Behind The Curtain
Sam Cox goes behind the scenes and discovers just what goes into putting on a show at Players
What does it take to put on a show on in Players? An inspired idea and a brilliant mind? Knowing all the right people, and them knowing you? Skinny jeans and a box of Amber Leaf?
Despite being central on campus, the Players theatre, and the members who run it, maintain a sense of mystique and madness. With at least two shows each week and a members’ price of €4, it’s hard to deny the accessibility of attending theatre in Trinity. But who is behind the curtain? Who runs the show? What does applying involve, and once you’re in, what goes into getting that coveted standing ovation?
“‘The most important thing is: will this be able to be put on? Do you have the right team, do you have everything covered? […] It’s not like a creative thing. Even if it’s a great show that would work really well, [it has to] work logistically.’”
Matt Spencer Armitage is a fourth year Ancient and Medieval History and Culture student. Having successfully pitched his original show “Castaway Stan” for Week 5 of Hilary term, he has kindly agreed to let me follow him and his work, and see how it develops in the weeks building up to the show.
Twenty minutes late, Matt scurries over to me and apologises with a firm handshake and open smile. He explains he has just come from a production meeting, and it had run over time. It is immediately clear that he’s juggling a hundred different balls at once, and relishing in the experience. He quickly explains to me his love of music, theatre and all things performance. His enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s hard not to become excited about the process ahead.
He explains that he spends most of his time doing “Players stuff and events”; he gets by with his college work, but for him the extra-curricular opportunities are what college is really about.
“I definitely want to keep doing drama for the rest of my life… I did drama for A level and then it kind of just made sense to join Players.” Laughing at the difficulty of earning a living from drama, he explains that DJing, music and putting on shows all cross over for him, and are how he wants to make his living.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, Matt explains to me the process of applying for a show within Players. Going through the submission form, he lists off all the necessary information: what’s the play called? Who is the playwright? What’s your outline? How about your directorial ideas and your audition process? Your lights, your sound, your publicity, your fundraising? And to top it all off, how are you going to make it unique?
Feeling grilled just hearing the form read out, I’m impressed by Matt’s tenacity to work through it.
“The most important thing is: will this be able to be put on? Do you have the right team, do you have everything covered? You want this size set? Will it fit in the theatre? You want to hire in this light? It’ll cost you this amount. It’s not like a creative thing. Even if it’s a great show that would work really well, if it doesn’t work logistically… Because Players has two shows every week, it has to be slick.”
Realising he hasn’t actually explained his idea to me yet, he bursts into laughter.
“Do you know the radio show Desert Island Discs?”
“Castaway Stan” follows a music producer, Stan, being interviewed on the show and explaining the eight songs he would bring to his desert island. As the interview plays over silent disco headsets (one of which is supplied to each member of the audience), a chorus of actors, as well as Rob, the physical Stan, will act out a choreographed piece to each song.
“He’s a very closed-in character, doesn’t communicate very well with other people, but he has this burning passion for music.”
Essentially, Matt explains, he’ll tell Stan’s life story through a series of songs. With his songs chosen, I ask Matt where he plans to go from here:
“I’ve got a cast of ten, and we’ll devise it as we go. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly good at writing. I wouldn’t be able to pick up a laptop and get it out, you know?” He explains that his passion lies mostly in music, and he plans to use that as his primary inspiration for devising with the cast.
“There’s no real one way of doing it. I know people who’ve got this idea in their head and they write it down and they take it from there, but it can still work in different ways. I guess I’m using the things that I’m good at to do the show.”.
“What enters the rehearsal room as a cluster of half-formed ideas, leaves it as a crystallised summary composed of what they think the audience will most relate to.”
Eager to get in out of the wind, I walk over early to the Beckett Theatre to find Matt and his actors taking a smoke break. We chat a little about how the first few weeks have been, and he tells me things are coming together. We are interrupted by one of the actors, who tells Matt that there are no rooms to rehearse in Áras an Phiarsaigh, but upstairs in Players should be free for the day. Clearly used to making whatever he has available work, Matt leads me upstairs and introduces me to the rest of the crew.
Of course, we hit technical issues. Matt apologises to me for the delay as he runs out of the room to try and get his laptop and speakers working. Hiding away in the corner, I can’t help but laugh at the banter between the actors. What started as a semi-serious discussion about the history of records and music has turned into a tit-for-tat of increasingly outrageous claims: “Aztecs invented the Samsung” is quickly countered by “Motorolla was a Greek alien”.
The friendliest drill sergeant on Earth, Matt reappears and calls for the work to start. Everyone immediately snaps to attention and plunges enthusiastically into rehearsing. Having devised some of the scene already, they show me a hilariously and brilliantly choreographed depiction of Stan’s high school experience, set to one of Matt’s eight songs.
Portraying Stan’s school days, we see everything from Stan being bullied to an actor mimicking rolling a condom down a banana. The crew explain that the devising process involves combining their collective experiences of school, and of life in general. What enters the rehearsal room as a cluster of half-formed ideas leaves it as a crystallised summary composed of what they think the audience will most relate to.
With a cast ranging from first to fourth years, it’s clear that talent and ability overshadow any experience in Matt’s team. One thing that is common to every member of the crew, however, is an unending energy and willingness to contribute. Time and again throughout the scene, an actor will throw out an idea, often getting an “I like that” back from Matt. With Matt himself jumping in and out of the scene with the music, the sense of involvement and teamwork in the process is almost overwhelming.
Even when an idea doesn’t work, the dialogue opened is essential to the process. Not that this doesn’t cause frustration, I’m told. One rehearsal, they explain, ended in a conversation that concluded that all the work they had done that day was to be scrapped, because it wasn’t actually all that relevant. “One step back, two steps forward” is what I’m told about this process, and judging from the rehearsal I had just seen, they were doing something right.
“They describe the feeling of a collective ‘world’ they’ve created within the show, and how each member added a piece of themselves to form their finished product.”
Sitting in the dark theatre with eerie glowing green headsets all around, I can’t help but feel like I’m about to be abducted.
Having only given Matt a quick good luck before the show, I have no idea how the rehearsals have translated into a finished product. Seeing the set and all the tech equipment in person, I have to say, I’m impressed. Matt’s words five weeks ago have come to fruition, and are sitting on the stage in front of me. Looking over my shoulder, I see the director himself, overlooking the theatre. Wearing his own headset and an excited grin, he looks ready to set the dancefloor alight.
An hour and ten minutes later, the crowd slides off their headsets and stands to deliver roaring applause to the bowing actors. As they file out one by one, Matt thanks each and every one of the audience members.
Ten minutes later, I’m back on the now quiet stage with the actors and Matt. After announcing that that was their best performance to date, that he has no notes, and that he’s so proud of them, we sit in a circle and I get to hear their thoughts after their intense journey.
“Boom. This is what we’ve been building up [to].” The pride at the finished product is clear not only in Matt’s face, but in that of the whole crew. They describe the feeling of a collective “world” they’ve created within the show, and how each member added a piece of themselves to form their finished product.
Not that the process was simple, as the crew explain.
Though they had originally planned to have separate actors for the voice and body of Stan, that was no longer the case. Matt explains that while the voice actors had done a brilliant job recording from his script, when he went to combine the dialogue with the choreographed piece, something just didn’t fit. Instead, it was decided to have Rob, Stan’s physical actor, improvise a dialogue of the radio show based on limited prompts from Matt. While it wasn’t his original plan, there’s no denying it made for an organic experience for the audience.
And that seems to be what Matt’s best at: rolling with the punches, and making it work. Not stuck in his own ways, Matt managed to share his palette with all of his cast and crew. Yet far from losing his vision, the team evoked a truth in the story that tells not one of their life stories, but all of them. The pressure I’ve seen Matt deal with has been enormous, but he wasn’t the only one telling a story in that theatre. Every member had an input, and worked to tell the story of Stan: a charming social castaway with a damn good taste in music.