Theatre: Floating into “All That Fall”


How It’s New York: This was in NY as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, one of New York’s most intriguing cultural attraction.

How It’s Irish: Pan Pan Theatre is an Irish company, and Samuel Beckett, the playwright, was Irish too.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Dec. 18.

Hear more of what director Gavin Quinn had to say, and some of the play, too, in podcast #24. We talked to Gavin last year about the production of The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane in this podcast.

“Samuel Beckett” and “thriller” don’t usually occupy the same sentence, but for Pan Pan Theatre’s Gavin Quinn, Beckett’s radio play All That Fall is just that. Quinn has staged the radio play – kind of, sort of – and it was presented at BAM at the Richard B. Fisher Building, 321 Ashland Place, from Wednesday, December 19, through Sunday, December 23 as part of the Next Wave Festival. The production premiered at the Project Arts Center in Dublin in August 2011.

Gavin describes All That Fall as a “communal listening experience” that he compares to a “flotation tank.” The audience sits in rocking chairs, aware of one another in the room as they listen individually. That’s the staging: there will be no live bodies. Instead, the audience will listen to a very carefully conceived recording, and interact with 12 speakers and 475 lights. It’s interactive in that each audience member decides where to sit, when to rock and how fast. The words create images in the mind. “There are also smells,” Quinn says.

The 1956 radio play is unusual for Beckett, Quinn says. Quinn has loved the play since he first found it in a bookshop as a teenager over 20 years ago. The play, he says, is

 “un-Beckett like. It’s so unusual in structure and overall atmosphere. There are 10 characters, which is a lot of characters for Beckett. It’s based on actual childhood characters, real people from his childhood, and also it is a thriller.” 

In the one-act play, Maddy Rooney goes to Boghill station to meet her husband, encountering people there and back. “At the end of the play you don’t know if the child was thrown from the train or not,” Quinn says.

Pan Pan Theatre Company, founded in 1991 by Gavin Quinn and designer Aedin Cosgrove, is known for its creative approach to classic text. The Rehearsal, or Playing the Dane, which Pan Pan brought here in 2011 for example, featured a great dane and an audience vote for which actor would play Hamlet in the second act. The choices weren’t merely playful, according to Quinn, they were physicalizations of the concept of the play: what does it mean to play Hamlet. 

I wrote about Playing the Dane for Theatermania then, and also covered it when it debuted at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2010.

In All That Fall, Quinn also uses his theatrical originality to try to get to something profound about the play and even the author’s intentions. Beckett, he says, thought it would ruin the play to stage it “because in many ways the whole point of the piece when hearing the words is whether or not you believe the whole play is happening in the mind of the main character Maddie Rooney. The idea of making her concrete or visible didn’t make any sense.”

Beckett was notoriously strict about how his plays should be performed. A 1984 production of Endgame at American Repertory Theatre, staged by JoAnne Akalaitis, received objections from Grove Press because Akalaitis used music by her ex-husband Philip Glass and set the play in an abandoned subway station, rather than in the room described by Beckett. Some people interpreted what she did as a comment on homelessness. The show went on, but the program contained a program insert, including words from the playwright that called the production a “parody,” and that “anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.” 

In 1994, a London production of Footfalls, directed by Deborah Warner, was shut down by the Beckett estate after a week because the production put Fiona Shaw in mid-air, rather than in the prescribed circle of light. The actress also wore a red dress instead of a grey one, and some lines were switched from one character to another. The production had planned to tour to France, but could not.

Quinn’s staging suggests that the estate can be flexible where the intention is clear. While there was “a little bit of copyright chess” with the estate, Quinn says, they liked his idea of providing a way to listen to the play properly. Edward Beckett, Samuel Beckett’s nephew and executor even went to see it in Inniskillin, Quinn recalls.

What Pan Pan did was to make a very detailed recording, with all the benefits of contemporary digital recording. It took weeks, Quinn says, when normally a radio play is done in a few days. That recording contributes to a “special environment for people to listen to the play. It is a kind of social sculpture. The audience goes into a specially designed space for concentration, that heightens the play’s atmosphere.
“You rock to, and listen to the words, as you would perhaps in the 1950s, and hear the words as clearly as possible. It’s very different from just listening or watching.”

This is not listening to a podcast in the car, in other words, or flipping through a magazine while watching a sit-com. Quinn describes the experience as “super-concentrated.”
“It’s part installation. It’s a moment in time. It’s like listening to music on headphones,” Quinn says.

“You take the time out to hear every single moment of this play.”

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