Permission to take risks
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Jody O'Neill and Gert-Jan Stam in I Love Guns

Photo: Viktor Cibulka

Below: Sorcha Kenny in My Life in Dresses

Photo: Viktor Cibulka

Permission to take risks

Project Brand New is only two years old, but has carved out a space for emerging artists of many disciplines to showcase exciting new short pieces. The work they produce may change, or be discarded, and it might fail. In the spirit of constructive criticism, Fintan Walsh watched the performances last weekend at Project Arts Centre and took part in a discussion afterwards. 



One of the aims of the Project Brand New programme is to allow artists to experiment without the fear of failure. Organisers Louise Lowe, Lynnette Moran, Jody O’Neill and Dee Roycroft are especially interested in promoting collaboration between artists from a range of disciplines, while encouraging practitioners to revel in the experience of taking chances in a supportive environment. Although established only two years ago, to date Project Brand New has led five programmes, and the team has curated and produced events with the Dublin Fringe Festival, the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, and Bealtaine Arts Festival. Productions that began life in Project Brand New include Cirque de Légume, Rough, Victor and Gord, Journey Into the Heart of the Night, and Luck.

Dee Roycroft suggests that formal, public criticism can be especially difficult for early career artists to take. Central to the ethos of Project Brand New is that the audience are encouraged to give feedback, either in the bar or on the comment cards in the foyer. While genuine responses are repeatedly solicited in the intervals between performances, the organisers also prioritise generosity of spirit. Roycroft also notes that while audiences tended to give short reponses in the earlier days of the initiative, now they are more likely to comment in greater detail. Also, because of the cross-disciplinary nature of the programming, the audience is made up of people with varied interests who might come along hoping to see a friend or family member, and leave having discovered a new interest, all for five euro. These people can also add a unique perspective to the mix.

Having mused before in ITM over the value of formally critiquing emerging artists and new companies, it seemed that there might be other ways of approaching Project Brand New this year, given that the work is not finished, and has the potential to move in any number of different directions in the future. So, this writer viewed a selection of the work – within the context of the initiative’s supportive framework, and also took part in a final reflective session on Sunday, dubbed PoD by Roycroft: an acronmyn for Point of Departure – and a noun describing a receptacle for developing seeds.

Based at Project Arts Centre, this year’s programme included fourteen pieces of work of roughly twenty minutes duration. New writing, experimental performance, dance, clowning, digital art, visual art and music were among the art forms represented. Artists were selected following an application process two months previously, and ideas were developed over the course of four weeks, with the provision of limited rehearsal space. Supported by the Arts Council, Dublin City Council and Project Arts Centre, the work was staged over three nights at Project. 

On Friday, José Miguel Jimenez staged Heart, a reality-based performance featuring actor Brian Bennett and his non-actor parents. As if for the first time, Bennett asked the couple to describe how they fell in love. As they do so, video footage of a heart transplant is screened overhead. While the piece builds to Bennett claiming that his father had a heart transplant, and that the performance sought to explore how he still loved his wife even though he had a different heart, some contextual gaps and conflicts of metaphor and medium came up in performance that were elaborated upon in the final debriefing discussion afterwards. Thanks to the format, the artists now have the opportunity to clarify or develop their practice.

In Short Messsage Service, visual artists Helena O’Connor and Leslie Cullinane invited text responses to the question “where are you?” over the course of the weekend. On Saturday, the pair took to the stage to read out some of the messages received, largely for laughs. When someone texted claiming to be seriously depressed, neither the artists nor the audience knew whether to take it seriously, and the dilemma was not pursued in performance. In the wrap-up discussion, the artists revealed that although they had planned to incorporate digital technology for the purposes of presentation, it failed on the night. Suddenly they had to engage with the audience in a way that, as visual artists, they don’t normally have to do. More interesting, perhaps, was their parting thought that a theatre setting might not be the most appropriate place in which to share their work, and that producing a book might be more fitting.

Also on Saturday night, Sandi Buckley had her first piece of dramatic writing staged. In the monologue Missing, a young man (Shea Brenna) finds himself homeless. Despite the serious subject matter, Buckely’s writing followed an idiosyncratic narrative flow, and was pickled with plenty of wit. In reflecting later upon her experience, the young writer revealed that she intended to include a large backdrop, which had to be abandoned in the tech rehearsal due to its instability. Although disappointed that her set didn’t make it, Buckley’s strongest reaction was one of surprise at how funny her play was. This was something she could only have appreciated by experiencing it in front of a large audience.

Reflecting on their piece, Neuropolis, in the discussion session, collaborators Gary Duggan and Will Irvine recognised the value of being forced to take a position on a changing script when under time pressure. In the performance of Duggan’s play, Irvine conceded that he and his fellow actors did something considerably different in the actual performance than they had rehearsed the same day.

Even Eyjafjallajökull, the impossible-to-pronounce-but-fun-to-try volcano, threatened proceedings. Dutch artist Gert-Jan Stam was forced to rehearse with Jody O’Neill over skype. For organiser Lynette Moran, this is not an uncommon approach to making performance in a global context. Given that the members of her collective, Mouth to Mouth, are scattered around the world, working with technology such as skype is par for the course.

Of all the pieces I saw, Australian born Matthew Morris’s solo dance performance, My Body Travels, was the most confident. Loosely based on the idea of traveling and identity, it was structured according to three parts. The first sequence involved Morris improvising to a pre-recorded narrative, before shifting into more abstract form. Even though the work is in early stages of development, the fact that the artist took a very clear position and followed a definite course marked it apart on the night. For Morris, who has never created a solo work before, the positive feedback he subsequently received encouraged him to think that future projects might be well received by Irish audiences, something he had no idea about before.

However, when asked at the final meeting whether the experience of Project Brand New allowed obvious trajectories of development to emerge, most artists appeared unsure. What seemed more certain was that the experience afforded them the opportunity of working with new collaborators, and audiences, with the result of raising more questions than answers. But more importantly, the initiative allowed those involved to share labour and take risks in a relatively safe, constructive enviroment, where ideas might be developed, aborted, or entirely reimagined, without putting artists in very vulnerable public positions. At a time when it seems as if a lot of practitioners are being extra cautious, Project Brand New reminds us that if interesting work is to emerge, artists must be allowed to take great risks.

Project Brand New is curated and produced by Louise Lowe, Lynnette Moran, Jody O’Neill and Dee Roycroft. It took place in the Project Arts Centre (Upstairs) between April 29 and May 1. This year it featured work by Joe Lakes and Néill O’Dwyer; Maurice Joseph Kelliher; Helena O’Connor and Leslie Cullinane; Maria Coleman; Colm O’Grady; Tara Robinson and Eamonn Owens; Gert-Jan Stam and Jody O’Neill; Fabrizio Nocci; Sorcha Kenny; José Miguel Jimenez; Ferdia McAnna; Matthew Morris; Sandi Buckley; Gary Duggan, Will Irvine and Gavin Logue.

Fintan Walsh is a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Drama, Trinity College Dublin. He is ITM’s staff writer.


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