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Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Director Joe O'Byrne and Choreographer Brendan de Gallai

Director Joe O'Byrne and Choreographer Brendan de Gallai

Sandra O'Malley and Niall Henry

Sandra O'Malley and Niall Henry

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Tom Creed and Joe Vanek

Tom Creed and Joe Vanek

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

In Theatreland, you're bound to find no shortage of visionaries, passionate creatives, hot tempers and egos. What you're less likely to find are megalomaniacs – and given that theatre is one of the most collaborative art forms, control freaks rarely make the grade, much less last the distance.

Behind every great theatre director is a sizeable team that are responsible for much of the elbow grease behind the scenes. Many of them are happy to acknowledge that it's precisely in this meeting of great minds and exchange of ideas that the magic happens.

Some have built up an emotional shorthand with their collaborators, creating a sort of symbiosis that has galvanised down the years. Others, meanwhile, are finding their footing in new partnerships.

We spoke to four of Ireland's most prolific and busiest theatre directors and the people that bring their vision to the stage.

Garry Hynes is the co-founder and artistic director of the Druid Theatre company. She met her dramaturg/ literary manager Thomas Conway in 2004, when he interviewed for a position at the company.

THOMAS: I thought I'd made a poor impression at the job interview. I was a bit over earnest at the time. There was probably one thing I said that might have won me a second hearing: "Deciding what a good play is isn't an exact science."

Long after the interview, Mark [O'Rowe, a playwright connected to Druid] and I found ourselves on a train down to Galway, and he consoled me. He thought I hadn't gotten the Druid position, so it was a bit funny having to say to him, "Yeah, I actually got the job."

To my memory, the first few months in the Druid Theatre were to do with gaining Garry's confidence, and proving my view was something she could understand and rely on. I didn't expect to win her confidence, but by being consistent and straight up, it happened. When it comes to arguing the toss, I like a degree of resistance. The worst thing you can do is hold onto your position. Blow-ups are part and parcel of the whole process.

How do I choose a script for Garry? You have to be convinced of its innate value. I have to make sure reading it is a good use of her time. But the great thing about Garry is that she has a great instinct for dramatic structure, and by extension for the story itself.

GARRY: Believe it or not, I can't really remember meeting Thomas for the first time, but I think, for the [hiring] process to go on, I had an instinctive comfortableness of him being in the room.

We went through the process to learn his opinions and interest. You're looking for a collaborator in a colleague; someone you feel comfortable having an auld glass of wine with, but where there's also a frank exchange of views. Thomas' two roles, as dramaturg and literary manager, are very different. I'll say to him, "Have a look at this, I have a problem with that", and then I'll listen to what he says.

I would ask him to help me work things out and give me a fresh pair of eyes, or help me with a solution for something that I know I have, but that I can't get to in my head without talking about it. It's extremely collaborative. Creative differences are there, but if they weren't, we wouldn't be any use to each other. It's his job to be the agent provocateur.

The conversations can happen very quickly. There's a lot of: "Say no more, I know what you mean." Still, we call him our resident nerd. He'll say something like, "I think in this scene", and I'll be like, "Translate that into English".

A lot of work comes in [to the company] with no value – that's the blind truth of it. Sometimes it's like everyone in Ireland is writing a play. It's up to Thomas to find two or three scripts that might have a life on stage.

I don't necessarily trust that if he thinks something is a good play, I will. I don't need him to be a version of me – I need him to be himself.

Still, we see most of our theatre separately and end up having similar opinions. It's a bit like men talking about football matches.

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Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

 

Garry Hynes and Thomas Conway

Garry will direct the Druid Theatre's production of the world premiere of Tom Murphy's much anticipated new play 'Brigit', which is the prequel to 'Bailegangaire', later this year. See druid.ie

Tom Creed is a theatre/musical theatre/opera director and theatre festival director. Joe Vanek is a Tony Award-nominated set and costume designer. Their forthcoming production of Stephen Sondheim's 'Into The Woods' will be their first job together.

TOM: I've known Joe's work, and known of him, for a long time. Before we thought about who might work well as a designer for this production, Joe got in touch to say that he wanted to work on it. For me, it was a great opportunity to work with him. Being on such a new collaboration – we started working together for the first time before Christmas – is a challenge, but an exciting one.

With some projects, getting a designer on board happens a year in advance. The process started a bit later here. On one hand, there's something quite freeing about that – not locking ideas down in advance – but it's very new. We're starting to tentatively work out what each other's interests are in the piece.

I want designers to have better ideas than I'd have myself. Theatre is a space where your key role as a director is about creating opportunities for others to do the best work they can and come up with things that I couldn't.

There are directors who really come in with a fierce sense of what they want, but for me I come with a sense of what I want the experience to be like in the room [for the audience].

Collaboration is an opportunity to learn something that I might not have noticed about the piece. I don't want to have to tell a designer what they should do.

JOE: I think of Tom as a sort of Renaissance man. He's been everywhere and knows everyone and can put his hand to any form of theatre successfully.

I'd worked with directors like Selina Cartmell and Conor Hanratty ... I'm like the old man of theatre design by now.

It's good for designers not to get in a rut with directors. Sure, you get to a point where an hour's conversation can happen in minutes, but on the other hand it's nice to start something with someone new.

With a director and designer, it's all about documenting detail from the very first meeting. Already, this [production] has become interesting, with us trying to factor an orchestra into the space alongside the performance area.

Thankfully, we're on the same wavelength. Aesthetically, where we are at this point in the production is spot on.

I bring in surprises to the meeting: I discovered a 4-metre piece of gorgeous fabric in a warehouse in Birmingham. I just threw it down in the meeting and waited for the reaction – it's a good way of doing it.

Every other production of 'Into The Woods' looks hideous in my eyes, even the original Broadway production.

This is a musical show that comes at you like a steam-roller, so we'll have to work on our instincts for the next while. We'll have a lot of fun along the way, I should suspect.

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Tom Creed and Joe Vanek

Tom Creed and Joe Vanek

Tom Creed and Joe Vanek

Tom Creed and Joe Vanek

Tom will direct and Joe will design the set for The Lir's production of 'Into The Woods', which opens May 23, 2014 as part of The Lir's graduate scheme. See thelir.ie

Niall Henry is director and co-founder of the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company in Sligo. Actress Sandra O'Malley is part of the company's ensemble group. They have been working together since 1997.

NIALL: We went out together for 11 years, way back when. We didn't meet through the theatre – Sandra became interested in acting and joined the company in 1997 after she trained as an actress.

Does that [their past relationship] add a layer of complexity to our working relationship? Sometimes it does, but in a sense we were trained [as actors] in the same way, plus we know each other so well. It's become an extraordinary advantage that we can put up with each other under pressure.

Nearly all our creative differences happen if I'm not being clear as director, which is often. Where we don't differ is when we get what we want. But yes, someone gets lost the odd time.

There have been roaring arguments. I do the threat, "Don't even think about walking out", and then she's gone. Some days she'll walk back in and nothing's said, which is her version of an apology. Other times I have to crawl and apologise, and she's good enough to let it go.

In many ways you depend on the [emotional] shorthand hugely like in any job, but when the shorthand is not working, it's a bit difficult. Sandra is very research-oriented and methodical, and I'm neither, really. Instead, I'll have an idea, I'll build on that idea and hang onto it. Many of the mistakes I make are about rushing things, and Sandra is about being a little looser. She'll disagree with this, but her greatest strength is she's amazing under pressure. She'll get angry, but is good under it. That's a very valuable thing when you're directing someone.

I remember one time we were doing 'The Poor Mouth' in Edinburgh and when Sandra got up to talk on stage, the whole audience really sat forward. It's one of the very odd times in your career that the whole thing feels worthwhile. Half the time you're sure you've made the wrong career choice.

SANDRA: I've learned a lot from Niall as a director. In my training, it takes time to absorb what you've learned. Niall would have been a bit ahead of me in that sense, so I learned to be patient. I've learned to make mistakes and be less scholarly.

Niall has many strengths and a lot of experience, and because he trained as an actor himself, he's a fantastic actor's actor. Sometimes he has to get someone to do the impossible as an actor, but he can see that it's possible.

The bad days are tough, and I've been known to do 'the walk' [out of the rehearsal room]. You have to bite down on what you've got in your mouth to hang in there and endure it. It's neither the director nor the actor's fault, really – it's the boiler room effect.

Back in the day, I would walk out quite a bit. What would go through my mind? "Where will I go?" usually. Going home would bring me down too much, so I'd go to Yeats' grave to calm myself down, or I'd go out to the sea. Other times, you'd only make it as far as the dressing room. You'd be like, "That's me done, that's the final straw", but it's part of the learning curve as well.

You need to give and take a little, and try not to walk away to the point where you can never return and you have to apply for a McDonald's job instead.

Someone like Niall, who has committed himself to theatre all his life, deserves every bit of merit that he gets. He works terribly hard, no two ways about it – not to make himself look good, but more for the ensemble. And it's not just about producing great work; it's about keeping the company going, no matter how hard times have been.

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Sandra O'Malley and Niall Henry

Sandra O'Malley and Niall Henry

Sandra O'Malley and Niall Henry

Sandra O'Malley and Niall Henry

Blue Raincoat Theatre Company tour their latest play, 'First Cosmonaut', to Scotland in June; see blueraincoat.com

Joe O'Byrne is a director, playwright and former artistic director of Co-motion Theatre Company. Brendan de Gallaí is a professional Irish dancer turned choreographer. 'The Rising' is their second collaboration.

JOE: I've always liked theatre and the collaborative aspect of it, which pushes you out of your comfort zone. When I do shows, I don't like to repeat something I've done before. With Brendan and I, we're pushing outside our comfort zones. We want it to be a special show – where it'll go or how it'll get there we don't know.

Doing the first workshop together, it was exciting to work on scenes and see the possibilities presented by the dancers. That's the great thing about collaborations – when they work, they can produce something really exciting.

When you go into rehearsals, there's a terrible fear: "Will it happen, will it not happen?" Your instinct as director is to carry on, and it was interesting to see Brendan go through the same process at the time. We're scared out of our wits, but what I learned is that we end up being quite similar. Few people come to rehearsals with lots of confidence, but the fear generates the quality. The fear pushes me on. I could see it in Brendan too.

We definitely socialise together after the working day. It's a community thing, the production is based around a project that lasts a long time. If you've enjoyed working with each other, it becomes the basis for future collaborations. There definitely has to be a sense that you're not just hiring and firing people. Getting to know them better is a huge help.

BRENDAN: Joe and I were introduced by Deirdre Mulrooney, who is a mutual friend. She wrote to me to tell me that Joe was looking for someone to choreograph a piece. I'd worked with directors before, and it was an interesting experience, even if I hadn't found it the easiest thing to do with other directors.

It's hard to get that common language, but that's not the case with Joe and myself. The thing is, you want to deliver what the director is looking for, but you also want to deliver something you believe in and that has meaning for you, too. Fortunately, our first experience of working together was a rich one, hence we're working together again.

'The Rising' is a great piece for me as a choreographer. There are some high-impact [dance] pieces involved that really drive the narrative. There is interpretative dance involved, too, which is moving slightly outside my comfort zone. I've little expertise in that regard, but it's a case of both Joe and I standing back and going, "Do you like that? That works for me."

I was very nervous going into our first workshop. I didn't want to go down the commercial 'Riverdance' route, and I wanted to look at different possibilities of the form. Sometimes dancers can find the space in a rehearsal unsettling, especially if they're being encouraged to improvise, but it's really great to be working with people who have the balls to do it.

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Director Joe O'Byrne and Choreographer Brendan de Gallai

Director Joe O'Byrne and Choreographer Brendan de Gallai

Director Joe O'Byrne and Choreographer Brendan de Gallai

Director Joe O'Byrne and Choreographer Brendan de Gallai

'The Rising, And by Way of Interludes World War I' tours Galway, Waterford, Letterkenny, Dublin and Newbridge from February 22 until March 20. See powerscourttheatre.com

(Weekend)

Irish Independent