Monday, 3 July 2017

Fish Dramaturgy: Michael O'Halloran @ Edfringe 2017

Avenue Stage Presents
Fish Food
Long before he was President, he really liked to buy hotels.

It’s 1990 in Boston. Like the Berlin Wall, Joe Bacon’s life has been reduced to rubble. On the day of his father's long-overdue burial at sea, a bizarre interview leads to a job in the basement of the Plaza Court Hotel.  

Celebrity financier Avery Grand (bestselling author of that 1980s classic The Deal Is Everything) has promised a facelift for this faded beauty, but furniture and fine wine are disappearing at an alarming rate.  

Joe finds a ready-made dysfunctional family among his rather unhinged co-workers, who will go to extreme lengths to protect their livelihoods. But will scuttling around town with unmarked bags of cash really help him get ahead
Listings Information: FISH FOOD, by Avenue Stage
VenueParadise in The Vault (V29)                     
Dates:  4th – 19th Aug 2017 (not 13th)                  
Times: 11.25, 5th-19th Aug (1 hour)                     
              19.25 on 4th Aug
Tickets: £7.00/£5.00
Box Office0131 510 0022

What was the inspiration for this performance?

In 1989, at the age of 19, I went to work in a hotel in Boston, receiving meat and fish and produce on the loading dock. The hotel was a well-known (if somewhat faded) local institution that had recently been sold to an out-of-town group, and longtime employees were scrambling to keep their jobs. 

In the midst of this, a dashing young financier named Donald Trump blew into town for a visit, and was feted in the Grand Ballroom. I was fascinated not only by his apparently shameless narcissism (his "people" made sure his name was emblazoned on everything, from bottles of spring water to a large whole salmon) but also by the way people deferred to it so readily.

The incident stuck with me, and a year later I made it the centerpiece of a play I wrote for a creative writing class at my local university. The play was given a reading, then promptly placed in a drawer where it lay for more than 25 years. The bizarre political rise of Mr. Trump inspired me to dust it off and see if there was anything interesting in it. Over the course of a year it became "Fish Food." The themes and characters of the current version are completely different, but the core incident -- the disastrous visit of celebrity financier Avery Grand -- remains.  

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

I have to say yes. I have a blind faith that putting more than ten people in a dark room and focusing their attention on a live performance is good for the individual and for the society. (I also think it's a good thing to sit in a church once a week.) That being said, most performances I go to do not foster a public discussion of ideas -- at best they are beautiful or amusing, at worst ineffective. I think sometimes beauty or amusement are enough.
From time to time, though, something strikes a nerve, and we see how dangerous performance can be. 

This has been the case recently with the Julius Caesar in New York, with the Trump-like figure as Caesar. I haven't seen it, but I was interested to know that in 2017 Shakespeare In The Park can cause abject rage. And while grand public discussion might be rare, more often than not the new plays I see are well worth a private discussion on the subway home. Good writing persists.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I was very quiet at school, but I discovered that I could be loud and confident on the stage. Growing up in the seventies and eighties, you had teachers and an educational system in the US that believed in the value of the arts. We got to try everything. We were taken to see an incredible variety of performances. I played the Duke of Ephesus at the age of 10, in a marvelous purple costume.
I also had an aunt that would take me to the theater. 

In those days Boston was still getting pre-Broadway previews, and I particularly remember seeing Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson in Macbeth. I think the production may have been considered a disaster, but I was fascinated. We sat near the front, and the reality of the actors sharing the space with the audience -- divided only by light -- hit home.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

The play (in this version) was conceived as a circular "year in the life" of a young man, where he ends up roughly in the same place he started (if somewhat wiser). The challenge has been to get that feeling of the passage of time between scenes without marking it with obvious exposition. To that end there has been a great deal of revision led by the actors.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

We perform in a cafe in a neighborhood where theatre-going is not the usual thing. Our audience comes for dinner and a show. Our first goal is to entertain -- to make it seem a worthwhile evening out. We have been (mostly) successful in choosing plays that hold the audience's interest enough that the themes begin to resonate. "Fish Food" certainly strives for that balance. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope that audience members will be immersed in the story, amused by the characters, and that they will find beauty in their resilience. I also want those who experienced the era (late 80s, early 90s) to have that pleasure or recognition of an earlier time of their lives.  (I love a good frisson of nostalgia.)

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

We have tried to tell a very personal story in a straightforward and honest way, in the hope that it will resonate. And we tried to write good punch lines.

FISH FOOD, written by Avenue Stage co-founder Michael O’Halloran, is an eccentric ensemble comedy that chronicles a young man’s turbulent entry into the joys and sorrows of the workforce. It has delighted audiences with its quirky characters and its nostalgic look at the fashions and mores of the late eighties.  From shoulder-padded jackets to telephones with cords, FISH FOOD takes us back to an era when talk was cheap and capitalism was (almost) sexy.       

Since 2012, Avenue Stage has produced innovative theatre in a café setting in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood on the south side of Boston. FISH FOOD, its 6th production, sold out its initial performances in May, and will enjoy a pre-Fringe run at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in July.        

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