Belfast Telegraph

Q&A: We catch up with Corn Exchange director Annie Ryan

By Edwin Gilson

The Chicago native and director of Dublin-based Corn Exchange theatre company will be bringing her stage version of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to Belfast's MAC.

Q: Having previously adapted work by Samuel Beckett and James Joyce for the stage, do you see A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing as part of that classic lineage?

A: It just struck me so deeply. I really couldn't put it down. Most people actually have to put this book down at times, because it is so intense. I did it the creepy way, though, sitting up in the middle of the night reading and reading! When I finished it was such a big kick to the gut. I had no idea if it was stageable, but it's proven to be performable.

Q: The novel deals with difficult themes such as sexual abuse and mental disability. Has this traumatic content had a palpable effect on your audiences to date?

A: Yes, and I feel like I have to treat the audience with care, given all that suffering.

We finished one particularly distressing scene one night and everyone in the room burst into tears for 20 minutes. I have met people who said the play was almost too much for them. I feel like holding post-show discussions with the audience to make sure they are okay. The crew does a lot of yoga during theatre runs to help us cope.

Q: And it's a one-woman production, which must put your actress Aoife Duffin under a good deal of strain …

A: I think the most challenging thing for Aoife is the trauma in the story. It's terrifying for her, in fact. There was a difficulty in acting out some of the more sexually-orientated scenes too. When you read the book, you're inside the girl's head - you are the girl - whereas when you put Aoife on the stage, you are now watching her be this girl.

I don't want the audience to be objectifying Aoife after she has performed explicit material. I deliberately tried to distance the actor from the material, to stop her getting too emotionally attached.

Q: The narrator is strictly irreligious, whereas her mother takes refuge in the Church. Is this a comment on generational ideological differences in modern Ireland?

A: The novel is set in 1980s Ireland and in the book the mother is from Northern Ireland and she's a real outsider - it's why she's so vulnerable in the story. She's a single mother, and it is hell for her.

It's drawing on pretty intense misery, and she finds refuge in the Church, which you can understand. Her desperation, though, drives her daughter crazy - she hates religion, hates everything about it.

The values of the older generation and the younger generation clash for sure. There is a scene where the grandfather comes in and abuses the mother, who in turn beats the children. In addition to shame, there is this long legacy of cruelty under the eyes of God. The book goes into that area very strongly.

Q: Can you pinpoint one play in particular that has been a real challenge to direct in your career so far?

A: Each project is like my child, they're all very special and challenging in their own ways. There is something about the nature of creative work which is terrifying. It is difficult to prevent that feeling; in fact, it gets worse because you know more about what people want. I tend to panic really early and try to troubleshoot what might go wrong later on, so I'm not caught out with that 'Oh s***' feeling during the production.

  • A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing runs at the MAC, Belfast, from February 17-21. For details, visit www.themaclive.com

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