Thursday 21 September 2017

From psychiatry to premiere for this brave and pungent play

Body double: Kate Stanley Brennan
Body double: Kate Stanley Brennan

Maggie Armstrong

'He is awkward in his body - as if it's a tight fit... She is 30 years old, carrying many more years of armour.' These are stage directions from Carmel Winters' brave and pungent play Witness. Her characters - a 15-year-old delinquent and his alcoholic mother - are so remote from the comfortable world of playwrights, I wonder where they come from.

"I tend to absorb people I encounter. The way they walk, hold their knife and fork, the rhythm of their speech," says the playwright, on the line from West Cork.

"My partner is often perplexed by who it is comes home from town or from a walk. I'll have stepped into the man at the post office's shoes and I might not slip entirely out of them for a few minutes, hours or even days afterwards.

"When I step into the skin and bones of a character I have access to knowledge I don't ordinarily have myself. I feel like I have lived through events which I haven't experienced in real life."

Winters has won a host of awards and is currently Film Artist in Residence at UCC. Her plays sneak us into places usually only Prime Time journalists go. Like B for Baby, set in a care home for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Now comes Witness to the Civic Theatre, Tallaght on February 23, the Project Arts, Dublin on March 2 and the Everyman, Cork on March 9.

This sort of play doesn't ordinarily see the light of a theatre. Winters wrote it for a group of training psychiatrists who asked her to present something on teenage mental health.

She read the play herself for these clinicians, and the response was "fascination, rapt attention". "I was not doing the sensational - the headline, the scandal," she says. "That's really bankrupt as a mode of understanding and truthfully responding to people's experience."

She parked the script until she found the perfect actor, in Kate Stanley Brennan, who plays both mother and child. "She's a very intelligent actor, she's always looking for material. I sent Kate the script and she was really excited. Her eyes were on fire. She had a mission." It premiered in 2013 at the Cork Fit-Up Theatre Festival.

"It was the happiest meeting between script and actor that I could possibly have wished for. When she read it, I shivered up and down my spine," adds Winters.

She agrees that she's the sort of person people confide in, but says: "I never take something that someone has said to me and lob it into a play - I'll never take directly people's testimonies. The kind of stories that I'll typically ferret out will be ones that people can't tell. I'm not interested in what we can already say. If they can tell their story, they don't need me to.

"We're carrying our life stories in our bodies. A lot more is visible than we think. I'll pay attention to what people can't say from the clues of what they do say. I start from the quality of the silence.

"We're trained to not look. If a child sees something of interest to them, they'll park and watch, and they'll typically be chastised. 'It's rude to look.' Growing up in rural Ireland, the 'nosy' person will be sniffed at." But curiosity is vital, she argues. "All you're doing as a writer is looking, and listening. To look into instead of look at."

Winters is second youngest in a family of 12 children. Growing up in Kanturk, she spent a lot of time looking and listening. "There's a great education in living with so many people so young. I was never bored.

"My father was a bookie, a gambler. My mother rented caravans, sold hoovers, sold make-up. The aspiration was to somehow make your living. I didn't grow up around professionals or artists. It was an anomaly to become a writer - and lonely to be so odd and different."

Winters is confident in the power her work has over others, but also frank about how her medium can fail in its task. "We come to a play from our busy lives," she says. "We are holding on to dramas in our minds all the time, we carry stresses with us from work when we sit down. You see people in the first few minutes still texting people. The play has a real job to do to assert itself, to pull people into a wholly different reality, so that by the end you are more than just a collection of individuals - there's a closeness. That's what I'm always after.

"I want to witness. I want what's invisible to become visible. That's the profound magic of theatre. That word entertainment has become problematic - it implies canned, sentimental reactions. It's more of a struggle. In theatre, I see how people become suffused with joy, that's exhilarating.

"My hope is for the audience to take away something that lives with them afterwards."

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