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In Conversation with Jim Culleton: Part Two

Jim Culleton. Photo by Patrick Redmond

TAR Could you talk a little more about the dramaturgical process. Many people still have a difficulty with the concept of dramaturgy. Even though Gavin (Kostick) is so well loved and respected as a dramaturg around Dublin, and has done so much to promote awareness of what’s involved, some people still get fearful when the word dramaturgy gets mentioned.

JC It's still a relatively new term in Ireland, or in the English speaking world. I remember 20 years ago people being extremely nervous of the word dramaturg. I remember one writer saying to me, "oh, I don't know about these dramaturgs, it feels strange. I think the relationship between the writer and the director is very important. How does the dramaturg fit into that?" Someone said to him, “would you not like to have a dramaturg that would help you?” He said, “no, I would not.” And they said, “well, do you not have someone, like a friend, who you show a script to who might ask some questions and point out a few things, make you think a bit deeper about it?” And he said, “oh yes, I'll show it to my pals.” And they said, “well, in a sense, they're your dramaturgs.”

TAR I always describe it like a novelist having an editor. It's a relationship that if you resist it, it's never going to work. But embrace it, and they can help with so many things.

JC It is like an editor for a novelist. It's as simple as that in a way. And knowing what questions are useful to ask, and when to ask them.

TAR Do you find there’s a lot of managing expectations? A lot of people think, for example, that a dramaturg shouldn't get involved until the script is in draft form. But the dramaturg will often work with someone who only has an idea rather than a script that is partially developed.

JC That's often the case. Even for a show that Fishamble is producing and developing. Gavin would always be very much involved with that process from the very beginning over the year or two, before we get to rehearsals. He would also be involved during the rehearsals but, at that stage, I as the director, or if we have a guest director, will start to take over that role. There's usually a passing of the baton, a gentle passing over, close to rehearsals.

Mary Murray and Karl Shiels in Sebastian Barry's The Pride of Parnell Street. Photo by Fishamble

TAR And it’s a process that changes with each writer?

JC It does change with each writer, and we’re always interested in looking at new ways to do it. We were invited by the National Theatre Studio in London to go over next month to work on Pat Kinevane's new play. Nina Steiger of the National Theatre Studio was in the Soho Theatre when she saw Silent and invited it to Soho. That started a run in London which led on to that production winning the Olivier award.

TAR That was a huge moment and an amazing achievement. It was such a shot in the arm for so many people.

JC Thank you. We got a lovely, really warm response to it. I think people were feeling exactly that. It was a show with one guy on stage with a vest and a pair of tracksuit bottoms, but with a lot of love and thought in the creation of it. Even though it was very simple in so many ways, a lot of people felt it was reassuring that something like that could win such a prestigious award. It gave them confidence in developing their own ideas. It was great to feel that.

TAR And now an opportunity to work in The National Theatre Studio.

JC We have a chance to go over and engage with the team at the National Theatre Studio, and to see how other dramaturgs do it. We’re always looking at ways of enhancing the process. But, like I said, it does change from person-to-person. We have a new play, On Blueberry Hill, by Sebastian Barry coming up in the Dublin Theatre Festival. Sebastian wrote The Pride of Parnell Street for us ten years ago in 2007, which was inspired by a short piece he wrote for Fishamble for an Amnesty International campaign highlighting domestic abuse. I remember, afterwards, Sebastian saying he would love to write another play for Fishamble, but it might take a while as he had a couple of books to write first. He’s just been slightly busy winning major awards for his novels since then. The play finally came about over the last few years. Sebastian emailed me a couple of speeches and said, “I think I have some characters and some voices here and this is how they’re sounding, and this is what they're saying.” And I would email back saying, “does he know that…he doesn't know that…what will happen next if…” The development of the play kind of came about through a lovely conversation between myself and Sebastian. As it reaches a full draft stage and other people become involved, we start teasing things out more by reading and discussing it with the actors.

TAR It seems very organic, your approach. Many companies wait for the script to arrive. But you're already working even at the conversation stage, offering support and guidance from the get-go?

JC I think that is the case usually. I hope so anyway.

TAR Might that “conversational process” be a contributing factor in how you’ve managed to be successful for almost 30 years?

JC Sometimes the play does arrive and it's almost there, but I agree, the best plays tend to come about from creative, passionate conversations with writers. We’re always aware of trying to find ways to produce work we feel is important and needs to be done, work that will hopefully latch onto people’s imaginations. We always want to support that any way we can. In 2015, Eva O'Connor won the Fishamble New Writing Award in The Dublin Fringe. One of the things we offer to people nominated for that award is a place on Fishamble’s Playwriting Course. Eva came on board and wrote a short scene about a woman heading to a Repeal the Eighth demonstration and the guy she meets on the Luas on her way into town, creating something very topical about something she felt very passionate about. We thought it was fantastically funny and ended up commissioning that play, which became Maz and Bricks, which we produced recently and are hoping to bring back soon.

Stephen Jones and Eva O'Connor in Maz and Bricks. Photo by Pat Redmond

TAR You mentioned earlier Tiny Plays for Ireland.

JC A few years ago when Ireland went through its big economic collapse we asked how, as a theatre company, we were going to respond to this? We approached a number of writers about writing a big State-of-the-Nation play, but nobody took us up on the offer. We became interested in the fact that people didn't do it. Then someone suggested that maybe Irish writers like to frame a political play in a family drama, or within another type of play, which is not political with a capital “P”. We decided to share the responsibility across a number of people, writing tiny plays to give a snapshot of Ireland. We were really overwhelmed at the response. We got over 1700 submissions. Normally we would get 300 to 400 for something like that. We had planned to do 25 but we ended up doing 50. That gave us the chance to engage with 50 writers, to celebrate work and ideas people felt really strongly and passionately about. Writers who wanted to say something through the medium of theatre about the country and what the country was going through. That then led to a number of productions, including Deirdre Kinahan's play, Spinning, which came out of that. As did Colin Murphy's play Guaranteed! That too became a much bigger play with a journalistic rigour. It was extraordinary. We toured around the country holding panel discussions with politicians and economists every night after the show. The Irish Times said that in the absence of either the government or the banks looking at a bank inquiry, we needed theatre to do it. It's interesting to think theatre can still be a powerful force. Speaking of dramaturgical support, on that script we had to have lawyers look over it. We would often have actors ask, “can I change a line,” and we would say, “no, sorry, the lawyers have approved those lines.” So, in a sense, the lawyer was the dramaturg on that occasion.

TAR It can often seem as if text is becoming more and more frowned upon. Some people find it almost embarrassing to talk about text, or narrative, or story, as if everyone should be beyond narrative and story now. Yet your success seems to be built not just on the way you tell stories, but also on the very stories you tell.

JC It's not that plays need to have a narrative, they can be meta-theatrical and postmodern and deconstructed. There's room for a lot of different types of plays. We've also done shorter plays with no words. But I think, at Fishamble, we do admire something that tells a story. The stories you choose to tell, and how you tell them, is central to it all. We're always looking to try to tell stories from a diverse range of voices. Tiny Plays for Ireland really gave us a chance to explore a vast range of voices.

TAR If people sometimes speak disparagingly of the well-made play, you can still craft a well-made story, though that can take many different forms?

JC Exactly. There was a little bit of a backlash, I think, after people like Conor MacPherson and Mark O'Rowe wrote a lot of monologue based plays that had some people asking, “are these really plays, is this more like a story you could read?” But I think, really, it's about different stories needing to be told in different ways. If the way a story needs to be told is one character speaking directly to an audience, then maybe that's the best way for that story to be told. It might be right for that play even if it's not right for every play. We are currently working on this new play On Blueberry Hill, by Sebastian Barry, and it’s the most extraordinary play. It has two characters telling their story to an audience, and it just couldn’t happen any other way. It's about these two guys in prison for twenty years, in the same cell together. Sebastian described it as, “having their feet in acid and we’re trying to put crowns on their heads.” That's our task, that's the challenge in a way. How are we going to do that, trying to put crowns on the heads of these guys who have their feet in acid? We had a meeting this morning with the designer, Sabine Darren, and were all inspired by finding a way of telling that story that celebrates its theatricality.

Mary Murray and Sorcha Fox in Fishamble's Tiny Play for Ireland. Photo by Pat Redmond

TAR Your process never seems to be about making it fit, but about finding the structure rather than imposing one. About discovering how to tell the story as you're finding the story.

JC Yeah, I think that's good. With Inside The GPO, An Post approached us, and Colin Murphy, and asked if we would be interested in doing a fact based drama about the 1916 rising. My initial instinct was we weren't too interested doing something that was historical unless it said something about now. I wanted to do something more than simply recreate an historical event. So then An Post said, “look, have a think about it, and if you think you can we will give you the GPO for two weeks at Easter. Exactly 100 years after the Rising”. We thought about it for the whole of two seconds and I said, “yes, I think we definitely will have something for you.” Inside The GPO was an extraordinary experience. Every so often we dip into site-specific theatre as the most appropriate way to tell a certain story. We had a production called Whereabouts some years back that won an Irish Times Special Judges Award. It was this extraordinary tour around Temple Bar with site-specific plays happening. The audience were looking out through windows of shops, looking at people, hearing their thought processes over the sound system of the shop. Coming out and seeing a couple having a row and not knowing if that couple were in the play or if it was just a real-life couple having an argument in a doorway. No one knew what were the plays and what was real life. Because we don't have a theatre, because we’re an independent company and can go anywhere, we can present plays in big spaces, small spaces, non-theatre spaces, outside theatres, on streets. With something like Inside the GPO it was great to be able to create a work that had such a buzz about it and had such an impact. You might remember the beginning of Inside the GPO when the audience were asked to stand for the National Anthem. Of course, it was 1916, so the National Anthem was ‘God Save the King’. We had threats about that. One day the Gardaí had to stop rehearsals and check the sewers underneath the GPO for bombs because there were bomb threats. When something like that happens you feel you're doing something that's not just recreating the past, it’s reminding people that theatre can be provocative in all sorts of ways.

TAR You seem to have developed some strong relationships over the years, people you work with regularly. Colin Murphy, Gavin Kostick, Pat Kinevane. Is that important to you?

JC One of the great things I really love about my job is working with amazing, creative people. Writers, actors, designers, stage managers, technicians, everyone involved in a whole range of jobs. So when you work with people who you can build a relationship with, people you really trust and get on well with, it's really valuable. We are now looking at a fourth solo show with Pat. It's great to have those relationships that go on. You always want to develop those relationships that are valuable and special you, those you really appreciate having, yet also leave room for relationships with other people as well, so that there are a range of voices in there, and you are continuing relationships as well as forging new ones with emerging writers.

Manus Halligan and Liz Gitzgibbon in Colin Murphy's Inside The GPO. Photo by Pat Redmond

TAR I imagine, like many others, you’ve been looking at the range of voices being heard on stage in light of #wakingthefeminists

JC It's been an interesting discussion around #wakingthefeminists. Like everyone, we've been analysing our data. Roughly one third of the plays we've done have been by women, and two thirds by men. Which isn't quite equal enough. So we’re thinking about that and finding ways to ensure this is equal. But it’s also about other voices in terms of race and ethnicity.

TAR That was very much in evidence in Mainstream by Rosaleen McDonagh.

JC We were really proud to co-produce Mainstream by Rosaleen McDonagh with the Project Arts Centre. Rosaleen had written a play for us for Tiny Plays for Ireland, and she also wrote a play called Rings which we brought to the Kennedy Centre in Washington. Again, it's another one of those ongoing relationships with Rosaleen. Certainly her view of life as a Traveller, and as someone with a disability, is very different to my view of the world. It was really fascinating because sometimes I would query something in the script, or in rehearsals, and Rosaleen would say, “are you worried that it’s confusing, because I don't think Travellers will find it confusing”. We had some really fascinating discussions about how people with different ethnicities view things. Very often I was in the minority in the room, not being a Traveller or disabled, which is a very interesting experience. To be in the minority when you're not used to that is something we all should experience at some point. And theatre can do that. Put you in that situation, bring you into that world, or allow you to meet people up close you might never meet out in the real world. But suddenly, inside a theatre, you're getting to know these characters, sometimes in a profound and intimate way.

TAR The plays you’ve discussed show a huge range of styles and approaches. Is that intentional?

JC We're very proud of not having one style. Of course, from a marketing point of view, it means we can't necessarily say that because you loved Mainstream you're going to love Maz and Bricks, or Underneath. The plays are so different you might not love every one of them. We love audiences who take a risk though, and lots of our audiences like the risky quality of going to see a new play, which you don’t know anything about. But one thing that runs through most of the work we do is we are drawn to people that are cast aside a little bit, are the underdog, or forgotten about. Characters just on the edge, in some way, draws us to a lot of the work we do.

TAR I was looking at something the other day which said that, at one point, and perhaps even still, Fishamble supports 60% of the new writing, is that correct?

JC That's right. 60% of the writers of new plays we support in some way through all our various initiatives.

TAR If you're supporting that much work, might people think that for a work to be successful it needs the Fishamble seal of approval?

JC It's not that we approve, or don't approve. We just like to use our resources as productively as possible. If we believe in people, or we feel people can benefit from some support, then we would like to be able to do that. We want to help as many as we can do the best they can, on their own terms.

TAR I think that last part is crucial to understanding what you do: on their own terms. If I'm passing by a poster and I see the Fishamble logo, I'm expecting something of a high standard.

JC Well thank you for that.

TAR Yet I think people aren’t always aware of the levels of involvement, or non-involvement, Fishamble might have with a production. Might that lead to an erroneous assumption that they’re all Fishamble productions, or to the false impression that Fishamble hold the monopoly on new writing?

JC We certainly hope the work is always of a high standard, and if people feel that well that's good. And I think we avoid monopolising by wanting to help as many artists as we possibly can to make their work as good as it possibly can, on their own terms. Produced by them, not by us. We produce relatively few shows when you think about it in comparison to those we help dramaturgically. We just want to help develop work to be the best it can be, so that it will have as much an impact for the artists and on the audience as possible. Your point is interesting though, and there can be confusion sometimes between Fishamble’s own productions and ones we have supported. I wouldn’t like this to cause us to reduce the support we can give, and resources we can share, but it’s important we try to have clarity about the different ways in which we support different types of work, and the different strands Fishamble offer.

Fionnaula Murphy in Lament for Joseph by Jody O'Neill as part of Whereabouts. Photo by Fishamble

TAR Would you say, thirty years on, Fishamble has become a multifaceted company?

JC That is true. Absolutely. Fishamble today, across a range of scales, including Fishamble productions, Fishamble shows on tour, support through Show in a Bag, our New Writing Award at Dublin Fringe and The New Play Clinic, playwriting courses and workshops that we run where we engage with the public, we’re constantly working with a range of people and supporting them at all stages of their career. Being the theatre company in association with UCD we also work with the students there a lot, and in other colleges and universities. We try to share our resources in a way that genuinely helps people, but we don't try to take over everything either. Fishamble is always expanding and having different kinds of engagement with a lot of people, at a lot of different levels, building on relationships, and reflecting on how we can do this as best we can. Take, for example, Louise Lowe. We are delighted to be supporting ANU’s new show coming up in the Dublin Theatre Festival. Louise actually wrote some of the plays in Whereabouts which I mentioned, and she was assistant director on The Pride of Parnell Street, so I'm very delighted Louise is one of our ongoing relationships. We’re very involved in offering dramaturgical support for that, through the New Play Clinic. It’s really just giving people an opportunity to ask questions, to think about the work in development before it gets to rehearsals. Obviously we have no influence over rehearsals, it's very much an ANU production. Nor would we want to take too much credit when the new show proves to be fantastic!

TAR With rumours of even more cuts and changes coming, do you think that's going to have an impact on how you do business over the next two to five years?

JC I think things are always changing. And they will, of course, in the future, although I hope that we are going to move away from a period of funding cuts, and that the government will honour its recent commitments to more support for the arts, to bring us in line with the rest of Europe. It has been shocking how much our arts and culture are used to promote the country, and yet funding to the arts here has been the lowest in all Europe as a percentage of our GDP, for quite a while. So I hope that will change. We’re always very aware that, as a company funded by the taxpayer, we need to be showing that what we are doing is really worth it. We feel that it is, and audiences, thankfully, are growing. We’re engaging with people in all sorts of other ways too. I think we will be continuing what we do, doing it as best we can, helping develop and support new work, producing it, and touring it. We already have a number of national and international tours lined up here for the next few years, so we will certainly be continuing that level of activity.

TAR Do you have any specific plans for celebrating what has been a fascinating thirty years?

JC Our instinct is always not to do the same thing again, not to be going back, even as we approach our 30th year. So we're not going to be reviving productions from the past. We're not going to be celebrating what we've done so much as looking forward. We do have three new productions coming next year. We’re also looking at holding a conference on playwriting and at a new initiative which is not the same as Tiny Plays for Ireland, but something that is inspired by that. It will hopefully be a nationwide initiative with the support of six partner venues on a major playwriting project that will help develop work throughout the country. We're going to keep doing what we're doing, keep touring nationally and internationally, keep creating work that we are passionate about, that we feel needs to be heard. Telling those stories that excite us, stories we feel should be told, and need to be told.

For more information on Jim Culleton and Fishamble, visit Fishamble: The New Play Company

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