It’s a shame that Maeve Stone didn’t name her theatre company “Spilt Vodka”. Fringe sponsors ABSOLUT could have had a field day with the advertising potential. I’m more of a gin man myself, and Stone and James Hickson’s Spilt Gin are canvassing the theatre scene in spectacular fashion with the assistance of their friends alone. I caught up with her to talk about their house party site-specific You Can’t Just Leave – There’s Always Something.
Yourself and James [Hickson] seem to have these stunning visuals in your heads when making these shows. Can you tell me about the high-concept designs of Andy Warhol’s Nothing Special and Soh?
Thanks very much. I’m a very visual director and James is a very poetic writer so I think the combination of those two elements have led to quite visual pieces. Andy Warholwas an interesting one. We started with a design idea based around Warhol’s work. And we were working with various people. Niamh Ferris, a really good contemporary artist, had done a lot of work for her graduation show in NCAD using neon and stuff. That kind of kicked off our interest in that side of the show. It generally originates in the poetry of James’ language. He’s becoming more naturalistic in ways but particularly back then when we were starting out he was really interested in playing with metaphorical language and poetry. It led to a big design, I suppose. Last year for Sohwe were working with Emma Fisher, who is one of the most talented young set designers in Ireland at the moment. Could not sing her praises enough. She’s amazing. And she’s got a show in the fringe this year as well. It’s called Bright Side of the Moon, it’s a puppetry piece and I would recommend it highly. She’s an incredible talent. Yeah, she was the genius behind our set last year. It was so much fun working with her. The Boys School [at Smock Alley] is such an incredible space. I feel like she got the most out of it with her design. It was really ambitious and she pulled it off. But our show this year is site-specific, so it’s a leap into the unknown. We’ve never done site-specific before. I’ve never directed a site-specific piece.
Earlier this year you guys toured Taste to a few venues. Was this a bit of a departure from the pop art aesthetic of the previous shows?
I think Andy was probably our only pop art one. Soh my brother described as a gothic poetry class. He was probably right in some ways. It was pretty epic and pretty gothic.Taste was our first dip into realism on a larger scale. I think it’s reflected in the writing as well. It’s very naturalistic, gets more poetic towards the end, playing with ideas like when people get drunk they get more verbose. It probably was our most naturalistic to date prior to working on this show. It was a bit of a departure but it was really good fun and we worked a lot with Sophie Connon and Liz Fitzgibbon on that one, and through early drafting periods. That was very useful because actors can often be the best people when it comes to finding the right tone and the right shifts in new writing because they have got very good instincts. So it was very useful when we were making that transition into something new.
And now: You Can’t Just Leave – There’s Always Something. Is this the most ambitious, challenging project yet?
Hell yes (laughs). I suppose we’re bringing it to another level of naturalism that I haven’t worked in before. I’m really excited about. And the actors have been responding to that challenge really well.
How did it come about?
Myself and James had a conversation about how many plays he was able to write a year (laughs). Because Taste was a bit of a push I think. I was asking a lot of him to keep churning them out. So we were thinking: how can we approach the Fringe this year in a way that it will be as exciting for him so that he wouldn’t feel like he had to drag a new play out of him without the time to really think and work on it. And there are these really exciting writers of our generation who are coming to light, who we had seen work of and gotten to be friends with. Mairín O’Grady, Dan Colley, and Louise Melinn are the three other writers. These are people that we really love as people. They’re just gorgeous human beings and we wanted to spend loads of time with them. Each of them had worked on shows in [THEATREclub’s] THE THEATRE MACHINE TURNS YOU ON, Vol. II. We got talking around then about doing a collaborative piece. I think, apart from anything else, it really began as just a desire to work with those three writers and see what happened. We know we were excited by each other’s work and the potential for trust and creativity in that group was really strong.
What were the shows in THE THEATRE MACHINE that O’Grady, Colley and Melinn worked on?
Mairín O’Grady’s piece was called Hawk/Hare, and Louise wrote a piece that Dan directed, and that was called Boxes. Some very different pieces, all three of them: Taste,Boxes and Hawk/Hare. Incredibly different stylistically. When we started into this we kinda all took a deep breath in because we all knew we were jumping into a big pool of the unknown. We had such different styles. We gave ourselves enough time, I think, I hope (laughs), to work that out. We started working on this show four and half, five months ago at this stage to have enough time for the writing process to gestate and go through different stages so that we can find that common ground. That common voice. So the play’s actually surprisingly cohesive and coherent. The style has become very unified through that process.
And you rented a house? A Georgian house?
Yes. We have rented a Georgian house. It’s in a secret location so I can’t tell you where it is. But it is an epic place. And we’re really excited. Every time you go there you just see something new and amazing. It’s brilliant. And there are guys living there at the moment that are not a million miles away from some of the characters in our play. It’s very site-specific (laughs). There are challenges in it being site-specific that I haven’t come across before. So it’s been an interesting learning experience. But really good challenges. I’m hoping that we’re on the right track to putting it together well for the audience.
It sounds to me like you guys are possibly looking to include that audience a bit more or just engage them in a closer proximity. Is this something Spilt Gin has set out to do?
It’s something I am interested in but I found in the past the word “participation” scares the hell out of a certain kind of audience member. We’re not asking for the audience to become characters. We’re acknowledging them. We’re bringing them into a very small space and the characters are acknowledging them. We’re kind of inviting them into a place and saying “there won’t be seats”. Well, there will be seats if you need a seat. There won’t be the fourth wall. There won’t be people looking at a stage and actors ignoring the audience. It’ll be more of an eavesdropping experience. And there will be moments where we do ignore the audience for a little bit and there will be moments that the audience might be offered a sandwich. So you will be fed. It’s a mix of the two, I suppose. It’s not going too far in either direction. Maybe that means I’m not committing to one or the other, I don’t know. I feel it serves the play well to bring the audience in and have them feel comfortable in a space and acknowledge them but not necessarily to drag people up onstage. So, “semi-participatory”.
Will there be gin at your party?
Yeah, there will (laughs). In fact there will be a lot of drinking at this play. Will I talk about what the play is about plotwise?
I do want to entice people. (pause). Hmmm, what could I say?
(laughs) Is there love and betrayal?
There is a love triangle. And there’s two parties and a funeral. It’s epic. We’re playing with time, so the play’s set over three days separated by a year each. So there’s a going away party, there’s a party in between, and there’s a funeral. So the audience move from place to place but they’re also moving through different times.
You Can’t Just Leave – There’s Always Something runs Sept 14-18, 20-23. Audiences meet at Trinity College Nassau Street entrance.