Today, Monday 2nd, we start rehearsals on Ulster American by David Ireland. It feels like the first day of school. I have a new dress and a new notebook ready. Pens in a case. Lunchbox waiting on my kitchen counter to be filled each morning. In four weeks' time, there will be an exam (a preview) and then a graduation just about a week later (press night). But that's as far as the school metaphor stretches. Because a show is not exactly like a degree, though you learn a heck of a lot along the way.
The process of making the show started ages ago. You could say it started when David had the idea for the play. When Gareth Nicholls, our director, first read the first draft. When the Traverse put it in its programme. When the casting started. When the Traverse interviewed for a JMK assistant director and got me. When the new draft came in. And the one after that. When we spent a day developing the text. When Becky Minto and Kate Bonney sat down with Gareth and went over the design. When we spent an afternoon looking at floor options with our production team. When the rehearsal schedule got sent out. Today, when we read it through, all together, for the first time. These are all starts in their own right, but also all part of a longer journey. Building blocks towards that show you will see. For me, they've all been part of getting ready.
Exploring the world: research and references
I've been assigned the task of research. To know each cultural reference in the text. The ins and outs of Hollywood; the history of The Troubles in Ireland; our current political climate, the backdrops of the drama that unfolds in David's play. The play isn't about those things as such, but it happens within a world fully grounded in these three strands. It talks about the time we live in. And that time is full of history.
Some of the references appear, at first glance, to be common knowledge, but once looked into is way more complex than they seem. Some I was aware beforehand I knew very little about and needed to really dive into, and have lost myself down the alleyways of articles, links and videos only to find that the "truth" of the matter is debatable, as there are two sides to every coin. Some of them seem like a throwaway until you look at them again and realise why David has put these particular things in. I won't call it an onion, because I'm no fan of onions, but this play's references have layers. It's a mille-feuille, made up of three layers of thematic background, alternating with two layers, situation and character. The top layer is dusted with wickedly dark humour. It's a treat to investigate.
An Outsider's Perspective
The real challenge for me is to try and understand, from an outsider's perspective, the impact of The Troubles. It seems to me, though it is not in any way the focus of Ulster American, to be at the heart of all of David's writing. It lends it a complexity only living with the consequences of the messy brutality of a war on your doorstep can. He said to me that the whole world has become like Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s, with two factions at war on every subject, unable to see each other's point of view. He's not wrong, we seem to be ready to get locked into opposing viewpoints, and for either to be right the other has to be wrong, so the only peace imaginable is a massive compromise, to agree to disagree and pledge to both leave it at that. But can we reach that point without a catastrophe taking place first? As someone who has their future tied to the outcome of Brexit, looking at the Good Friday agreement has been fascinating. Somehow there was an agreement made to bridge Britain and Ireland, a unique balance was struck and a government formed belonging to one but not abandoned by the other. But can we both leave and stay in the EU? It all seems on a knife's edge.
It is that pressure cooker environment, that knife's edge, more than the topics themselves that will feed this process I think. Therefore, the research I have made may never really come up. But for me, who has also been asked to keep asking questions of the play, and its production, it is the best foundation to start from. The equivalent of the packed lunch box and the newly sharpened pencils.
And today we start. Or rather start the next chapter of this process. I'll try and tell you about my discoveries on the way.
Insights from being an FST bursary assistant director to Zinnie Harris on A Number by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival and being a JMK assistant director to Gareth Nicholls on Ulster American by David Ireland at the Traverse Theatre.