COMET is meant to be an unanticipated conversation, a guerrilla style performance that catches its audience offguard and hits them with verbatim issues facing young people today. So it’s strange that I am sat opposite actor Shaun Blaney in a coffee shop, dictaphone in between us as I conduct an overly formal interview to get his views on the show’s latest outing at the King’s Head Theatre.
The interview itself isn’t awkward, stilted or indeed that formal really. But COMET is a show that actively avoids the traditional – no actor on stage and no concept of a fourth wall. It’s not broken because it doesn’t exist. So, the idea that this is an interview and not a general chat, or me accosting Shaun in the street and barraging him with questions, seems a bit of a missed opportunity. If only he experienced the onslaught that he delivered to the audience as part of the show…
The piece is trying to get people that wouldn’t normally go to theatre coming in. Why are you trying to do that?
The play was originally commissioned to reach young, male audiences – the theatre company is primarily a children’s theatre company and they hadn’t been able to find a show that really engaged with 12 – 18-year-old males. You put a fourth wall up and the guys turn off after a little while; they needed something that wasn’t patronising, wasn’t condescending, but was on a level with them.
So, they hired writer John McCann – he’d done a lot of outreach with various different theatre companies and has a lovely way of connecting with people. He did hundreds of hours of interviews with men and women across Northern Ireland – he didn’t lead the conversation, they just talked about whatever they wanted.
What they started to talk about seemed very universal across the board – an awful lot about the struggle to grow up and fit into their surroundings; about drugs, drink and peer pressure. The same stories were coming up for really lovely things to relate to as well – hut building with your best mates when you were young.
When we took it into schools, we knew that it had to feel like those conversations again. It couldn’t be a one-man show with characters, it just had to feel like a complete stranger who needed to talk to you, get his message across. He didn’t need you to talk back – would you listen?
Every audience we went to did. We’ve taken it to what teachers consider problem schools and they’re the ones you relish, essentially, they’re the pupils that the show is for. Normally I would come into the classroom like I’d just walked in off the street, so the kids didn’t know what was happening. Beforehand we would set up the speakers so there was a slightly inaudible hum when the kids came in just to set them on edge.
Once we finished in schools I thought I would really like to transfer it to stage and see how it worked in a black box situation, but also see if an adult audience would listen in the same way – would they be as empathetic as the kids, the problem schools, the prisoners and the community centres were? Would a middle-class audience see it in the same way and get the same feelings?
They did, which was lovely, but surprising how much it changed the show. No two shows over came out the same – you never wanted to pitch the show above the accepted knowledge of the oldest person in the room. If you were with 12-year olds, everything you talked about how to come out you as if you were just realising it with them. You get to 17, there’s a bit more shared knowledge about drugs, peer pressure, substance abuse. You get into a room full of adults and finally the character was allowed to be 25 and thinking back.
“It just had to feel like a complete stranger who needed to talk to you.”
I was really interested to see how it would go down here because it’s written in Northern Irish colloquial language. More often than not, plays that come out of Northern Ireland were about the troubles and we’re fed up about them. To take something like this to London and show that we are trying to break down walls that have nothing to do with race and reconciliation, just with people, but to do it with colloquialisms and slang and have people nodding their heads, that was lovely as well.
Was that difficult as an actor to take the same material and put a new spin on it with every performance?
Yeah, which is why I love it so much. It’s always alive, you can never lie back into it. I’ve done it about 300 times now and very rarely saw it the same way twice.
Did you ever have a favourite age range, or one that caught you off guard the most?
My favourite show was always a mixture of boys and girls – it’s truer to the interviews we’ve done, it fostered a better bond.
Was it ever awkward?
Oh, God yeah. The show is hyper-realism so you just have to trust that if you keep a connection with someone and maintain that eye contact even if you’re in your own head, you can find your way through it with the audience – they are the other performers.
Is it harder to be natural in a black box theatre?
Yeah, a lot harder; I think the shared assumption in the room is that you’re going to see something that is a type of performance. I put a red chair on the stage in case I ever wanted to use it and to draw focus at the start of the show. Afterwards, one actor came to me and said that he wanted me to pick the chair up and throw it away, but then he realised that all I was doing was just trying to have a conversation.
It’s very difficult to take people’s preconceived notions about what the show should be. Everything has to be defined very early; to reach an audience in this you have to come in suddenly, but you can’t shout at them or tell them to talk about their feelings. You have to say,
“This happened to me and you can do what you want with the information.”
It always had to be underplayed, or it would get to a point where I was telling the audience what to do.
Initially it was about issues among children and teenagers, but do those issues ever really go away?
No. In the two years that we’ve done it, both child and adult have related to it. The problems will always be there, it’s trying to get people to feel like they can talk about it. Hopefully they’ll lessen over time the more that we learn as a society. The only way to get through it is to recognise you’re not alone. One of the worst things that can happen is something taking you by surprise, if you’re not prepared to have a conversation and let children know about the issues then you’re doing them a disservice. Kids are resilient.
Have you connected the play with any of your own past experiences?
Very often. The vast majority of the play I could relate to on some level. Hut building for example, I spent most of my childhood in a field with two mates making huts. For an awful lot of the play I was also thinking about times in my life when I could have fallen into a dark place, maybe where I gave in to peer pressure or substance abuse
COMET has toured all over, played for two years. What’s the hope now the King’s Head run has finished?
I’ve done a lot of shows and am finding it hard to keep it fresh – unless that audience connection is there every time it’s hard to keep it going. As I get older, my ability to feasibly pass as someone their age is getting harder, I’m not one of the cool kids anymore! If the play does go out around the schools again, it could do with a new narrator, somebody with fresh eyes. It would be very interesting to see what a female narrator would bring. I’ve adapted the script into a short film too, hopefully do it as a one take Birdman style shot to solidify my performance in it.
What’s next for you?
Next I have a project in development with Hat Trick Productions to make a crime drama. Myself and a team made a web series a couple of years ago, four six-minute episodes set in Belfast. Hopefully that will go to BBC and BBC NI to fill the void that The Fall left a couple of years ago. I just finished filming with The Disney Channel as well on the TV show The Lodge.
Quick-fire round time! TV or stage?
TV – I grew up on movies and love going to the cinema. But it’s TV over film at the minute because I’ve got some really lovely parts in the last couple of years.
Who is your inspiration?
Mark Rylands, I love the way he talks about theatre and the way he interacts with an audience.
Keepie uppie and then a scene with Rylands.
COMET played King’s Head Theatre as part of a UK tour. For more information, see the website.
Images courtesy of Neil Harrison.