Life Behind the Venue

Life Behind the Venue by Clinic Media

Life Behind the Venue by Clinic Media

Clinic Media’s latest production Life Behind the Venue promises viewers the opportunity to become participants in the interior life of the theatrical experience and (allegedly) to learn the basics of ushering. Their central idea is that, on the surface, a performance might appear polished and neatly constructed to outside observers sitting comfortably in their seats – but that all the dirty secrets spill out when those same spectators take part in the creative process. 
Upon entry, the audience of trainee ushers, limited to 28, meets the Venue’s stereotypical staff members – Marilyn, the person who always takes charge; Stephanie, the overly-enthusiastic one; Bryan, the slacker; and Gerard, the guy who takes things too seriously. The ushers-in-training meet Stephanie first as she takes our names and delegates each audience member to a specific guide. During the tour and training, each of these stock characters gives us the rundown of the duties and rules of audience relations. Depending on the guide, each audience-member receives a different version of the instruction. Some ushers try to play by the rules while others try to bend them to suit their own needs, all while interweaving details about their work and personal life into the performance. In doing this, the audience-members realize that the professional exterior cannot hide the personal problems simmering beneath the facade of each character. 
Gerard (played by Danny O’Connor, in a performance which seems reminiscent of The Office’s Dwight Schrute) takes his job too seriously, providing vocal and physical warm-ups for the trainees – but he cannot maintain his composure when he reveals that his ex has moved to Canada with his sons and a new man. Stephanie (sprightly played by Mary-Lou McCarthy) tries to please everyone with her giddy personality but still fails to properly train her group. Bryan (Charlie Kelly, exuding relaxation) needs the job but does not want to work too hard for it, even with his six-month evaluation taking place during the day of the performance. And Marilyn (Pauline O’Driscoll’s suitably overwhelmed character) has just been promoted – over Gerard – to a managerial position. That has proven stressful when taken in conjunction with her relationship issues –  a problem which she shares with the other ushers, and the audience members. 
Over the course of the performance, each of these guides will lead his or her trainees through the Project Arts Centre, using the labyrinthine passageways to visit places not normally open to theatre-goers. From the tech booth of the Cube to the upstairs toilets, the trainers guide us on a journey to the centre of the theatre building and back.
Clinic Media’s take on backstage life keeps the tone light even as it displays each character’s rough interior. These are the same kinds of people one might encounter anywhere – they have their short-comings, but they all just want to get you through this training day. Gerard, for example, calls all his followers ‘Dave’ after the first (and only) audience member whose name he remembers. Similarly, Stephanie, fulfilling her duties with the utmost enthusiasm, provides a list of rules for The Venue which include ‘smiling with teeth,’ and ‘no saying no,’ while she struggles to maintain that ideal, polished exterior. These small moments might seem inconsequential, but they show that these are real people going about a job (albeit with a heightened level of drama) where forgetting names and wanting to put on a happy face are simply part of life.
Similar to television shows like The Office where characters speak candidly to an unseen film crew, the production uses audience members as sounding boards for the characters and their mundane yet humorous offhand comments. These moments of reflection and humanity appear genuine because the show is largely improvised on a nightly basis. In each moment, the actors must take in, process, and react to the audience and find ways to traverse the large strokes of the story at hand. For example, I was put in ‘time out’ to demonstrate what happens to audience members who misbehave (though I did nothing to warrant the punishment!). Not wanting to harm my chances of employment, I remained under the seating risers in the Cube until Gerard was satisfied that his ‘lesson’ had been accepted. At that moment, I felt more like a ‘regular audience member’ than at any other time in the production because I was sitting and listening to others interacting. But at the same time, this punishment was also part of the world created where viewers became actors and participants in the unfolding drama of The Venue. Spectators are not trained in ushering (or if they are it is the worst type of training); rather they are given the hope of taking on an active role in the creation of a piece.
The inherent humour in the situations stems from the clever devising that has created this piece, but it rarely amounts to anything serious (except for each individual character’s wants, which to them are far more significant than training day). Director and co-creator Eoin Ó hAnnracháin and his team have created a show that provides opportunities for audience participation in a light, comedic style – complete with pranks and bad work advice. Clinic Media use promenade-style theatrical experience to highlight the drama of what might otherwise seem routine. The group breaks the conventions of scripted performance to push the boundaries of spectator-actor relationships while also turning the responsibility for action onto those who pay actors to perform.
Nelson Barre is a PhD candidate at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
  • Review
  • Theatre

Life Behind the Venue by Eoin Ó hAnnracháin and Mary-Lou McCarthy

19-23 November 2013

Produced by Clinic Media
In Project Arts Centre

Produced and created by Eoin Ó hAnnracháin and Mary-Lou McCarthy 

Devised with the cast 

Directed by Eoin Ó hAnnracháin

With Mary-Lou Mc Carthy, Charlie Kelly, Danny O’Connor, Pauline O’Driscoll