The Book and Body experience

By Eoin Meegan

The Book and the Body was a two day symposium, held in UCD in April, which comprised presentation of papers, discussion, and dance performance. The event was organised by twins Jessica and Megan Kennedy who formed Junk Ensemble in 2004, and are responsible for some of the most innovative theatre of recent times, including Soldier Still and It Folds.

The various papers presented over the two days explored such diverse themes as challenging the perceived boundaries of theatre, found objects, the cultural memory of abuse, suppression of the female voice, and other typologies of absence.
“When two unconnected objects occupy a shared space there is a tendency to make a connection between them, even where one is not intended. The very act of juxtaposition will force a synthesis in the minds of the audience.”

This was an observation made at the beginning of the symposium by theatre producer John Collins, known for his innovative and uncompromising work, particularly Gatz. Gatz is a marathon eight-hour verbatim rendition of The Great Gatsby that resists any attempt to make the text ‘fit’ theatre in the conventional sense, thus freeing it from the defilement of interpretation, leaving the audience with the raw experience of the roar of language, its purity, its truth.

Collins explained how the actors, playing office workers who find the text in the office, move from a kind of detachment, even boredom, to a gradual assimilation into the roles, so that by the play’s end the lead actor is Gatsby. A sweeping move from discordancy to wholeness.
This trope of disconnectivity, together with the medium of verbatim theatre found resonance in three other performances, No Escape, The Blue Boy, and Echoes of the Past, discussed in separated presentations, around a common text, namely the Ryan Report.

No Escape (2010) is a 90-minute play by Mary Raftery, journalist and producer of the groundbreaking RTÉ television documentary States of Fear. Directed by Roisin McBrinn, it was shown in the Peacock as part of the Abbey’s Darkest Corner series. In it, six actors read verbatim accounts from the Ryan Report in a performance that was both courageous and uncompromising. “The docu-drama takes something vast and brings it up close, there is an amazing sense of silence at the end of the play,” Dr. Pine recalls.

Brokentalker’s, The Blue Boy (2011), written and directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, is an expression through dance and body movement of the same disturbing material. Here, choreographed performers, complete with oblique facial disguise, move to a background of audio recounting testimony of the abused in spasmodic manner, mirroring the soulless existence of those condemned to the industrial schools.

In Echoes of the Past, the found space is now the actual streets of Dublin, specifically the area around Goldenbridge. By downloading an app containing a 15-track audio of verbatim testimony from the Ryan Report (using actors’ voices), each around 90 seconds long and accompanied by an interactive map ( you are directed to specific places approximating to where the events actually took place (you may, if you wish, listen online.) This gives the participant a sense of closeness, a forbidden intimacy almost, that creates a felt experience around St. Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, which was closed in 1983. There is something almost ghostly about walking around a landscape that no longer exists, and through the nightmare children were subjected to in the shameful history of Ireland’s recent past.

Echoes of the Past was created by Maeve Casserly as part of the Industrial Memories Project into analysing the findings of the 2009 Ryan Report, which was led by Dr. Emilie Pines.
“When you see a wall, you want to know what’s on the other side. But here in Ireland it appears that we didn’t,” Dr. Pines said, “so we had to think of a way to lower that wall.”

Fitting into this narrative of displacement were papers on Teresa Deevy’s 1936 play Katie Roche about a young woman who dares to dream of love, and of even becoming a duchess, only to find herself excluded because she was born out of wedlock and treated at the time as somehow defective. These papers were supported by presentations on Nina Arsenault and gender fluidity and the repressed genius of Lucia Joyce which all expanded on and added to this fascinating topic.

On the performance side, there was a dance workshop by Amanda Coogan and a live rehearsal of Doloros by Junk Ensemble, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which foregrounded the weekend symposium with its themes of displacement, alienation and unwanted incursions. Doloros subsequently showed at the Dublin Dance Festival.
A very stimulating two days of presentations, discussions and performances.

Footnote: Papers presented by John Collins, Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service. NYC, ‘Don’t Adapt. Adapt. Do it Wrong: Elevator Repair Service and Staging Literature’. Dr. Cathy Leeney, Assistant Professor Emeritus, UCD, (Not) Withstanding Love: Performance in Irish Theatre’. Aine Stapleton, Choreographer and Filmmaker, ‘Autobiography in Performance and Reimagining Lucia Joyce’. Dr. Emiline Pine, Associate Professor UCD, ‘Theatrical and Digital Responses to Testimony of Child Abuse’. Oonagh Kearney, Filmmaker, ‘Creativity Made Visible as Female Embodiment: Text to Performance’. Dr. Paul Halferty, Head of Drama Studies UCD, ‘Nina Arsenault and Performative Body’.