Theatre Director Gráinne Curistan on writing, acting and being At Large

Caoimhe Cooke

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It was on a very snowy evening in Belfast in 2010 that Les Impossibles was first performed. The two-character production, At Large Theatre’s  inaugural performance,  was later performed at the TCD School of Midwifery, before receiving International attention at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

I like the beginning of At Large. I look at it as a wee fighter. It wanted to exist.

Gráinne Curistan, co-founder and Artistic Director of At Large Theatre, was 26 at the time. ‘Everything that could go wrong, went wrong’, she says of that first performance, in an exclusive interview with thecircular.org. ‘It was quite the challenge but we got there. I like the beginning of At Large. I look at it as a wee fighter. It wanted to exist.’

Raised in Letterkenny, Gráinne credits her love of theatre to her parents, who were both artists. ‘The power of theatre was always very present in my childhood. My mother incorporated theatre into her exhibitions. It was a hugely positive influence to have had – to see the social element of art and how powerful it can be. It’s a great leveler and equaliser.

Daniel O’Brien’s ‘Nowhere Now’ at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 2016.

Indeed, as I sit listening to the Donegal native recount her theatrical journey the word ‘fighter’ seems very apt. She recalls a charity fundraiser she organised during secondary school. The event – a variety show written and performed by Grainne and her friend – was met with some resistance from the school’s Drama teacher ‘who felt a bit put out.’ Did that stop our budding director? ‘Ach, no. It made me more determined! There was no way it wasn’t going to happen just because she didn’t want it to. We did a matinee and an evening show. It was great craic and we raised a bit of money.’

At Large Theatre Company, under Grainne’s guidance, has made remarkable progress over the last six years. In the past 12 months alone, the group has written, devised and performed six original pieces of theatre at festivals including The Edinburgh Fringe, The One-Act Festival, Pick n Mix Festival and Scene + Heard @ Smock Alley Theatre. They closed the year with three-night run of two new plays by Arthur Sheridan: ‘The Waiting Game’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ in Portobello’s Harbour Playhouse.  2016 also saw the beginning of At Large’s monthly professional workshops for members.

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‘We are at a transition now’ says Gráinne. ‘We know where we want to be but we need a concrete plan to get there. Our aim is to be in the professional realm of theatre, and to eventually receive core funding from the Arts’ Council. It’s a matter of figuring out our game-plan.’

Ms. Curistan’s vision for At Large comes largely from her own experience in theatre. She explains how the first play she wrote had four actors in it, all of whom were genderless. ‘I like the idea that you bring yourself to the actor. As a young female actor I often felt penned in and restricted by my gender. Any female roles I came across were either very meagre characters with three-line parts, or were the main love interest.’

At Large’s ‘Anecdotal Evidence’, Scene and Heard Festival 2017, Smock Alley Theatre

Gráinne acknowledges many of the positive changes that are happening in Irish theatre today, but thinks reform is still needed in some areas: ‘I see lots of exciting pieces of theatre these days’, she says. ‘Broken Talkers and Anú Productions are doing great things.’

‘I think collaborative and innovative theatre practice is most definitely being encouraged right now. I’m disappointed that there isn’t a focus on good solid writing and the development of that. There’s a lack of encouragement for new writing, especially if it doesn’t fit into a ‘box’. In [an At Large’s] dramaturgical workshops, we prioritise the writer. We ask them questions, rather than making suggestions. I would hate for At Large to move away from that – to enforce rules on the writer, or take ‘a higher ground’ on an idea.’

At Large Workshop February 2017: Bouffon Technique with Amadán Theatre

At Large Theatre Company is unlike other companies in that it is specifically focused on the development of new writing and produces only original or unseen works.

‘I wanted to create an environment where new work was welcome. Where creative minds could get together, push the boundaries and see what’s possible. It’s a sharing, creative process ’explains Gráinne. ‘I’ve never been protective of my ideas. I don’t think any idea is particularly unique. I share my ideas because I know I’ll have more.’

Do all writers feel that way? Gráinne considers this for a moment. ‘I believe that a writer should have autonomy over their own piece writing’, she begins, ‘but I do see a benefit in receiving other people’s views. Getting feedback, seeing how other people work things and how they interpret your work is invaluable information for a writer.’

I wanted to create an environment where new work was welcome. Where creative minds could get together, push the boundaries and see what’s possible.

It’s fair to say that At Large has been in a state of flux and change since its humble beginnings in 2010, and this needs to continue says Gráinne:

‘I think we need to constantly reinvent ourselves. I hope we always stay open and flexible to change. At Large is not me anymore. It will grow and progress and live beyond my interest.  I want it to do that.’

To be ‘at large’ in the world? ‘Yes! You know – that sense of ‘let loose’. Of something unstoppable.’

At Large’s next monthly workshop will take place in The Lab, Foley Street and will be facilitated by Patrick O’Reilly, Artistic Director of Tinderbox Theatre. You can find more details about their monthly workshops here.

At Large’s Unchained Melody, Scene and Heard Festival 2017, Smock Alley Theatre

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Caoimhe Cooke