Watching Andy Hinds at work in the rehearsal room, it is clear he is an experienced teacher of classical drama. He stops the actors several times to question them about how the pace of a delivered verse can elucidate the meaning for the audience; to make them repeat and enunciate until the message of their speeches is clear.
With a copy of his own translation of Iphigenia at Aulis in his hands, Hinds understands this point more clearly than he ever has before, despite having previously directed tens of Shakespeare plays and Greek classics. “Being the translator gives you a more intimate relationship with the text than you would ever otherwise have,” he says on a break from rehearsals over tea and sandwiches. “Because you are trying to produce the best possible version of the play that you can; the one that will help you give the best possible experience of it to the audience.”
Hinds’ company, Classic Stage Ireland, have been in existence now for seven years now, since the opening of the Helix Theatre at Dublin City University. Hinds’ ambition was simple: “I just wanted a chance to produce Shakespeare’s comedy All’s Well that Ends Well, a play that I always wanted to do. I thought that since I was going to go to the effort of mounting one production, I may as well do others: As You Like It and Twelfth Night. I didn’t actually mean to set up a company per se, but the momentum was there and then with the Helix being built we were invited in as resident company and it all started getting serious from there.”
Classic Stage Ireland’s relationship with the Helix was to be short-lived in the end, as the venue came to terms with its commercial viability as a theatre on the fringes of the city and the idea of “subsidising a full-time theatre became impossible. But we found other ways to put on shows, and the more we did, the more I began to find my pleasure in it, to see what it was that I wanted to get at by producing these plays, so by the time we did Twelfth Night I think I had found the culture, style, identity for Classic Stage Ireland, and we started getting good reviews and full houses.”
Hinds approach was to put himself in service to the text rather than to “make the text serve him. It was important to me that I could find a way of doing [the plays] that would make people see the contemporary value in them. I think there is a crucial distinction, though, between trying to give the play a contemporary relevance and trying to find its contemporary voice, and I was interested in the latter: in finding a way to release the truth, the ‘eternal verities’, buried in the text.”
“Trying to find contemporary relevance on the other hand,” he continues, “is a sure way to limit [a play’s] power. It is imposing yourself, your own issues, upon it. You are using the play to say something about your personal experience, rather than projecting what’s inherent in it already. And what that does is drive the audience into their heads; it makes the play into something they have to think about, consider. Whereas the plays were originally designed to take you out of your head and into a deep level of being. They were supposed to be experienced not intellectualised. Ultimately I see my job as an act of service to that.”
It is in “service” to the text that Hinds decided to translate Iphigenia at Aulis for Classic Stage Ireland’s new production himself, because he believed that the translations available just were not true enough to release the power of the play. When Classic Stage Ireland was staging Oedipus last year, he explains, he found himself “reading 16 different versions of the play before settling on a translation, and even then I spent so much time in rehearsals rewriting it.”
However, Hinds, who has written several original plays over the years, did not take the project of translation on lightly, working with Greek scholar Dr. Martine Cuypers, who has provided advice on many of the company’s productions. “I knew it was a vast undertaking,” he says, “but as soon as I started I loved it. The first problem I found was that, because of my experience with Shakespeare, my first inclination was to write in iambic verse, but gradually I found my rhythm.”
Other challenges included how to deal with the Chorus, the longstanding problem with staging classical Greek drama for which there is no modern equivalent, “and I have to say that it is only ever figured out in rehearsals, as the cast contribute their ideas to how it might work, and this makes helps make it a real ensemble experience.”
Since their relationship with the Helix ended, Classic Stage Ireland has been reliant on private patronage rather than public funding. (They have so far been unsuccessful in getting an Arts Council grant). As a result Hinds began to develop the company in an unusual way. Using the connections he had made as a teacher of classical acting over fifteen years, at the Gaiety School of Acting and independently, Hinds started using inexperienced and emerging actors for the company’s productions, giving them the opportunity to develop their craft with a professional director in the live setting of a professional theatre.
Hinds is upfront about the company’s modus operandi: “basically, nobody gets paid.” However, in what seems like a typically ebullient reversal of perspectives, Hinds says the economic constraints are actually “a luxury”; it allows the company the freedom to produce plays “that are rarely done because of the large casts; because it is impossible to pay 18 actors equity rates.” Using unpaid actors, he explains, is mutually beneficial for the actors and the company. “It offers them a bit of training, and I have used a few of the same actors in some of the productions and you can really see them develop; to the extent that some of them have gone on to work professionally now. And what you also have is people doing it purely for love.”
A typical production for Hinds will involve around 30 people, when you consider a cast of around 17, stage managers, designers, and costume and makeup assistants. A private patron – Dwina Murphy Gibb, wife of BeeGees’ singer Robin Gibb – serves as a patron for productions, putting down money for venue hire and production costs, but the money does not stretch to pay the actors. Instead, at the end of the show, Hinds organises that box-office takings are split between the unpaid members, “thinly because there are so many, but we try to fair. Those who have been involved in full rehearsal process are entitled to a full share, those involved in half, a half share, and so on. It doesn’t amount to much but it helps to pay for bus fares.”
Despite the economic limitations, Hinds insists that Classic Stage Ireland is thriving, and he is full of ambitious plans for the company’s future. “I have to say”, he concludes, as he heads back into the afternoon’s rehearsal, “the work that I have done with Classic Stage Ireland is the most enjoyable work I have ever done.”
Classic Stage Ireland’s Production of Iphigenia in Aulis runs at the Project Arts Centre from June 20 - July 2 (previews June 17 and June 18)
Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.