Regular readers know how much a fan I am of Brokentalkers and how excited I am that The Blue Boy is right around the corner. I talked to Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon in The Lir last week and we discussed why these stories need to be told.
How did ye guys start working together?
Gary: I’ll tell you what really happened.
Feidlim: The fact. The truth.
Gary: We’ve been working together ten years this year. (to Feidlim) This is like Mr and Mrs.
Feidlim: It is. (to me) The newlyweds, remember that? Before your time.
Gary: All Star Mr and Mrs back on the television now if you don’t have anything better to do with your life on a Saturday which I don’t. We made our first show ten years ago this year but we’ve actually been friends and college buddies since 1997?
Gary: Is that right? 1996?
Feidlim: See, if we were a couple now I’d be very pissed off with him for not remembering that.
Gary: What’s that, fifteen years? So we’ve been making shows together for fifteen years but professionally, as Brokentalkers, ten. We started off in drama school together in Dublin and we went to university together, from there to England for three years. We kinda just stuck together, didn’t we? For better or worse.
Feidlim: An Irish Torvill and Dean. (to me) Remember who Torvill and Dean are? They’re an ice-skating couple from the Eighties. Olympic champs. So an Irish Torvill and Dean. Showing my age now Gary.
I’ve always sensed that there was this vigilantism to the shows. In a way you give voice to people in society you don’t often hear, whether it’s the immigrants in Track or the kids in DYT or the gay men in Silver Stars. Was this an intention with the work?
Gary: Yeah, I think so. We always kinda felt, still do, that theatre is quite an elitist closed-off art form that involves a clear separation between the artist and the audience, and we always had a problem with that. We always thought that it is within everybody’s capabilities to be creative and to express themselves. We just found it quite enjoyable to find ways of placing non-professional people or community groups or whatever it is, to place them or their voices or their stories in a theatrical frame. So, that’s what we bring. We bring a certain amount of competency in terms of how to structure something, of how to develop something, and they bring what they bring. They bring something that we could never invent. We never had the inclination to make up the stories because we felt they’re there and they’re coming directly from the subject. For us it’s more compelling, more interesting. We bring what we bring, which is the theatrical skill, and they bring themselves. The meeting of the two; a lot of our work has been based on that idea.
How do the decisions come about to work with specific subjects like gay men in Ireland or children incarcerated at Catholic residential care institutions?
Feidlim: With The Blue Boy, it was around the time the Ryan Report was going to be released and that kind of sparked off a conversation between Gary and I about our own attachment to the subject matter. My grandfather was adopted. My family doesn’t know his history prior to being adopted, so that always kind of stuck with me. Neither of my parents were in industrial schools. My parents were in school. My dad was beaten pretty badly because he was left-handed and, you know, they used to beat it out of him. My mother was beaten pretty bad in school. My grandmother was severely beaten by a nun and my great grandfather complained and gave out about that. So, these were the conversations between Gary and I. Gary’s from Artane. One of the biggest industrial schools in the country was Artane Industrial School, and being from that community, that has an impact on the people from there. Not that they all necessarily went there but the building is this large vista, it’s like a shadow over the community. Maybe it’s not anymore. I think at one stage it was. So they’re our own personal inroads into the subject matter and we found that interesting.
Who we are, both of us, Irish, having never been to an industrial school but yet there’s some sort of baggage or past that has a connection to Catholic-run education systems in the country and how brutal they were, how they had a real stranglehold and basically ran the country. With that in mind, surely that’s every Irish person. That’s everybody. We’re all involved in this story. If you look at it that way it’s very much an Irish story rather than just a story of industrial abuse. But pull it back to its starting point: it’s children, in their earliest years when they need to be nurtured and loved and looked after, and as a country we failed. Big time. Then in our investigation and reading the fucking Ryan Report, you literally get headaches reading these awful stories, we just felt that there’s a real need to make this piece. We kinda have to make this piece. We haven’t really got another option. It’s important that we make the piece. And with all those things as you mentioned with Track and Silver Stars and This Is Still Life, this is giving a voice completely to a part of society who are silenced, who are still getting silenced now with the Redress Board. So yeah, these stories need to be told. And it’s hard for an audience to listen to these stories, you know. It’s not easy. For all types of reasons it’s not easy to listen to these stories. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be told though.
The shows are so different as well. How did ye decide that Silver Stars needs to be a song cycle or The Blue Boy needs to be a movement piece?
Feidlim: The Blue Boy has loads of different theatrical levels of presentation. So there’s dance, as you mentioned, there’s audio, there’s video, there’s live music. A lot of strands that are already in our work, I suppose. With The Blue Boy we felt that it’s important not to dramatise the piece. That’s been done in films and books. It’s been done in lots of places so if somebody wanted to they could access that type of form. We felt with this piece that it’s important for the audience to look at it a little bit off-centre or a little bit new. Because the information is hard. The subject matter is so hard to digest. I think for us it was important to find different ways of telling the story, just to keep the audience engaged as well rather than just sitting there and hearing these horrific stories for an hour. So you’re trying to find ways of finding a beauty in this ugliness and I think movement and music is a way in.
With Silver Stars that was more Seán Miller, Seán who wrote the piece. We had been introduced to Seán. He wrote two songs. We listened to them and the three of us had a chat about how we felt it should be presented. With Track: why an audio tour? Gary and I had just gotten back from university. We used to come home for the summer then Christmas ... not in that order. Christmas, summer. You miss Christmas then. We were coming home in the late Nineties and that was kinda the beginning of this influx of interesting foreign nationals coming into this country and making it more vibrant and interesting. When we were in Leicester there was a huge Asian population and Afro-Caribbean and we were loving that, being these two Paddys seeing all these interesting people for the first time ... in large communities rather. Not for the first time ever but in large populations. So coming back to Ireland in these breaks and seeing a similar thing was very exciting for us. They were the new Dubliners. That was kind of the impetus to Track: wouldn’t it be interesting to have somebody talking about Dublin and not have a Dublin accent and not necessarily having been born here. So that’s where that came from. It’s just usually conversation. That’s usually how all work starts. And at that point how do we feel we can present it. To be honest, as much as the audience are considered earlier, it’s the form and style that needs to keep Gary and I interested.
Gary: It is interesting actually that formally they’re all so quite different. I’d agree with that. But I think it is those two things: it’s what we’d like to try and more importantly then does it serve the content? Is this the best method of delivery for this content? And I think for The Blue Boy it is. One of the first things we heard in interviewing was a journalist who would probably be one of the leading authorities on religious affairs in the country. We interviewed him and we spoke to him about what we were doing and one of the first things he said was that in his view, in terms of readership and stories and people engaging with stories of abuse in the media, that fatigue had begun to set in on the part of the public. That they were beginning to switch off. “Oh, another abuse story. Another revelation. Another report”. And we thought this was really interesting, that people were becoming fatigued. And we asked ourselves why. And our explanation was that it was the means by which the stories were being told, either in sensationalised tabloid format or three-minute articles on the six o’clock news or Primetime Investigates. It was all very kind of similar. If you watched them all back-to-back or read a string of those articles they would pretty much read the same and have the same format. And we thought maybe that’s why people are beginning to switch off. Literally switch off their televisions or turn the newspaper to the back page, get the sports results or whatever. So when we began to approach The Blue Boy we said one of the main things we have to do is we need to make people not switch off. We need to show this thing in a way that will make people look at it afresh and think about it all over again.
As Feidlim said, it’s not to sensationalise, to shock, it’s just to remind people to ask themselves, and as a community asking themselves, where do we go from here. So it is forward-looking even though it’s talking about something historically. We all know it’s still happening today, just on a different scale and in different ways. Abuse is still taking place, and the message of the piece then is to not dwell on the past but we need to remember and learn from and bring that forward into how we legislate for the protection of children in the future. Desmond TuTu, I don’t believe I’m about to quote from Desmond TuTu (laughs), how pretentious is that? He said that the only thing we’ve learnt from history is that we don’t learn from history. I read that last night on Facebook (laughs). I think if you look back you go: “shit, right, we’ve allowed it to happen again”. We hope that things are at a point now where we can get our act together. I’m not saying this piece will do anything but it’s just to get that particular audience on that particular night to think about themselves and what do they think should be done, how do they feel about this, individually and as a group.
Have you seen Neil Watkins’ The Year of Magical Wanking? It has a somewhat genesis from Silver Stars.
Gary: I saw it, yeah. I saw it the night the power cut in Project so I saw two thirds of it. But then, by special request, I got him to perform the last third of it in Auckland when we were there with Silver Stars on his birthday, (to Feidlim) remember? I told him the story, I missed the last bit of the show, “oh hang on”, and he just did it. He fucking loved it.
Feidlim: Yeah Neil, he’s a very talented guy. A fantastic performer. I think what he’s doing is very brave. Putting yourself up there. How he’s decided to do it, his presentation is very interestingly artistic. We wish him all the best.
Gary: Yeah, we love Neil.
Feidlim: Yeah, he’s brilliant. His piece should go lots of places. It really should.
The Blue Boy runs Oct 8-16 at The Lir.