you think shows in venues like The Viking would do so well if they played in a theatre in town? RR Yes, I think they would. Some people thought the "demographic" for the Viking would not fit with a show like “Made in China.” It was bullshit. Some of the most incredible reactions we got were from people in their 60s and older. If it can have that impact, it can have that impact anywhere. Which is why we are taking the show on a national tour. TAR What would you say to those who believe that if a show is in a community theatre, it's in someway not as good as a show in a Fringe or professional theatre?

RR If there is that rigour to the craft then the work will speak for itself. The Viking gets actors like Mary Murray, as well as other award-winning actors and writers, who want to work there. If the craft is there, the audience will go with you to places you want to bring them. They'll see the quality. JM Just on that. There’s something about just being honest and taking the mystery out of it all and having a place where people can approach you afterwards and talk to you, whether or not they liked the show. There is that element of home in those kind of theatres, where you feel you can go and chat to each other. It feels like a friendlier space, more intimate, there is no austerity, no formality. Also, the audience have a stake in it. The Viking has a wonderful sense of welcome. Going to the theatre becomes more of a communal experience, where people feel they are engaging with you and you are engaging with them. TAR You mentioned rigour, how do you achieve that?

RR We try articulate this constantly. How do you do it? We researched a lot of companies we respect, the likes of Steppenwolf, the Lab Theatre in New York, Druid, Corn Exchange, they all had things we felt we could learn from. And what it came down to was just being simple. The very act of us getting into a room together as regularly as we can as an ensemble, to work together and hone our craft, creates a rigour that becomes our process. It’s a certain energy on stage that audiences will respond to and can only result from working together as an ensemble. And we could be working together on anything. It could be a dance workshop, a physical workshop, two days of kickboxing together. But the fact is we work together, we report to the room at 10, don't leave till five, and say “let's do what we're here to do the best way we can.”

The Corps Ensemble at work honing their craft. Photo The Corps Ensemble

TAR How is it for somebody new coming into the ensemble?

EM The way it's happened, I think now we have our pool of actors we call the ensemble. TAR Who would they be?

EM There’s Neill Fleming, Michael Bates, Mary Murray, Kate Gilmore, Sean Doyle, Toni O'Rourke, along with Jed, and Hillary Dziminski, our Creative Producer. TAR How did that particular arrangement come about?

EM We knew the kind of actors we felt would challenge and push us. RR After “Made in China,” we said this is something real, but we need to expand. It was lovely in that we sat down and said, “I love that person's work, let's get them in.” But you have practical things you need to consider. You need people who can commit with no money, initially at least. You need people who have the same ethos as you. And you need a bunch of character actors as well, because they're the plays we want to do. It was great to be able to go, for example, "Jesus I love Mary Murray’s work, do you think she'd be interested in joining the ensemble? Let's give her a ring." Others, like Kate Gilmore who I've worked with a lot, we were already close to. I would just have rang Kate and said, "we're doing something here, I'd love you to be involved." TAR Talk a little about your new writing nights.

EM The writing nights are such an enjoyable experience, and fun for everyone. We wanted to reach out to writers. We felt that, sometimes, there can be a bit of a disconnect between the actor and the writer. I know there are some amazing dramaturgs out there, but often the actors are getting further and further away from the writing process. We wanted writers to believe that if they wrote a play for multiple characters that there is a place that might be able to produce it. Just to engage with writers, and to excite them about what is possible. RR I think on a certain level it's also about being really practical and taking the bullshit out of theatre. As a writer, you may get involved in a development process that may go nowhere. They might get a reading in two years. Take the bullshit out and just be practical. If we want Stephen Jones, for example, to do a scene for us, I will ring Stephen and say, “we got a load of really good actors, can you have a scene for us in say two weeks.” And it happens. Then you welcome everyone who comes on the night, make them feel part of it, meet them at the door and say, “come on in, you're so welcome.” It's that simple. JM I think, in comparison with some other readings, as a writer you will already know who the actors are. You know these are the actors you will be working with on a regular basis. It becomes their home, the reading has more of the vibe to it, more fun, and you also know that you're going to get a little bit more support.

Edwin Mullane and Toni O'Rourke. Photo The Corps Ensemble

TAR There were eleven scenes from eleven separate scripts in your two reading nights. How do you choose, and how do you say no, to what you might produce?

RR It's eleven no's at the minute because there's too much happening, and were already working with Phil Doherty on something for later in the year. But at this point, it's about looking at collaboration. Does the writer want to work with us? Is the timing right? At the very least, it gives them a chance to see their work on its feet and that has a value in itself. EM At the very least, it’s about the process. The writer may not have an observation that someone in the audience would have. And when they're in the room together with the audience, actors, everybody, sometimes that's the only way to learn what needs to be worked on. TAR So would it be fair to say that production of new works from readings is more aspirational at this point?

RR We absolutely want to find a play to produce from the readings. But it’s a process. For the writer, we put a structure in place where we do the readings and we say, “we’re here for any further support you need.” Someone might go off, make some edits and call us and say, “can we meet in the Viking on Tuesday and can you have so and so there to read?” And we'll be there. JM It's also a function of, and part of the ethos of, The Corps Ensemble: to get everybody to meet and to practice, work on something together, just to hone their skills.

TAR Outside of rehearsals, production meetings or new writing nights, you guys regularly meet to train together?

RR That's the core of us, that's the main thing. TAR And where would that take place?

RR Wherever we can get for free. JM We have this space here, in The Lab at the moment. Last week, for example, we did a two to three-hour, physical workshop with whoever could make it before rehearsals. Before that, a couple of weeks ago, we did something in the Gaiety School of Acting one morning. TAR What about funding for all this?

RR People are very good and supportive. The Gaiety School are great. Because I'm an ex-student they would let us work there when they have the space available. As for funding, we are totally self-funded at the moment. EM The Viking have been great in helping make independent theatre possible. But we know that in order to stick around you have to look at ways of funding yourself, and look to grow into a proper company structure. Myself, Hillary, and Rex have been working to put in that structure. We've spoken to mentors and got a lot of advice because we really want to set this company on a solid foundation. We've met so many people who've offered great advice. People from the Arts Council, mentors like Tom Hickey, various venue managers. It’s an ongoing process.

TAR More immediately, “Made in China.” Back by popular demand and about to go on tour.

Rex Ryan, Neill Fleming and Edwin Mullane in Made In China. Photo The Corps Ensemble

RR Part of the reason for that is we love the play. And a lot of people didn't get to see it first time round who wanted to see it. Also, “Made in China” will be The Corps Ensemble presenting ourselves to audiences outside of our base in Clontarf. We will be in the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, then West out to Galway. It's a little bit of a shop window for The Corps Ensemble, a way to say “this is who we are.” TAR How does a non-funded company fund that?

RR Myself, Ed and Hillary have been working to get funding from anywhere possible. And that could be as simple as raising money from our new writing night, to meeting potential investors, things like that. With “Made in China,” because it was critically well received, that gave us an in with the venues. It's really any way we can, that's what it comes down to. TAR What's next for The Corps Ensemble?

EM We've already started working on our next project with writer Phil Doherty, which we’re hoping will be a big, bold ensemble piece. We're also hoping to have something in the Fringe later this year. There’s also a play in July in the Viking, which Rex will direct, but we can't say too much about that at this point. TAR Will everybody you need be available? Some people, I would imagine, are highly in demand. RR Always, for us, the actor must always feel they have a stake in the company. In what the company says and what we do. They're not a mercenary being hired in. If you have someone who is meeting up with a writer six to seven months out from a show, by the time you get to rehearsals they are going to believe in that show. You're going to want to be in it. And we hope the audience are going to want to see it. TAR What about those members for whom there might not be a role in a production?

RR It's something we talk about constantly. But the core of the Corps is the workshops, so people are constantly engaged. If they're not in a production they might be out fundraising, someone else might be organising a workshop, or working with a writer. Even though some may not be involved in a specific production, like “Made in China,” it's never a case of, "everyone else relax." Everyone is involved. The workshop on our first day of rehearsal for “Made in China,” everybody was here, everyone turned up, everyone was involved.

The Corps Ensemble’s production of Mark O’Rowe’s “Made in China” returns to The Viking Theatre on February 27th due to popular demand before going on national tour.

For more information, visit The Corps Ensemble or The Viking Theatre

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