Visual and performance artist Amanda Coogan here speaks to theatre director Maeve Stone in the Abbey Theatre foyer (Ireland's national theatre) during the Dublin Fringe Festival 2017. Both artists presented new work in the festival; Amanda, Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady, an appropriation of a play by a forgotten Irish playwright, Teresa Deevy, and Maeve The Shitstorm, a riff on Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Their conversation ranged over merging forms, collapsing hierarchies through performance, Wes Anderson and the national theatre's relationship with new work versus 'museum theatre'.
MAEVE: So you sent on John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things.
AMANDA: Yeah, I think because I’m terrified that people will think they’re coming to a Teresa Deevy play that’s … straight. And it’s not, at all, at all, at all, I’ve really riffed off what she wrote. Like really looking at the themes. And because I’m working with a community cast … I’ll preface this by saying that the word collaboration is so nebulous. But I’ve really tried to make it a genuine collaboration. The Dublin Theatre of the Deaf asked me to do it. In some ways it was their idea, so I felt really honour-bound to fold in what they wanted to talk about. And they wanted it to come from a deaf artist as well. And I mean the excitement was like ‘Amanda, she’s [Teresa Deevy] DEAF as well!’ And she’s this forgotten feminist writer.
MAEVE: All of those lost voices…
AMANDA: All of those silenced voices … So we have gone off script. Imagine that! Now I keep dipping back in to her and I suppose the arc of our performance is trying in some ways to follow the arc of the script of The King of Spain’s Daughter [Teresa Deevy's play]. And I give nods all the time to her stage directions.
MAEVE: Have you got a good example of that?
AMANDA: Well in her opening scene directions, two of the characters Jimmy and Peter look to the left and then they look to the right, and then they shield their eyes from the sun, and look out. And I have my Annies, another of Deevy’s central characters, I have them all popping up, and looking left and looking right and shielding their eyes from the sun, and actually in sign language if you put your hand up over your eyebrow and if you flick it out, that means ‘Ireland’.
MAEVE: Oh wow!
AMANDA: Yes! So that’s another example of the John Coltrane-esque messing with My Favourite Things. So we’ve riffed off it and then we asked the question ‘Is this Ireland’? And then we get into our play.
MAEVE: Yeah, and the simplest of notes in her writing …
AMANDA: … led beautifully! So we set out at the start of this whole process by translating the script, verbatim, into sign language, and then showed it to the whole cast. So we knew where we were going. And a core of about six or seven of us then devised it from there, and then invited other people in to join us.
MAEVE: And is the Coltrane track working within the same kind of rhythm?
AMANDA: Oh no, the Coltrane track isn’t in it at all, that’s just a metaphor for exactly what I’ve done. [starts singing the track]
MAEVE: It’s that thing of when you have a simple idea, it can become complex in all of the expression that you find around it. But in its essence, you know its strength is in that first simple riff.
AMANDA: Well there’s that thing also that as artists, we can do whatever we like, there are no rules. But actually putting a little limitation there - for us in this particular piece, it’s Deevy’s script, or like the riff from Coltrane’s music - it almost liberates you …
MAEVE: … to play in the chaos! Yeah.
AMANDA: To have an anchor.
MAEVE: I was thinking as you said that, that I hadn’t come up with an idea. I was like ‘Shit, what’s my Coltrane?!’
MAEVE: And what are the things I’ve been thinking about since the show [The Shitstorm] opened, and one of the things that keeps coming back to me is this idea of the island as a creative space. And I think it almost does the same thing where it provides a limitation. Islands have their own boundary …
AMANDA: And border, yeah, yeah.
MAEVE: Yes, and are bordered by this sea that has its own heartbeat and is this natural surrounding. A lot of people have been asking me, 'Why have you chosen The Tempest?', and there are many answers, but for me I think it’s because it’s this contained space, and there’s a limitation to the eco-system so you can kind of come at it in a total way …
AMANDA: It’s its own world, isn’t it?
MAEVE: Yeah, and it’s kind of amazing for that reason. And thinking about different films that have used that metaphor … like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Did you see that film?
AMANDA: No I don’t know that film at all.
MAEVE: Moonrise Kingdom was set on an island. And I think the kind of aesthetic and detail that he brings to his films usually sits kind of uneasily with the rest of the world, so you have this heightened aesthetic. Like his characters are just a little bit strange in the world, and that’s what’s beautiful about them. But with Moonrise Kingdom, on this island, he just takes over the space and all of the logic of his aesthetic has room. I loved the film for that reason of thinking about the island in that way.
AMANDA: And how did that play in your development of The Shitstorm?
MAEVE: I think, like you say, it was an anchor that let me be more playful. I was working with the idea of the Blasket Islands being the geographic location to pull natural colours and sounds and wildlife and to root into a naturalistic context so I could free up. One of the things I’m really happy with is that we managed to create a really strange world which anchors into something … a foundation.
AMANDA: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting, your thinking to go to the Blaskets, such a totem of Irish-ness. Or the ideal Irishness. And also a place that a huge swathe of people would have studied in school.
MAEVE: Yes, I did have a weird moment of ‘Is Peig Miranda?’
AMANDA: Wow …
MAEVE: A strange evolution of a girl with a domineering father who is kept silent for most of her life. There’s an interesting parallel with the island’s inhabitants. There were about 115 in the last community that lived there and loads of them wrote accounts of their life. I think there were three translated into English, but loads of them wrote. And this idea of storytelling is something that feels totally connected to that kind of living, to the island life. It’s one of the things that was spinning through my head.
AMANDA: So you have riffed off Shakespeare?
MAEVE: Yeah. Yeah. Totally.
AMANDA: So we’re both the same!
MAEVE: Exactly, yeah. And some people have come to see the show saying ‘I thought it was an adaptation …’ [laughs]
AMANDA: I’ve actually come across that quite a bit in the last few weeks where I’ve been saying 'It’s an appropriation', which is actually such a visual arts term. Very comprehensible, that actually it’s a step to the future, it’s a step to development, it’s coming from somewhere and moving to a new thing. And I’ve found that theatre people are saying ‘Oh, an adaptation.’ And I’m like, no, no, no … It’s an appropriation, it’s a stepping off, in this jazz kind of way.
MAEVE: In some ways, it makes you into the author, or one of the authors.
AMANDA: Well we have this scene in the show where myself and Paddy Cahill, the filmmaker, have developed some footage of someone writing, literally parts of Deevy’s script, and then unwriting them, and then another pen comes in, and by the end there are two pens and they are writing and overwriting in this metaphorical, allegorical notion of authorship or creativity. You know I think it’s such a patriarchal system.
AMANDA: Where there is one author and everyone is serving that one author. Literally, theatre really is such a patriarchal system.
MAEVE: It’s completely …
AMANDA: And actually, when we’re in the moment of now, of devising theatre, of spreading out this hierarchical structure, literally theatre is flattening …
MAEVE: It’s become horizontal.
AMANDA: And I don’t think it actually can be.
MAEVE: There’s always an editor.
AMANDA: There always has to be a director who says 'Today we have to run scene two' … or 'It wasn’t good enough, let’s get this right'. You know, there has to be someone who … in the process that I’m in the thick of, I’m constantly checking in that we’re all buying into the vision that we developed in a preliminary way in February, and in a more intensive way in May, and now in rehearsals since July … So just checking in, as it gets scarier, and in our meanderings, that we’re all on the same page.
MAEVE: It’s really exciting to hear you say that because in The Shitstorm, there’s this idea of the exploded narrative, there is no single story, and there’s this refrain the whole way through the play where someone will give an account of something that’s happened and someone else will then say again, and then they’ll give a different account. It’s that idea of taking a really narrow story and actually there’s as many versions of it as you can imagine.
< There is one author and everyone is serving that author - theatre is really such a patriarchal system >
AMANDA: Yeah, I mean there are so many perspectives.
MAEVE: Yeah, and some people really resist the idea of work that isn’t offering an answer.
AMANDA: Yeah, and it’s so messy and it’s gorgeously unclear. And you know it’s a really interesting moment in contemporary theatre - can I say that as a visual artist? Let’s say live work.
MAEVE: Yeah, performance.
AMANDA: That is, I suppose, the grammar of what we’re talking about. That it can be a question, or an exploration, it doesn’t need to be a feed. And I think in liveness, in contemporary liveness, let’s say, because we have wonderful examples of museum theatre that I love going to, it’s like a box of chocolates, I know what I’m going to get - but in contemporary theatre, that’s exploratory, we don’t give answers, we don’t wrap it up, we don’t come to a conclusion, because we don’t know the conclusion. But also I think contemporary audiences don’t like to be spoon fed. You know, I know as a consumer myself, I don’t want to go into something and be told what to think.
MAEVE: And there does seem to be a real hunger for that kind of experimentation and for new kinds of work coming through. I was thinking about the psychology of those shared experiences of work that are really comforting, or work that’s really nostalgic.
AMANDA: Yes, and that’s gorgeous!
MAEVE: Yeah, and it’s necessary. It’s as necessary as the other stuff that requires you to engage in a different way.
AMANDA: You know sometimes you just want to turn on The Sound of Music and watch it.
MAEVE: [laughing] Yeah, exactly! I think as artists we spend huge amounts of time investing thought, we spend so much time in thinking about how we move through the world, or about how we’re making work, and how that nourishes you as well.
AMANDA: Yeah, I think that’s really important. We didn’t become artists for no particular reason. There’s a very particular personality trait that made us choose or fall into what we’re doing. And I think it’s an oppositional questioning of the world.
MAEVE: A structural thing for me I think.
AMANDA: Yeah, I think we’re all slightly oppositional. I say that in a guilty way, but actually in an interesting way as well. I think it’s so interesting that you’ve taken a literary tome and you’re … jazzing it.
MAEVE: Yeah. The gift for me is that Shakespeare is about as archetypical as you can get, but it’s the last play that he wrote and so …
AMANDA: And it’s a beautiful play.
MAEVE: It’s a beautiful play. I think it’s one of his most generous plays, in terms of the richness of the world and also so full of opposites - so ungenerous, in so far as Prospero is the only one who has any power. So there are all these contradictions in the text that have always fascinated me. But the idea of it being the last statement by Shakespeare felt like it opened up this whole frame of looking at the canon as an idea and of Shakespeare as an archetype, and then challenging that from inside itself.
AMANDA: Yeah, and what do you think of the play?
MAEVE: I think it’s a playground. There’s a brilliant essay by Howard Brenton that talks about the idea that all the references and political underscores that are in Shakespeare’s plays have been eroded by time, there’s no way for us to read them as contemporaries. They’re so subtle. They lose their radioactivity over time. But he makes the argument that all the blocks are there to make something new. And there’s something interesting and challenging in taking up those blocks and building something new with them. That there’s a seed for something new in everything great.
AMANDA: Yeah, to go back to John Coltrane, that you can riff off.
MAEVE: Yeah, and find the purest line in it.
AMANDA: Yeah, yeah. I think as artists, but also across genders … across genres …
MAEVE: Genres and genders.
AMANDA: [laughing] Who’s making a feminist piece of work at the moment? Across genres, be it literature, the visual arts, appropriation was at its height in the visual arts in the '80s let's say. But I think that moment is still here. Especially in Ireland where we have been strangled by the canon, dahling, and literature. And the ‘big house’. And I really speak to this as a visual artist who is really in the small house, in the gate lodge.
MAEVE: I know! How have we ended up in The Abbey? This is the revolution!
AMANDA: Whoops! What happened? The big house has opened the doors which is really interesting.
MAEVE: It’s incredible.
AMANDA: Yeah it’s really very, very interesting. And for me, so the Abbey since 200- ---- KAREN ARDIFF [ACTOR] ANNOUNCEMENT OVER BAR TANOY ---- AMANDA: There’s Karen Ardiff telling us to take our seats. ---- ANNOUNCEMENT ENDS ---- AMANDA: Where was I?
MAEVE: Getting into the big house - snuck in through the back door …
AMANDA: Oh no! Yeah, so, The Abbey fabulously under Ben Barnes invited sign language interpreted performances in here in 2000. And they’ve been doing it ever since, for the last seventeen years. And I’m a sign language interpreter for money - you know artists don’t make money -
MAEVE: I’ve seen you signing, it’s great!
AMANDA: [Laughing] Oh! Sorry about that. And so there was - ---- KAREN ARDIFF ANNOUNCEMENT WITH A LITTLE MORE TENSION ---- AMANDA: Oh we love you Karen.
MAEVE: It really makes it feel like a warning when it’s got a countdown attached. ---- ANNOUNCEMENT ENDS ---- AMANDA: I’m sure she’ll come back telling us we have one minute. But, where was I ... So-
MAEVE: Ben Barnes and ISL.
AMANDA: Yeah, inviting ISL interpretation here, and ISL isn’t recognised as a language here yet which is an outrageous situation. It’s just beyond the beyonds. But I won’t get on that soap box for you now. But The Abbey as the national theatre have committed to it. And they’re the only house who have done it. Lots of other independent houses have tried but they don’t have the funding and all the rest of that jazz. So it’s a really important support - ---- KAREN ARDIFF ANNOUNCEMENT ---- MAEVE: Oh.
AMANDA: Thank you Karen.
MAEVE: Karen had no idea she’d be in our conversation for DRAFF (laughing). ---- ANNOUNCEMENT ENDS ---- AMANDA: So it was really important for the deaf community to actually see theatre. Now the Dublin community for the deaf is over forty years old. So they’ve had this community there for years and literally if Dublin Community for the Deaf have a show on people will come from Donegal, Sligo, from Cork, from Limerick -
---- KAREN ARDIFF ANNOUNCEMENT TO DEFINITELY TAKE YOUR SEAT NOW ----
AMANDA: Karen darling.
MAEVE: Thank you Karen.
---- ANNOUNCEMENT ENDS ----
AMANDA: So because ISL is so expressive and sign language is so expressive it just lends itself to theatre and drama.
MAEVE: It is a form of choreography I suppose.
AMANDA: Yeah, no, well I’m very much treating it as if it is. I always have in my live practice anyway.
---- KAREN ARDIFF ANNOUNCEMENT. IF YOU DON’T TAKE YOUR SEATS NOW IT’S GAME OVER ----
MAEVE: This is actually kind of gas.
---- ANNOUNCEMENT ENDS ----
AMANDA: I did a little piece - much more of a devised piece in Fringe '14 – with Lianne Quigley [chair of the Irish Deaf Society] and I think the night we closed Lianne handed me the Deevy script. Said ‘She’s deaf you know. And she’s from Waterford’. And at this stage it was pre-Waking The Feminists as well and I was like ‘Oh yeah, great’. And I had quite a major show the next year so I was thinking this is not gonna happen but I’ll put it in my pocket and I’ll come to that. But I suppose all of the stars aligned. It’s so important that when we open, Katie Roche will be on the main stage. And, you could argue, a pretty straight interpretation of it. Beautiful, but it is following Deevy’s lines. It’s also ISL awareness week. And then we’re riffing off Deevy and bringing it into the deaf community’s perspective.
MAEVE: You get to be so much more adventurous when you are operating in a sub-genre like that. You know what I mean? I’ve been so excited to be in the basement! We get to be the kids who are fucking around with guitars in the basement. Whereas I think there’s a contract that comes with the main stage. And I love to see the work pushing that contract.
AMANDA: What is that contract? What does it say?
MAEVE: ‘You must sell this many tickets'.
AMANDA: What? Is that the director gets a contract that they must sell..?
MAEVE: No, no, I’m being metaphorical.
AMANDA: Ah yes. Sorry.
MAEVE: It feels like there’s a contract with the idea of the main stage.
AMANDA: Well I suppose it’s 540 seats. That brings pressure.
MAEVE: Whereas we’re in the basement getting to -
AMANDA: But you know what I would also kind of argue … I had an exhibition at the RHA. The Royal Hibernian Association.
AMANDA: Let’s jump disciplines here. Because I work across the visual arts and theatre. I had an exhibition and it was six weeks. And the proviso was that it was free, but I had 31,500 come to see it.
MAEVE: Holy fuck.
AMANDA: I was performing five days a week. So what’s 500 seats into...?*
MAEVE: Into 31,000.
MAEVE: Oh no! You’re making me do maths now.
AMANDA: Well no we won’t do the maths but it’s not bad! It’s not bad. [*It’s 63]
MAEVE: That’s very good!
AMANDA: And I didn’t have to buy into any contract. The contract in another respect was that people only came if they were interested. And only came if it was dynamic enough to keep them. So they didn’t have to buy a ticket, sit in an auditorium, lights go out...
MAEVE: You are here for this number of minutes.
AMANDA: You are here. And you are locked into this room. I think the anxiety of that … I think it’s a bit of a lie. I mean it depends, who wants to sell that?
MAEVE: It’s true.
< i think that actually we underestimate the audience - we think they need to be helped or minded >
AMANDA: I think that actually we underestimate the audience. We think they need to be - in some ways - helped or minded.
AMANDA: Led or spoonfed. Stuff like that. Now I say that. I think that it would be an evolution of the main stage of the Abbey to do -
MAEVE: That’s kind of where I see this going. Because I think that the Peacock always has been and always should have been - even if it wasn’t used that way - it is the engine room for this building. It’s where ideas form and it’s where the coal turns into diamonds. Don’t put that in Rachel [DRAFF editor], that was such a shit metaphor.
AMANDA: I liked that metaphor Rachel.
MAEVE: It’s where you can set yourself up to take a chance and if it pays off there’s a real value in it. I feel like that’s where -
AMANDA: Well you can take the experimentation in 120 seats.
MAEVE: You can!
AMANDA: You’re absolutely right.
MAEVE: Yes. Absolutely. And then all of the learning, all of the ideas that are substantial that come out of that … in my mind that’s how theatre in this country can progress. We have these spaces for experimentation. We have these spaces where risk is inevitable.
AMANDA: It’s absolutely essential!
MAEVE: It’s the heartbeat.
AMANDA: Because if we put on museum theatre for the rest of our lives, then contemporary art is dead. We have to actually make a loss. We have to factor in to make a financial loss to make new work.
MAEVE: Totally agree.
AMANDA: Without question.
MAEVE: For a healthy ecosystem.
AMANDA: You have to invest, and to use all those nasty... I mean I really oppose any business approach to art making, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be let loose and free and wild. But you have to write in a loss. And if you make a profit that’s a bonus, but you cannot pressurise a contemporary artist who you bet is going to be your future thing. Or your future thing that you can sell Ireland on. Bloody hell. You need to invest in them. And we need to have the liberation to be able to make the work without any of those financial pressures.
MAEVE: Yeah. The other thing that’s in my head is whatever weird moment of history that we’re in right now where everything at a social and political level is spiralling into this disharmony but there’s this thing that’s growing and growing and it feels like it’s leading to a moment of great change. I feel like sometimes the work that’s pushing a little bit further is asking questions of what are the other ways we can imagine doing this? What are the other ways we can communicate with each other? Or reach each other? And in theatre, museum work will only ever reinforce something we already know. It’s comforting. It’s not new. It doesn’t need any investment and there’s very little risk. Because it’s something we’ve had and held already. It does that thing of wrapping you in the familiar. But the work that’s really exciting to me right now is the stuff that’s pushing into that political, social and linguistic space. It’s interdisciplinary, using new modes of language. And your work is a perfect example of that. You’re literally bending new forms of language into an image and an idea. I feel like we need that more and more. We need new ways of doing things. Because it really fucking feels like the way that we do it is so broken right now. I mean in a broader sense. In our society. The way that we communicate with each other is so binary.
AMANDA: Isn’t that a glorious place to be. Isn’t that such an exciting, sumptuous place to be.
MAEVE: Walking up the cliff.
AMANDA: Yeah! Like, you would hope that the coming out of the straitjacket of conservatism that a recession necessitates - I suppose - that actually all us gobshites who are artists go ‘right!’ [makes whirring noise] and we try and make the new stuff.
MAEVE: I think that’s totally true. I mean I graduated in 2009. The world was just headed into crisis. And it was a weird moment to have to define yourself. All of the old structures were gone. All of the funding models were stripped away. Everyone just found an empty space in the city and began again. For me it was a really exciting time in Dublin. AMANDA: Well now that we look back at it eight years later absolutely. It was terrifying as a practitioner at the time. But you know, we artists are survivors. Unfortunately. Because if we were in any other business we would have just walked out of the job. You know?
AMANDA: But we do need to be paid. We do need to live.
AMANDA: But let’s not talk about that because we’ll just cry into our drinks. But I do think that’s so important. That notion that new work can’t have the pressure. The new voice cannot have the pressure of finance when it’s being conceived. And when it’s being tested for the first time. The engine of the Peacock and actually more than the Peacock I would say the engine of Fringe. And actually, at the moment, the vision of Kris Nelson.
MAEVE: Oh my god, Kris Nelson, yes… I think we should maybe stop there. Thanks Rachel for the transcribing! And thank you Karen Ardiff as well. Live from The Abbey … Goodbye!
The Shitstorm and Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady ran as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, 2017. Images: Maeve Stone