Just over a year ago I remember the early morning scene that greeted me in Accidental Theatre’s previous space in Belfast city centre’s Wellington Street. Up on the fourth floor of a rather familiar office building, the setting of my first job, I walked into a bleak scene. American students, ex-pats and friends were sitting in front of a large screen watching CNN’s US Presidential election coverage. For half an hour a young woman sat sobbing, inconsolable, with rivulets of tears and makeup running down her cheeks as she listened to the results of state after state turning red rather than blue.
So it seems quite appropriate that President Trump will be the subject of Accidental Theatre’s next Rapid Response play, opening on the evening of Thanksgiving (followed by a pot luck dinner for ex-pats) in their new venue in 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, in the disused bank building under the big screen.
Quick turnaround plays are not a new concept. Bertolt Brecht had his own theatre and used it to respond straight away to situations. More recently, Dario Fo lampooned Silvio Berlusconi throughout the 1990s and early 2000s – and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in modern times, aside from scratch nights and annual opportunities to write, rehearse, and perform new short plays inside 24 hours, it requires a sharp playwright and a game venue to stage a new work that has little marketing heft or funding behind it.
Shannon Yee and Accidental Theatre are taking up the challenge with her new play All the Best Words from November 23-25. A veteran of 24 hour plays, Yee says that she likes the format ‘because it means you can’t spend too much time agonising over word choice, you just have to get something out’.
‘With this one I’ve had more [time] and I found it really hard, because where do you draw the line with Trump? Every day, or every hour, there is something new and worthwhile that you could be writing about.’
Born in New York, Yee has made Northern Ireland her home and is raising a family here. So her response to the latest US President will be multi-dimensional and include local and international perspectives.
All the Best Words promises to transport the audience into a tapestry of different people’s perspectives about Trump, including his own. The multi-character piece will be performed by Miche Doherty who will be stepping into the shoes, and presumably wig, of ‘45’.
‘It has a mixture of satire of Trump but also has some other serious elements because the effects and consequences of him being in office are very serious for different people’s realities.’
Yee is conscious that while it sometimes seems that everyone outside of the United States thinks that Trump is idiotic, ‘he was elected and there are a range of different perspectives and there are people who support him’, something that as a society looking in on the United States we have to acknowledge and hear.
As an ex-pat, Yee knows that she brings her own perspectives to the play, having grown up in the US and understanding some of the history first hand. However, she’s also conscious that ‘I’ve been away for 12 years, so although I go back I still miss particular subtleties because I haven’t been immersed there for so long’.
With touching drama as well as hilarious satire, Yee hopes that audiences will pick up on the layers and complexities in All the Best Words. ‘Hopefully some things will surprise audiences, and some things will be familiar and allow them to draw parallels with their lives here,' she says.
Shannon Yee’s autobiographical and immersive theatre piece Reassembled, Slightly Askew last played in Belfast during NI Science Festival in February. In the new year, the binaural story that came out of the playwright’s own experience of brain trauma is heading to Calgary and Vancouver in Canada for a five week run. Before that, she has to finish the next draft of her Trump play and monitor its week of rehearsals.
Yee enjoys the collaborative aspects of theatre. As well as directing All the Best Words, Richard Lavery is the overall artistic director of Accidental Theatre. He believes that small companies and producers need to be able ‘to experiment and test things without losing your shirt.’ While Belfast has a great ecosystem of large buildings, these established spaces can be intimidating to go to when you’re starting out. There’s a need for low cost spaces in which people can rehearse and perform: ‘Belfast misses the Old Museum Arts Centre [which was] a fringier venue’.
Accidental Theatre didn’t always have a physical base. But immersive shows like The Lost Martini (written by Shannon Yee) convinced them to keep hold of its city centre venue for scratch evenings and larger pieces. When they moved out at the end of 2016, they partnered with physical theatre specialists Amadan Ensemble and together co-manage their new prime location.
The idea of producing quick turnaround responsive theatre came earlier this year when Rosemary Jenkinson mentioned the idea of a theatrical ‘rapid reaction unit’ in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Lee Henry, to mark her new position as the new writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre.
‘I'd love to write plays about Trump and Brexit but often the problem with writing about politics is that the situation changes and it becomes yesterday's news very quickly,' she said. 'If we had more money in arts, we could have some sort of artistic equivalent of a rapid reaction unit and we could really spearhead social protest.’
In parallel, Lavery was having similar thoughts at Accidental about theatre that was spontaneous and rougher but more timely. ‘I wanted to see how we could produce really quick and responsive theatre without having to go through a six month process of funding applications … I wanted to create our own work that would pay for itself, employ artists to do interesting things, and respond to something right now that needed to be discussed.’
Out of a conversation with Jenkinson at the beginning of July came an opportunity for a new piece of work reflecting on the volatile state of contemporary Northern Ireland politics. Michelle & Arlene was quickly written, rehearsed over a week and performed to sold out audiences in a short run at the end of August, and revived during the Belfast Comedy Festival.
Lavery was delighted with the success. ‘People came to it, invested in the idea of doing something new, and overwhelmingly enjoyed the play that was produced,' he recalls. 'The ‘topicality of that play reached out across the normal middle class barriers’ and attracted new audiences into their rather unpretentious, fringy space.
The play’s popularity took Jenkinson by surprise: ‘It was just the right time and it’s still the right time as people are even more pissed off that [the parties] are not going back into government together and that just adds fuel to our fire’.
She is bringing her characters back to the Accidental stage with a Christmas special – Michelle & Arlene: Planes, Trains & Tractors from December 7-9 and 21-23.
The plot recognises that there is still a political stalemate, but the leaders of the two largest parties ‘come up with a publicity gambit of how to get attention around how they will break the deadlock’. In the run up to Christmas, Michelle and Arlene agree to be locked into a room at Stormont, promising only to come out when they have a deal. The play questions whether they are just milking the publicity, looking as if they are doing things but in reality doing nothing.
It’s an opportunity for Jenkinson to lampoon the hollow soundbites we hear in the news about the parties ‘being so close to an agreement’ or ‘agree on the main points but for a few technical details’. And the RHI inquiry brings the boilers back into the playwright’s sights.
The summertime plot saw the two leaders end up together in Ibiza, bickering terribly but growing steadily closer and much more friendly than mere speaking terms. The new companion play builds on it, but also works as a standalone piece.
The original cast will return, reheating their great physical chemistry with Maria Connolly portraying a dour and disapproving Fermanagh unionist, while Mary-Frances Doherty depicts the Sinn Féin northern leader as quite a bouncy, wide-eyed, country girl and health freak.
Expect another adventurous trip, a bumpy tractor ride, some home truths and maybe even a stable as Jenkinson’s festive satire echoes widespread public sentiment and reminds the politicians what they should be doing.
Has Michelle & Arlene the potential to spawn more episodes?
‘Our tagline is that we’ll keep making them as long as the folks on the hill don’t do anything,’ says Lavery. Between the vacuum at Stormont and a president who will be called upon to pardon a turkey, Accidental Theatre and its cadre of playwrights are unlikely to run out of material for future Rapid Response plays.
Shannon Yee’s All the Best Words is performed on Thursday 23, Friday 24 and Saturday 25 November, while Rosemary Jenkinson’s Michelle & Arlene: Planes, Trains & Tractors runs on December 7-9 and 21-23. Both plays are produced by Accidental Theatre and hosted in 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, Belfast. Tickets are available from www.accidentaltheatre.co.uk.