The Government Assistants

The Government Assistants: The First project of the Abbey’s new Community and Education Department

Wednesday 25 January

It’s the day of the performance. You plan it for so long you don’t expect it to arrive but now we’re congregating for the last time in the Abbey foyer as Colin O’Connor at the coffee deck copes manfully with the rush of demands. Our student actors are looking fresh if a bit queasy. They admit to being nervous (I’d be very nervous if they didn’t) but there’s a slightly startled look to one of them that has me making a note to keep an eye on her. Their mentors are eager and nervous too, their experience maybe making them a bit more casual about things at this stage but we’ll see what that’s like in a few hours time.

John Stapleton, the Head of Stage Management, leads us though the back way and gives us a quick chat about health and safety then it’s straight into one of Jonathan Gunning’s exacting warm-ups. After a while we leave the actors to repeat the exercises Andrea (Voice Director at the Abbey Theatre) gave them last week while the mentors and I thrash out a running order. No-one’s going to want to be first but before I even suggest it Nicole’s mentor Daithí is putting in a bid for her not to start things off. Tricky moment, Nicole’s ‘No Bull’ party manifesto is the perfect opener. Daithí says she’ll be fine and later, when I break the news, there’s not a murmur of dissent.

And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed over this process is how hard working and serious about things these young people have become. Not serious in the sense of losing their playfulness or not enjoying things, but serious about the need to put work in to get something of value back. As I write this now it feels an honour, personally, to have been trusted that they would get something back and it’s an impressive reflection of their mentors who, in their different ways, showed them why discipline, imagination and honesty matter.

But before we see the results we have to get through the tech – relatively painless, though I have to chuck the mentors out after a while to stem the amount of ‘helpful suggestions’. The music and movement come together much quicker than I’d feared and a couple of small incidents moving props provide valuable lessons in how EVERYTHING that happens on stage is scrutinised in a show. Derek Conaghy on sound and Eoin Byrne on lights are so on the ball I realise they’re anticipating all the issues before I’ve noticed them. We’re ready.

Lunch disappears in a blink and then we’re doing the dress. The mentors laugh and clap as loudly as they can but it’s no substitute for the real thing. And before we’ve even cleared the stage the real thing starts arriving. Pre-show is gone in a blur of last minute hugs, ‘good lucks’ and final rushed instructions to the actors. And suddenly we have to begin.

And they were brilliant – funny, perceptive, confident, poignant. But you had to be there.

Phil Kingston
Community and Education Manager

Monday 23 January

It’s our third meeting and the last before production day on the 25th. We’re also two mentors down due to previous engagements and a domestic crisis. Luckily another member of the ‘The Government Inspector ‘ cast has agreed to step in, someone called Don Wycherley (hasn’t he been on the telly?).

The other absence though is unexpected and means I have to step in and mentor Ian with his monologue. He’s re-written it and wants to do a whole new character. Gulp. I was hoping people would be ready by now, fine tuning stuff, not starting again from scratch.
First though, Andrea Ainsworth leads the actors in a warm up with emphasis on how to work in the Peacock space. Getting used to the artificiality of theatre is one of the first hurdles for new actors, they have to get used to fact that we are often trying to appear natural in very unnatural circumstances. This means a whole new approach to speaking, moving and thinking, and taking on techniques that can feel uncomfortable and unreal. The group are able for it though and, when I return half an hour late they’re projecting their voices and ‘owning their space’ with the same concentration they’ve shown from the start.

Then Andrea goes and suddenly the actor/mentors spring into action guiding their mentees to different parts of the stage, dressing rooms, foyer, carving out a bit of space to begin work. I listen to Ian’s new character and am relieved to find it detailed, funny and with lots of opportunity for movement. Ian’s physicality is confident and his take on an overprivileged D4 rugby boy trying to pick up a girl at a dance is a brilliant piece of comic observation. The script needs more of a journey, so we discuss a way of framing it so Ian has a clear intention why he is saying the lines.

I leave him to learn the piece suggesting the old trick of working backwards where you learn the last thought first and then learn the penultimate and run both, then learn the third last thought etc… What you gain in speed can result in a loss of shape. We’ll just have to see.
Meanwhile at the office I’m trying to build up the audience for next week and there’s a brief moment when Micheal D Higgins’s office show an interest . He already has plans and it’s very short notice but…Ah, no, his schedule can’t be altered. Next time.

By the time of the run through at 12.30 many of the pieces seem ready. Andrea’s obviously been a great influence as everyone’s audible and stride round the stage as if they’d done a few seasons here. But half of them are still reading from scripts! Less than a week to go.

Stay tuned.

Thursday 12 January 2012…

It’s the second session and as we gather in the Abbey foyer the mentors and mentees still congregate in their own groups, I wonder if this will persist to the end of the project?

We’ve a chance to rehearse in the Peacock this morning, on the spot the performers will be using in thirteen days time. We get in the back way and for many of the cast their first experience of the theatre is walking directly onto the stage from the green room, walking straight out of the maze of narrow back passages to face the wide bank of empty seats. The paint still smells fresh from the last get out and there’s a sudden quiet as they take it all in.

I’m aware how little time the project has and am worried the group are being a bit too casual about getting down to it. So I sternly suggest a warm up and warn that, as the whip-cracking producer, I’ll be back in two and half hours expecting to see something substantial or they’ll be no point inviting anybody.

By 12.30 it’s obvious there’s a different quality to the work this week. The atmosphere is concentrated, serious but also energetic. The auditorium echoes with three groups working on their feet on the stage, exploring the shape and size they’re going to give their words. I notice James Murphy sprawled over the front row seats like a Broadway producer from ‘A Chorus Line’. He’s coaching Ian’s delivery of the same line, looking for more depth and colour. Suddenly he leaps up to explain his point more clearly. I can’t hear clearly but am reminded how much good actors use their whole bodies as his urge to communicate animates his whole frame.

The run through is promising, very promising. The monologues are smart and funny, their delivery confident, arresting and well observed. They’re good enough to risk agreeing to a radio interview on the John Murray show later in the month, good enough to open up the invite list to people outside of friends and family. But they’re not finished – there’s too much wandering all over the stage, too little distinction between characters, not enough structure in the writing. Familiar challenges to any performer but can we overcome them in time? And have I been too enthusiastic, shouldn’t whip-cracking producers be more hard-nosed? Less than two weeks to go.

Thursday 5 January 2012…

Standing in the driving rain trying to open the door of the Team rehearsal room while ten eager actors mill around expectantly doesn’t feel like the best beginning to a great adventure. But then one of them, Peter Daly, sensibly suggests we all return to the Abbey Theatre bar area ‘It’s warm and we’re only going to be talking at first.’ So, as it brightens up outside, the Abbey starts humming with the sound of concentrated creativity, punctuated every few minutes by Sinead Nic Aonghusa’s unforgettable laugh. As I leave the group to get on with it, Julie O’Leary from casting passes through and remarks upon the buzz about the place.

The five mentees from Coláiste De hÍde in Tallaght have just under three weeks to devise a satirical comic monologue under the expert guidance of members of The Government Inspector cast . It’s the very first in a series of education and community projects inspired by the Abbey’s programme. Today’s work is about generating a first draft based on some questions sent out before Christmas. Our main stage production has been updated by Roddy Doyle and has made Gogol’s original about venal, vicious and corrupt small town politics feels even more relevant. Having worked with these students on a previous project, where their grasp of contemporary issues seemed a bit vague or disinterested, I’m eager to see what topics they’ll choose for their satire.

By one o’clock the students have gone, leaving the actors brimming with excitement and interest. ‘How much tech support will we get for this?’, ‘Can I do projections?’, ‘What about recorded sound?’. I hear about plans for power dressed electioneering liars, hypocritical politicians, status abusing teachers. We discuss different approaches and emphases to stretch the young cast and sort out the protocol for keeping in touch so drafts can flow back and forth over the next week. I was obviously wrong about how clued in these young people are. But with only nineteen days to go can we demonstrate this on stage? And who’s got the keys to Team?

Tuesday 3 January

The Government Assistants is the Community and Education department’s first public showing of work and part of an ongoing investigation into making the most of the resources we have on our doorstep. The Abbey theatre has an endless stream of highy skilled, passionate artists while the C and E department often works with equally enthusiastic and talented folk who’ve just never stepped on a stage before. So we asked six members of ‘The Governement Inspector’ cast to mentor six transition year students from an existing project at Coláiste De hÍde in Tallaght. We knew everyone would enjoy the process (we had to increase the numbers to meet demand) and we knew the Abbey’s staff would support this unsual addition to their workload (as they have, unstintingly). What we don’t know is how good it’s going to be. I hope these blogs and notes give you some insight into the process.

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