A cursory glance at Paul Keogan’s CV reinforces what you may have already thought: at home, abroad, and on tour, Keogan is clearly a leading light in his field. And, having carved quite a niche for himself as one who helps a production - whether theatre or opera - tell its story with instruments and gels, he has not been content to leave it at that. Venturing into set design is a part of that need; a larger part has to do with the natural curiosity of the artist and the fact that, in his terms: “it always feels like I’ve got to lift my game.”
Keogan started his career, as many have, in the Drama department at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College Dublin. Set design had been an interest since his youth drama days. “I loved the structures,” he says. “I distinctly remember loving the structures of the scenery from behind, seeing it from the perspective that an audience never sees. I just thought that backstage in the theatre was a magical place.”
The plan had been to go to Trinity, and then go off a do a graduate design course, but one of the offerings at the Beckett Centre caught his eye. “I knew nothing about lighting, absolutely nothing, but I was very intrigued by it, so I signed up for the lighting course. I got side tracked by it because very few others were doing it.” Lighting student shows led to an Erasmus exchange at Glasgow University, and on to the realisation that “maybe I could make a bit of a go of this, and I launched myself with the exuberance of youth, into a career as a lighting designer.”
He hasn’t looked back, except to glance over his shoulder occasionally; eventually his grá for creating sets began to make itself known. “Gradually, piece by piece, the set design started to creep back into it. I used to do a lot of dance performances, and we wouldn’t have a set designer on it, so I would take that responsibility. I really enjoyed doing that, and that got the taste back up again for it.”
Currently, Keogan is working on Nancy Harris’ No Romance, premiering at The Peacock, Dublin, next week. He is teaming up with director Wayne Jordan for the first time, and his work process started last September when he first read the play. Harris’ text is comprised of three stories, and “the challenges it throws down is that there are three very distinct locations,” Keogan says. “The brief that I got was that they wanted to make the show tourable, so the set had to pack down to fit into one truck — so there were all of these things that you had to think about as well. And it had to be managed by an average touring crew, so you couldn’t have things flying out while something else was trucking on. But also, you had to have the integrity of the three locations.”
The three locations are a fancy Grand Canal-type apartment converted into a photographic studio, a funeral parlour, and a West Cork cottage. “There was certain amount of head scratching,” he admits. “How I approached it was that I got a load of images for Wayne, interiors of funeral homes for example, stuff off the internet, from America, the UK, Ireland, and put them together to see what common threads they had, and distill the essence of ‘funeral home’ with just the minimum requirements to make it convincing that we’re in the location that we’re in.
“My approach to design is very simple and quite stripped back. Certain people have said ‘Oh, it’s kind of good because you design sets that you like to light, so it’s almost that the lighting comes first and the set is the structure that works around the lighting.’ I don’t know that that is something that I consciously do, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the way that I subconsciously work.”
Keogan speaks fluently and engagingly, and his love of the work shines through. However, he points out that lighting design only rarely comes in for the criticism that attaches to other aspects of theatre-making. “The playwright, the director, the set designer — they’re going to take bullets way more often than I am. So I’m the wuss hiding in the back. Generally you have to do something really bad before you get shot down in flames. But there’s something about not taking that responsibility that’s just a little bit… it’s somehow unsatisfying.”
Satisfying that notion of responsibility has led him to the director’s chair. He had harbored a desire to do that, too, and inspiration for a project came to him on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto during a trip to Japan. He got chatting with someone, as you do, and having been disappointed by some performances he’d seen in the capital city, his new friend suggested that he check out a benshi performance at his destination.
When silent films came to Japan, they required narrators, who were used as a way of transcending the Western language and cultural gaps, to explain customs such as “shaking hands, eating with a knife and fork. All of these things would be completely alien to them,” Keogan says. “They hired performers not only to translate the inter-titles — who usually did so by reading index cards because they wouldn’t have a clue what the original language was, so if they got their index cards in a muddle all bets were off — but they also, as the art form evolved, started describing who the characters were, what the characters were doing.”
This lead to collaboration with the artist Amanda Coogan on a short performance using Alain Renais’s film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, as part of the Project Brand New season. In explaining the role of the benshi to Coogan, he had said, “Well, it would be like if you got a film like Man of Aran and you got somebody like Liam Ó Maonlaí to narrate it. When I said it, a light went off in my head.”
Man of Aran Re-Imagined takes the 1934 documentary and turns it into a multi-layered benshi-meets-seanachaí piece that tells more of the story of the story of the film than merely explaining the action on screen. The excerpt on youtube, all of 2.34 minutes, is stunning, not only down to the words of Síle Nic Chonaonaigh’s Irish language text, but also due to the sound of them. They murmur and roll, softer than the crashing waves depicted, but as strongly. Keogan’s team for Once-Off Productions, which included Mel Mercier (score) and Chris Shutt (sound design), as well as Ó Maonlaí and Nic Chonaonaigh, have created something truly beautiful, and certainly not something that your average lighting designer, no matter how many shows he has lit, often gets the chance to do.
“I’ve been really, really lucky,” Keogan says, “and that’s the great thing about having stayed living and working in this country. I don’t think I’d have been offered the same opportunities had I bailed and gone to London or New York or wherever.”
Are there plans in the works for more? “I said to Garry Hynes afterwards, there’s good news and bad news about me doing Man of Aran. The good news is, I’ve got much more respect for directors than I ever had. The bad news is, I’ve got a bit of a taste for it now.”
No Romance, a new play by Nancy Harris, with set and lighting design by Paul Keogan, directed by Wayne Jordan, runs at The Peacock, Dublin, until 2 April.
Susan Conley is a novelist and arts journalist.