Pan Pan International Mentorship Programme 2012 Symposium Day by Fíona Ni Chinnéide

*This article by Fíona Ni Chinnéide was originally published in Irish Theatre Magazine on 23/12/2012

Pan Pan marked the end of its 2012 International Mentorship & Bursary with a Symposium Day on Saturday, December 1st at The Lir, at which the participating artists “opened their sketch books” to the people gathered, describing the process and their experience of the mentorship programme, and allowing the audience a glimpse inside their working methods.

One foot off the Island: Pan Pan International Mentorship & Bursary Programme 2012

Funded through a Resource Sharing Grant from the Arts Council, Pan Pan’s international mentorship programme sets out to create the space for artists to “take time to focus on developing their creative ideas” – something ever more elusive now, in times of increasing focus on end product to justify funding. Each artist was provided with a bursary to allow them set aside time to work on their ideas, structured around a series of one-to-one meetings in Dublin with mentor Kirsten Dehlholm, artistic director of Danish company, Theatre Pro Forma.

mentorship3-(1).jpg

What came across in two of the three projects presented at the Symposium Day was that this exploratory space, unconstrained by considerations of budget, had allowed the artists to dream and think big; in the case of the third, project funding had already been applied for and refused, which in turn led to a re-imagining of the project and the creation of something potentially more exciting.

Exposure to theatre created off this island quite obviously informs the work of Pan Pan, whose particular aesthetic has more in common with the ‘director’s theatre’ of Europe in terms of strong directorial and design choices, in contrast with the playwright-reverent theatre that generally dominates the Irish stage. To state the obvious, audiences and theatre-makers here have very little opportunity to encounter innovative theatre from outside these islands, notwithstanding a handful of important festivals in summer and autumn – and so Pan Pan conceived of a series of international symposia as “a way of introducing Irish theatre-makers to a progressive way of theatre-making”, according to Gavin Quinn, co-director of the company with Aedín Cosgrove, a way of theatre-making that originated outside the literary scene of this island.

mentorship4-(1).jpg

Between 1997 and 2003, Pan Pan produced five Dublin International Theatre Symposia  in which they sought to bring together well established, older avant-garde groups with new contemporary theatre artists, to “explor[e] something new in a less pressurised environment” reported Peter Crawley in this magazine. Pan Pan’s International Mentorship & Bursary programme, for which funding has been secured again for 2013, presents a capsule version of the symposia – bringing together an international mentor with a small number of theatre-makers working in Ireland, and presenting to a wider audience by way of the Symposium Day finale.

And there is clearly an appetite among new and established artists for this opportunity to further develop their practice: From 45 applications received, a short-list was put together for Dehlholm, who then chose the 2012 participants: Gina Moxley, Una McKevitt, and Aoife Spillane-Hinks and Tom Lane working together.  The mentoring took place over three long meetings in Dublin. Although all spoke of the clarity that working with Kirsten brought to their processes, equally clear was the ambition she had for each of the three projects, and how her confidence encouraged them all to think big, to think beyond.

Gina Moxley’s inspiration started with the skeleton of the Anglo Building – “all we’re left with” – which led her towards an exploration of the relationships between buildings and people, architecture and regimes, domestic and public spaces, and what remains after the collapse, arriving at the women standing at the head of three dictatorships: Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceaucescu, and Jiang Qing and a multi-disciplinary project which will see installations, soundscape, and performance come together in an important physical space. With a shared background in visual art, Moxley described Dehlholm as a “bacon slicer” going through her ideas – a chorus of nine had got the chop only that morning – ideas which had crystallised over the course of their meetings. But her mentor’s ambition for the piece seemed equally vital here – giving Moxley the confidence to think big about what Dehlholm described as “a monumental topic, larger than our imagination.”

mentorship2-(1).jpg

Una McKevitt’s process was described as one of falling in love, beginning with the discovery that Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Nightwas more or less autobiographical; as McKevitt wryly observed, where someone “didn’t just make it up” it is interesting to her. She detailed how the concept for the production had changed over the course of her three meetings with Dehlholm, as she sought the most authentic true way to tell this piece. (Both Dehlholm and McKevitt most often use non-actors in their performances.) And the project concept presented at the symposium day was exactly that, its ambition strongly bolstered by Dehlholm’s “why not?” approach. McKevitt described the challenge as trying to find a way to meld her own way of theatre – “telling it as it is” – to a text that she now wants to protect from herself! As Dehlholm remarked: “It’s almost a crime story: you stole the text and now you give back the text.”

mentorship5-(1).jpg

The third presentation, that of Aoife Spillane-Hinks and Tom Lane, was initially pitched as a deconstruction of the Strauss opera, Die Fledermaus. Spillane-Hinks and Lane had cooked up their concept whilst participating in another practitioner forum, The Next Stage, a joint initiative of the Dublin Theatre Festival and Theatre Forum. Although they had brought an idea almost fully formed to the Pan Pan mentorship, during the process they received news that their funding application had been unsuccessful, and so they went back to their sketch book and arrived at the idea of opera slam nights: sketch performances, different scenes by different directors, all building up an awareness of opera, showing it from a different angle and to new audiences. While the work of Hotel Pro Forma, which is often of operatic scale and intensity, made this mentorship pairing more obvious on the surface, it was Dehlholm’s “single-minded confidence” and straightforwardness that was key to the development of their ideas, according to Spillane-Hinks.

HPF_jesus-(1).jpg

Following the presentations by the participants, Kirsten Dehlholm introduced some of her own work with Hotel Pro Forma – inspiring in its difference from most of the work produced on this island. A visual artist by training, Dehlholm’s very individual aesthetic – led by considerations of “line-colour-form” – has incredible visual and aural intensity, as witnessed by the Symposium audience in the Manga-drawing inspired War Sum Up, in the lighting changes ofOperation: Orfeo, in the museum installation Navigare, in The One who Whispers , and in Jesus_c_odd_size for which Hotel Pro Forma worked with Belgian visual artist Lawrence Malstaf. Although Dehlholm commented that she felt Denmark and Ireland had much in common in terms of size and isolation, and being limited in the European context, as she spoke about Hotel Pro Forma’s international cross-disciplinary collaborations and their need for venues and audiences outside Denmark to sustain a production, Ireland seemed ever more remote.

Of course this difference is the nub of it all and Pan Pan’s very purpose in orchestrating the symposia and mentorship programmes: to push the practice of artists who are relatively isolated on a small windblown island out in the Atlantic through exposure to quality theatre practice from other places, and creating the space for international collaborations to arise (as happened out of the earlier symposia).

The event closed with a reflection on mentoring in general – always a gamble, according to Quinn, where everything depends on the trust and connection between the artist and his/her mentor, just as Dehlholm spoke of every theatre-maker’s need for a mentor, “a companion [with whom] to develop ideas”. Unlike other mentorship programmes where ‘apprentice’ practitioners gain valuable experience and skills through working alongside more established theatre-makers, here it is the encounter with a quality of practice and a very different practice – the “getting one foot off the island” – which allowed experienced theatre-makers to journey and arrive somewhere new.

————————————————

*This article by Fíona Ni Chinnéide was originally published in Irish Theatre Magazine on 23/12/2012