The 1990s in Ireland saw a series of highly successful theatre productions in which actors played a multiplicity of roles. This has often been attributed to the economic exigencies of the times, but it also depended on the availability of flexible actors with the physical and psychological capacity to embody a wide range of identifiable characters within the one production. The collaborative work of dramatist Tom MacIntyre, director Patrick Mason and actor Tom Hickey (most notably their non-verbal stage adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem, The Great Hunger) had established, in Ireland during the 1980s, an appetite among both artists and audiences for an increasingly physical style of theatre performance. But it was the emergence of a new generation of performers from the burgeoning youth theatre movement, bolstered by the return to Ireland of the first wave of young actors to have experienced a more physical theatre training in Paris , that created the conditions for a new genre of Irish theatre performance.
This series of posts will consider the acting techniques required for this style of performance with reference to four productions from the 1990s in which two actors took on multiple roles: Frank Pig Says Hello (1992), Co-Motion’s stage adaptation of Pat McCabe’s novel; The Butcher Boy, Corca Dorca’s production of Disco Pigs (1996) by Enda Walsh; DubbleJoint’s production of Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones (1996) and its subsequent award-winning revival which I produced at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 1999; and Kabosh’s production of Mojo Mickybo by Owen McCafferty (1998). The discussion will focus primarily on my own empirical exploration of the demands multi-roling places on an actor through the direction of recent revivals of Mojo Mickybo for Belfast’s Chatterbox Theatre Company (2013) and Bedlam Productions (2015).
This first post will identify the precise nature of multi-roling in these productions, and the psychological demands this places on an actor. The second post, due to appear next week, will look at the physical requirements of distinguishing role from role.
Frank Pig Says Hello by Patrick McCabe, which premiered at the 1992 Dublin Theatre Festival, was adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne, who worked closely with the author even as the novel on which it is based and which was published in the same year was taking final shape. Both novel and play employ a retrospective first person narrative to lead reader and audience into Frank’s world, introducing us from his point of view to the fantastic array of characters that people it. The play’s two core characters are Frank who serves as narrator, and Piglet, a sprite-like evocation of his younger self.
But the two actors also portray all the other characters in the story – peers, parents, a policeman, a priest and other adult onlookers such as “the man on the black bike” and women neighbours. Although most of the play’s settings are concretely real, the original design was abstract enough to accommodate fluid, almost cinematic shifts from location to location. But the representation of each character was more than a simple adjustment of mannerism and tone. That might have suggested that the core character was giving a mere indication of their characteristics as they might in normal conversation. Instead, each actor achieved a distinct vocal and physical identity for every character they played. The production proved to be a highlight of the Festival, received an Irish Times Theatre Award, toured internationally, and gave rise to a film by Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy, 1997).
Disco Pigs and Stones in his Pockets which both premiered in 1996, adopted the viewpoint of two core characters who between them represented a whole community, and each has also been followed by a film version. As might be expected, all the film versions adopt a more conventional approach to casting with a separate actor in each role. A revival of Stones in his Pockets in 1999 with Conleth Hill and Sean Campion transferred to London’s West End and Broadway, garnering acting awards as it went.
In order to better understand the acting challenges of this highly popular style of work, I mounted a production in 2013 of the fourth of these extraordinary two-handers, Mojo Mickybo by the Belfast dramatist Owen McCafferty. Stylistically, the play built on ideas developed in the monologue, The Waiting List (1993) in which one actor takes on the roles of a variety of characters within the narrative. McCafferty was also heavily influenced by seeing Steven Berkoff perform at the 1997 Dublin Theatre Festival, being struck by the physical precision of his acting, and the way in which he began with very bold gestures and relaxed these as the audience became familiar with his gestural language.
The action of Mojo Mickybo recalls an idyllic childhood summer in Belfast in 1970 on the eve of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, and the strong friendship that develops between two prepubescent boys, one from “up the road” (Mojo), the other from “over the bridge” (Mickybo). As the play progresses the coded sectarian significance of these labels becomes clear and the play culminates in the shocking murder of Mickybo’s father and the inevitable collapse of the boys’ friendship. Following its premier at the 1998 Dublin Theatre Festival, this production also toured internationally, attracted acting awards, and was subsequently adapted into a film by Terry Loane (Mickybo and Me) in 2004. As with the other plays, the film was conventionally cast, with child actors in the eponymous roles.
This was a significant departure from a key principle that informed the original play, in which McCafferty suggests that the core roles of Mojo and Mickybo be played by adult actors. On stage, this ‘point of view’ serves as a constant physical reminder that the events of Belfast in 1970 is being recalled from a post-conflict perspective. As our own rehearsals progressed, the way in which the narrative flows from the imagination of the core protagonists assumed increasing importance, and led us to think hard about how actors can be helped understand what emerged as a multi-layered process.
It is helpful here to invoke Meyerhold’s distinction between the actor per se, and the actor as the material which the actor controls (Leach, 2010: 28-29). The self-awareness implicit in this analysis proved to be an essential attribute for actors required to take on multiple roles, and both director and actors found it helpful to trace each characterization back to its source. This reached its most complex extent when the actor whose core role was the adult Mojo (the narrator of the overall story) had to represent his younger self imitating his friend Mickybo’s drunken father. This following extract illustrates the end-result in performance of this multi-layered process.
The process was further complicated by the fact that this imitation had to be based on the same actor’s representation of Mickybo’s actual father which the following extract illustrates.
In terms of ‘layering’, in order to represent the child’s impersonation of Mickybo’s father, the actor playing Mickybo’s father had to embody his core character Mojo’s adult memory of his childhood experience of Mickybo’s father. So when it came to representing the child Mojo’s imitation of his friend’s father, the actor playing Mojo had to add yet another psychological layer. That is to say, the actor had to represent Mickybo’s father as remembered by the young Mojo; this in turn had to be based on his own portrayal of the adult Mojo’s memory of his younger self’s perception of the actual man.
A useful metaphor to help explain Meyerhold’s formula is to think of the material organized by the actor as a puppet, and the actor as their own puppeteer. In rehearsing Mojo Mickybo, we experimented with the use of a paper manikin as the father to help physicalize the separation between one layer of characterization and another, as the following extract shows.
We found, however, that it was necessary for the actor to also take on the father’s role directly to demonstrate the gestures and body language to be used for the puppet, as shown in the following extract.
By rehearsing the body language and gestures of a character with the intention of reproducing these using the puppet, the actor was able to model the layering process required by the multi-roling process – a literal embodiment of Meyerhold’s distinction between the actor and the material he organizes.
Having considered the psychological demands of multi-roling, the next post will address the physical techniques to distinguish one character from another.
Leach, Robert (2010). ‘Meyerhold and Biomechanics’, in Alison Hodge (ed.), Actor Training (London: Routledge)
Director: David Grant (Queen’s University Belfast)
Actors: Chris Grant and Seamus O’Hara