“Stanislavski in Ireland: Focus at Fifty”
Editors: Brian McAvera and Steven Dedalus Burch
Press Pages: 245
An American girl, Deirdre O’Connell, is the heroine of this unusual history of a Dublin theatre.
Born and raised in the Bronx, of Irish immigrant parents, O’Connell studied acting at the New York Dramatic Workshop and then with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. There she was introduced to The Method, the Stanislavski System, which became the ruling passion of the rest of her life.
Incidentally, she was not alone. American method actors include Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, James Dean, Paul Newman, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Al Pacino, Karl Malden, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Gazzara and Marilyn Monroe.
(Dustin Hoffman portrays an overly devoted method actor in “Tootsie.” He once held up the filming of a commercial by questioning the motivation of his character, a tomato.)
The Method was a thoroughly established training technique in the United States, but not in Ireland, when in 1963 Deirdre O’Connell, age 23, moved to Dublin and established her teaching studio and repertory company, Focus Theatre, finding its physical home in an abandoned clothing label factory on Pembroke Place. Working on a shoestring, she kept the workshop and the small, 72-seat theatre going until her death in 2001.
Not only had there not been a Stanislavski workshop in Dublin, Irish theatre had very little use for any training of actors. Actress Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy says: “the predominant attitude in Ireland was acting is a talent, a gift from God. You either have it or you haven’t, and you don’t interfere with it.”
Acting in Ireland was still largely melodramatic, declamatory, oratorical, even at much-honored venues like The Abbey, the Gate and the Gaiety. Nevertheless, students of all sorts, even some working actors, appeared for the Saturday workshops. The fee was nominal. Those who could pay, paid, others gave what they could; some did chores. No student with promise was turned away.
Needless to say, there was considerable resistance, even scorn, for The Method’s reliance on calling up the emotional content of a scene or a line.
The director Joe Devlin, originally from Belfast in the North, who took over at Focus after the death of O’Connell, suggests the problem was partly over-intellectualization; theatre in the West was still dominated by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.”
Actors tend to think their parts through, not calling up enough feeling, and, especially in the politically correct eighties, says Devlin, “We all lived in our heads not our bodies.” In addition, he says, theatre was heavily influenced by Marxism, feminism and other theories of the moment. Concerns were social, external, not inward, into character.
The Stanislavski technique, in which actors use long silences, improvisation, even exercises in which one would imagine oneself to be an object or struggle to bring a past emotion to mind, to be used in developing character, all seemed pretty kooky to the traditionalists.
The Focus also was unique in Dublin in staging original plays and continental playwrights such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, new plays by Beckett and Pinter, and work by Americans such as Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Edward Albee, Truman Capote and others.
University of Alabama theatre professor and dramaturge Steven Dedalus Burch–what a name for a scholar of Irish culture!—is himself a playwright. Most recently his adaptation of “Moby Dick” was produced by the UA theatre department. His coeditor is Brian McAvera, long-time director and author of more than 30 plays. McAvera’s cycle of eight plays, “Picasso’s Women,” has been translated into 17 languages. The two have not written a conventional history, although one may well be written soon. “Focus at Fifty” is more of a collage, a collection of interviews with actors, memoir pieces, mainly about Deirdre O’Connell, newspaper reviews and short essays, which collectively tell the Focus story. The physical theatre on Pembroke closed a couple of years ago and it is hoped that this volume, if it receives the attention it deserves in Ireland, will help to bring about the rebirth of the Focus Theatre.
One certainly wishes them well.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”