With two productions, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of The Kilkenny Arts Festival, and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, adapted by Arthur Riordan premiering as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, Rough Magic Theatre Company seem busier than ever. Not surprising given that its artistic director, Lynne Parker, has been one of the most influential, and inspirational forces in Irish theatre for over the past three decades. In a fascinating and insightful In Conversation, director Lynne Parker discusses Rough Magic then and now, the hopes and challenges for Irish theatre, as well as the value and importance of working with an ensemble.
TAR Dublin, 1984. Rough Magic first appear on the scene. Dublin was a very different city back then.
LP Dublin was a kind of gentle bohemian city then. It was also in the middle of a depression, or recession rather. When we came out of university a lot of our friends moved to places like New York and were working in the advertising industry. Myself and Declan Hughes knew we wanted to make theatre, that we did not want to stop, and that we wanted to carry on working here. So we decided to set up a summer company, which people could do back then, in Trinity’s Players Theatre. We weren't the only theatre company to do this, a lot of companies did. Shows were in the front square of Trinity College so they were able to attract the tourist trade. We did lunchtime theatre that then funded the evening shows. We had absolutely no money. But at the end of the summer we said to the people involved, ‘we want to keep going does anyone want to join us?’ That's when the original core company started. It was four actors, two directors, and a producer/ general manager, Siobhan Bourke. The fact that we had a producer whose sole focus was production I think was one of the crucial elements in our survival. We, the group that ended up being Rough Magic, worked almost like a professional company even when we began.
TAR I imagine it was hard to secure funding back then?
LP We got an establishment grant in our first year, and that was unheard of. We got three thousand Irish pounds which actually was a lot at the time. It wasn't enough to pay people, but it was enough to get us an office and a base, which we did in Temple Bar. That was our patch. Temple Bar, at that time, was virtually derelict. It was going to be flattened and turned in to a bus depot at one point. But it was around that time they decided to develop it as a sort of cultural area. Our relationship with Project Arts Centre started in that first year as we moved from Players to Project. At that time Project had no artistic director. Michael Scott had just left and they hadn't appointed anyone else. So the General Manager of Project, Sean Dempsey, said, ’why don't you come in and use this as your base?’ So we became its flagship company. That enabled us to do five to seven shows a year. Still nobody getting paid. Everyone on the dole. But you're young and you’re absolutely obsessed with it, and you could live very cheaply then. In the 80s, rents were minimal.
TAR Bedsit culture. It had a lot to be said for it. A far cry from now.
LP You really did have a way of living cheaply then. You didn't really have time to spend money anyway. So we didn't notice that we didn't have any money. We did have little bits of box office feeding back into the company but none of it lasted for very long. Still, we were able to continue and actually develop a really extraordinary spectrum of work.
TAR You’re known for producing new works, classics, and contemporary works from abroad. Which did you begin with?
LP We began doing works by people like David Hare, Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, Wallace Shawn, people whose works weren’t being done at all in Ireland at that time. Interestingly, at the same time, Passion Machine were starting and they were doing new work, telling stories from here. We were telling stories from outside Ireland but which were very, very contemporary. We moved onto classics within a couple of years.
TAR What was the thinking there?
LP To be honest we had an interest in classics anyway. But it gave you that great training ground for actors, a chance for them to flex their muscles. Because we were a young ensemble company our actors were getting access to roles they wouldn't have been considered for in legit theatre for many years. I think we've always been a very actor centred company. So the classics were a joyous expansion of our program. The aim always was to take an unusual view of the work. Then, after about five years during which we had honed our craft on other peoples work, we felt it was time to start making our own. That's when we started to commission new plays.
TAR How did you go about doing that?
LP The first examination of new work began with a workshop we asked three writers to attend. They were Declan Hughes, Anne Enright, and Gerry Stembridge. Of the three the one that was produced, that we felt was most right for the company, was Declan’s play I Can't Get Started. That was written for our company, though we had produced original work before that. We’d already produced Donal O’Kelly’s Bat The Father, Rabbit The Son, Donal’s one person's show. That relationship with Donal is mirrored in other relationships we have enjoyed over the years with actor performers. Arthur Riordan would be another one.
TAR That relationship with Arthur is still evidently vital today, given that he’s just written an adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man for you for Dublin Theatre Festival.
LP Exactly. Arthur’s first thing with us was his Eamonn De Valera rap show, The Emergency Session. He performed these rap songs in the persona of MC Dev. It was pure genius. It kind of pre-empted people like Emmet Kirwan, people using rap as a modus operandi. Arthur had been doing that in the early 90s. So there was a lot of really new creative thinking going on.
TAR So when did creating new works begin to have an impact?
LP The second play we did of Declan's was a real landmark one called Digging For Fire. That was the one that took us to London for the first time. And, of course, once you’re taken seriously in the UK you get taken much more seriously back here.
TAR Was that when Rough Magic began to transition into something more structured?
LP It actually happened before that. Around 1990 we moved to the Tivoli for a year. The Tivoli overheads were such that even though we ended up doing all this work, it was all profit share, nobody was getting any money out of it. The Arts Council then said they were not going to fund us anymore unless we became a company with a management, an administration, and a structure.
TAR You probably had some of that in place already with Siobhan working as producer.
LP We were a collective with a producer. But then it became an administration. The Producer and the Artistic Director became actual jobs. Declan became our Writer-In-Residence. Actors, at that stage, were making decent money in the advertising business doing voice overs and all of that, so they were able to sustain a living. But that has changed fundamentally today. We were able to keep the company ticking over and produced quite a lot of really exciting new work. Interestingly, from the cast of Digging For Fire, Gina Moxley, Arthur Riordan, and Pom Boyd all wrote plays for the company. Gina’s play Danti-Dan, Pom’s, Down Onto Blue, and Arthur’s Hidden Charges were all produced around that time. Arthur has written a lot more for us since then.
TAR There's a very strong sense of ensemble.
LP There has always been that sense. That is our strength. It's where we're happiest and where the company’s nature is best reflected. But the ensembles change.
TAR Which is healthy I think. It ensures it never becomes a closed shop.
LP The company who did Digging For Fire moved onto other things. It was really in the mid thousands that we seemed to evolve the next ensemble, the bunch involved in The Taming of the Shrew and Don Carlos. It was the same actors who were in everything. I remember during The Taming of the Shrew thinking that this bunch of people, with their incredible talent, I could do anything with. The problem is keeping everyone together. You don't have the money to keep them all on salary. An interesting development now is that we have been able to attach a tour to our festival show. Formerly we weren't able to do this. You had to apply for touring funding once the show was produced. So it was sometimes nearly a year before you could revive it. Getting people back together again was difficult. This has been a great development.
TAR Your current production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the forthcoming A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for Dublin Theatre Festival, sees you working with the same ensemble for both productions.
LP We are doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Kilkenny as a stand-alone project as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. But that same company, and that means actors, designers, and stage management, will all go on to DTF with Arthur Riordan’s version of Portrait of the Artist which will then tour Ireland. We have a very nice combination of emerging talent as well as one of our founding members and our SEEDS graduates.
TAR As ensembles change, does your own process change? Especially given the wide experiences you’ve enjoyed as an independent director.
LP I did a lot of freelance work back in the 90s. I really enjoyed it, working at places like the Almeida, the Old Vic, The Bush, and The Traverse: these are great places. But I knew in myself that I was best, and at my best, when I was working back with Rough Magic. That sense of a root and a community, and of knowing you were speaking to an audience you recognised and knew. From me, Rough Magic is very much a family organisation. But it's a very extensive family.
TAR Do you still consider Rough Magic as a Dublin based company?
LP We are a Dublin-based company, but we are a national company. And that's really important for us.
TAR I think that’s a significant shift. In the same way people would, at one point, have seen Druid exclusively as a Galway company, many would have seen Rough Magic solely as a Dublin company.
LP We will always be a Dublin company in that sense. I'm not from Dublin, I washed up here as did a lot of people. This was where it was most efficient to operate from. But we are very keen to develop relationships with venues all around the country. One benefit of that Celtic Tiger is that the country is so much more better connected and easy to get around. It's a great pleasure for us to tour now and to be able to bring our work to all these audiences who are really hungry for works of the kind of scale we can manage.
TAR Returning for a minute to your own process; starting out as a director in 1984, I don't imagine there were too many woman directors around at that time.
LP There was Garry (Hynes), but I don't think it really occurred to me. I was listening to the radio the other day and Marianne Elliot was saying how it never occurred to her that she could be a director because all directors were men. That never occurred to me. When I was in Players it was the job I felt most comfortable in and nobody seemed to think that that was a problem. It became very clear to me that this was what my role was going to be. That was my job. The fact that the establishment, or the institutions, were continually being run by men, apart from when Garry went in for a very brief period into the Abbey, that seemed to me to be their problem. That's what institutions were. To me, as an independent theatre maker, it seemed very natural to direct. Then there were others who came along, like Annie Ryan and Bairbie ní Chaoimh. Charabanc in Belfast were a great influence on me. Not just because they worked as a woman's company or were making work for women. They were an inspiration because they were brilliant theatre artists making amazing work. And, of course, there was the great Ariane Mnouchkine in France. So I didn't really have any excuse for not going forward. I honestly can’t say that I noticed there weren't women directors.
TAR Did being an independent director mean that you could perhaps be less concerned about gender politics in that regard?
LP Absolutely. I know when I went to work in the Abbey first, and this was a long time ago, the chauvinism hit you like a wall. When you met the guys individually they were really nice blokes, all good mates and good colleagues. But there was an attitude there which had a really distinct flavour, which wasn't the only thing that was problematic about working in the Abbey at that time. So I was very happy to get back to my own sphere. But there have been huge changes made at the Abbey since then. There's more women going in there now. Like everyone else you have to prove yourself. Everyone does.
TAR What is your process in rehearsals and how has it evolved?
LP I started out, like most everybody else, by being very fastidious and controlling. I'm much freer now. That's all I can really say on that. The process, to me, is still the same. You have to find out how the thing works. Every show you start right at the beginning. You're not more clever just because you're older. You’re possibly less confident because you know it doesn't always work out. But you just have to trust your own intelligence and that of your actors. They'll tell you when there's a problem. And you have to know how to push the thing forward, and know that no problem is insurmountable. Don't get stuck on something, move on to something else, you can always come back. I suppose what I do which some people find a bit scary is I stitch together the play very quickly in the first week and run it so we can see the whole arc. It's a mess, like a Jackson Pollock, but we see what's there.
TAR So you loosely block everything during that first week?
LP Very loosely. What you're really doing is getting the toy box, throwing all the toys out onto the floor and seeing what you've got. Then you start to put them together in combinations and shapes. What that does is sort of relax the pressure for when you start to run it because the actors have already got it up and running. They've already seen the whole thing. And you really have to see the whole thing in an overall arc so you know where your narrative is leading. Because you can disappear down rabbit holes very, very quickly. So it’s thinking on your feet and being aware of people's different processes. That's something ensemble work really does iron out; understanding other peoples processes. The people in our new ensemble are new to me, all coming from different backgrounds. You have to allow people space to see where they go.
TAR Do you ever get young people feeling intimidated that they’re working with you?
LP No, I don't think so. I'm very irreverent, which people get from the first day of rehearsal. Mind you, first day of rehearsals I now draw people’s attention to our gender policy documents and our dignity in the workplace documents. It never occurred to us to do that before because we never had a problem. But because it is such a current issue it’s good for us all to say, at the outset, this is the track of communication if you have a problem of any kind.
TAR That sounds a very healthy approach. I think people are still trying to figure out how to implement those practices to ensure rehearsals remain a safe space to express yourself in as well as being a safe work environment.
LP I think we're all trying to figure that out. What we don't want is to become so stiff and rigid that there is a tension within the rehearsal room. Because that's the very thing that would stop us from being able to work effectively and productively. Tension is a terrible ingredient to have in rehearsal.
Link to Part Two