We had the chance to talk to Ronan Phelan about The Effect, which will open at the Project Arts Centre later this month.
Rough Magic Theatre Company presents – THE EFFECT – 22 March 2017-01 April 2017
You were involved with the seeds programme, which is a great tool for young theatre makers. Can you tell us about how it works and what you learned from it?
Well, obviously I’m biased but simply put, Rough Magic’s SEEDS programme is the gold standard of theatre artist development in Ireland. It’s an initiative for emerging theatre artists of all disciplines – directors, set/lighting/costume/sound/AV designers, producers and writers – structured around the individual needs of each participant, encouraging a collaborative and collegiate approach within the group itself. It’s a two-year programme, so I was a participant on the 2012/2013 cycle, and the experience contributed enormously to my knowledge and confidence as a theatre director. Over the course of the cycle, I had the opportunity to work as an assistant director on Rough Magic productions, to attend an international placement with Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, to travel to European theatre festivals and ultimately, to create my own work for the SEEDS showcase: I directed Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Project Arts Centre in November 2013.
These signature features of the programme – international travel, the placement, and the showcase – are vitally important in identifying and nurturing your taste and giving you the freedom to make work on a large scale; however I found the most surprising and instructive element of the course was the development of a real and sincere relationship with the members of Rough Magic. We attended their shows; they attended ours. They listened, they advised, we argued and debated and they treated us as equals from the beginning. The SEEDS programme made me a professional, it provided me with context and purpose and somewhere to explore my ideas, which can really be missing for those working independently at an emergent level without supports or structures.
You have worked as an Assistant Director in the Abbey recently. You must have seen a huge amount of different styles and attitudes towards directing. Was there any director you particularly related to or enjoyed working with?
Without trying to avoid answering the question, as the Resident Assistant Director at the Abbey I felt it was my job to relate to all of the directors I worked with. The role of assistant on any production is tricky. The functions are often undefined, and it can be unclear how you can actively contribute to the success of the show. Because of this I took it upon myself to really try and embrace the gesture of each production as presented by the director. It seemed to me important to take the opportunity to approach and learn from each director’s philosophy, embracing their styles rather than imposing my own. I also gained a real appreciation of the integrity with which each of these different directors approached their work. I found them all to be really generous with their time and energy; they engaged with me on a level, as a professional and a peer. So, at the risk of giving what sounds like a Rose of Tralee response, I liked them all!
Except Wayne Jordan, he’s a sap.
The Effect is written by Lucy Prebble, how involved will she be in this production?
There are three versions of The Effect that I was able to get my hands on: the published text, the final version used for the National Theatre production in 2012, and the version used for the US premiere last year. There are small, subtle differences between each, so naturally I’ve been in touch with Lucy about which was her preferred version and to discuss her feelings about the variations. Beyond this, Lucy prefaces the play with an author’s note that liberates each production, stating that the parts were written for specific actors, and that ‘when it comes to matters of nationality [and] physical references . . . the performers should feel free to mould the text around themselves.’ This is the kind of trust that a director really likes from a writer – she affords directors and actors a lot of freedom, which in turn gives them a lot of purchase in the end product. I think it’s actually a really clever approach on Lucy’s part; it means everybody buys in and shares the responsibility of delivering the best possible show.
The Effect was produced by the national Theatre in London in 2012. Did you see the production?
No, I read about it at the time, and the subject matter instantly piqued my interest. I was sorry to miss it. So when, earlier this year, I started having conversations with Rough Magic about potential productions, The Effect popped into my head. I got myself a copy, had a read, and knew immediately it was the show I wanted to do. I was really intrigued by the premise, about two people on a drugs trial who begin to fall in love, but aren’t sure if their feelings are the result of a genuine attraction or if they’re being chemically stimulated. It’s like a thriller in many ways – its taut and fast-paced and full of suspense – but also really thoughtful and full of ideas. It’s a play that rigorously interrogates the nature of love and wrestles with the challenge of defining and analysing human emotion. To be honest I’m glad I didn’t see the 2012 production so I can really develop a relationship with the play unburdened by having seen someone else’s interpretation first.
The Effect is about people who fall in love while on mind altering substances. How did you research this topic?
Is this a leading question??
What I can say is that as well as being a romance, The Effect is also a play about psychiatry and how we treat mental disorders – whether through medication or therapy. So I’ve done a lot of reading around this subject. Really it comes down to the question of whether we think of disorders like depression as emotional states or as illnesses; and following on from that, how we choose to treat the individuals affected by them. Do we view the brain as a chemical machine which can be manipulated and tweaked? Or is it a more mysterious organism, which houses elements of the self that resist scientific explanation? These are big ideas, I know, but what’s remarkable about the play is the lightness and energy with which these questions are probed. At one point, one of the characters compares the adrenaline high you get from bungee jumping with the sensation of falling in love. And there is this dopamine rush in the play, like a surge of endorphines, as the two lovers are coming together; there is this momentum at the heart of the action, this unstoppable force of attraction that ultimately the lovers – and their doctors – are unable to control.