Singing Out Your Feelings
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Alice in Funderland A New Musical is at the Abbey Theatre
Friday 30 March – Saturday 12 May 2012
(Previews Friday 30 March – Tuesday 03 April)

Book & Lyrics: Phillip McMahon
Composer: Raymond Scannell
Director: Wayne Jordan

Main Image: Wayne Jordan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Left: Alice in Funderland rehearsals. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Below: Alice in Funderland rehearsals. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Singing Out Your Feelings

Wayne Jordan is an Associate Artist of the Abbey Theatre and one of Ireland’s most productive young directors. At the Abbey his recent directing credits include 16 Possible Glimpses (2011), No Romance (2011), Christ Deliver Us! (2010) and The Plough and the Stars (2010, which will be revived this summer). He is currently directing Alice in Funderland, the first musical produced by the Abbey in 20 years. Initially developed by THISISPOPBABY, with book and lyrics by Phillip McMahon and music by Raymond Scannell, it opens on 4th April. Wayne spoke to Fintan Walsh midway during rehearsals.

Fintan: Wayne, you’re coming straight from rehearsals for Alice in Funderland. How have they been going?
Wayne: We’re at a stage now where things are starting to happen very quickly. There’s a lot of material to learn, and now that people know it, things can move more quickly, so that’s really exciting. Plus, we’ve been in Act One for a really long time, so it’s fun to be moving into Act Two which is very different. It’s this section that’s changed the most since we did the work-in-progress in Project in January 2011. Also the design feels very present at this stage of the process, and that’s very fun as it can feel a bit like being in a theme park, as you’re constantly re-energised by the giant plastic things that we get to play with.

AFRehearsal_small-(1).jpgF: And what’s your schedule like at the moment?
W: We’re working six-day weeks for seven weeks. We try to give some space to actors at various stages so it’s not too intense, but we’ve been working on this production on and off for about three years, so we have this seven week opportunity to get it done, and it makes sense to use the time well without killing anyone.

F: Can we talk about your early directing aspirations, and how these developed when studying Drama at Trinity?
W: I don’t know if I really knew what directing was before I started college. I had been in a load of musicals in school, and with some amateur drama groups, and I really liked theatre, although it was a pretty new discovery for me. In school I mostly enjoyed music and art and English, and I had thought about becoming a musician for a while, and then I was going to be a painter. Then when I was about to go to university I thought that if I went to do either of those things I would be missing out on a range of experiences that university could offer me. So I thought that the theatre would combine a load of the things that I liked. When I got to university, I found the Drama department approached things quite differently from the English department, and also from the Acting degree, to such an extent that becoming a director seemed to be the main point of the course in some sort of way, so I got very drawn into that. You can be kind of a generalist as a director and that suits me.

F: How did you make the transition from directing in college to doing more professional work, including setting up Randolf SD, with which you are Artistic Director?
W: I started to do a lot of work in Players in college, and started to work with many of the same people I still work with: Cian O’Brien, Artistic Director of Project Arts Centre, was Creon in Antigone, which was the first production I directed in 1999. And Kathy Rose O’Brien, who’s in Alice in Funderland, was Herodias Hattigan in the first play I ever wrote, The Fall of Herodias Hattigan, which was the second play I ever directed, in the same year. So I started off working in Players and then doing things in the Samuel Beckett theatre, and I brought the people I was working with in Players into the Beckett. In 2001, my final year, I did a production of Crave by Sarah Kane with Matt Torney, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Sinead Wallace and Róise Goan. The production toured to Germany and we went on to form the company. Louise White was very involved with the company too. I had a fair idea when I left college that I wanted to be a director so I gathered a lot of people around me who I was already in a conversation with about the kind of work we wanted to make. Then we made a devised piece called Eeeugh!topia for the Fringe in 2003 and after that we decided to stay together. Ruth McGill started working with us at that point too, and various combinations of that community continued to work together as part of Randolf SD right up until we made Ellamenope Jones in 2010.

F: What were the core ideas and ambitions that led Randolf SD in those early years?
W: We wanted to continue to make work together, which is not an ideological reason for making work, but a perfectly valid one I think. I was very interested in making work that explored classical theatre, so from very early on I was making plays by Corneille and Lorca and Marivaux. I wanted to make some sort of connection between European classics and contemporary theatre in a limited ‘fringe’ way, and wanted that work to be very much about my visual style, and the relationship I had with the actors I was working with. We had a tag line that went ‘Randolf SD makes experimental theatre and experiments with theatre of the past,’ and I think that was true, but in loads of ways it was just about continuing to stoke the energy which developed in university to see what returned to us. It was very satisfying at the time and remains so.
F: Of course Randolf SD doesn’t perform as regularly any more. Did that primarily come about as a result of solo projects you were involved in?
W: In some ways, but also we all got a bit older. When we first started we were all in our very early twenties and working in restaurants and there was very little funding for new companies at the time. As time went on we started to get funding, so it was harder to do things without it. Everyone in the company was also working independently in the theatre, so it became harder to work together. So that’s why the frequency of production slowed down. Plus the aim had always been to spend more time developing work, so when we got in a position to do that it took longer to bring the work to the stage. But also in my work with THISISPOPBABY or the Abbey I can find ways of funding projects more easily in these times of austerity. But Randolf SD isn’t over.

F: We’ll come back to your work with THISISPOPBABY, but can you tell me more about how your relationship with the Abbey started?
W: In 2004, I was a directing intern on a production of Portia Coughlan which was staged as part of the Abbey’s centenary celebrations, when Ben Barnes was Artistic Director.  Then the Abbey crisis ‘happened,’ and I didn’t have contact with the Abbey until after a production of The Public which I directed at Project in 2006 and Fiach Mac Conghail contacted me and asked if I would like to be an Assistant Director for a short time. When I started doing that I developed a deep relationship with the people here and with the organisation itself, which is something I always aspired to. I’ve always been interested in the Abbey, despite feeling somewhat disenfranchised about being Irish. I’ve always been drawn to the kinds of conversations that happen here. The Abbey supported some of Randolf SD’s work and they offered me some shows, the first of which was La Dispute in 2009.

F: In what ways did you feel disenfranchised?

W: I guess what I mean is that I grew up with a very strong sense of being gay from very early on and uninterested in either the flavour or the concerns of the infant nation I found myself in. I felt rejected and ill-served by Catholicism, the traditional Irish idea of the family and very particularly the extremely limited approach to gender that literally came crashing down on my childhood. I was interested in beauty and art and ideas and difference and I was surrounded and force-fed ignorance, fear and contempt. Things are a lot easier now that I’ve grown up but the engaged sense of citizenship I now feel has been hard won and is paying little dividends in the current climate.

F: One of things I enjoy about your work is that you have quite a clear, distinctive style; you make definite choices and often work through a recognisable set of practices or signatures. What do you consider to be the distinctive features of a Wayne Jordan production?
W: Increasingly over the past few years I’ve been doing more varied work than before, and I think that’s because those opportunities were afforded to me, although I also would like to get back to things that I feel carry more of my signature. I make a lot of plays about people falling in love, or people dealing with the difficulties of unrequited love, or being in relationships, although they have tended to be the beginning of relationships really, and about youthful love, until 16 Possible Glimpses. I also make plays about people dealing with their sexuality.  I like to do a lot of framing of choices, so I hope there’s a Brechtian quality to the acting I direct, whereby you can see the choices actors aren’t making, and in that way the choices they do make are thrown into relief. I keep thinking about that line from Sondheim [sings]: ‘Not going left, not going right,’ but in standing still we see the places he could have gone. So I have a strong sense of trying to frame choices very clearly. In a really basic way, in the rehearsal I just had there, I was working with a line of actors where somebody walks up and down which is something that happened in La Dispute and Eeeugh!topia  and something that happened in Christ Deliver Us! I think that’s about being repressed in a very militant way, which for me has to do with living in a Catholic country and going to a Catholic school and things like that. There are other tropes around my work too, certainly a sense of metatheatricality and a joy with the play of language, which is why working with Phillip [McMahon] suits me very much.

F: Speaking about sexual repression, can we talk about Christ Deliver Us!, Thomas Kilroy’s  play which you directed for the Abbey. Based on Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, and set in 1950s Ireland, it very much explored sexual repression and its contemporary legacy. Could you describe the conversations you had with Kilroy about some of the choices you made in that production?  Were those poignant, wordless statements of male nudity and kissing your ideas or Kilroy’s, for example?
W: Well, we worked together. The boys were going to be completely nude initially, but Tom was right in thinking that the Christian brothers wouldn’t have allowed nudity in front of them, so we had the boys shower in shorts which he thought was historically true. And then they jocked each other to show that society was forcing them to put them on, I guess, rather than they were choosing to wear them themselves. The kissing and gay characters weren’t in the play when I originally read it, although they were in Spring Awakening, so I did begin a conversation with Tom on homosexuality. Tom remembered how he used to get these dance lessons in school where the Brothers would make all the boys dance together, and I guess the scene and the dancing came out of that conversation. Then it moved into a whole other place when Colin Dunne came on board to do the choreography. And the actors Simon [Boyle] and Stephen [O’ Rourke] had a huge role to play in bringing those parts to life, in a kind of wordless answer to the repression happening in other places in the play.

F: You tend to work with many of the same actors. Is there a reason for this?
W: Well yes I do, but on every project I work with a lot of new actors.  There are eight Abbey débuts in this production of Alice in Funderland alone, and some are actors I’ve worked with before. And with Christ Deliver Us! there was a huge number of new actors both to the Abbey and certainly to me.

F: Are there certain kinds of actors you like to work with then?
W: I think I like to work with lots of different kinds of actors.  What I would love is to have a full-time company of actors that I could work with all the time, and for the work to develop from those relationships. I think that longer relationships with collaborators lead to better work. So I’ve been working with a lot of the same people since my university days. I think there’s a lot of raw acting in Ireland; and I like actors who could be Billy Wilder movies rather than Martin Scorsese movies. I like actors that act with aplomb!

F: What’s it like to be in a rehearsal room with you?
W: That’s kind of a weird thing to talk about yourself, but I hope it’s fun. Well on this gig particularly.  I make it fun to come to work. I think I bring a lot of energy to the room and I like to work with people who I think also bring energy to me. I like a lot of play and playfulness, and to use strange analogies and references, drawing on a vast memory archive of television I saw as a child. I think I’ve become increasingly influenced not just by my collaborators but by the idea of collaborating with different kinds of artists, be they movement choreographers, musician, writers. Actually, I have two ideas of what I’m really like in the rehearsal room: one is really fabulous and one is really awful, but I would be reticent to share any of them really.

F: Talk to me about the making of your musical Ellamenope Jones and how that fed into directing Alice in Funderland?
W: I had wanted to do stuff with music for a long time. I had spent a large part of my youth playing music and my first point of contact with the theatre was musicals so the move seemed obvious. The heighted quality of musicals seems more like life to me than normal plays do. Although I think of Ellamenope Jones more as a play with songs than as a musical. Because of time and funding, it became more narrative based than it was originally intended to be. Basically I really wanted to make a play with Kathy Rose O’Brien, and I really wanted her to be evil in it. So they were the beginnings, and there’s thinly veiled references to my own early life in the play too. And I wanted to talk about money and avarice through song, because otherwise it’s boring. Ellamenope Jones happened around the same time as Alice in Funderland, so 2009. Workshops took place around the same time, and when I started working on Alice I brought into the room lots of ideas to improvise with for musical theatre that I developed further in working on Ellamenope Jones. I brought one cast member from Alice into Ellamenope Jones after the first workshop, and later another, and brought one from Ellamenope Jones into Alice. So they certainly started to have some crossover. 
F: So you’ve been working on Alice in Funderland for quite a long time. What has the experience been like overall?
W: It has been really fun, exciting, challenging, hard. It feels really good, and I feel that everyone involved is really sharing a goal. And I feel like the right director for it, so that feels great.

F: What’s the goal?
W: The production itself, but also a kind of feeling to bring to the audience.

F: What’s the feeling?
W: It’s expansive, it’s fun, it’s bold and hopefully it deepens people in their feelings. We don’t talk so much about what the show is about; it feels instead that we’re focused on the kind of experience that people will have when they come. And it’s a bit of a rollercoaster. We’ve had so many plays about repression in Ireland, that to be making a piece that’s about singing out your feelings seems like a really cool thing to be doing.  I’ve been afforded really exciting opportunities at the Abbey to get to reflect upon the ghosts of the past that impacted upon my childhood, and I’m very grateful for that. Now it’s great to make a piece that’s all about the bells and whistles of possibility.

Fintan Walsh is lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London.



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