Patrick J. O’Reilly 2020 interview
By Conor O’Neill
After its hugely successful and generously funded by BBC #cutureinquarantine and its loyal fanbase, Tinderbox Theatre Company is following up April’s Solo Art Initiative with an exciting, and arguably its most innovative creation to date: Ignition 2020 – Lucid.
It’s bold tag-line in the press release states: “It’s not a play, not a documentary, not a dream, not anything. But it’s all of them too and Mr Ruffle is coming soon.”
With such a bold statement, I simply had to find out more.
Artistic Director, Patrick J. O’Reilly on hearing of people’s lucid dreams at the start of lockdown has led to a Dali-esque plot and tested both his and his Ensemble’s vision and methods of working through new media.
CultureCrush NI caught up with O’Reilly to try and get the lowdown on this Mr Ruffle fella and chat about Covid-19, loneliness as a driving factor, the plight of artists and audiences during these testing times and what state the arts will be in when this whole sorry mess is merely a memory.
How has the Covid pandemic changed the narrative of the story? Without the physicality of theatre I’m sure the emphasis had to move elsewhere to bring the piece to life?
“Back in early March we had to cancel the last four workshops that were part of the Play Machine program. We were supposed to be playing the Ignition Project in the last week of May at the Crescent Arts Centre.
“During the first couple of weeks of the lockdown I was hearing and seeing news of people who were experiencing very vivid dreams and that got me thinking about creating a piece of work that could reflect our current states of mind in lockdown. So I set up a Zoom call with the Play Machine ensemble and said ‘I have this idea, about a director and cast meeting in a dream and in that way we’re getting to be in the same room and continue the rehearsal process. The play was to be Mr Ruffle and the Truffle although the very idea of meeting in a dream became the heart of the story because that’s the thing we really miss; physical connection and feeling the presence of theatre.
“As with any devising process, that idea then jumped to what about a play taking control in a dream to survive because of the lockdown? And that’s when Mr Ruffle really came to life. In Lucid, I meet Mr Ruffle and he says, ‘Have your cast meet me in a dream.’ I then tell the cast; they decide to do it and then Mr Ruffle begins to terrorise and haunt the cast in their dreams. The actors turn into the villagers in the play in their dreams.”
I assume the idea of Mr Ruffle terrorising the cast is a reaction to the Covid-19 and its impact on people’s mental health?
“Well yes and no. Its entirely up to the viewer. I like to create work that is more about feeling than a linear narrative. Mr Ruffle in a way represents our dreams, our hyperactive imagination and our anxieties in lockdown. He also possibly represents the presence of theatre that we’re currently not getting to feel. I think each person who sees the film will probably feel a variety of those feelings and that’s okay with me. I think Mr Ruffle encompasses a lot of our heightened emotions and feelings in lockdown.”
Tell me about the logistics of the film? It’s even more complex now I understand that the whole ensemble are co-authors. Did a sole camera man or woman man or woman go to the actor’s house and film their contribution for it to be edited together at a later date?
“I created the brief for the work and then created a set of tasks for each performer. The brief was also sent to the sound designer and the creative editor to begin their creative process. The actors responded to the tasks each week to which I continued to provoke and respond to the material. I always work in a collaborative environment; I don’t think it’s interesting for a director to make all the decisions for the work. The main idea has to be explored and provoked by the actors and the creative team.”
“Each cast member responded to the brief by creating snippets of short film by themselves in their own environment, they then sent them back, I would watch the material and give them feedback. I always approach work with a sense of the unknown. I thrive on a sense of spontaneity in the creative process. I think this is a very equal playing field of provoking, responding and creating and then having to make decisions. Only then can we look back on what has been collated through their individual films and thus, the story starts to take shape and form.
“It’s then we decide, ‘Okay, this is where the story is going’. Probably one of the emotional parts of the process was the knowing that everyone is working completely on their own. The whole play is about people who want to connect in a room and for us this has been the central part of the work. There was always a sense of sadness at the end of every Zoom meeting because we weren’t able to fully create the ideas because we were limited by a screen. We decided to use this loneliness and the sense of frustration as a very strong part of the film because this is our current experience.
“One of your questions I would like to go back on is the innovation. I love the work Big Telly Theatre Company is doing, for example. I admire all the online streaming; for me, it’s not about asking it, ‘It works, or, it doesn’t work.’ There is such a variety of art forms available that it shouldn’t matter. What should matter is that people are continually trying to connect.”
I find it interesting that you mention the loneliness of the performers because that will surely resonate with the viewer when the film is shown.
“That’s one thing that I as a director and 11 people on a gallery view on a screen found really challenging; trying to translate an idea into a concept and then they ‘click’ off and they’re on their own with an idea that they then needed to respond to. I wanted that moment to be explored in the film, that’s the emotional heart of the piece. What we’re trying to do is nearly impossible, but in the process of trying to create the impossible we’re actually discovering how important it is to try and do this work.”
Theatre, singers, poets, authors, dancers etc., in fact the whole of the arts in general, has been very quick to adapt with such innovation to the pandemic, do you think things will return to what we assumed to be ‘normal’ after all of this?
“The communion of live story telling has been taken away from us by the fact that the very air we breathe is not safe, so we’ve had to accept that. We at Tinderbox had the Solo Art Project where we gave 100 artists £100 each to create something small. There wasn’t a selection process because I don’t have the right to make financial assessments of people’s lives or circumstances. It was purely an active creative response to say, ‘Go, make something within a certain time.’ We contributed a small pot of money to that process. During these last 11 weeks of lockdown, I believe we’re all asking a lot of questions and we’re looking for answers.
“At the moment, we’re exploring so many options and we’re engaging in big conversations about the relevance and importance of theatre, what does creativity mean for the future? Because of the global pandemic, we’re now back to a point where artists are all standing together. We’re all equal in this. I admire the fact that so many artists took the initiative and said, ‘I’m going to make something’. I feel the word ‘quality’ should not be part of this conversation, just be creative for the sake of being creative, make art for art’s sake. Find a way to explore your own feelings, your own thoughts at this moment and whether your stick it on a digital platform or whether you don’t, it’s not important. You are being creative without the need for validation or approval for your work. You’re standing in your place as an artist.
“I also think that some good will come from this situation. I think that we will get back into theatres, of course we will. I suppose the big question that we’re asking ourselves now, is going to fuel the work for the future. I’m questioning all the time, thinking, ‘What is next?’ or ‘How are we going to do this?’ ‘Right now, we need to continue and create because the decisions we make now will have a big effect on the future.”
Finally, do you think that some actors, writers, directors, crew etc., due to the financial loss will forgo the arts after this? You’ve set out what we can gain, but what do you think we’ll lose?
“Realistically money is important. We have families to feed and our lives to live. We need to really help our artists at this time. I’m part of an organisation and I have a responsibility to do something, to be proactive, help in as many ways as I can to help artists; whether artistically or financially, if we can. There are so many people who have lost jobs, had jobs cancelled and they are now in place where they’re not just feeling it financially, but also feeling irrelevant as an artist. I’ve had some conversations with artists who have been thinking, ‘What other job skills do I have?’ An artist shouldn’t have to think like that right now; they’ve given up their time and their life to nurture the skills they have.”
“I feel what we need to do is change the ecology of how we make work. It’s very much about creating a multi collaborative environment where lots of different art forms can come together and create.”
“We have to strive to be equal in all of this.”
Ignition 2020 – Lucid plays June 19th – 20th
For further information visit http://www.tinderbox.org.uk