BLUE TEAPOT Theatre Company provided one of the big hits of last year’s arts festival with Christian O’Reilly’s heartbreakingly beautiful play, Sanctuary, a production which also enjoyed a successful run at the Dublin Fringe Festival.
The critical and popular acclaim accorded to Sanctuary definitely whets the appetite for Blue Teapot’s new show ID, which receives its premiere in a couple of weeks’ time as part of this year’s Galway International Arts Festival.
The term ‘ID’ is shorthand for both ‘identity’ and ‘intellectual disability’ and in the show the gifted Blue Teapot performers bravely confront the way the world sees them, and how they see the world. Filled with humour and with insight, ID dramatises the experience of intellectual disability while prompting us to question our own notions of identity along the way.
The play is directed by Scott Williams and devised by him and the Blue Teapot actors. At the end of rehearsals last Monday, Scott sat down to talk about the show and what it has been like for him working with Blue Teapot.
Scott Williams and the Meisner Technique
A native of California, Williams has been based in London since 1996 where he founded the Impulse Company which is dedicated to offering acting courses using the Meisner Technique. The Meisner Technique deeply informs the work he has been doing with Blue Teapot, he began our chat by telling me about this particular acting aid.
“Sanford Meisner was a co-worker with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at The Group Theatre and they introduced Stanislavski’s ideas to the American public,” Williams begins. “The interesting thing about their various careers is that they all went in slightly different directions from the same starting point.
“Strasberg went heavily into what he called ‘affective memory’ or what is called in the business ‘sense memory’ or ‘emotional recall’ which entails exercises where an actor uses their own emotional past in order to create a level of truth in the play.
“Stella Adler’s whole take was based on what she called ‘the imaginative force’, she was very caught up in what was possible in the imagination of the actor. Meisner’s avenue was, in certain ways, profound in my view because it is the most simple and the most basic. The thing that distinguishes Meisner’s work from the others is this - what happens to the actor with the Meisner technique is that it depends, not just on themselves, but on what the other person does to them, which Meisner summed up in the phrase ‘the pinch and the ouch’.
“All of his work is about engaging in the present moment, being very alive and truthful right here and right now which, if you think about it, is the polar opposite of ‘What’s my memory?’ or ‘What’s capable in my imagination?’.”
Williams believes the Meisner Technique is well suited to actors with intellectual disability.
“Meisner’s work -and I studied with him personally in the 1970s - is, in a curious way, exactly the way ID people work. Their gifts, and they are profound and many, are the gifts of being present right here, right now. When we ask them to perform in a previously-written play, we are not appealing to their strengths. Their strengths are not memorisation or reproduction of past emotions. Their strengths are ‘What’s going on right in front of me right now.’ So Meisner’s work directly addresses their capabilities in a very particular manner.”
Prior to directing ID, Williams previously worked with Blue Teapot providing acting classes.
“Petal Pilley, Blue Teapot’s artistic director studied with me in London, about 12/15 years ago, and that’s where the link started,” he says. “She rang me up one day and said ‘I’m here working in Galway, would you like to come over and teach?’ She told me the actors were intellectually disabled, I hadn’t the vaguest idea of what that meant. So when I came over here first, about three years ago, I was confronted with a group of actors that were quite different to what I normally work with. The great, extraordinary, event of that first session was realising how profoundly true they are and how, in a certain way, they are the best avatars for my work because they deal with what’s happening right now, as I said. I think Petal had intuited that my teaching would be a good match for the Blue Teapot actors.”
Proud to be who they are
Moving on to ID, I ask Williams about the content of the show.
“We are two weeks away from our first public performance and even I don’t know the exact answer to that as we speak,” he replies with a laugh. “Normally, when I direct a Shakespeare or whatever play I’d have a pretty good idea of the shape of the show at this point, whereas with ID – and I have to tell you I am not at all nervous about this - because the development is so profoundly coming from the actors, that isn’t the case.
“Back in March we did a couple of weeks’ exploration, we didn’t have anything at that point other than a general idea that we wanted to do something that the actors themselves would create. We spent two weeks in a room together exploring possibilities, and by that point they knew me and trusted me as I was talking to them about their dreams and thoughts.
“Then one afternoon we were having a casual conversation in which they began using the phrase ‘intellectual disability’ for the first time in my hearing. I remarked on the fact and one of the actors said ‘Scott, you don’t understand, I’m proud to be intellectually disabled, it’s who I am.’ That knocked me sideways, I felt that was at the heart of everything we were trying to look at.
“I told a writer friend about it later that night and he said ‘Well, there’s your title!’ and that’s where the title of the show came out of and it’s really the most accurate title we could have come up with for this show. So from that casual conversation came the real idea for the play; this is about who you think they are and the show puts forward their view of life.
“That is curiously both generic, it’s about the intellectually disabled as a group but it is also these actors talking about things that they feel, that they have experienced, and their own perspective on life. I’ve been regularly reduced to rubble in the rehearsal room by their bravery and passion.
“I saw Sanctuary last year and when Petal and I started chatting about doing this show, I’ll tell you I was damn intimidated having seen that! Frankly, it was an extraordinary piece of work and the only thing I could come up with out of that was when Petal said ‘I’ll be prompting from the side, that’s a normal part of our process’.
“That got me thinking what would happen if we made a play that would be within the actors’ orbit instead of asking them to work on our version of what makes a play and that’s what we are doing here. There is lots of movement, lots of humour, it’s very funny, there are three or four episodes that are just hilarious. It’s not just educational it’s a very entertaining evening of theatre!”
ID, part of the Galway International Arts Festival, is at the Blue Teapot Theatre, Munster Avenue, from July 16 to 19 and from July 23 to 26 at 8pm. The show is not suitable for children. For bookings see www.giaf.ie/id