Sunday, August 15, 2010

Conor McPherson - INTERVIEWS

Interviews- Conor McPherson (Playwright), Ross Meuller (Playwright), Tiger Lillies (Musicians) Jon Halpin, (Actor)

Conor McPherson
Written by Paul Andrew   
Tuesday, 05 June 2007 12:40
Conor McPhersonPhoto - Fionnuala McPherson

Dublin-born Conor McPherson is regarded as one of the UK’s leading playwrights. He exploded onto the world theatre scene in 1997 with the Royal Court premiere of The Weir, described by the Daily Telegraph as 'so good, you walk away feeling positively shaky'. For that production, he was awarded Most Promising Playwright from both London Critics Circle and London Evening Standard and in 1998 won an Olivier Award for Best New Play.

At the premiere of his 2004 play Shining City, the London Telegraph hailed him 'the finest dramatist of his generation' and the subsequent Broadway production in 2006 earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.

Last week the Australian premiere of Shining City opened in Melbourne presented by local company Hoy Polloy Theatre. In July Perth Theatre Company will present one of his earlier works, St Nicholas.

Paul Andrew interviewed Conor McPherson for Australian Stage and asked him about his inspiration as a playwright.

Conor way back whenever, who or what was a key catalyst for your plunge into playwriting?
When I read Death of a Salesman at the age of fifteen or sixteen, I knew there was something about playwriting that attracted me very much. I liked that it had to be concise enough to do its work in a limited time span, but had to quickly go very deep emotionally to have any effect. This appealed to me for some reason. Then when I was seventeen I read Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet and became fascinated by the use of every day language to create a poetic and visceral piece of art. I can trace the beginnings of my own decision to write a play to these two works.

Has Irish mythology inspired you as a writer?
My last play, The Seafarer is based on an old Irish story of the Devil arriving to play cards with a group of ne’er do wells on a stormy evening. I am more interested in folk tales rather than ‘myths’. I like the personal aspect of folk tales which seem to happen to real people as opposed to myths which seem to happen to super human ‘heroes’.

Is there a particular tale that lingers in your thoughts?
I am more interested in historical monuments like Newgrange, a 5,000 year old structure in County Meath in Ireland – older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge. It is a burial chamber with an opening where the sun shines directly into the structure once a year - at dawn on the morning of the Winter solstice. This is so spiritual and mysterious, the sunlight entering the tomb after the darkest night of the year, and it’s mind boggling how the people who built it had such an understanding of astronomy and time.

You have studied philosophy. Do you feel you have a particular philosophical or moral take on our contemporary way of being?
Philosophy taught me to accept my own ignorance. Being ignorant means you are always learning – or at least trying to. My plays are simply pictures of the world as I encounter it. I try to generate the feeling of what it is like to be alive and knowing you will die – how confusing it is, how interesting, how painful, how beautiful, how funny, how tragic… there is no one message or feeling I am trying to convey.

Is that demonstrated in Shining City perhaps?
Shining City is about what it means to be haunted. By the past, by our regrets, by our wishes for the future, by the stupid things we do, by our own unfinished business.

Monologue has been one of your great joys, why?
I always enjoyed the speed at which a monologue can take you deep into the heart of somebody and its efficiency in bringing an audience somewhere special in the most simple way.

Who are the playwrights you admire most - and for which contribution's that they have made?
I find many playwrights interesting - as writers - because they work in such a constrained way. Everything they do has to be capable of being performed. I like playwrights who seem to struggle with the constraints, where the writer seems to wrestle with the form – Chekhov, Beckett, Tom Murphy.

What fascinates you about the phantasmic and metaphysical worlds?
The unknown is always more beautiful and intriguing than the known. Mystery gets the mind and heart racing.

Dublin is the backdrop - what is the nature and culture of the Dublin that you reveal to us?
Ireland is a young independent democracy, still coming to terms with its freedom. Freedom from poverty, oppression, darkness. It’s hard to be free because freedom entails responsibility. Responsibility requires strength. Strength requires confidence. Confidence requires security. Security requires freedom, and so on… Dublin is a place struggling to know itself, struggling to love itself.

Shining City is a departure from your monologue approach into the two hander. By way of some insight into backstory and method to the actual writing of this play, was this a conscious decision in writing the play - as a two hander - or did the characters reveal themselves to you through monologues at first, that you eventually interwove?
I don’t consciously choose a form. Stories dictate their form. The structure of Shining City reflects the story it is trying to tell, that’s all. The whole monologue thing was never a choice for me. I always just told the story in the simplest way I could. I don’t feel the urge to write any more monologues at the moment. I’m listening to more voices - I hope.

Who inspired the John character?
I don’t really know where the inspiration for John came from. There’s a lot of guilt there. So maybe from feelings of guilt…

And Ian - the therapist character?
Ian, for me, is a picture of the human condition as I saw it at that time. He doesn’t know where he has come from. He doesn’t know where he is going. He doesn’t know how to belong. He is trying to be a good person. He is searching for happiness. But he finds pain everywhere. He may be the bleakest character I’ve ever drawn. He gives so little away. I feel sorry for him. He is absolutely paralysed, but still searches to move on.

Theatre can bring the ceremony and ritual back into our lives, what do you feel?
I completely agree. The ritual of theatre is beautiful. You arrive at the theatre. You get a buzz from being in a crowd. The lights go down, everything goes quiet. The audience have to concentrate to follow the story. They communicate with each other by laughing. They laugh at ordinary things to show recognition. They laugh at extraordinary things to show delight. If the play is really good, and really well performed, they become absorbed into the world of the play. At the end of the play, they clap to physically wake themselves up from the dream-state of the play. It’s a very ancient and perhaps underestimated experience.

Which contemporary playwrights do you keep an eye on today?
I suppose I keep an eye on anything that’s new and interesting. Enda Walsh is an interesting contemporary Irish playwright. Joe Penhall is an interesting contemporary British playwright. There are loads of others. I usually have some idea of what’s going on.

What are you writing right now?
Right now I am working on a low-budget movie that will be shot in Ireland in Spring ’08. I’m also trying to write a new play, but don’t know where it will be performed (or if it will be good enough!) I’m also preparing to direct my play The Seafarer on Broadway. We did it last year at London’s National Theatre and it went really well. So hopefully I can put it back together in a half-decent fashion.

Hoy Polloy presents Shining City by Conor McPherson - until 16 June 2007.

 Ross Mueller
Written by Paul Andrew   
Wednesday, 21 March 2007 04:12
Ross MuellerLeft - Ross Mueller

What do you feel is the difference between Truth and Truthfulness? 

Good question - I think Truth is a fact and Truthfulness is a trait. The truth will not change, but as humans - we can change the way we recall or identify the truth. We choose to be truthful or not depending on who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about.

There is a great line in the play about people believing what is ordinary to be extraordinary - what are you revealing to us?

Claudia is having breakfast with Robert - he is trying to convince her to do another book - she says;

There is no satisfaction in chronicling the ordinary, especially when the entire country seems to think that the ordinary is so bloody - “extraordinary”. Interviewing Pearlman - was like talking to bread. If this breakfast is you offering me another “opportunity” to ghost write for another - baguette like that, I’m gonna be on my way.

Big Brother, New Idea, Current Affair, the Australian cricket team, Today Tonight.
I think we are conditioning ourselves to believe that any photograph in a magazine is a scoop and any quote from a television personality is worth reading and any review printed in a newspaper is written by an expert. Gossip is news and news is pop culture. You put a sports star into the mix and you’ve got ratings and sales.

This play came about as an MTC commission. How does it feel so far?

I was an affiliate writer at MTC in 2001 - under Peter Matheson. I wrote a play called Cold Light of Day. I had a workshop and a reading at MTC and then - at the suggestion of Simon Phillips - I applied for a residency at the Royal Court in London. I was successful and got picked by the RC. In 2002 I went over and spent five weeks working on CLD - we did workshops with Joe Penhall, David Hare, Caryl Churchill etc - I learned a lot and discovered I was doing the right thing - I came home renewed and committed. I wrote a play called Domestic Animals and did it in the Fringe and made 15 dollars. Julian Meyrick saw it and invited me to submit an idea. I wrote an outline for GHOSTWRITER - it was massaged and rejected - I wrote another and another and the company commissioned the idea. I worked on the play for two years - the company rejected it. I continued to work on it - we took it to the ANPC conference in Perth and work shopped it there in July 06 - upon return - the company programmed it.

It has been journey of discovery. A wonderful, painful, exciting, exhilarating, experience of commitment, perseverance and tough skin.

Have you ever been a ghostwriter? 

No. Sorry about that.

Ghostwriters are a bit like the medieval scribes employed by the church or state to tell other peoples stories? 

I like the idea that a complete stranger is employed to the most personal expression of another. There is a need for trust to be established in a very short amount of time.

I think in real life - there are times when we have been more honest with strangers than with our loved ones. There is something freeing about the fact that this person does not hold the emotional baggage over the account of an event - they just wanna know what happened - they don’t judge you - they listen and they compile and they try to understand your point of view. There are rules and a limited time span for the engagement - there is a ritual to be observed - through Q & A. These are the sacred boundaries I was interested in exploring. Claudia needs these qualities from Brihanna, just as much as Brihanna needs them from Claudia. In fact - all the characters in the play make these demands for truth, trust and privacy from each other.

Is the play a whodunit? 

The play is about stories. The concept of a “whodunit” if you like - is a story we are all familiar with - this involves judgement and bias. It was always going to be about stories and so… yes it was always there. Why do we want to judge someone so quickly? - Is it to protect our selves from truth? Is it to make ourselves feel better about something that is wrong with us? Lindy Chamberlain was convicted in some minds long before she was ever put on trial. The idea of whodunit didn’t enter our heads - we decided early and just waited for the judgement. So often now - sections of society ignore the detective work in favour of the punishment - I think that’s the more disturbing thing - we live in a society that has people who want to see other people punished - more than they want to see justice served. Why?

The characters are a great insight into the cusp of Generation X and the very early Baby boomers - what are the major generational differences?

Power and opportunity. I thing you’re pretty accurate by describing Claudia and West as cusp Gen Xers. They are. They are intelligent, creative, responsible, determined and still waiting for something to begin… because the Baby Boomers are still holding the reigns.

When the Baby Boomers are eventually put out to pasture and understand they have to finally - retire - Generation Y will get the chance - because X will be seen as too old. We’re in between worlds, customs and reason. We want answers to questions because we’ve had the time and the education to learn how to ask these things. They taught us and now they hate us. We’re a threat - an intelligence that cannot be denied.

Grief is a popular theme in plays today (and the ancients) is this because we as a society are still grappling with how to grieve- and how to truly grieve?

I think grief is a strong theme because the world is a very sad place. The climate is changing - towers are falling - governments are lying and still surpluses are being declared. People are locked up in the deserts of our world and the question of “why” does not get asked - children go missing and the question of “whom” - does not get answered. 

I feel sadness is a default setting for many of us. Compassion is also an element of what we call grief - it is a state of longing or desire for healing that determines us as human beings. I think the fact that we are trying to examine what grief might be - is a positive step to remembering what it is to be human in a world full of contradictions and lies.

The casting is terrific - was the play written with particular ethnicities or cultures in mind?

None of the characters was written with a specific ethnicity. As a writer I am interested in what this person wants from that person and what will they do to get it. The cast does reflect Melbourne in a wonderful, truthful way. It has shapes and faces that we see in the street. Four individual adult actors who bring a strong heritage of stage craft to the play. They are a pleasure to work with - they are mature and intelligent and committed to telling Australian stories - a dream for new work and new writing. Raj, Margaret and Belinda all worked on the play in Perth. John is the new boy - a marvelous, experienced man, with a generous heart and a protective nature.

Who is your favourite character in the play and why?

I think Robert - for his bluster and pain and then I think Claudia for her quest for an answer and then I think Brihanna for her need to be heard and then I think West for his fury within and then - I think of Megan. Every night when she arrives there is a silence in the theatre and - this silence - this is the very essence of what the ritual is all about. We respect her - we want to hear her and we love her - unconditionally. She has to be my favorite. I think she forgives us all.

It strikes me that the play is magical realism?

I don’t think of style - when I am approaching my work - I am trying to identify dilemmas and demands. I think theatre is a place of possibilities - it can allow for several realities to be served at once - something that film struggles to do - but in the end - it is what it is - a delivery mechanism for a story. The parameters can be blurred if the desires of the characters demand this.

Tell me about the restaging of No Man’s Island in NYC?

There is a company in Brooklyn who is going to stage No Man’s Island. This is a play I wrote in 94 - it premiered at La Mama and was picked up by the Melbourne International Festival. It came about because they were looking for new work - they read a reference to it on and followed an email / google search trail to find the play published in a little shop in Australia. They read it - loved it and applied for the rights. They’re great people. The play is set in a prison. There are two men. They have no idea when they will be released and we don’t know what they are in for - it is explores the way they support each other through a terrible period of time. The company in NY is going to do an awareness-raising programme for David Hicks to accompany the play. It opens in Manhattan at HERE in May 07.

Tell me about your role at and vision for The Store Room? 

I am one of several artistic associates. I think the Store Room is hoping we will make some interesting work - try things that we have not had the chance to try before. I have a play that will be staged there this year - it’s a time of experimentation I suppose.

What advice would you give to someone young or old, who is passionate about playwriting?

Write something that means something to you. It can take a long time to get produced so it has to be an idea that you will believe in five years time. The Ghostwriter has been criticised by some for being underdeveloped and then by others for being over developed.

Clearly the truth lies somewhere in between. Don’t listen to those who don’t understand your goals - try to identify the professional people you trust for feedback. Get with some actors and work with them as much as you can. You are writing for performance. It is not a poem or a book - words need oxygen to survive.

Tiger Lillies
Written by Paul Andrew   
Monday, 12 February 2007 03:36
Tiger LilliesRight - Martyn Jacques sings up a castrato storm with his UK- trio Tiger Lillies to create sublime vaudeville grotesquerie… and take a stab or four at the maudlin mainstream.
Photo by Andrew Attkinson

Martyn what gives you goosebumps?
Listening to Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel sing one of their great songs or me singing one of mine in front of a great audience.

Is there a story behind the name Tiger Lillies?
I think it has lots of connotations and meanings. In our early days people who booked us would hear a CD and expect a woman wearing tiger skins to turn up. But it's also a beautiful flower and the name of a prostitute.

Brechtian is an adjective often used to describe you?
I'm very happy to be called Brechtian probably the piece of music which has inspired and influenced me the most was the Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weil

"You have to be cruel to be kind"?
I think that there is an element of cruelty in my performance, which the audience seems to enjoy. I think it is an easy and good place to be cruel when you are on stage as this is fiction. I’m always a little surprised when a small percentage of the audience seem to take this cruelty as something more than fiction.

"Truth hurts”?
Again when you sing the truth on stage, then it is relatively easy. I’m not so sure I’m so brave in my personal life when it comes to telling the truth.

Way back - when you were a kid, who, what, when or why inspired you to embrace music?
My headmaster at my junior school is my total inspiration all that I do creatively. He took great joy in teaching us music and art. He was a wonderfully enthusiastic man. I think he had a very happy life and before he died his relatives played him one of my songs, which he thought was beautiful.

You studied opera?
I only studied opera to learn about voice production. I never practiced or was interested in the repertoire. Nevertheless I am an enormous fan of Enrico Caruso

You also studied philosophy?
My study of philosophy was an enormous mistake. Artists and philosophers are like oil and water - though I respect their activity I really learnt very little inspiration from it.

What are you listening to on cd/mp3 right now?

What is your ideal night in?
Sitting on a balcony looking at the moon

What is your ideal night out?
I once went to a club in NYC where on a black and white tiled floor stood 20 men dressed as Bette Davis. That was a good night.

What do you do for kicks?
Smoke a cigar

What did you do for kicks as a kid?
Smoked a lot of dope

What is your definition of happiness?
To live unattached from all things and in harmony with them

Journos describe you guys as "cabaret meets falsetto"?
Everybody calls us cabaret these days. It’s been happening in the last five years. I suppose it sort of fits. I certainly sing with a high voice though I have been using my low one as well of late.

Is there one particular song by another music artist that lingers in your voice box and heart?
Mona Lisa, I don't why

What is your favorite film?
Once Upon a Time in America, I would say why that is great is at least 50% because of the music. Same for The Godfather or Once Upon The Time in the West for the same reason.

What is your favorite colour?
Green - don't know why

If you could have a dinner party or booze up with anyone of your choice, living or dead, who would it be - What would you eat?
Well I could imagine having dinner with a lot of people. I have a nasty feeling with quite a few of them i would be disappointed. I think we tend to build our heroes up. May be eating some fried chicken with Betty Smith?

What is your own personal all time favourite TL song lyrics?
It changes but I like King Neptune from the Sea album

What writer/author/playwright/lyricist inspires you?
I can’t really think of anyone

What advice would you offer to someone who is young, wants to be creative but doesn't know how to be creative?

Don't go to college, don't try to make money from being creative and never try to say exactly what you feel.

What good sense advice would you like to give to yourself?
Ultimately everything is devoid of meaning so don't take anything seriously

Suicide is for....?
People who don't recognize the above!

The Tiger Lillies are performing in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne this week. For more details:

Jon Halpin
Written by Paul Andrew   
Tuesday, 20 February 2007 08:27
The MessiahThe Messiah is the story of two rather incompetent, over-ambitious amateur actors who attempt to produce the ultimate Christmas story with a cast of two, an over-zealous opera singer and very little else.
On the eve of their National Tour, Paul Andrew spoke to the shows director Jon Halpin, Associate Director at the Queensland Theatre Company.

Tell me about the history behind The Messiah?

The Messiah was originally produced in the UK in the early eighties, starring the writer, Patrick Barlow and Jim Broadbent. It was a big hit for Patrick's company, The National Theatre of Brent; they specialize in doing epic stories with only two, and sometimes three actors. He later revived the piece in 1999, with John Ramm in Jim Broadbent's place and it was another big hit at the Bush Theatre. Patrick asked me (once it was programmed at the Queensland Theatre Company) to change the names of the characters, as he plays the same character through all of his productions. That's how the characters of Leslie Barrymore Lockett and Owen Blunt came about. 

Without giving too much away – whats the basic story?
It tells the story of Leslie’s spiritual awakening, and decision to stage the Nativity. He has enlisted the help of Owen to fill out the cast and an opera singer, Mrs. Bird, to sing pieces from Handel's sacred oratorio, The Messiah. Throughout the play, Leslie finds his ambitions falling well short of what he had in mind due to Owen's tradesman-like approach to the craft of acting. He is also hideously under-resourced to pull the show off. There are three wise men in the story and only two actors for instance, and of course his own hubris brings him undone. In the true spirit of the nativity however, lessons are learned and Leslie achieves a mini triumph.

Who are your favourite playwrights?
I love the works of David Mamet and Harold Pinter because of their masterful control of language. Their dialogue is so spare and yet so much is going on. Sam Sheppard writes with a beautiful lyricism that I find fascinating and Caryl Churchill constantly astounds me. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller both wrote extraordinary plays. Locally, I think Patrick White wrote astonishing plays and anyone who caught Michael Gow's own production of Away last year would agree he's one of our greats.

How did you become a Director?
I began my career as an actor. I'd originally studied and graduated from a psychology degree at the University of Queensland and decided to take a year off before doing post-graduate studies. During that time, I got involved in local productions and realized just how much I loved working in theatre. After a couple of productions, I tried my hand at directing and was astounded at how much there was to know in order to make a production work. I continued taking as many acting jobs as I could, firstly because I enjoyed it so much, but also to work with as many different directors as I could to learn more. I also seconded myself as an assistant director wherever I could in order to gain as much experience as possible. When Michael Gow arrived in Brisbane in 1999, I was lucky to be offered an assistant directing role with him. Following that, and in discussion with Michael, an intern director's program was introduced at the Queensland Theatre Company and I was the first one to go through. I must have done something right, as I was then offered and associate position with the company in 2002, during which I directed three plays for the company.

Have you developed a signature style?
I'm not sure. I probably have, but I don't approach a play from that aspect. I read a play I'm going to direct a number of times and analyze my response to it. I then have discussions with my creative time and then come up with a concept. From there, I try and ascertain what the writer is trying to say and clarify to myself what I want to say.

What do you like to draw out in performance?
Primarily I think it’s the relationships between the characters that are of utmost importance - that's what I look for first. How one character feels about the other or others. This is generally what drives the conflict in a good play and if you can get that right, you have a good grounding for pace and the visual aspects of a production

What has been your focus for performance in The Messiah?
The main thing I've kept in mind in this particular show is that the character of Leslie is supposed to be the writer, director and designer of the piece. Holding on to this, it's a question really of "What would Leslie do?" and then finding ways to undermine his intentions in order for the comedy to come to the fore.

It has been popular with UK audiences - why?
I think the strength of the story and the wonderful characters. Everyone knows a Leslie, someone who insists they are an expert in areas they clearly aren't, and we all have a friend like Owen who is pragmatic to a fault. A spade is a spade is a spade.

What makes “amateur theatre” so alluring and engaging?
I think the spirit in which it is undertaken. When people get involved with an amateur or community shows they are doing it through their love of theatre. Occasionally egos and internal politics get involved as well and that's what becomes enjoyable to poke fun at.

What do you enjoy about working at QTC?
Michael has a great wealth of experience in this industry and has been wonderful mentor to me. He is a successful writer, actor dramaturg and director with a strong commitment to sharing his experience and unearthing and promoting new talent. His ability to get to the heart of a show and to succinctly surmise what the writer is saying or trying to say is incredible.

What do you have in the director's pipeline after this?
This show is my absolute favourite production of all the shows I have directed so far. It is incredibly rare to find a play devoid of cynicism; as this one is, yet avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality. I'm thrilled that HotHouse Theatre has given us the opportunity to revisit this wonderful play. After this, I have two plays for the Queensland Theatre Company coming up, David Brown's new play called The Estimator, and a show called Heroes at the end of the year. Both are wonderful scripts and I hope I can do them justice.

The Messiah is touring extensively. For further information goto

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