To really understand an artist you have to see them at work. Up at Blessington Basin in Dublin’s north inner-city a couple of weeks ago, a veritable army of set designers, writers, artists, actors buzzed around the semi-derelict gate lodge that guards the entrance and the surrounding park. Standing among them was director Louise Lowe, giddy and busy, stealing a few minutes from her pre-dress-rehearsal schedule for this Dublin Fringe Festival project.
Part multi-disciplinary installation, part promenade theatre piece, Basin
was Lowe's most ambitious project to date. Having directed a series of large-scale site-specific works for Ballymun's Roundabout Youth Theatre, she is used to enormous challenges. Choosing to perform plays in cramped derelict flats or aboard moving buses, you could say that she relishes throwing the impossible her way.
The experience of creating work with meagre resources led her to one of the most exciting initiatives in Irish theatre over the last few years: the establishment of Project Brand New, which Lowe spearheaded, alongside co-producers Jody O’Neill, Dee Roycroft and Lynnette Moran. It was founded, as Lowe explains, "as a springboard for experimenting with form and structure, as a way of testing work at an experimental level, seeing whether it works or not. But it was also driven by our own desire to see fresh new work from people who often have no other resources."
The group met during the inaugural development group, The Next Stage, at the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival in 2007, and this year Project Brand New are joining the festival programme with a showcase of their own work, at Project Arts Centre. The format has changed slightly, in line with participant feedback. The same work will be performed each night for three nights, but with theatre-makers responding to audience feedback garnered during each session and with work-shopping during the day before the live performance. "This is about giving an opportunity to see how work actually develops, how it does change from night to night."
was on a different scale, however, and was a particularly challenging project for Lowe. "I'm used to creating work based on other people’s lives and experiences, not my own. I suppose I thought that it was time that I discovered what would happen if I turned that process back on myself."
If this sounds like a recipe for self-indulgence, Lowe was insistent from its inception that the project was more about the space than her own life. Although her family's relationship with Blessington Basin - where Lowe's father was keeper and caretaker and where the family lived - was the impetus for the project, Louise was also interested in the palimpsest of life that informs the "soul" of the reservoir; the many lives and experiences that have shaped its history. “For me creating a piece of theatre out of such experiences and conflict is what real site-specific work is about."
It is site-specific work that interests Lowe, but she is aware of the culture of cool that has developed around performing work in unusual locations, and is keen to distance herself from a superficial engagement with this complex mode of performance generation. "I actually dread when people say they are making a site-specific show,” she jokes, “and then it turns out that they are just bringing a text into the space, or something they already have into a space. I call that performing off-site, performing outside the theatre, and it might be beautifully done.
“But for me, real site-specific work is about a forensic examination of space. Translating all the many levels of experience into performance, so that the performance speaks to the space and reflects the space and encapsulates the truth of that space; the lives of people who have inhabited it, its history.
“So what we did for this show was spend as much time as we could here over the last few months, and we have tried to bring everything that we felt and experienced during that time to give texture to the work we have created. So it's not just a case of reflecting my family's memories but everything else that we discovered: whether that's how the reservoir was built in the late 1700s to give water to the whole of Dublin, or that the Jameson Distillery was once located here, or that the gate lodge was a brothel, or that James Joyce wrote part of Ulysses
on a bench in the park. And then there have been the experience of the locals, who have been looking at us for the last few weeks wondering what we were doing, and then offering their own histories and memories, appearing with photographs and their own stories for us; how each of them feel ownership of the space in a different way."
Such an intense and prolonged development for a single piece of work must be expensive to create, especially considering the 15-strong cast and the elaborate production team. I am shocked when Lowe says, casual as you like, that she is working on Basin
with no production budget at all, and am floored when she reveals that she has never had a production budget for any of her work before. "The Fringe Festival were actually interested in commissioning this work," she says. "And they would have given us a budget, but the commission would actually have been for next year. Then we discovered that the house was going to be taken over by Dublin City Council and transformed into an office, so we just decided to do it anyway, money or not. Actually, none of my work has ever had a production budget so I knew what was in store."
Lowe (right) playfully says that her work is "funded by goodwill" and is eager to repay the generosity of everyone who has facilitated the project coming to fruition by mentioning them by name; whether that's the Abbey Studio pilot project, where Basin
was work-shopped for two weeks; Rough Magic Theatre Company, who have given them office facilities and invaluable mentoring; or the unpaid actors who have given up their time and energy to rehearse and perform in the show.
Although she is happy to look on the bright-side - "it means you have to be really passionate and critical of the work you are doing; you have to be prepared to invest yourself when the only reward is the work itself" - she admits the frustration: "there is only so much kindness that you can ask of from people, and I think that I am coming to the end of that."
For Lowe, as the comprehensive Basin
tour that she leads me through confirms, "the most exciting part of theatre is the process." Indeed, the complexity of that statement underpins everything about her work: "I’m not interested in audiences sitting back in comfort for two hours: that's not the sort of theatre that I'm interested in. I'm bored of head and shoulders acting, talking heads shows. I feel removed from it, excluded, like everyone on stage is having a great time, but that it has nothing to do with me.
“I think we need to take advantage of the live nature of theatre, the energies that exist in any space, what that can lead towards, and the visceral effect that that can create. It is a kinaesthetic experience, and I get very thrilled by that."
Project Brand New: The Next Stage runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from October 9–11. See www.dublintheatrefestival.com