Belltable:Connect 10 Blog – Liam O’Brien

I’ve been making theatre for as long as I remember. Acting. Singing. Directing. Thankfully never dancing. Much. A jack of all trades like so many of us in this business.

But for my Belltable 10 Connect bursary, I wanted to spend some time focusing on the thing I’ve dedicated most of my time in Limerick over the last decade, which is producing theatre.

When I stepped on the stage at Belltable in 2017 in Bottom Dog’s production of Drinking In America, I had to remind audiences (and myself) that I’d not performed in one of our shows for 5 years. Sure I directed Animal Farm in 2016, spent half a year fundraising to take Language UnBecoming A Lady to New York the year before, helmed The Bachelor of Kilkish during city of culture, and brought What Happened Bridgie Cleary and A Christmas Carol to the stage in each preceding year, but acting – nope hadn’t had the time. What all those productions had in common was a producer – and I was it. By desire or design, or let’s face it the fact we usually had no money, someone had to do it and I have a better laptop than Myles Breen…

So rather than try writing a new show, or performing in something online for the lock downed masses, I seized the opportunity to spend my time doing just that – the first stages of producing a new show.

First comes the idea.

At our company Bottom Dog we’ve had many since 2009. Of course over the years when you apply for funding and are unsuccessful these ideas then sit on a shelf – some never to be heard of again – some waiting for the right opportunity to breathe once more. In the case of Seven Deadly Sins, it was a pandemic that made it more relevant than before.

The notion of presenting theatre is now an undiscovered country. 2 metres or 1. Sanitised seats. Social distanced lobbies. What theatre looks like is akin to the final act of a mystery play, in so much that we know what pieces may be involved, but how they all fit together is yet to be revealed.

So how about 7 plays. In 7 confessional booths. Each themed under one of 7 deadly sins. One on one performances. Theatre at its most intimate. An opportunity for real connection while limiting audience’s interaction with each other, but by sharing 7 individual plays the audience does get to connect too; viewing the same material albeit in a different order. A true opportunity for a bespoke experience.

I had the concept. But I, like a not so great Ziegfield, was to produce the show. Not write or star in it. So from concept, I went to creation. I needed writers, and with the Belltable supporting me to dream big, think blue sky, well why not see if I could get 7.

One of a producer’s jobs is getting the right people to work with you. In 2012 the Arts Council funded me to develop an outdoor production of King Lear. Talking the luminary Des Keogh into it wasn’t hard but I learned a great deal from it. He loved the idea and in his words, he would ‘never’ get asked to play Lear anywhere else. In even just our Belltable Connect 10 – Blog Liam O’Brien brief staging of scenes at a Dominican Abbey in Kilmallock he was astounding. ‘The idea was the thing’ and it taught me, a good idea is all you need.

So knowing that most of Limerick’s theatre makers were working on their own bursary connect projects, I also thought about the opportunity to get a range of voices perhaps less heard in the proscenium. To approach not just playwrights but novelists, musicians, poets. To think outside the box and put together a team of creatives unlike anything we’ve had on previous productions.

To say I’m delighted with the final line up is an understatement. One of our greatest supporters the acclaimed novelist Donal Ryan was the first to say yes. I reached out to Róisín Meaney who I’d never worked with before, but had spent most of the lockdown swapping Limericks with online. In the midst of her 18th novel she jumped on board. One of my best friends and collaborators Stephen Ryan (windings), who had shared the stage with me on our 18 venue tour of Drinking In America, brought his wit and positivity. Johanne Webb now based in Galway, while on pause with her work with Druid and Macnas, offered her talent and sensitivity. Dan Mooney, who’d do anything to avoid having to act in one of our rehearsed readings agreed to write whatever sin was left at the end. Thankfully he also connected me with Sam Windrim, who brought seagulls into the mix. And last but not least Elaine O’Dwyer, fresh from her debut one woman show on the inimitable and ahead of her time Maureen O’Hara.

Connecting and discussing ideas with all the writers formed the backbone of this period, and as a flavour I made a little video to share below:

From then it was venue. Would I be lucky enough to find a space with 7 existing confessional booths. Having seen a few productions in the now deconsecrated Franciscan’s church on Henry Street, I immediately thought of there and hoped it would be the answer. Alas, the project would meet its first bump in the road, as the church is currently inaccessible. I made contact with the curator of Limerick museum, which occupies the building next door, Matthew Potter, who was fascinated by the idea but unable to assist in getting access. For now. I’ve not given up on the idea, but venue wise there’s more to explore and do down the road.

Obviously to realise this project will take significant funding. I may have assembled a superb team of writers happy to share their ideas, but to commission the writing of the 7 micro plays? That’ll take more support.

Will it be a cast of 7? With some of the writers expressing desires to write for 2 characters, that’s something that also has to be explored. If a suitable venue can’t be found, can we construct these booths in a traditional theatre space. Or an outdoor space. More considerations and costs.

But what I’m incredibly grateful to Marketa and Belltable for this support is I can now develop a future application with an already stellar team in place. With an outline of each writer and each sin. With directions to go in. With ideas to explore.

In essence I’ve been supported in a way never have in my time in Limerick, which is to spend the time to connect the dots first, before filling in a page of blanks.