Interview: Annie Ryan

‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’, comes to The Young Vic this February, as part of Culture Ireland’s programme for 2016, celebrating Ireland’s Centenary. Adapted from the original book written by Eimear McBride, by Annie Ryan and company. Set in Ireland it is described as being ‘A fearless, unflinching portrait of one girl’s turbulent journey into an adult world.’ Aoife Duffin performs solo in this piece, though takes on the roles of several characters, and scooped The Stage Award for Acting Excellence at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. Last week I spoke with Annie Ryan to find out a little more about how they brought this story to the stage.

Interview by Amie Taylor (@AmieAmieTay)

AT: Hi Annie, thanks for speaking to FemaleArts today. You founded the Corn Exchange in 1995, so let’s start back there. What was your drive was to found it?

AR: I’m from Chicago and I was trained from a very young age in ensemble improvisation, mainly theatre games and story theatre. We were trained with poems, livery tales, folk tales as well as scene study with Chekhov. A really extraordinary training from Byrne and Joyce Piven. I became an actor, did a couple of films, but then became really disillusioned in where I was going, and in truth I was scared. Also, I was always being cast as ‘the friend’, and subconsciously I wanted to have control over my destiny. I then went to Trinity for a year, and met some smart, funny people like Michel West, Lenny Abraham Smith and Dominic West, I was very attracted to that scene. So I moved over to Dublin. I thought I’d carry on acting, but I started teaching, and the the company grew very organically, I think out of necessity - there was a hunger for technique; there was no physical work here. The name comes from a building, and the idea was to exchange like-minded technique and work and have the feeling of collaboration and a genuine interest in the body and performance.

AT: So that was 20 years ago and it looks like you’ve had an amazing run of shows since then.

AR: We’ve made some good work, but we are so happy to be coming back to London after a long absence.

AT: When were you last in London?

AR: We toured a show called ‘Dublin by Lamplight’ about 10 years ago and played at The Riverside Studios. That was an ensemble piece performed in a version of Comedia. This is wildly different.

AT: What drew you to ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’?

AR: It’s a very Irish story, and my husband is friends with Eimear’s husband, so you buy your pal’s wife’s book, you know? [They laugh]. I was blown away by the novel and so taken by how embodied the voice of it seems to be. And Eimear, I found out later, trained at Drama Centre, by a really intense method acting teacher, who also trained Michael Fassbender. She’s writing from that sensibility, completely. I knew it would be right for just one person to perform.

Part of our company story is that we suffered big cuts five or six years ago, like so many people. We were very small and struggling.

This piece really cried out to be heard. I knew it would be one woman’s voice playing everyone else. That bit is the easy part for us, that’s what we’ve always done: you can transform space, one actor can be anywhere, or anyone, can transform within a line to many different people and we will follow if it’s clear. It was using those techniques in a very subtle way to embody the story.

AT: And you adapted it yourself from the book?

AR: With the company, yes. I started with a version that was close to three hours. It was very much a process with Aoife the actor, and Eimear was able to come over and work with us for a week.

AT: Was it often just you and Aiofe in the rehearsal room together, or did other people from the company attend?

AR: I have a wonderful assistant director called Eoghan Carrick and he’s just joined us from the Lear which is a new drama academy. And our producer, Lucy Ryan, isn’t there very often but she was a script editor at Pathe Films for 15 years, so she was instrumental in finding the arc of the story for the stage version. We knew that we had to cut about 85% of the book in order to make it an hour and twenty minutes performance, which was a very difficult task as we needed to work out how to keep the spine and the heart of the story. The story involves a lot of trauma, it’s about a girl born to a very poor family in the late 70s, so she’s growing up in the 80s, in the west of Ireland in a single parent home; terrible things happen to her, but all along she keeps her sense of wit and sharpness about her - so that counters the darkness a bit. The real challenge was figuring out how much [darkness] an audience could take, without it getting boring.

AT: And how did you do that?

AR: Very deep listening. I think that’s my job, to be very still and imagine what it is to hear it for the first time.

AT: How does Aoife approach playing the range of characters?

AR: Aoife has such a delicacy about her. As a performer she didn’t want to overplay anything, what she’s doing is so fine, very internal. Where some actors would do a big move, or change an accent, or take on a huge characterised body shape, she’s managing to embody all of the characters in these piece in an invisible way, because you’re not sure what she’s changing, but it’s clear she has transformed in to a different character.

AT: It sounds like each show must be a huge journey for Aoife -

AR: She’s always so relieved to get through. In the post show discussion people often ask how she prepares for the role. When we’re doing the show she doesn’t drink, she eats very carefully, she becomes obsessed with her sleeping patterns, as she says: it’s a very strong lifestyle choice. Early on she couldn't do it without bursting in to tears.

AT: Ah I want to read the book and see the show -

AR: Yes, if you can read the book as well, try to get hold of it. If the show could be anywhere near as electrified as I felt when I finished the book, then we've not done a bad job. I hope that we’re true to part of it, and the spine of it, which is relentless, but has this innovation of language and strength of character, and even the fact that it’s from a female point of view is radical, still. And to hear that voice is so powerful the first time around.

Photos © Fiona Morgan

All details of upcoming performances at: including:

Curve, Leicester
11-13 Feb 2016

Young Vic, London
17 Feb - 26 March 2016

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
29 Mar-2 April 2016

Everyman, Liverpool
5-9 April 2016

Female Arts review of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

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