When all the city is a stage

A secret location and the use of FM radio add to the thrill of Beautiful Dreamers, writes Padraic Killeen

The country’s two most acclaimed producers of site-specific theatre, ANU and The Performance Corporation, are combining for Beautiful Dreamers, a contemporary play conceived as a conversation with the city of Limerick.

Audiences will be taken to a secret location, but the writer, Tom Swift (The Performance Corporation), and director Louise Lowe (ANU), say the ambition is to involve the whole city in the performance through use of an FM radio signal.

“We’re creating what is, effectively, a mini radio station,” says Swift. “We’ve used radio before in Performance Corporation shows, but on this occasion it’s about reaching out to the city and reaching as many people as possible.

“The audience will be brought to what I think is a really stunning location, one where we hope they will get an overview of the city in every sense. And people in their cars or on the streets will then be able to tune in and maybe look to the location where we’re performing. So they can interact with it.

“In effect, the whole city becomes a stage, if you like. That’s the ambition, anyway.”

Swift, Lowe and ANU visual artist, Owen Boss, considered more high-tech devices — such as ‘augmented reality’ apps. But a radio signal remained the most potent and theatrical tool.

“We found that FM radio — which is actually quite an ancient technology, at this point — is still the one that really connects with people. In some strange way, just having this sound in your ear, or in your car, can really change the way you see the world.”

The two strands of Beautiful Dreamers — the performance taking place at the ‘secret’ location and the broader engagement with the city through radio — promise both intimacy and a communal experience. ANU shows — like the recent ‘Monto Cycle’ in Dublin — have focused on intimate, searing, one-on-one moments between an audience member and a single performer.

While the Performance Corporation have produced intimate shows, they have also tackled the large-scale, as when they staged Swampoodle in an old 9,000-seater arena in the US. “Both companies are well-known for doing work that takes place in non-conventional places,” says Swift. “So we have loads in common. Yet, on the other hand, we do work radically differently. I had worked with Louise before, on a show on Lough Lannagh in Castlebar, called Across the Lough. So we’ve got a good working relationship. It was just a question of the two companies finding a common language.”

“The Performance Corporation’s work has always been highly theatrical and stylised,” says Lowe. “Our work has always been documentary/ real. So, trying to find a marriage of those things has been, for us, genuinely thrilling as a process.

“There’s a heightened energy that goes along with a Performance Corporation show that’s been exciting for us to try to tap into.”

One of the differences in their methodologies is that, when writing for Performance Corporation, Swift would have a full script for the performers by the first day of rehearsals. ANU, however, will usually commence rehearsals without a script, instead working with a concept based on an intense research phase.

“Louise has actually said to me that, for ANU, the script is only ever written at the very end of a show’s run,” says Swift. “So it has been slightly different. I am leaving a lot of gaps in the script for my collaborators to come in and make their contribution. But, then, I’m quite relaxed about that.

“The history of Irish writers, and the Irish play, is that the play has to be this complete and unalterable item from day one, but I’ve never really worked like that.”

Given the power of intimacy in past ANU shows, meanwhile, one wonders if audiences at Beautiful Dreamers can expect more of the same.

“Some of it will certainly have a feeling of intimacy,” says Lowe. “But, I think, where the real intimacy has emerged in Beautiful Dreamers is in the interviews we’ve done with residents of the city.”

These latter interviews were undertaken prior to Swift and his cohorts shaping a working text together.

“The text is all based on that research,” says Swift. “That involved things like approaching people, cold on the street, with a questionnaire. The questions ranged from ‘What was your best ever day in Limerick city?’ to ‘Where can you get the best chips in Limerick?’ to ‘Who would you say ‘sorry’ to, but you never did, and why’?”

Part of the purpose of such research is to access “the genuine voice or character of the place,” says Swift. “People have been incredibly open about the city — what’s good and bad. Like any city, Limerick has a lot of contradictions.

“There’s a huge pride in the city. And there’s so much to be proud of.

“There are beautiful settings and beautiful buildings. And the people are really warm and friendly. But, then, there’s also that really sharp awareness of the problems, of the reputation. I think the reputation is the thing that hurts Limerick people the most.”

Swift’s experience in Limerick, however, has convinced him that the city is on the cusp of writing itself a brand new script.

“It’s been great,” he says. “If there is a word that springs to mind, and I don’t mean this to sound in any way patronising, but it is ‘potential’. It just feels like Limerick is going to take off over the next five years and that all that pride that people take in the city will be justified.”

Beautiful Dreamers runs November 26 to December 6


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