Reflecting on RSVP with Dublin Youth Theatre

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Image by Sally-Anne Kelly for BLOW Magazine

One of my undoubted highlights of last year was making a show called RSVP for Dublin Fringe Festival in collaboration with Dublin Youth Theatre. I co-directed it with the brilliant Dan Canham, following in the line of The Adventure Principle which we’d made with Contact Young Actors Company at the Contact in Manchester. Dan and I imagined when we first flew out to Dublin in June for our first reconnaissance that we’d make a brand new piece from the blueprint of the previous show (more about this blueprinting of process in a future post). But as we discovered the DYT building is a terraced house, the main studio only just big enough to have all our acting company stand up in. Just before the first session we were shaking our heads in desperation as to how this would be possible, and thought: we’ll just have to use the whole house. An hour later, and we’re running around in elation through the middle of a viewpoints exercise over four floors of house and garden. This we knew immediately would be the heart of the entirely new show we wanted to make, an experience that the audience would be immersed in, free to explore but also to join in and play themselves if they wanted. It was possible only because of the brilliance of the ensemble. This brilliance reflects the care with which DYT is run, where young people are selected for how well they play and listen to each other, are given responsibility for making work and are at the heart of the organisation. No wonder that everywhere over the fringe, almost anyone I met had been part of DYT at some point: it’s like the academy of Dublin theatre. But it also reflects the excellence of these particular young people, and the delight Dan and I had working with them, as well as the marvellous team DYT had put together: Sophie Meehan and Neil Douglas assisting, Kilian Waters making video installation, Aidan Crowe almost rebuilding the whole house, Kim Porcelli for sound and music and our third eye, Ella Daly holding the whole ship together. Dan and I did a post-match interview with some of the company, and it seems fitting to hand the rest of this post over to them in their own (only slightly edited) words.

Tassos Stevens

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Image by Sally-Anne Kelly

•TS: So RSVP what the hell was that?
ETHAN LANDERS: It was a play we participated in, which was a party where we participated and it was amazing, it was the best experience of my life.
JOHN GUNNING: It was an immersive theatre piece that was very different to any kind of devising that anyone in the group or the cast had done before. In that we weren’t devising a story or the method in which the story was told, we were devising ways to interact with the space around us and the people who would arrive, and the different methods that we would use to do that. And then slotting them together as a show.

BEN CONROY: So act 1 was more or less being taken on a little mini-adventure in the area in and around Upper Gardiner Street. Basically you were greeted by a teenager, one of us, who would bring you on a trip to try to get to a party, where the rest of the play would take place. There’d be some disputes on the correct route to take to get to this party, we always ended up going down a dark slightly scary alley, which ended up not being a short cut at all but a long cut, and we’d have various adventures and misadventures down there. You’d chat to the audience about, y’know, parties they’d been at. They’d been invited to begin the process by pretending to be a teenager, figuring out how they knew Enda Gardiner, the person who is kind of at the centre of the party. It was more or less setting them up for what was to come and giving them a bit of a little mini-adventure as I said.
DYLAN COBURN-GRAY: Some of the things I really liked about that, the qualities we were chasing, that it would be idiomatic to us, which is the kind of the walk to the party, like you say about pretending to be a teenager, so the walk that we would actually have, that sense of getting lost, not really knowing where you are going, desperately struggling to get crisps or something that is the passport into the party. Touching on the devising of it a little bit, it was chasing those things that were about going to a party for us. Which was kind of ludicrous, but it was really nice chasing that quality because it wasn’t realistic, but it was something real.

JG: Act 2. You’d come into the party into a kind of normal space because all of the actors and possibly the audience have taken up their own space as these cliques, who just then act naturally as if you’re coming into the party. So you’re meeting a jock for the first time, or a plastic for the first time, or a geek, or a stoner. Oh and you’re being greeted by really enthusiastic drama kids who hang around the doorway. And then things get very weird when this girl in a tiger hat playing avant garde cello music on a boombox comes and looks at everyone.
SADHBH MCQUILLAN: With sparkles on it.
ROBYN CONROY: And fairylights.
JG: With sparkles. And as this boombox tiger lady walks past, everyone in the party who was already in the party, the actors suddenly break off or just stop what they were doing to start something new, and then this just starts into this process of this magical surreal space of the party where they start playing games around the house, then they start singing, massive singing all in a massive group in the kitchen, and then they just start chatting amongst themselves and it gets really small and intimate, and then it comes back again to more games and more singing, and then everyone starts freaking out and dancing upstairs, and the whole time the audience is just following this path of the energy that is being led – someone stop me at any time – and the energy of this party is rising and falling over 25 minutes –
BC: And it looks really really natural, but it’s so structured, like we ended up plotting all of this and moving from the games phase to the deep meaningful conversations phase to the big ecstatic singing phase, all of this was timed and practiced down to a fine art, but with the aim of making that invisible and making it seem to the audience like it was just a naturally flowing party.
ANGEL LI: I think it almost seemed like a party but like fast-forwarded, like a stream of events that happens at a party but in 25 minutes.
DCG: Talking to my mam about it what she said was that all the different bits felt real or natural, that as the mad as the transitions were that they had this impact on us which made a party collage almost, where the bits all work but they are stuck together in odd ways, and that this odd energy complements the individual set-pieces and sections quite nicely.
PETER SMULLENS: What I thought was really interesting was that the older people that I talked to after the show all said that they absolutely loved it, that it brought them back and that it was amazing to feel that young, but all the younger people I talked to, they liked it but they thought they should feel a lot more natural but it was interesting that the adults got into it a lot more.
JG: It’s kind of interesting that the older people, those who were in their thirties or forties and had perhaps stopped going to house parties a while ago – (everyone laughs and looks at DAN CANHAM and TS) – for the most part, as a massive sweeping generalisation, seemed to get the most out of it. There was this really noticable thing that younger audience members up to say 19, 20, 21, of being almost dropped into the uncanny valley in that this is something that we recognise but it’s got this weird face.
SINEAD MATTHEWS: Cos they’re used to seeing it every Friday or Saturday or – maybe not maybe – (laughs) they’re used to seeing it and when we done it, like maybe the singing and the dancing they just don’t take part in things and they felt really awkward. But my mam really liked it, and my auntie really liked it.

JOSEPHINE : There were moments when you’d start talking to someone and it’d be like that person was a mutual friend at an actual party then you’d end up being really good friends with them at the end of the night, except that in this, they were gone in like 15 minutes and that’d be the last time you’d probably ever see them and it was really weird, you were making great friends, it was really interesting.
EL: I liked the way it wasn’t like a normal play because you’d become like friends with the audience and you’d feel like you knew them more than if they were just watching you perform and that was good, and also just to include them so that they know the joy of the play.
SMC: I really liked that there was always something new we could do, that we just kinda came up with. Like when the window tricks happened for the first time, that was really really fun, that was just brilliant.

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Image by Sally-Anne Kelly

SM: I felt like it was natural, and it felt like we knew what we were doing because we were just going with the flow, but there was always that sense that if we did get lost, we’d know where to go because the next thing would be happening.
JOSEPHINE MURPHY: One of my favourite things about it and what made it most different was that the audience were acting too, it wasn’t just us, the audience had a story and a character that was maybe just them when they were younger, or maybe they made up a completely different side to themselves but you were acting with them which was like really cool, a real bonding thing.
PS: What I really loved about the improvisation bit was that it felt absolutely fail-safe, so that even if someone was not going along with it, it felt completely natural and right to just walk away, because this is a party: you’re not at my energy level, so I’m just going. It was so nice.
JG: There was a really nice thing as well in encountering people who you knew, and maybe had some – informing backstory outside of that. But then acting totally naturally as to the story they presented. At one point my mam was in and she’d hurt herself on a bike a couple of days before so she was limping, and she introduced herself as Tina who was a goalie who’d broke her ankle in a hockey accident a few weeks ago. And it was really lovely that you could just totally have that audience who were totally freewheeling everything with you as well.

JM: Being able to have a moment with an audience person that you’ve maybe been talking to for 5 minutes and just tell them this thing that this is the essence of you, this thing that you want to remember when you leave this party and you don’t remember your youth again, and for them to want to hear it and be genuinely interested, and that one audience person when I gave them my piece of paper with my moment on it, he felt so bad that he couldn’t give me something back and he ended up giving me the envelope of his ticket.
SM: I thought it was like amazing, when I talk people don’t usually listen, so when I got an audience and they really wanted to know what I was gonna say, I thought that was cool.

JM: My mam felt really sad after it, especially in act 3, seeing us all being young and having all these hopes for the future and she was like ‘oh I remember when I was like that’ she kind of got really nostalgic and stuff.
BC: The whole idea behind the play that it was almost celebrating the end of youth, that it was the last time we’d be together and that we were celebrating that but there was a kind of sadness behind it as well. My family came to the last performance, they loved it to pieces but they also got a real sense that they were almost getting emotional as well, just because there was a real sense of – not depressing grimness or anything but a sadness that this was the end of something, that this was a transition.

SM: I didn’t want to answer the door when the last doorbell rang. I told Paul to run away from the door.
JG: Now I’m getting sad again.
SA: Like it was the last time for us, like the music was turned on when the audience left and none of us wanted it to end so in our heads it didn’t have to end until the music stopped playing.
RC: And I thought that was lovely that it almost made the last performance inevitably the best because it made it all so real for all of us and you know when we were all hugging each other in the last song it was like really true, and I thought that was really nice.
BC: Now I’m getting emotional as well.
JM: I don’t know if it was the same for everyone else  but it was this place that you went to after school every day and you picked up from where you left off, we were in this world of the eternal party –
BC: Yeah.
JM: And always coming back to the same place so it didn’t matter that we were starting again because we started again a few times every night, so it was just continuing from the night before and it lasted a week.
BC: And it kept reinventing itself and stayed brilliant.
PS: I had this really sad moment after the last day when we were all playing Would You Rather? up in the thing.
SM: Oh jesus.
PS: And we were all getting changed in the hashtag LADPAD, and I went to Brian oh that was so much fun, I can’t wait to do it again tomo- oh
SM: Aah.
JM: The next day I put on my uniform and I had been wearing my uniform when we wrote out the structure for the play, so I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a piece of paper  and it was the structure that we wrote out and I felt really sad.
JG: Just staying on the depressing stories at the end, there’s this point where I get someone to read out a letter, or whoever is doing the act 3 gets someone to read it out to the rest of the people assembled in the room, and then hands it back. But the last night the guy went to hand it back and I just waved him off, because it was totally unnecessary to take it back, and it was really strange to not have it back, y’know.
EL: On the last day when we were all singing, it was like we were still performing but we kind of forgot about the audience and we just kind of all came together to celebrate the last time, and I think that I would have liked to see that as an audience cos we weren’t really acting, it was true, it was the last time, and we were all just like thinking about how great it was, and missing each other, and people were crying, and it was really nice.

JG: Act 3 was the chill-out at the end of the party. And there was a big TV playing videos of cast-members talking to themselves in the future, say when they were 30 or 45 or 75, and then we kind watched the videos of people talking to themselves in the future while I played the guitar. And then I’d ask if they got any moments that they want to give back so we can hold onto them, or that they wanted to hang onto themselves when they were back out in the world. And then we’d have a letter that someone from the audience would read out, a letter from Enda who had already left the party talking to them about the moments that they had gotten and then telling them they were free to write down their own moments to keep for themselves to remind themselves of feelings that they had during the party, and then once they had written down their moment and they had stowed it away in their bag then I’d lead them out gently and take them into the real world, again from the end of the party.

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Image by Sally-Anne Kelly


EL: When we were making it, it didn’t seem like we were making a play, it seemed like we were just having fun – you were teaching us all these ways to have fun.
TS: We were learning as much from you, Ethan.
EL: And then when you told us that these things are actually going to be put into the play then it made sense. I was going to have fun in this party and I was going to enjoy the thing, and then if we’re enjoying it then the audience are going to enjoy it.
JM: I loved that everything we started doing, it wasn’t like ‘ok we are doing this so that this is coming into the play at this part’ but that we did all these things, and once we’d made the structure and started doing it then you’d think back to this one rehearsal and go ‘oh yeah, that’s where that came from’.
SA: It was scary.
SM: The whole time I didn’t have a clue what was going on but it was brilliant.
JG: It was really nice that the catchphrase for like the first 40% of rehearsals was like ‘we don’t know what we’re doing but stick with us’ because we had no idea of what was going on but it was kind of – it was a bit like a wagon rolling down the hill which you had to hold onto desperately – it was really fun but if you fell off, you didn’t know where it was going to leave you.
PS: I loved how when we first started when we had the 2 days or the 3 days of the viewpoints-based workshops and how that was such a prominent part of well what I thought it was going to be and it started off as that but then we changed it and it was still in it but in a very nice subtle way, and it was nice to see how it started off so big and then turned into something even bigger and then so small in the end.
SM: I loved – because I had to go to school before rehearsals – I loved the part where I was waiting on my second bus to come to rehearsals where usually I’d like be in my home in my pyjamas doing my homework or something but I like didn’t care because I was so happy to just come and work, for once.
BC: I think that something John said was like really interesting, like you said ‘we don’t know what we’re doing but bear with us’. The trust thing. In some ways that was the audience experience with us as actors. They had to trust us in the same way that we had to trust you two and I think – like Ethan said you were teaching us how to have fun – you were also teaching us how to teach people to have fun, y’know – them being the audience.
SA: And I think some of the audience, they might have lost the ability to be able to play the games, and to play just, to make up things and use your imagination, and to have fun, like they were brought back to that ability to just like go with it and make up things with their mind. And I think that some of them thought that was a really good thing to get out of it.
RC: That’s probably why a lot of the adults I’d say enjoyed it almost more than the teenagers because they were going back.

JM: That was one of the best things, like I remember on the last night when we’d all finished eating pizzas, and just sitting on the couch and going ‘I didn’t know you guys before this’ and it was just amazing.
EL: Before the thing, I barely didn’t know some people and now I feel like I could have a full decent conversation with everyone in the cast, like as well as it being a play it was like a really good bonding experience.

JG: The playthrough before the final version. I thought everything was going to hell. But I think I was away that weekend when you came up with that whole structure. and when I came in, it just looked like a clusterfuck.
SM: What did he say, a custard fuck?
JG: It was just this moment when I saw the board and how it all worked and it just felt incredibly busy and there was kind of a – I think it’s ok to say this now because I was wrong, but there was just a moment when I went no you didn’t know what you were doing, after we did that show. And then you came back with it, and it totally worked, but just that was a really scary moment.
JM: There was this brilliant moment when Seán Doyle had been in for the bit where we’d structured the original one and then he missed the day where we changed it and then came back in and was like, oh did I miss anything. And I said well yeah we changed the entire show. It’s the kind of thing you say as a joke to someone if they miss a rehearsal because they’d be like really? oh that’s not true.
PS: What I loved was that at the end of every show or playtest or viewpoints or whatever, you wouldn’t say were there any bad moments, you’d just say tricky because then you just can’t focus on anything that went wrong because nothing went wrong, it was just more difficult. Nothing was ever bad, and that set a theme for the whole show. And even now I can’t really think of anything bad.

EL: I’ve learned loads, I can’t really pick what I’ve learnt it’s been such a mindblowing –
SM: I learnt to trust myself and just go with it, don’t ask too many questions and it’ll work out in the end.
SA: I think the main lesson that I got out of it was like don’t panic because it will work out eventually.
JG: One thing that I found really important to take away from it was something you kept stressing, to take care of the audience. Which of course in a show like that is something which manifests itself kind of like as literally taking care of the audience, just to have something like as the working psyche of the show is really really good to have in the back of your mind.
PS: I learnt I’d rather have ham sandwiches for the rest of my life than my internet history on my head.

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