Saturday, February 6, 2010


Tipperary Musical Society finished their 8 peformance run of 'Beauty and the Beast'
tonight. I went to see this spectacular show twice during the week. I stood on the stage last week, helping with last minute dressing of stage etc. and was immediately transported to a world of fantasy and magic, where anything can happen. This amazing set was designed and built by the theatrical company 'Spraoi' (heavily associated with street theatre) based in Waterford, in conjunction with David Hennessy, the show's director, also from Waterford. Obviously a show like 'Beauty and the Beast' depends to a very large extent upon the visual aspects of theatre. Given that the set is important to establish place, time and atmosphere for spectators, I believe an authentic set helps performers step into another world and the characters that inhabit that world. How many times do we hear actors say that they don't really get into character until they don their costumes. This show was an absolute 'tour de force' and was as good as anything you would see in the West End. This was the Irish amateur premier of this show and Tipperary Musical Society did themselves proud. Not only were the sets magnificent, the lighting design by Gerry Taylor from Templemore was delightfully fairytale and a gorgeous gentleman to work with! Costumes were sumptuous, the orchestra under the baton of maestro, Danny Carroll was inspiring, the sound system together with sound effects and pyro-technics were extremely well-balanced under the expert eye of Liz O'Sullivan of Sound Systems, Thurles. Stage Manager Sarah O'Connor was faced with the gargantuan task of organizing the swift but smooth movement of sets and performers throughout time and space of this show, and she excelled herself. Putting aside all the technical stuff aside, spectators were wooed by sterling performances from all on stage, from the Beast, Belle, Gaston, Mrs.Potts, to the Silly Girls, to the villagers... not a weak link to be seen throughout the cast line-up. In amateur terms, this show cost a small fortune to execute and of course, there will be much fund-raising to do long after the final curtain came down. Yes there is a recession going on all around us and some people cribbed about having to pay 20 euros for children to see a matinee performance. Yet these same people don't seem to mind paying 25 euros and the price of petrol to take their young children to see rather mediocre professional pantomimes in Cork, Limerick and Dublin. What makes some people think that home-grown produce should come cheap! Even if every seat in the theatre was filled every night of the week, the costs incurred to put on a spectacle of this nature have to be subsidized by serious sponsorship and fund-raising activities like cake-sales, pub quizes, church collections etc... etc.

From another perspective, and arguing with myself, which I do regularly, I wonder how far we should take this whole making amateur as 'professional' as possible. As a performer and director, I am passionate about getting 'it' right, but on the other hand, how do we handle the sense of community that is supposed to be at the heart of every amateur musical or dramatic society throughout this ultra-talented country, in which I have the good fortune to live. I'm not too sure what goes on the world of amateur drama, but I believe there are festivals and awards just as there are in the world of amateur musical theatre, under the umbrella of AIMS (Association of Irish Musical Societies). AIMS is divided up into two leagues, 'Gilbert' and 'Sullivan' rather like the 'Premier' and 'First' Divisions in English soccer. There are adjudicators for both leagues, who travel the length and breadth of 32 county Ireland to see approximately 80 shows between them. They assess each show and at the end of the season, there is an awards weekend, where, not unlike the oscar ceremony, nominees learn of their victory or disappointment in the various categories, which travel from best female singer, actress, actor, best visuals, through to best overall show etc. Michael O'Donoghue, a very close friend of mine, is one of those adjudicators and assessed my production of 'HMS Pinafore' in Clonmel before Christmas. That felt weird, but he was very sweet, and gave only constructive criticism.

In that melting pot of 80 shows, there are some companies, who may have spent anywhere up to 120,000 euros on their production competing for awards and accolades with other societies, who spent as little as 17,000 euros and under. How does one compare like with like? Some societies audition members for the chorus. How do you turn away the neighbourhood postman or teacher that takes care of your children's learning? In other words, where do you draw the line? There is a whole debate to be had about this whole question. Naturally any director wants his/her show or play to be a smash hit, but I cannot help wondering whether this quest to be 'professional' may have a negative effect on the soul of community theatre. I think Dublin musical societies changed the whole face of 'amateur'. There was a set of performers, directors, musical directors, who were nigh on professional, taking all the leading roles and production roles. You would see the same names appearing with Tallaght, Bray, Rathmines and Rathgar etc...etc. Naturally there was more money available for sponsorship in the 'big smoke', but rural musical societies wanted to be as good as those shows staged in the capital, and a need to bridge the urban/rural divide was born. The pressure was on to become ever more 'professional' no matter what the cost.

I find myself torn. On the one hand, as a director, I want everything to run like clockwork, but as a spectator, I find myself strangely attracted to 'imperfection' and simplicity. I'm a real basketcase honestly, constantly talking to myself, re-thinking and changing my ideas. Apart from one or two exceptions, most of the matter in my head, like the clouds and the mountains (that don't move , but look like they do depending on the light!) from my kitchen window... is transforming continually. It annoys me to death, but alas and alack, I am wholly powerless! Yes its wonderful to listen to a singer who has fluidity and musicality in their voice, but if it doesn't have that rawness of honesty and emotion, I get bored and switch off. Take Maria Callas for example, one could argue that her voice was not the most 'beautiful' voice in the world, but her 'Tosca' remains unrivalled, because she wasn't afraid to expose her vulnerability... her soul! Someone like Mariah Carey, who is adored by millions, I know, sounds like a musical gymnast to me. There is no doubt that she has a phenomenal range, but I don't want to hear 3 octaves every time she opens her mouth! Harsh maybe, but its all just a little too ornate and complicated without any real substance for my taste. While I enjoy the embellishment of acciacaturas used by Mozart and Rossini for dramatic effect, things that are overdone lose their magic!

Back to your average amateur musical society, I love the 'triers', the ones who give their absolute everything. So their top 'c' is ropey, but their soul and their ability to take direction and 'work', is much more attractive to 'be' around, than someone who takes their gifts for granted, is lazy and wooden. In some ways, I would like to go back to the days when things were perhaps not quite so sophisticated, where performers or those who didn't fancy themselves under the bright lights made the sets, dyed and stitched costumes etc... etc., but now that the bar has been raised, outsiders are more likely to be commissioned to carry out an extremely important part of amateur community theatre.

Thankfully,I am going to see two plays in the Granary Theatre in Cork this coming week. 'In Room 116' is directed by my friend, Mairead ODonoghue. The other play, which is part of the 'Spiral Season', will be performed on a bare stage without technical gadgets of any kind. This company want to go back to Grotowshki's idea, that the spoken word should be centre stage. Naturally a musical requires an entirely different approach than a play. How many times, do you see someone bursting into song in the middle of ER or Coldplay. The only two TV drama series that I can remember the characters bursting into song, were 'Pennies from Heaven' starring Bob Hoskins and 'The Singing Detective' starring wonderful Michael Gambon. Likewise, in opera, the aria offers an insight into the inner workings of the hero/heroine's mind, rather like the solliloquys of Shakespeare.

Although, I love the musical as a medium, and I am heading into auditioning this weekend for my up and coming production of 'Oklahoma' in Clonmel, which promises a genuine romance between Laurey and Curly and an extremely 'believeable' villain in the guise of Jud Fry, I am really looking forward to just listening to the 'spoken word' and watching how it is delivered, without the distractions of music and heavy-duty technology... keeping it simple ... for a change!

After all my to-ing and fro-ing (yawn!), Tipperary Musical Society produced an amateur show that was as 'professional' and as slick as any professional show I have seen. Of course, the story is gorgeously romantic and perhaps at this rather cosmetic juncture of our supposedly civilized world, we should remind ourselves that there is a 'beauty' and indeed a 'beast' alive and kicking in all of us.

Congratulations Tipperary! X

ps. Reading an amazing essay written by Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry. For the next blog! Have been thinking about the whole business of blogging too. To blog or not to blog!

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