Looking behind the curtain
In Iceland what the rest of the world refers to as #MeToo got called 'the falling of the curtain'. I love that, because it was an unveiling, a big reveal of the things that were going on behind the scenes, a big show and tell of what happened on what was once referred to (almost affectionately) as 'the casting couch', and it showed us what we knew, but didn't want to see. It was no longer hearsay. It was no longer imaginary. It wasn't something we could ignore or look away from or expect to have to keep shtum about any longer. It was centre stage, the spotlight on at 100% intensity. And so we had to face ourselves, as an industry and ask ourselves the difficult question: were we perpetrators, complicit in our willingness to cover it up or victims ourselves? When the curtain fell everyone wondered what their role had been.
Unlike most Twitterstorms, this one really changed things. Momentarily in some ways, the outcry can't last for forever, we'd all go deaf. But we cannot go back to our normal stories either, our obsession with stories about women being mistreated in some way has to be examined. There is an element of fundamental change to this particular movement.
We still have a lot of questions to ask ourselves as an industry. What stories do we tell and why? How do we tell them? And how do we get the people on stage to enact them? And how are they viewed? Have we embedded abuse of power at every level? I am willing to bet that whatever people are rehearsing ahead of this Festival, the discussion will at some point lead to why time is up for the workplace culture that let the industry get so bad.
Dissecting and rehearsing Ulster American - about three people who have come together to put on a play - will undoubtedly bring up more of such discussions than others. But it is on everyone's minds.
An actor. A playwright. A director.
In the context of Ulster American, we have three representatives of the industry on stage. An actor. A playwright. A director.
The actor, Jay Conway, is an Oscar-winning film star and as we look to Hollywood for possible parallels for the character, we keep coming across figures in the wider scope of tinsel town. Men who we have had to acknowledge that they are guilty of crossing the line. Not because Jay is like them, but because they are on our minds, these great artists we no longer can see in the same light.
But we, as theatre professionals ourselves, are also keenly aware of the dangers of blending the artist's personal life with their work. An artist needs to be seen for their artistic ability, in the light of their work, outside of what we think of them as people. But we have a tendency to merge the two. I know I do. And in the case of #MeToo, the personal entered the workplace, so it's even harder to distinguish the two. Their artistic ability became the power they used over other people. And so, once again we fall into the dichotomy, crave for things to be black or white, for people to be either with us or against, bad people or good.
We don't want our favourite actors to be monsters. But we want an industry that can stop them. So we call out for no grey areas. But the world is full of them.
A grey area.
David Ireland's characters in Ulster American all occupy a grey area. They are all both good and bad. And the things he has them think, say, go through and the flaws they reveal are going to reveal a lot about the audience watching. Because they aren't simple, they refuse to behave and be boxed into neat little categories. And by doing so David cleverly drops the curtain and unveils our own internal contradictions, our own messy morals and our own biases.
This first week has been an incredible insight into the unique conditions of new writing rehearsal processes. Each day we've worked on a section of the text and each day David has adjusted it, tweaked it, cut it, reworded it and made it better. He even makes it look easy. It's been such a joy to be part of a room where everyone has such wealth of experience to give to this process. Each actor keeping a firm eye on their character's journey as the text gets developed, Gareth keeping track of the changes from draft to draft, me hoping to ask the right questions of each element as to maintain the plays central focus and David filtering what is useful from what goes against what the play looks like from his point of view. Because it is his vision that we are all teasing out, hoping to strengthen and take care of. This stage is about asking the questions, and bit by bit we're finding the answers.
And so three fictional theatre people get examined by six actual theatre people. A play gets staged about a play. An industry will look at what an industry has presented about the industry. Because the curtain has dropped. Might as well take a good look.
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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.