*This interview was originally published in Irish Theatre Magazine
This year Pan Pan marks its 20th birthday with a production of Samuel Beckett’s one act radio play, All That Fall. First broadcast by the BBC in 1957, it opens this week as a sound installation in Project Arts Centre. During tech rehearsals, Gavin Quinn, Co-Artistic Director of the company, spoke to Fintan Walsh.
by Fintan Walsh 20 August 2011
Fintan Walsh: Gavin, could you tell us about your latest project, the general concept behind it, and the rehearsal process?
Gavin Quinn: We’ve done a new recording of Beckett’s All That Fall, and we recorded it over two weeks, whereas a radio play is normally done over three days. Then we edited it over three weeks, so it takes a lot more time and dedication. But it’s recorded to play aloud, it’s not recorded for a radio. It’s been recorded in an anechoic space, so there are no sound reflections. It’s just the voice. You start with voice and build. So it’s a slightly different way of doing it. There’s no room ambience.
How long has Beckett been in the air for Pan Pan, and what drew you to this particular radio play?
We chose All That Fall because it seemed to fit into what we were thinking this year. But Beckett has always been in the air for us. I’ve seen Beckett for such a long period of time, and Aedín [Cosgrove, Co-Artistic Director] has worked on a lot of Beckett projects with Sarah Jane Scaife. And myself and Aedin worked on the first Beckett festival in 1991, so we’ve always been aware of Beckett. At the 1991 festival, we were looking after all the venues in Trinity and we got to do the light and sound for David Warrilow, and also for Jean Martin who was the first actor to play Lucky in Waiting for Godot, so we were fortunate to have those experiences.
Beckett’s always there, and no one’s really surpassed Beckett. Beckett’s the heir to Chekhov, but no one’s quite come after Beckett. Yet. But he’s becoming bigger: academics say there are more books written about Beckett than Shakespeare. There’s been a lot of Beckett on in Ireland, so it’s good to pick this extraordinary piece and find a focus and a rigour and try to bring it to a new audience. It’s such a brilliant text that not a lot of people have heard or read and it’s an unusual Beckett piece in its atmosphere and construction. It’s a very dynamic text.
Is there a typical impetus for a new Pan Pan production?
It’s always about ideas, and how we feel they will communicate to an audience at a particular time and place. And sometimes it’s following on from a previous programme. Or, it’s about changing course, not repeating what you did last time. Productions evolve over many years, and yet they’re all joined together in your own consciousness.
When you Aedín set up the company in 1991, what issues or theatre artists were on your radar at the time, and how have these changed or developed?
Aedin and I both studied drama at Trinity. At that time the Head of the Department was John McCormick and his ‘emphasis’ was very much from a European perspective. So I would say that our inspiration, and what we studied, and what we came across, was very much a European aesthetic – European director’s theatre, and also especially French theatre. What the French would describe as art-theatre rather than just avant-garde or classical theatre. So the influence would be great French directors like Jacques Copeau, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet, Lugné-Poë and of course Artaud and Alfred Jarry. And also, I think, myself and Aedín being very interested in the visual arts, so it’s a combination of being interested in art in general, and not just limiting ourselves to theatre, but looking at a broad view of work from different artists.
Those influences are huge, but then we make our own work, and you start by making work you want to see yourself. Our very first performance, Negative Act, managed to tour to Lyon so that had a very big influence on us. While the audience in Dublin were a little underwhelmed by what we did, in Lyon there was an enthusiastic and exciting response. And as we progressed, we were lucky enough to tour, and go to these alternative festivals in Poland so we saw a lot of work by the ’80s Polish avant-garde, like Cricot 2, Tadeusz Kantor’s company.
But we always felt our work was individual, and it’s about having that individual aesthetic and developing it over a period of time. And you change: you go through a period of seven or eight years and you change again. At the time in Ireland, there was Druid, the Gate, the Abbey and they were making literary theatre, and we started looking at all forms of theatre – theatre as an open form of expression in the usual way that an experimental artist would begin.
On the issue of experimentation, given that a Pan Pan production is frequently led by strong directorial and design choices, and you don’t work with a regular ensemble, what is it like for an actor to work on a show, during the rehearsal process or in the final presentation?
Yes, it’s a pity really. In Germany they’re able to work with an ensemble of actors, and that’s why they’re able to make such particular productions in many ways, but the freelance situation here is very different. We have had ensembles throughout the years and broken up, but we tend to try and work with new actors, and work with some of the same actors. All performance is based upon a relationship with the actor. The most important job of the director is the way you work with actors, so we work in a very detailed way with actors, though maybe the misconception is that we don’t. In many cases, we rehearse a lot longer with actors than other companies in Ireland.
It’s about finding the presence of the actor. It’s about using the personality of the actor as well as technique. It’s about hiding technique. It’s contradictions as well, ambiguities, but you develop your own way of working with actors, and getting them to develop their own voice, their presence, and their own sense of confidence on stage: not to be ‘acting’ acting, or what you could call ‘imitating’ acting, and wrestling them away from a commercial ‘showing off.’ And trying to become more rooted in the performance. And it is, as people have said, a specialised form of storytelling. Of course the actor is the most important part, because they’re the one who communicates with the audience.
I’d like to ask you more about the difference you alluded to between performing in Ireland and performing abroad. As an Irish company that tours internationally, how do you approach dealing with those different audience cultures?
Well, we want to perform to as many people as we can in a wide variety of places, so we know when we’re making a performance that it has to work for a very clued in Berlin audience, that will also work for a festival in Melbourne, that will also work touring in Ireland. So you have to make work that’s progressive, that’s moving theatre forward. That doesn’t mean that it’s strictly innovative, it just means that the choices made are rigorous, and that the idea and concept are well thought out before you begin.
They have theatre in Germany, they have theatre in Australia, and they have theatre in America, so what you have to figure out is if your work will add to that. That’s why our work is individual and it’s why we do it. You’re aware when you’re doing something that it might last for many years, so you’re motivated to investigate properly what you want to do. But every production is different in terms of how the ideas come and go. In the last number of years we’ve opened in the Dublin Theatre Festival, and you’re getting the regular theatregoers in many respects, which is interesting for us.
In some of your work, you throw focus on the audience, or implicate spectators in a variety of ways. InOne: Healing With Theatre (2005) we were asked to take on the role of confidants who listened to actors’ personal stories, and in The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane (2011) we got to flirt with being a director, by choosing the actor to play Hamlet. With All That Fall, we enter a sound chamber rather than a theatre as such, to engage in careful, collective listening. What does Pan Pan expect of its audience?
The theatre is completed by the audience, sso in some cases it’s interesting to directly involve the audience. One way to do this is to have the performer include the audience, to make the acting circular for the audience; other times to address them directly, to acknowledge the fact that you’re in the theatre. It’s about the audience being part of the experience. With All That Fall, I see the audience experiencing the text in a corporeal way, because they are actually part of the installation, part of the performance. By everyone entering into this specially designed space, they are listening together as a group: that’s the cultural part, the fact that it’s society listening together. In a way we are making everyone into very intense listeners. There’s a very good book called Radio Beckett which came out a few years ago, and one chapter talks about how in modern Arabic singing they have different words for different types of spectators, and one group of spectators is called ‘talented listeners’, people who are aware of the codes and have a good knowledge of the art form. I see our production of All That Fall as a kind of social sculpture, having everyone there, listening together, in a specially designed space; in this kind of pan-geometric space. And it’s sort of decentering the idea perhaps of a radio play, but also decentering the experience of coming into an auditorium front on and sitting watching a play with a group of actors. In this situation, it’s still a live experience, as the audience enter, and get a ticket, and the time goes by, and they are together breathing and listening. The performances were recorded but they came from a live body so it’s playing with that interesting ambiguity between the live performance and the radio text, so I hope it will be a very enriching experience.
I think there’s quality in the idea, and there’s certainly quality in the recording and in the performances. We managed to have such great actors – David Pearse, John Kavanagh, Aine Ní Mhuiri, Andrew Bennett, Phelim Drew, Judith Roddy – these really great actors. They were able to give really great performances to bring this text to life. It will be very exciting to see what the audience makes of it.
When you started the company with Aedín, can you remember what you initially set out to do, and if so, have you achieved it, or perhaps something entirely different?
When we started off we were very idealistic as you are when you’re young, and we had this sort of vague notion that we were going to present the entire theatre of the 20th century, now the 21st century. We did projects based on symbolist writers like Madame Rachilde, we looked at Polish writers like Stanislaw Witkiewicz. We were interested in the idea that theatre was behind a lot of the visual art movements – music usually came first, and then you have the visual arts and theatre was last to join the party – so we had a vague notion about addressing that. After that, we realised that we were simply developing your own form of theatre. So our ambitions were to make this individual form, and to be free, that we could do whatever we wanted to do. There were no psychological barriers or political barriers. If you make the work that you want to make, and you trust yourself, and you believe in the audience as well. At the time, we thought that the theatre makers were more conservative than the audiences. It’s so easy to create the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, as Brecht said, it’s more important to have a skilful production than a new production.
Our work has always been about ideas – it’s a theatre of ideas – that’s been our principle. I think it’s conceptual a lot of time. We know from experience, we also know from our own taste, we also know from the way theatre works, the way a production builds for an audience in time. That sense of realness in a production – reality in terms of something happening on stage, that it’s alive, rather than in terms of holding a mirror up to nature or creating faux realism. We feel that the audience can feel that in a production, and that’s what we’re looking for. Something that has meaning, actually, but not being obsessed with meaning.
You don’t have to understand everything. You can feel things.
* ‘Pan Pan: A theatre of ideas’ an Interview with Fintan Walsh was originally published in Irish Theatre Magazine on 20/08/2011