A vocation and an addiction
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Main:      Dylan Kennedy in All Over Town

Left:        Phillip McMahon

Bottom:   Phillip McMahon and Georgina McKevitt
               in Danny and Chantelle (Still Here)

A vocation and an addiction

Playwright and producer Phillip McMahon is the current Writer in Association at the Abbey Theatre (2009-2010). As his tenure draws to a close, he discusses the impact of the programme on his work – and why he writes for theatre in the first place. 

Fintan Walsh (FW): You have spent the past year as Writer in Association at the Abbey Theatre. Could you explain how this came about, and how the position has benefited you?

Phillip McMahon (PMcM): The starting point might have been a short play, Investment Potential, I wrote for the Abbey’s 20:LOVE Season in 2008. That said, Literary Director Aideen Howard has been a supporter of my work from the very start. Needless to say when Aideen called me on behalf of the Abbey to ask if I’d be their Writer In Association I was much more than excited: I was genuinely shocked. Most of the benefits are clear: the award comes with a sizeable bursary that ensures you don’t have to pull pints for a year; the title raises your profile in the industry and the Abbey offer any support they can. But there are other advantages too. It has definitely helped me to focus what I’m doing. The fact that anyone is responding to the work - not least the Abbey - is important in helping me move forward.

FW: Some of the most internationally acclaimed Irish writers have held the same position in the past – Frank McGuinness, Tom Murphy and Marina Carr, to name a few. How, if at all, do you see your own writing to be in dialogue with this esteemed tradition?

McMahon-1-1-(1).jpgPMcM: The list of names is awesome. It’s daunting in one way, and a huge honour in another. I think you always hope that your work resonates contextually, that it raises questions about how people or a culture are talking about the world, so I hope that my plays speak to the above writers’ plays in some ways. I certainly think the people mentioned have a unique spin on Ireland and what it is to be Irish, and that’s something that concerns me.

In saying that, the position of Writer in Association has historically been assigned to established playwrights, and I think for the first time the Abbey is offering an emerging artist a helping hand. They realize the impact it could and will have on emerging writers. It’s a brave move to offer it to a new writer rather than an established figure, but it’s essential too. At the Irish Times Theatre Awards a couple of years back, Tom Murphy asked, ‘where are all the young playwrights?’ Well, we’re out here and we’re looking for support.

FW: While Irish theatre has often been described as a writer’s theatre, the writer no longer exclusively occupies this privileged position. Do you think that new ways of making theatre require new forms of dramatic writing?

PMcM: The shift in the way theatre is being made is incredibly exciting. We have better and more frequent access to international work; we’re being exposed to new ideas, new processes and new ways of interacting with an audience; so yes, new forms of writing are required. But new forms of performing are also required, as are different ways of watching theatre. We need to retrain ourselves and adapt. But we also need to find a balance. In Dublin right now it feels like a play with words and actors is a dirty thing. It’s seen as terribly traditional and therefore not exciting or forward thinking.

I want to be involved in making all sorts of plays. As a writer, sometimes I want to be the least important person in the room and at other times, the most important. I want the performer to ignite the process, and sometimes I want to write all the words, but I never want to chuck away the play, not for good anyway.

FW: In many ways plays seem to be less interesting than performance. Of course, this change of focus might be seen as a reaction to Irish theatre’s obsession with words, or at least the primacy of the word, and sometimes a retrospective vision. But when you refer to the need to find new ways of engaging audiences, you’re often not competing with the canon, but with film, television, the Internet – a whole range of new media technologies that are accessible without leaving home. How can theatre compete with this?

PMcM: For me, as an event, the live experience always wins. But people are still afraid of the theatre for many reasons, including its perceived elitism or classism. And, as attention-spans dwindle to the timeframe of a good YouTube clip, it becomes more difficult to sell the idea of sitting in a theatre for two hours. So it's tough, but it is achievable.

Not all plays are for everyone. That's a good starting point. Engaging your desired audience directly is the real challenge. The biggest issue seems to be about getting young people into the theatres. We have to access them in their own space. Right now that's the Internet. Through social networking, viral media campaigns, websites’ ad forums, we have the opportunity to show young people that the theatre, rather than being staid and boring, can be even more exciting and cutting-edge than the latest episode of Skins or whatever.

Using new media as a way of bringing an audience to theatre is free, but few use it, and those that use it rarely use it to full effect. I guess for the most part we're still learning to use the Internet as a tool in the theatre, but the technology is progressing at an alarming rate, so we have an obligation to keep up. So we entice them into the theatre with our high-octane viral clip, promising fast paced, adrenalin rush theatre; what then? We have to deliver. There's no point in the Gate putting out a Kung Fu ad for Lady Windemere's Fan (although I'd pay to see that production), so we need to use different techniques across the board, but I don't accept TV and film as an explanation for why young people are not buying tickets. The responsibility lies with us to reach out to them.

FW: What have you to say that has not already been said, and why say it in the theatre?

PMcM: I’m not sure the goal is to always say something new. I’m just one part of the process; one part of the conversation that’s about discussing how we live our lives now and asking how we intend to move forward. It could be argued that everything has been said before, but in truth Irish plays have been so concerned with the distant past that we haven’t even scratched the surface of discussing the last ten years, never mind now. I guess I’m concerned with now.

Is that my niche? And why the theatre? Because I’ve spent my life since the age of fifteen in the theatre and it’s just what I do. But also because the live interaction between audience and performer is still unrivalled in my mind. That new conversation that happens every night feeds the soul of the city, and this is terribly important. It's essential. So the theatre’s a vocation and an addiction.

FW: Your performance company, Thisispopbaby, of which you are a co-director (with Jennifer Jennings) works at the intersection of theatre and popular culture, and all your plays to date explore highly topical issues. How important is it for you to engage with popular culture in your writing?

PMcM: It’s never the ultimate goal or the starting point. The driving question is always, ‘what do I have to say and why?’ It’s the feeling of writing something and thinking, ‘yeah, but so what? Who cares?’ I know that’s a feeling I get as an audience member all the time, so my writing to date has focused on stories that I feel connected to and situations I’ve been around. Being a teenager in the 1990s and now about to hit thirty means that a lot of my experiences naturally intersect with popular culture; stories about young people or living in big cities. The ultimate goal is to write something that actually means something, or at least provokes the audience to ask similar questions. It may sound simple but of course it’s a big challenge.

FW: Your staged plays to date - Danny and Chantelle (Still Here) (2006), All Over Town (2007), and Investment Potential (2008) - are thematically united by frustrated attempts to create intimacy and a sense of belonging against rapidly changing urban landscapes. What draws you to these issues?

McMahon-3-1.jpgPMcM: This is tricky, because really these themes show themselves only after the plays are finished. A couple of things that might be relevant spring to mind: I was born in London to Irish parents and only moved to Dublin aged nine. We were always considered Irish in London and English in Dublin. It lead to a real confusion when it came to national identity and it meant that the notion of Irishness always interested me, or more specifically, the idea of belonging or not, as the case was. Looking at the world from the outside. Sexuality also has a role in defining someone as an outsider, and growing up gay in Dublin meant that home wasn’t defined by geography or childhood friends, the local pub or a football team. It was more about escaping into the city. It never settled.

I, and young people just like me were always searching for something; validation or a sense of ourselves. We made friends on dance floors and were desperate to forge instant bonds with people. There was a transience to all this, but we did manage to forge real relationships that we’d later label as ‘family’, with other outsiders looking for similar things. These things played out against a backdrop of a rapidly changing city, where the pressure to achieve and be successful meant that by our late twenties, friends were in debt, the city was unrecognizable and everyone had become so consumed with consuming that things like intimacy and real relationships were harder to access. These themes tend to naturally pop up in the plays. I guess I’m drawn to them because I’ve experienced them on some level.

FW: Danny and Chantelle, which won a Spirit of the Fringe Award in 2006, is soon to receive its U.S. premiere. How did this come about?

PMcM: It was due to open this month with Solas Nua, a theatre company based in Washington D.C. that works with contemporary Irish material. They hired Wayne Jordan to direct and it was actually Wayne’s choice to do the play. The idea of an American cast talking about ‘yokes’ and the ‘ILAC Centre’ is both hilarious and exciting. Due to unforeseen circumstances it has just been rescheduled for Spring 2010, but I’m still thrilled that the play is getting new life. At least the cast now has a chance to watch every movie ever set in Dublin, to help with the accents.

FW: That play was rooted in a very particular Dublin context in its focus on young, working-class youths. It’s in the language and the set cultural references. Do you think this makes it difficult to resonate outside of Ireland, or do you think that this is part of the attraction?

PMcM: The themes of the play are universal. Danny and Chantelle are characters on the cusp of big change, both in their own lives and in the city. While the play acts as a love poem to Dublin and a certain clubbing culture that happened here, its backdrop is familiar to most big cities that have undergone large urban renewal. So in that sense, I don't see why it shouldn't travel well. You'd wonder if the dialect will translate or if people will just think the actors are speaking a completely different language every time someone says 'gee-bag'. But I think its specificity will work in its favour. It's a story of new Ireland, and it's not the kind of Irish story seen overseas all the time. There's not a single item of tweed in it. The audiences could get very confused.

FW: How important is it that new writing is nurtured and that programmes, such as the one hosted by the Abbey, are continued?

PMcM: Programmes like the Abbey’s new writing workshop, Fishamble’s new writers’ programme and the work that the Stewart Parker Trust does are all essential to emerging writers. Sometimes the support is financial, other times it comes in the form of training, but it all contributes to the development of young artists. These are just a few of the bodies supporting young writers, and I’m sure there are more, including the Arts Council, but it’s still not enough. There’s a serious lack of training for playwrights in this country and until we fix that and offer more support to young writers through play readings, workshops and dramaturgy, etc, we’re going to see less and less exciting plays surface.

To side step from the question for a second, what we really need is a specific new writing theatre. Somewhere dedicated to nurturing and presenting new plays. A place where things can be tried, and possibly fail without having the pressure of having to sell a million tickets for the company to ever work again. I think a centre for new writing would revolutionize and energise the world of new writing.

Phillip McMahon’s new play, Pineapple, will be produced by Calipo in spring 2010. With his company, Thisispopbaby, he is also planning a musical co-production, Alice in Funderland, with a score by Raymond Scannell.

Fintan Walsh is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin.


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