Story Starts With Theme

“There are so many ways of creating a story,” says actor and playwright Andrew Lynch, “and I don’t believe one way is better than another. I think it is important to know what works for you. For me, I love watching a film or piece of theatre that makes me think, ask questions and analyze characters long after I viewed it. In my opinion I believe that a strong underlying theme plays a big role in achieving that.”

Andrew Lynch co-wrote Death Row Cowboy with Mark McCabe and is coming off several runs acting in the lead role in the play in Dublin, Ireland. In the story, a young inmate, imprisoned for murder in Oklahoma, awaits his execution.

Andrew Lynch and Mark McCabe in "Death Row Cowboy"
Andrew Lynch and Mark McCabe in “Death Row Cowboy”

Lynch notes that he and Mark McCabe had worked together, as actors, on various projects on and off for about seven years. “In July of 2012,” he says, “we were working together on a project called ‘HomeFromHome,’ which was a series of short scenes in collaboration with The Abbey Theatre and The Sean O’Casey Theatre. We were involved in two of the ten scenes, so there was a lot of time to talk and catch up, and our conversations were dominated by our recent foray into writing. Mark had written and produced a short film and I had been writing and shooting scenes for show reel purposes.

“It was very clear that we shared the same principles and passions when it came to writing, and we were both open to the option of working on something in the future together.”

A Blank Page With Endless Possibilities

“Fast forward to January, 2013,” Lynch continues, “and Mark calls me to ask if I fancied meeting up to discuss the possibility of co-writing a play together. When we met, we both had an open mind and no agendas about where we were going or what we were going to write.

“It was exciting, as we basically had a blank page with endless possibilities. What we discussed at length were topics and themes that we found interesting. We started paying particular attention to the themes of loneliness, legacy and regrets.

“When we finally had our themes nailed down we said we would go away and come back a week later to talk about ideas for a show. We were amazed to discover when we met back up that on both our lists the top idea we had was Death Row and Prison, and the story just grew from there. It made the writing process a lot easier as we developed our characters and stories because we never digressed from our themes. But as for a writing style, what works for one person may not for another. It just so happens Mark and I share the same principles.”

A Brilliant Script Always Has Strong Characters

Andrew Lynch
Andrew Lynch

“As actors,” says Lynch, “I think it’s only natural that myself and Mark are fascinated by and take great pleasure in creating characters. A brilliant script always has strong characters. When James Gandolfini died it made me sad. I never met him or knew him but I felt connected to him because of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano was a result of great acting and writing. The writer creating a character with many layers and the actor giving an amazing performance and showing those layers.

“When we began writing we didn’t have any particular characters in mind, but because we knew our themes our characters came naturally. Our themes shaped our characters. They fit with our themes because that is the core of our story. Our themes are universal. We’d spend hours on each character, creating backstories and discussing personalities. We even created a backstory for our female lead’s dead husband (who the audience never even get to see).”

A Director’s Discretion

Leaving room in the script for the director’s discretion is important for Lynch. “If you have a script full of stage direction and cues,” he says, “well, the question has to be asked, are you looking for a director or an order taker. Collaboration is so important to our theatre company.

“When we initially met with the director, Gary Duggan, we made it clear from the beginning that we were open to the possibility of change and that nothing was set in stone, once it’s for the greater good of the production. There needs to be room for the director to make choices and decisions to have their stamp on the project. That principle does not only apply with directors. With Mark and I being the writers as well as actors, we were conscious of making it ‘The Andrew & Mark Show.’ We genuinely want everyone to treat it like their own, with passion and enthusiasm. Not afraid to offer opinion whilst working freely using the talents which brought them onto the project in the first place.”

The Motherfucker With the Hat

In several months Andrew Lynch will perform in Stephen Adley Guirgis’s sex farce, The Motherfucker With the Hat, which premiered on Broadway in 2011. “I was in an acting class one night,” Lynch says, “and there was a table filled with theatre scripts and we were asked to go up and pick a script and work on a scene with someone else. I instantly saw the title The Motherfucker With the Hat and I grabbed it. As soon as I read the first page I was hooked. That night on the bus home I had it read nearly twice over.

“It’s one of those scripts that has a bit of everything in it, so many emotions, it’s fantastic. I worked on the opening scene for over eight weeks in class. The idea was that we work on it, then perform it in a showcase end of term. I worked on the opening scene.

“To my surprise I found that fellow actors in the class preferred to watch my scene rather than get up and act out their own. People never got bored of it and I never got bored performing it. Showcase came and afterwards I had everyone who attended coming over telling me they were blown away by it and asking me what play was it from. Interesting enough, I met [fellow actor] Sinead O’Riordan for the first time that day. She congratulated me and said ‘I have to work with you some day.’ Who would have thought that it would actually be The Motherfucker With the Hat when we’d first get to work together.

With Darkness Comes Humor

Credit: The Lost Studio, Los Angeles
Credit: The Lost Studio, Los Angeles

“The reason why the play appealed to me is because it’s real and I could relate to it. There might be a lot of laughs in the play, but sometimes with darkness comes humor, and that reminds me a lot of where I am from. Growing up in Darndale [near Dublin] I knew people like Jackie. His wanting to turn his life around, his battle with addiction and his turbulent relationship with Veronica. I don’t necessarily think it’s important for an audience member to relate to the characters they see on stage. In fact I think for most of the audience the writing will be about people they don’t know and a world they don’t necessarily live in. But what they will get is an understanding that this is coming from a very real place. That as funny and dark as it may be, it’s honest and thought provoking.

“The stories that interest me most always have strong central characters, showing the grey areas in both humans and society. I like to be asking questions and thinking. I don’t like work that is preachy, whether I agree with ‘the preach’ or not. Opinions should be offered but never forced. There are two sides to every argument and I want to hear both. All my favorite films/TV/books/theatre and songs tick these boxes.”

More to Come

Lynch plans to continue his playwriting. “I started writing to open doors for me as an actor because at this stage I don’t think they are going to be opened for me. What I didn’t anticipate was the love I would grow to have for writing. I especially couldn’t fathom the positive response that has come from the reviews for Death Row Cowboy. I am very humbled.

“Myself and Mark are currently developing a new play which is set on the ‘world’s deadliest mountain’ K2. One in every four people who have attempted the summit,” he notes, “have died trying, and this startling statistic got us thinking. What makes people want to climb such a dangerous mountain? Is it just about the adrenaline rush? Is it escapism? Are they trying to fill a void or replace something in their lives in order to make them feel worth or give them some sort of value? Or is it ego and competition that drives them?

K2 Mountain
K2 Mountain in Northern Pakistan

“The point is, we discovered many reasons why someone would like to make such a dangerous climb. But behind those reasons are themes of ambition, contentment, drive and purpose. We wondered where our own creative drive and passion for what we do came from, why we chose to be actors and writers, and this helped us explore our themes.

“When we set up Three Peas Theatre Company our aim was to write and perform original, thematic, thought provoking, entertaining work that engages with a wide audience. Mark had co-founded a film production company with actor Eddie Jackson called Floor Unit Productions, and two months ago I was asked (along with fellow actor Shea Brennan) to become a member. I was extremely interested and I was keen to carry over the same ethos from Three Peas.

“Floor Unit had two previously produced short films, A House of Cards and Normal, and our first production as a group was a recently submitted proposal to RTE Storyland called Chief Usher. It’s a story about the consequences of a desolate man, Hubert Warner, who finds a gun. A man in his mid-fifties who has failed to take opportunities presented to him in his life and now has a jealousy toward ambitious, free living, and enthusiastic co-workers. Much like Death Row Cowboy, the main theme highlighted in this show is Loneliness.” Lynch comments that if all goes well and they are selected, IFTA winner Brendan Conroy will play the role of Hubert and it will be directed by Brendan’s son, Rúaidhrí Conroy.

If Lynch’s work to date is any indication, audiences for his next production will be saying: “as funny and dark as it may be, it’s honest and thought provoking.”

 

More on Andrew Lynch:

Death Row Cowboy Review

IMDb Bio

 

Comedy Writing

“I personally appreciate extremely dark humor,” says Dublin-based comedy writer and performer Valerie Ní Loinsigh. “I think that it is an Irish trait to be enormously dark in your humor. I don’t appreciate superiority humor or humor at the expense of others quite as much. I like self-deprecation and black comedy.”

I am pleased to share an email conversation I had with Valerie Ní Loinsigh about her experiences with comedy writing, playwriting, acting, stand up comedy, and comedy workshops. We talked largely about comedic playwriting and stand-up comedy.

Playwriting

Comedy writer Valerie Ni Loinsigh
Valerie Ni Loinsigh

Ní Loinsigh recommends the essay ‘Elinor Fuchs’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.’ “I think that every aspiring playwright should read this,” says Ní Loinsigh. “A play is your own world and it is your job to convince the reader that that world is worth exploring. It is your responsibility to interest them in what you have to say. Making somebody laugh is always a useful tool in appealing to them.”

Ní Loinsigh says, “With comedic plays, I believe you should set the tone from the get-go. Convince the reader with a strong opening and after that, a consistent tone helps to keep their attention. With playwriting, you have a hell of a lot of scope. Anyone could read you. You could talk about anything… I find that my best scenes always have an element of truth in them, or I am always thinking of somebody from my real life and their voice when I am writing.”

Be Fearless

“Personally, with my playwriting, I always strive to be original. This is a blessing and a curse. It is either a success or a failure that you are completely responsible for. As with stand-up, you must be influenced, you must keep reading, never be too confident.

“It’s comedy. Laugh at yourself. Be fearless!

“It is also important to have your own standard. I have sat through plays of mine and felt like vomiting at what I felt was a terrible performance, and then received compliments afterwards. I have sat through plays of mine where I have squealed like a piglet in delight at how much laughter I was getting from the audience, only to be told afterwards that the play was obscure.

“Have your own standards but don’t shut yourself off from people. It is only when there is an element of doubt in ourselves that we are so sensitive to criticism. Be intelligent about which opinions you take on board and which you don’t.

“Be open to evolving,” Ní Loinsigh says. “My latest playwriting adventure is something that I am extremely excited about. It’s an original musical comedy called Fox Live. I wrote this in collaboration with two musical composers (Rowland Bennett and Tom McGrath). In writing it, we were honest with each other, we were brutal and insensitive, and the end result is something that I look forward to performing in. (Good playwrights always cast themselves!)”

Stand-Up Comedy    

Ní Loinsigh has been voted “Ireland’s Funniest” on RTÉ Radio One. “Humor based on misfortune” is the subject of Ní Loinsigh’s dissertation at Trinity College. She says, “This intrigues me as a concept, as essentially it is turning something that is utterly terrible into something that is positive. The three comedians that I am looking at are Tig Notaro, Francesca Martinez and Joan Rivers. Tig Notaro’s set documents a series of horrendous tragedies in her life that happened in quick succession. Francesca Martinez documents a lifetime with cerebral palsy. And Joan Rivers needs no explanation.

“What all of these ladies have in common is a sense of evolution. Comedy progressing. Comedy changing. Comedy being fresh. Freshness equals good stand-up comedy.”

Keep It Fresh

“With your writing, understand that comedy is ever evolving and your writing should be too.” Ní Loinsigh insists, “Don’t allow your writing to get stale, in topic or performance. Always be fresh!! What helps to keep your writing fresh is allowing yourself to be influenced: by other comedians, by satirical magazines (The Onion/The Daily Mash), by the world. Don’t shut yourself off from the world (trust me, this is extremely easy to do in stand-up). Mix with other comedians, as it is nice to get opinions.

“Understand that influences and what you expose yourself to are extremely important. I have underestimated how important it is to have influences in the past. You are what you watch, what you observe, what you appreciate. This does not mean copy exactly one influence but rather sample a lot of influences and learn about yourself. Develop a unique voice; the more influences, the better. You always need to be practiced, poised and fit. You are never just ‘funny.’ You must observe others at work and constantly be thinking of how you could improve your act. Like the music that you listen to, the comedy that you listen to will affect the end-product of your stand-up.”

Regarding the content of your writing, Ní Loinsigh says, “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you conclusively what makes ‘good’ comedy writing per se, as everybody has a different taste. You will need to develop your own comedy voice, through practice and by listening to potential influences and noting what you find funny. Watch a comedy gala. What do you laugh at? What don’t you laugh at? Make note.”

Humor Can Be So Subjective

Comedy writer Valerie Ni Loinsigh
Comedy writer Valerie Ni Loinsigh

Ní Loinsigh’s advice: “With stand-up, take each performance as a separate challenge. Never become transparent. Always do your research. Take a notepad with you and if something does not work, write it down and reflect intelligently on why you think it didn’t. If you genuinely find something funny and deliver it with conviction, then have the confidence to believe that the problem was with the audience, not you.

“Be aware of when you are getting tired of your own material, it really translates when one sees a comedian perform material that he is sick of. Make an effort to be fresh and excited about your material.

“To try to allow for the subjectivity of humor, it is so important to know your audience and know your context in advance of the gig. Decide what material that you will use to get optimum laughter, based on where you are performing, the amount of people in the audience, whether people have been drinking, whether people know each other, whether it is a pay-in gig or an open microphone gig. Predict what they will find the funniest of all of your material. Always have a particularly strong five minutes of material that you can perform should everything else go wrong with your set.”

Workshopping Comedy

Can comedy be taught? “Yes, absolutely. I am the Head of Department in Long Lake Camp for the Arts in New York,” says Ní Loinsigh. “With teaching, what is most important, beyond anything else is discovering what makes a person funny and not trying to shoehorn your style onto them. With my students, I can’t teach them my funny but I can certainly draw their funny from them.”

Characterizing Irish Comedy

A final thought: I asked Ní Loinsigh if she thinks there is a signature tone to comedy in Ireland. “I wouldn’t dare to generalize all of Irish comedy but I can make a comment on a selection of Irish films that I love and are relatively current. They say what people laugh at tells them a lot about themselves as people.

 The Guard. An Irish guard who is behind in his political correctness, perpetuating an Irish stereotype as we can’t help but to love this likeable, morally corrupt man.

Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges.  Very dark, crass. Martin McDonagh who enjoys violence in his work, particularly violence against animals as evidenced in Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh certainly has a very stylized voice which shines through in his work.

Man About Dog. A Pierce Elliot creation featuring Pat Shortt… The craic is mighty in this.

 

For the full version of the interview, see our related website The Filmmaker Lifestyle.

 

 

 

Playwriting – The Poor Man’s Art Form

playwright Raegan Payne
Raegan Payne

Theater, especially black box, is most often an intimate experience, both for the audience and for the actor. Award-winning playwright Raegan Payne talks about her playwriting and what attracts her to this kind of storytelling.

A Poor Man’s Art Form

“I like being forced to tell a story with just dialogue and almost no resources,” says Payne. “It’s a poor man’s art form, anyone can do it, that’s what I love. Inversely, it should also be accessible for the poor to see and often times it isn’t.

Tell a story with just dialog and almost no resources.

“Also, theatre has an immediacy as well as intimacy that can be missing in other art forms. And the audience influences the work – actors hear their response to their performance and that motivates them to change what they’re doing. Both sides of the stage are affecting each other.”

Feeding the Muse

“I think my ideas come from a few places,” says Payne. “I read a lot – news, fiction, non-fiction books. Sometimes I’ll find humor in a dark news story or maybe I’ll want to rewrite a story for a modern audience. It depends on my mood.

“My writing secret is that I always have more than one project going at a time. I don’t get writers block. If something scares me or I can’t work on it that day I jump to another project. My rule is one page a day at least, but I don’t say what subject.”

Raegan Payne
Raegan Payne

Acting on the Web

Payne acts as well. Her experience includes a number of episodes on the web series Lonelygirl15. She comments on the web series as a story medium. “Working on Lonelygirl was great because we were kinda inventing the form as we went along. It’s a legitimate medium that needs to be treated as it’s own beast.

It’s an intimate person-to-person entertainment form.

“Not all of the rules of TV will work, some of the rules of theatre will. It’s an intimate person-to-person entertainment form. I think fewer characters, deeper more ‘private’ moments or reveals work brilliantly online. I’m really looking forward to seeing some inventive new work in that medium.”

The Female Perspective in Art

“Women are under-represented on the stage,” Payne says, “as playwrights, producers, directors, and as executives in Hollywood. I think lack of the female perspective in artwork helps propagate disrespect. I remember being a young student at Groundlings and being told there were eight places for men and two for women in the troupe. When I asked why, their explanation was basically, ‘Well girls just aren’t funny.’ That idea needs to disappear.

“Girls are often told that they shouldn’t talk about certain things because it isn’t ladylike. Women need to be free to express themselves just like men.”

Bio

Raegan Payne’s plays: The Reaper just finished a run in Santa Monica, California; Things Unsaid goes up in Hollywood and Washington, DC in October.

Check out her website, her blog and her IMDb page.