An Interview with Paula Mc Fetridge (Artistic Director of Kabosh Theatre Company)

An Interview with Paula Mc Fetridge (Artistic Director of Kabosh Theatre Company)

How did you become the artistic director of Kabosh Theatre Company?
I had been Artistic Director of the Lyric Theatre for 6 years: having reversed the spiralling audience numbers and selected the architects and design for the new theatre I felt it was time to move on to a different challenge. The founder and artistic director of Kabosh was moving on after twelve years at the helm and I decided to go for the job when I saw the advert. My reasons were twofold – the Creative Producer of Kabosh at the time was Jo Egan and we had previously worked together on the highly successful ‘Wedding Community Play Project’; and I was interested in creating a project for the contentious Long Kesh prison site which I believed would be possible given the site-specific artistic focus of Kabosh. I underwent an arduous 90 minute interview for the post including an unseen task and presentation conducted by representatives from Kabosh and the Arts Council of NI.

What are the important features of a Kabosh production?
➢ It is commissioned by Kabosh from professional artists
➢ It is inspired by the sites, people and stories of the north of Ireland
➢ It is frequently staged in non-theatre spaces
➢ It is presented by the cream of local practitioners
➢ It has something political and socially relevant to say

How do you begin the process of devising a piece of theatre?
I look at a narrative, commemoration, story, person or site that I believe has resonance / is of interest …..often this evolves from something I have read, something someone has told me, a location or heritage site I have visited or a ‘problem’ to be explored theatrically. It is discussed with my colleagues and the Kabosh board to see if the idea has potential. Then we commission a playwright to come up with a new play that is fit for purpose. The playwright is given quite clear guidelines regarding scale, possible audience, potential location, timeline for delivery. I provide detailed feedback on each draft of the script – there may be up to 5 drafts before we go into the rehearsal room. In rehearsals we spend the first week editing and discussing the play around the table before we get onto our feet.

Can you describe a production your recently devised from the initial idea to the final product?

I will describe two very different recent productions:

  • Green & Blue by Laurence McKeown, premiered October 2016 in Girdwood Cultural Space; it has toured a range of arts and non-arts spaces. This was created in partnership with an umbrella organisation called Diversity Challenges. Over a three year period they gathered a unique oral archive from serving RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and An Garda Síochána officers who patrolled the border area during the height of the conflict (1970’s / ‘80’s). They were keen that the archive be shared with as wide a community as possible so they produced a tender calling from artists interested in creating a piece of work based on the archive. Laurence McKeown in partnership with Kabosh submitted a tender to create an hour-long piece of touring theatre that could be followed by facilitated discussions. Over 15 months Laurence worked on the script submitting drafts based on two characters in an imagined open space on the border, I provided regular feedback. I spent time considering how to give voice to the person behind the uniform, how to depict isolation and how not to make the play a history piece. Two actors were recruited to do informal readings of the script at different stages in its development for the board of Diversity Challenges and Garda/RUC representatives to ensure authenticity and maximise police buy-in. This would be a part of the creative process when working in partnership with an organisation from the voluntary sector and in particular when creating a piece of work based on collated stories (other Kabosh productions were this has been the based include Those you pass on the street produced in partnership with Healing Through Remembering and This is What we Sang based on an oral archive from the Belfast Jewish community). Kabosh raised the money to produce the play and premiere it at the Belfast Festival. The play was rehearsed for 3.5 weeks and a design team (film-maker, costume & set) and production crew were contracted.
  • Mabel by Maria Connolly, premiered October 2015 in Castlewellan Castle and Gardens. There is an Ulster historical circle blue plaque for Mabel Annesley, water colourist and resident in the grounds of Castlewellan Castle but very few know of her existence. As it is now leased by the Christian Centre Missionaries there is no public access to Castlewellan Castle unless you are on retreat. Maria Connolly, actress and playwright, who I have collaborated with on many occasions was fascinated by Mabel and the location. After several conversations she went off to see what she could find out. Given the history of the site Kabosh went into negotiations with the new residents of the castle, the grounds people, local historians and Down Borough Council to ensure access, buy-in and authenticity. It was agreed the play would promenade through gardens and into the castle and be performed by two actresses (one as Mabel and the other everyone else). As it was promenade and for small numbers (20 max) it was decided the play would be 50 mins: facilitating multiple performances each day. The script went through several drafts, there were several site visits with the production team and after 3 weeks rehearsals the project opened.


How do you select and reflect the genre and style of the production?
The genre and style is determined by the project themes and perceived audience. Also taken into consideration is the space (s) it will be performed in; is it likely to tour? How to maintain the authenticity and production quality in a range of spaces: for example Green & Blue it is envisaged that this play will be staged in abandoned / reclaimed police stations north and south so the importance of the film as backdrop and location / theme driver for the audience was key in making that design decision. We have staged a number of productions in heritage and religious sites – the style must be respectful to the location without detracting from artistic integrity. In 2014 I wanted to create a project to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire – an important turning-point in our recent history. I believed a play was not the genre to commission as many of our society were not ready to engage in a narrative that challenged their perception of the past. Kabosh commissioned a 20 minute piece of orchestral music from Conor Mithell, performed once at the gates of Belfast City Hall by 20 musicians at 12 noon on 1st September. This score became the backdrop for a visual art installation.

How do you develop your initial ideas?
I need to be interested in a story, a location or a commemoration and want to know more about it. I tend to ask myself 3 key questions:

  • Am I the right person to tell the story – what am I able to bring to the story that somebody else cant.
  • Is it the right time to tell the story – this determines whether it will fall on deaf ears or not. It often enhances engagement if the production is timed to coincide with an anniversary or a commemoration as people are more receptive.
  • Who is it for – this doesn’t need to be absolute but it must be given consideration as this determines style of publicity, ticket prices, location, style, genre. It provides a production focus. The best bit of advice I was ever given was to thine own self be true – create something that you would like to engage with and no matter the scale maximise quality.

What stages do you go through after the initial design ideas?
Initial designs are determined by budget (both production team size and material), durability needs and production location as well as what best serves the project. After initial conversations with the design team individually there are collective meetings to ensure the production has overall style and everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. Then elements of the design are tested in the rehearsal room to ensure they are user-friendly and enhancing the production before final build, edit or making. The design can change right up until opening nights with elements being altered and on occasions even removed.

What strategies do you use in rehearsal to develop the performance?
The key aspect for me is ensuing the script is tight and there is nothing surplus to requirement. It is the raw material and so has to be taught and fir-for-purpose. During the script discussions, each actor is encouraged to take ownership and fight for their character’s voice. I always tell actors to imagine they are playing darts with each sentence – land each thought as if aiming for a bullseye rather than a thought tailing off. As well as the language being sparse each movement must serve a purpose – one of the hardest things is to stand still ….that is why it is the most powerful. Props and furniture are only introduced if they are a necessity. It is as important to listen and hear as it is to speak. Each moment must be true – if doubt is introduced by the actor I stop and ask for clarity. Each project is like a piece of music – each word or action begets the next and there is an ideal running time. I never tell an actor how to do something but rather share a story or a thought and talk around a moment so the actor imagines other possibilities and brings a fresh eye to the material. A rehearsal room must be fun – a place to play, a place to be safe. The art of theatre-making is very vulnerable.

Could you suggest any games or techniques to use in rehearsal to motivate young actors when working together to devise a production?
Anything to enhance the sense of ensemble is useful: collective counting where each individual adds a number so as a group you count as high as possible without overlapping or get a football and play ‘keepy-uppy’ aiming to increase the number of hits each day For creating new narratives that are socially relevant and unique to the creators: each bring in a news paper article or photo that highlights an issue ….share it with the group and then discuss possible ways of sharing the conversation theatrically. Ask the class to bring in a short interview they have conducted with their parents / grandparents / guardian about a memory when they were the same age. Ask another member of the group to ‘perform’ it first person. Go on a reccy around the school or where you live exploring a short route – did you notice anything you never saw before? Do the same walk with a piece of music you have chosen for that location. Where on that route would you like to bring an audience to? Why? Create a trail using music, objects, words for an individual audience member wearing headphones. How would you change it if there was 10 in the audience and you couldn’t use headphones? Would you have short multiple dramas? How do you link each place you stop?

How do you create mood and feeling on the stage?
It is about finding truthfulness in a moment and making sure you leave room for an audience. It needs to be unfussy. It can be enhanced by sound, lights or smell. Each key moment needs to be earned – the production rhythm needs to drive to key moments so the audience feel safe but not curated. Moments are not effective is they are cheap.

How do you ensure the performance expresses meaning and has impact on an audience?
It is about leaving room for an audience – not bombarding them continually or seeking shallow emotional reactions. The whole production needs to have an arc and each vignette within that also needs an arc. You can ensure a performance expresses meaning but it is harder for an audience to disengage if the project elements are of a high quality and display an honest commitment.


How do you move the production from page, to rehearsal and then the stage?
Having a collective vision that is communicated to each member of the team at each point along the creative process. Each production is different as the process is tailored for the practitioners involved and the needs of the project but a major element is putting the ‘right’ people together. This comes from experience. The other important element is giving the process sufficient time – shortening a rehearsal period is false economy, being clear about production expectation on a regular basis is imperative. It is also about flexibility – the creative process is not formulaic, things will change and it is about having the confidence to be radical and trust your instinct.

How do you communicate your ideas to the sound, lighting, set and costume designers when producing a production?
Initially via email and then face-to-face. Where possible I like them to read the script, see the location and share their thoughts. I talk a lot about what the project means to me, why I am doing it, why I am doing it now, its relevance, where it will be staged, who I think it is for, the restrictions imposed by budget and timescale. You develop a shorthand with those you work with on a regular basis. This is based on their working patterns, the language they use, the process that best complements their skills, what they thrive on and what stunts their creativity. I work with a range of designers and it is about putting the ‘right’ designer on the right project. They attend several pre-rehearsal meetings. They share drawings and thoughts. Post the readthrough on the first day of rehearsals they share their designs with the actors. When they are played with the ideal design is agreed on.


Paula Mc Fetridge (Artistic Director of Kabosh Theatre Company)