TCD Debut Festival: Directors on the brink of success

Hiram Harrington explains the process of staging a show

Every year, Trinity somewhat unknowingly is home to Ireland’s only festival of its kind – the TCD Drama Debut Festival. Five students are chosen through a process of study, performance practice, and conceptual envisioning to lead five shows of their choice. Each one is given six weeks to audition, rehearse, and perform their chosen production, culminating in a three-night run in Trinity’s own Samuel Beckett Theatre. The festival is at the heart of the Drama Department’s calendar, yet seems to go unnoticed to those not involved in the theatre or artistic College community.

This year’s shows saw Matt McGowan, Simon Geaney, Annachiara Vispi, Austin Hughes, and Rían Hamill take to the stage to present their Debut shows. Beginning in Week Eight, the Debut Festival opened with a run of Niamh McGrath and Keith Singleton’s Looking Deadly, a fairly recent and relatively unknown modern Irish play. Following the conflict between two rival funeral directors in a small Irish town, Looking Deadly set a warm and exciting tone for the season to come, combining poignant commentary on the nature of death with hearty Irish comedy. Week Nine saw Louise Page’s Tissue debut under the direction of Simon Geaney, a play that explored the stirring, non-linear tale of a young woman coming to terms with having breast cancer. A far cry from the light-heartedness of the first show, Tissue showed the range of stories the Debut Festival would come to tell. God of Carnage and The Underground Lovers closely followed these pieces. These two plays by European playwrights showed the contrast between naturalist and absurdist tendencies in theatre, continuing the trends of vastly different themes in each individual Debut show. The Winter Season of the Debut Festival will now culminate this Wednesday, with Rían Hamill’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.

For Rían Hamill, the past twelve weeks from planning to production have been intensive. Today, he sits in the Dance Studio in the Beckett Centre along with a representative from the Drama Department. It’s the first the department will see of his show, a customary test run to prove the show is fit to go on the Beckett stage. After weeks of rehearsals and choreography, Gruesome Playground Injuries is one week away from going up.

The story of the show centres around the encounters between two people, Doug and Kayleen. They meet at age eight, and the show jumps back and forth through time until they reach age 38. Through the various injuries they receive throughout their lives, they are drawn together and pulled apart in a “scar-crossed” love story. A sad, satirical, and biting look at the hurtful nature of love, Gruesome Playground Injuries promises to close the festival with a memorable finale. The show will star Lainey O’Sullivan as Kayleen, who is no stranger to the stage after her turns as the titular Evita and as Maria in West Side Story for Trinity Musical Theatre, and DU Players’ Rúin Festival standout performer Tom Jordan as Doug.

“He walks me through the process undergone to get here and speaks with a note of relief in his voice.”

Rían’s process began long before the academic term started. Debuts are selected from the class of Advanced Directing students in third year. In order to be eligible for a Debut, students must direct a twenty-minute piece that showcases their ability. It can be from any text, but not the one they pitch to direct for their Debut show. Rían’s piece was an excerpt from Peter and Alice, the play by John Logan. Another two-performer play, Rían’s twenty-minute excerpt was enough to convince the department of his ability to handle a larger scale production. His choice? Next week’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.

After the department run, Rían reviews his armfuls of notes from the run. He walks me through the process undergone to get here and speaks with a note of relief in his voice. This is a man who has evidently given all his heart to this play, but that level of commitment appears to has taken its toll. He is still as chirpy and upbeat as ever, despite the amount of pressure he is under.

The real meat of putting on a play always begins with putting a team together – crew, designers, and actors. A tight-knit group is behind the production, the friends and fellow classmates of Hamill who have committed themselves to the process alongside the director. Once a full team was assembled over the summer, Hamill began auditioning alongside the other directors in Week One of Michaelmas term. The auditions were done with a cold read of a monologue from the play. After a week of this, Hamill staged callbacks, using a dialogue sequence between potential male and female leads. He deliberated that evening with the other directors as to who wanted which actors in their productions, what shows would have which cast, and more. Ultimately, Rían was lucky enough to have bagged his first choices for the roles – Lainey and Tom.

“For many directors, the rehearsal room is a sacred space – one for reflection as well as one for industry.”

Hamill then had to wait until Week Six until his rehearsal process could start. For the sake of fairness, all directors are allowed a maximum of six weeks of rehearsals with their cast, so as not to favour shows that run later in the festival season. In Week Six, a readthrough was conducted with the full cast and crew, and the process began.

For many directors, the rehearsal room is a sacred space, for reflection as well as one for industry. For Hamill, cultivating a developing creative environment was key: “One of the main things we were focused on during rehearsals was how we could overcome some of the limitations of the script. The play’s often been criticised for being somewhat simplistic, and the characters for being quite one note, and so our goal in a sense was finding a way to drag more meaning and complexity out of this production. We looked a lot at some of Frantic Assembly’s techniques for generating meaning and character out of movement. We also focused on some of the subtleties of the characters, and what drives their destructive impulses.”

“Leading a large-scale production as a student can be particularly challenging, with things like funding and time being sparse.”

His final vision came about from a close reading of the text, combined with a collaborative artistic process. Working with O’Sullivan and Jordan offered him a new perspective on the piece, and influenced the final outcome: “I’d done a fair bit of research into past productions of the play, and they all tended to stage them in very cold, sterile spaces, which I always felt sapped a lot of the fun out of the play. It also doesn’t create an environment which I think is conducive to the creation of affection of romance.” Hamill also cites Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet as an influence: “While I was looking into that I was also researching the play’s links to Romeo and Juliet, and the idea of being “star-crossed” and destined for doomed love, which I personally don’t really agree with. And so from there, I came up with the idea of creating this universe that was made solely for Doug and Kathleen, a space where it felt like fate and the stars wanted them to succeed for a change.”

It was not all fun and games, however. Leading a large-scale production as a student can be particularly challenging, with things like funding and a lack of free time. Hamill remarks on the process of his set design being particularly taxing. The final plan changed a number of times before he could settle on a layout he was fully behind, and could feasibly construct within the time constraints. On a maximum budget of €800, the Debut shows must use a variety of methods to source their set pieces and costumes. Hamill has so far built most of his set, storing it in his garage. A particularly notable addition is the handmade seesaw, a fixture seen in several of Doug and Kayleen’s flashbacks. He also notes the text itself being problematic in a sense: “There were a lot of challenges! More than I would have liked obviously. The script was a big challenge because it is such a strange play, with some beautifully written dialogue but with a lot of admittedly awkward and corny lines too. And the fact that it has so many transitions and the characters go through so much physical change and through so many age ranges is a real challenge for actors. That said Lainey and Tom are utterly stellar, you couldn’t ask for two better people to work with and they were really essential in us figuring out all of the awkward and difficult parts of the production!”

Irish theatre has seen a resurgence in recent decades due to additional funding for venues such as the Abbey, along with a focus on Irish productions. Asking Hamill what his thoughts were on the future of the industry, and where young theatre-makers could find their place amongst such a precarious profession, he remarked: “I think Irish theatre’s future is pretty bright, to be honest. We have so much talent and younger theatre-makers are increasingly experimental and ambitious, and I think that’s a great thing for Irish art in general. That said, it is, I think, a hard industry to make a good living in and to survive in. I really firmly believe that Irish artists, in general, need more support, more art is never a bad thing!”