Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life

Paul Kennedy and Kerry Woods on staging an apocalypse play in an abandoned warehouse

‘There was another warehouse we were looking at,’ Kerry Woods from Tinderbox Theatre Company explains. She is perching on a plastic-covered dining room chair in a storage room full of car-boot sale cast-offs.

There are bunk-beds around the corner and a strange park-diorama in a terrarium leaning against the wall. ‘But we would have had to pay to dirty it up, and that just seemed wrong. We wanted somewhere with an authentic dystopian atmosphere.’

She is talking about a site for Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life, a new play written by Paul Kennedy and commissioned by Tinderbox specifically for the 2011 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s. 'The play is set,' Kennedy explains, 'a generation after a global apocalypse that killed most humans and animals.'

The Old Victor Stationery Warehouse on Marshalls Road in Castlereagh had the apocalyptic ambience they were looking for. It is an echoing, dusty barn of a space, with no heating and a limited water supply. Driving into the huge, empty car park, with broken branches blowing over the cracked concrete, it isn't hard to imagine zombies rattling the chain link fence.

Not that Kennedy is letting slip with the details of his apocalypse. Stating a desire not to 'spoil the craic', he is close-mouthed about the plot and staging, and even about the characters he has written. 'There is a man,' he eventually admits, 'and a woman.'

The reason for his secrecy is that in places, Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life is as much art installation as play. Staged as a promenade piece, the audience are led around the warehouse from act to act, with the set being constructed and altered as they go. 'Things are happening in front of them,' Kennedy says. 'And, at the same time, to the set behind them.'

Even for a company with Tinderbox’s theatrical pedigree, this is a massive undertaking. However, it was obvious from the outset that Kennedy's play wasn't going to be suited to a traditional stage.

Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life started out as a scene written in a Tinderbox workshop exploring how to convey movement on stage. The piece immediately caught dramaturge, Hanna Slattne, and director Mick Duke's interest, and Kennedy was commissioned to write a full length play.

‘This is the longest I have ever worked on a play,’ says Kennedy, whose first professional sale as a writer was a Western he had challenged himself to write in a month. ‘It was a long process, but you could really see the difference from draft to draft.’

The play was a departure for Kennedy, and in more ways than one. It is the first sci-fi dystopia that he has written, and the first play he has set in the future. Most of his plays are set in the past, ‘to stop mobile phones from spoiling everything'.

As a playwright, however, he prefers not to get too attached to any one genre. After this production is over, he will begin work on a rom-com screenplay he hopes to film in 2012.

For the moment, however, everyone involved in Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life is focused on getting the Old Victor Stationery Warehouse ready for an audience. It has been, to put it lightly, something of a challenge. Drinking water has had to be brought in – ‘It’s all Ballygowan!’ – and if they want to plug something in, then they have to turn the lights on.

Audiences should also heed the advice to wear warm clothes and sensible shoes. It is ‘nippy enough’ in September, Woods says, but by the end of the October it will be cold indeed.

One problem that they haven’t been able to work around is the sheer scale of the stage they are working on. At the moment rehearsals take place in a small side-room. Once the set has been built, however, they will be trekking from one side of the warehouse to another.

‘We found an old scooter I thought Mick could use that,’ Woods says, pointing to a rusting, motorized scooter leaning against a wall. Unfortunately it was broken. Woods' eyes glitter. ‘I haven’t given up though. I’ll find something.’

 

Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life is showing at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's from October 15 – 29 at the Old Victor Stationery Warehouse. Book tickets here. For further information on all Belfast Festival events, visit What's On.