There is a belief, one which is gaining momentum, that theatre is too important to be confined to theatres.
It's not just that they are overpriced or pretentious, impersonal or unfashionable (though they may be all of these things) or that they are relics with their Victorian décor and plywood sets. It is due to the realisation that the very essence of theatre is adventure and in the spirit of adventure why accept the theatre walls as your limits?
Why not explore and embrace the vast world outside?
Why not push the boundaries of what is possible?
Surprisingly the concept is not new. There is a rich tradition in drama that goes against the formalities of the theatrical establishment, reaching out beyond a privileged elite and embracing ‘found spaces’ as settings: from the travelling harlequins and troubadours of Renaissance commedia de l'arte to the prostitutes of Japanese Kabuki.
It comes as a surprise given the bourgeois conservatism of today's theatrical mainstream that the very cornerstone of modern theatre was laid in beer-sodden Tudor alehouses by the young upstarts and brawlers of Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe's day. All of these forms flourished before the institutionalisation of theatre into formal commercial spaces and to crudely paraphrase Groucho Marx, who wants to keep living in an institution?
In recent years a theatrical counterculture has begun to coalesce. Influenced by the teachings of Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed the lines between audience and actor, fiction and reality have been blurred with public spaces, like disused prisons and warehouses, being transformed into performance areas. The most visionary groups today are looking beyond the confines of the stage.
Bill Bryden's spectacular The Ship was staged in a derelict Glasgow shipyard echoing, much more poignantly than any artificial setting could, the play's theme of how the decline in industry affects human lives. The art historian John Berger and the theatre director Simon McBurney, inspired by the cave paintings of Chauvet, staged The Vertical Line in the tunnels beyond the disused Aldwych tube station in London.
Newfoundland's First Light Productions staged A Midsummer's Night Dream in the cavernous darkness and fluorescence of an abandoned Bell Island mineshaft. Out of Joint has performed Macbeth in an old mill, a locomotive foundry and backstage in a theatre. The productions go above and beyond almost anything possible under the dictates of traditional theatre and breathe new life not only into old plays but old areas.
Dilapidated churches, oilrigs, asylums and a host of other forgotten neglected places can provide an intimate or epic atmosphere, an eeriness or a feeling of genuine danger that the relatively artificial environment of a theatre simply cannot generate.
Today in Northern Ireland, Sneaky Productions are spearheading this theatrical movement creating ‘dark, alternative drama for a modern theatre audience in intimate performance spaces’ and in the process offer the greatest hope of making theatre exciting and relevant again.
The company centres around a nucleus of four young talented theatre artists – Jonathan Harden, Declan Feenan, Lisa McGee and Bronagh Taggart, who specialise in a wide range of roles including direction, writing, acting and script development.
Sneaky's most recent play The Young Man With The Cream Tarts (an innovative adaptation of 'The Suicide Club', a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson) was performed in the Lagan Weir, twenty feet beneath Belfast's river. With its dimly lit subterranean tunnels and chambers this was the perfect setting for the haunting tale of a clandestine underworld where the destitute and fallen place their fates on the turn of cards.
Experiencing the play rather than being mere spectators the audience are led from chamber to chamber deeper into the complex and deeper into the unfolding thriller. What stands out is not just the genius of the setting but also the fine acting and the excellent script by Feenan and McGee, the core strengths of Sneaky since its conception.
Sneaky Productions first burst onto the scene with Jump!, a hilarious and deeply unsettling black comedy penned by McGee. Performed to a sell-out crowd in White's Tavern it reached an enthusiastic audience that normally wouldn't dare set foot in a theatre. Taking place on New Year's Eve Jump! follows the fates of seven people, from half-wit hitmen to half-hearted would-be-suicides whose unrelated lives all collide at midnight with tragic consequences. Like Waiting For Godot the play is concerned with the inherent absurdity of everything, life as a farce where boredom is punctuated only by occasional bursts of joy and tragedy.
By any standards a brilliant multi-layered work it earned widespread critical acclaim with comparisons to the mighty Coen brothers and was celebrated by The Irish News as ‘the discovery of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival’.
With Declan Feenan's Limbo and Lisa Mc Gee's Girls And Dolls premiering in Autumn 2005, their ongoing Sneaky Peeks development program for performing works by emerging local artists and with co-founder McGee recently signing up with top London literary agent The Agency, the future is bright for Sneaky.
‘Being on the fringe affords us more creative choice and keeps what we do fresh,’ comments Jonathan Harden, Sneaky's artistic director. ‘I suppose the way to see us is not so much on the edge and trying to push our way into two weeks sold-out at the Opera House, but rather as trying to bring people “out here” with us and enjoy a taste of what's possible when profit and marketability are not the major concerns. This is part of a conscious effort on our part to help energize new spaces and attract a modern audience to theatrical events.’
Sneaky Productions offer exciting and innovative works, which dare to say to hell with boundaries and conventions. In the process they are making the performing arts vital once more. With the blurring of stage and street, actor and audience, art and life they are changing not just the way we see plays but the way we see our surroundings, revitalising long forgotten corners of our cities, and revitalising theatre itself.
By Darran Anderson