I fell in love with the Irish theatre scene, both present and past, after spending a summer studying abroad in Dublin. Since then, to fuel my need to hear the rhythms and spirit of that place that I often miss, I have always kept an eye out for the latest pieces of theatre from Ireland that travel to New York City. So, naturally, I was excited when a colleague of mine from Ireland mentioned that she had seen a piece called riverrun at the Galway Arts Festival and that I should be sure not to miss it when it arrived at BAM in September. The more I learn about this piece the more I look forward to seeing it on Wednesday, especially now that I got to chat with adapter/performer/director Olwen Fouéré about her process.
Bess Rowen: You are not only a performer in riverrun, but also its adapter and director. What is it about Finnegans Wake that speaks to you? Joyce had a connection to the theatre early in his life, but most people, of course, associate him with literature. What made you want to bring this piece to the stage and how do you think the medium of theatre adds to piece?
Olwen Fouere: I never read Finnegans Wake in its entirety and probably never will but I have always been drawn to it, fascinated by the language and its form. I would dip into it at random, guided by chance, and often contemplated it as material for live performance because of its aural beauty and its power to communicate beyond rational thought and bypass fixed ideas about 'meaning'. When I began to work with it, specifically by assuming the voice of the river, I began to appreciate just how cosmic a universe Finnegans Wake is, an ever-changing universe where all time is co-existent. So, as a performer, you are not assuming any fixed narrative or character, you are dealing with energies, forces of nature, the history and the geography that drives us onwards. The performer in riverrun is just a microcosmic speck of energy, like a tiny atom or cell in this thing we call Life, in the middle of millions of other cells who are the audience. All life depends on an ecosystem of exchange. So the life of this piece is utterly dependent the collective energy generated by both performer and audience. It is very like a standup comedy or spoken word performance, or a rock gig.
BR: What was the biggest challenge in your artistic process? (If this seems like too big an undertaking, maybe you can talk about how Joyce's writing fits a theatrical sensibility for you.)
OF: The more I work with this material the more I feel that the Wake was a massive act of generosity on Joyce's part. He invites you to author your own way through it, and there is no other way into it but the way you find. The biggest challenge was to accept that invitation and to trust my instincts, accept that I was blindly but intuitively leading the process, especially as I began to gather the collaborating artists. It is probably the most intuitive journey I have ever made as a director/performer. I consulted and workshopped the piece with quite a few artists but the most significant part of the artistic journey was with the composer/sound designer Alma Kelliher. After that we were joined by our lighting designer Stephen Dodd and our costume designer Monica Frawley. Finally, and crucially, I found an excellent co-director, Kellie Hughes, who trusted where I was with going the work, and who I trusted to act as my eyes and ears so that I could fully surrender to the performance.
BR: Do you have a favorite moment in performance of riverrun?
OF: I have a few favorite moments. And they vary. The experience of performing riverrun is very demanding, in terms of my physical/vocal energy and focus, but enormously rewarding. It ultimately leaves me and the audience with a surge of energy that feels primordial, something quite joyous and life-giving, but which can only be apprehended through the senses. People often weep afterwards, but don't know why. I often feel as if I have surfed down the rapids and then dissolved into the ocean only to be born again in another shape and time. Which, of course, is exactly what happens in the piece.
BR: Why this piece now? What does Joyce's work say to a contemporary audience, in your opinion? Or perhaps: what are you hoping to say, through Joyce, to a contemporary audience?
OF: I think the piece , and much of the entire book of Finnegans Wake is saying 'Wake up'! 'Rise up' to self-determination, overthrow canonical forms and the 'authority' of received ideas. It is wildly subversive, and joyously so. It also puts us arrogant humans - who behave as though we have dominion over nature and time - back into our place. One Scottish critic I read put it brilliantly, he said, "riverrun is a hymn to embracing what we do not know and do not understand, to trusting what little we bring to the party and the discovery that it is enough. To be going on with at least. For humans are voracious creatures and can never have enough".
BR: What is the most important thing for the audience to know about this piece before they go, if anything?
OF: Embark on the ever-changing journey down the river of Life (Liffey/Lethe) towards the dawn. Surrender to the alchemy of moments and embrace the chaos and the interconnectedness of all existence.
BR: This is not or your first time performing in New York, or even at BAM (their Instagram account just shared a stunning photo from your 1999 performance in Life is a Dream, by the way!), so what do you look forward to about performing for a New York audience?
OF: I look forward very much to the warmth and generosity of a New York audience, particularly the BAM audience who I think have that extra degree of curiosity and openness to new work.
BR: Anything else that you would like to share about riverrun?
OF: Can't think of anything specific just now, but we will be travelling with it to Australia in March 2015 and performing it at the Sydney Theatre Company on the Wharf for five weeks as part of their 2015 season...And many more international dates on the horizon.