It’s less than a week before The Belly Button Girl opens in The New Theatre. I had an amazing opportunity to talk to the play’s writer and performer Tom Moran and Romana Testasecca, who is directing the piece.
Just before we dive into the interview, I want to make a special mention. I meet a lot of creative artists and theatre makers, who are, of course, very proud of their creations. But Tom and Romana were so passionate and enthusiastic about their upcoming play that the fire in their eyes were so contagious I couldn’t bare the thought of keeping it all to myself. Unfortunately, not always such an amount of belief and passion about your own work can be transmitted through the screen; so, I decided to simply say it.
Now to the interview.
I sat down with Romana and Tom primarily to talk about Squad Theatre company and The Belly Button Girl. It’s interesting to note that The Belly Button Girl is being brought to the audience not by one but two theatre companies. Walking almost hand in hand, Squad Theatre Company and Intensive Purposes are as close as sisters. Being formed around the same time (and as recently as 2015) by a group of DIT Drama graduates, both companies have quite an extensive experience behind their belts, including participation in Scene and Heard festival. Always trying to work side by side but allowing each other enough creative freedom at the same time, the two companies focus on creating their own content. The Squad is a company with 5 core members (and more than ten in total), while Intensive Purposes is pretty much a one-man project. It was Tom’s decision to be separated from the rest as he wanted to have the freedom to work on his own writings. At the same time, Tom and Romana gave me a feeling of a close unity between the two companies, they are always there to help each other to produce and present.
Having already some experience in writing and performing, creating The Belly Button Girl took more than a year to be fully developed. Starting as a completely different story, with a different plot and a different title, Tom’s inspiration for the play came while practicing yoga. To be more precise, in a downward-facing dog pose. Acknowledging that he might have not been the best yogi and always being pushed to the back of the class, Tom felt like he was not getting enough attention from the teacher. Thus the idea of a guy who falls in love with his yoga instructor was born. “But then I realised that the play wasn’t about yoga at all, it was about the relationship”, says Tom. And that’s exactly what was left in the second draft: the relationship between two human beings.
“It’s very unfiltered”, says Tom about the nature of the play. “He – the protagonist – is not ashamed. There is a lovely kind of confidence in just being himself. He just says everything the way it is”, adds Romana.
Always trying to mix things up, Tom admits that he likes his “comedies to be dramatic and his dramas to be comedic”. “Otherwise it doesn’t feel real”, says he.
But it’s never easy to be the writer who performs in his or her own piece. Tom says that he always knew he was going to be the one telling the story not only from the page but also from the stage. When asked which of the two crafts he enjoys more, he honestly answers “I have this bone in my body that if I wasn’t performing I would probably go a little bit crazy”. He also notes that writing has become a huge part of his daily life and he couldn’t imagine himself not doing it anymore.
Tom admits that music is a very important component of his writing routine. It doesn’t only influence and inspire him and his mood, but it also helps him to find the rhythm of the piece. Evidently having a very well trained musical ear, he counts the bits in every word and every phrase to make it sound right.
Just like in any creative task, being the writer of the piece you are performing apart from the evident benefits also inputs some challenges. One of such might be that the actor starts taking liberties and creative freedom with his own (well-penned and already brought to perfection) script. It’s easy to change a word or a whole line while it’s your own creation. That’s why you have a director who is there to help you master the performance.
Romana came on board only a few months ago. While Tom knew from the beginning that he was writing a play for himself, he didn’t have yet a person in mind to direct it. “She gave me the best notes on the play”, says Tom who enjoys working with Roman and admits that he gets really excited when the two creative opinions collide in the rehearsal room and they have to find a way to make the scene work for both of them. Also coming from an acting background, Romana says that she always respects the actor’s point of view and ideas about how a scene should be acted out. But it’s always a mutual decision and the director has the benefit of seeing the performance from the outside. It’s definitely a challenge to find the balance in between imposing yourself as the director and listening to what your actor is trying to communicate to you.
“The Belly Button Girl isn’t biographical”, says Tom “there is a lot of me in it, but none of it actually happened to me.” Inviting people to have a look at his own experience, Tom quotes Mark Birbiglia: “If you are not telling your secrets, you are not doing it right”. And that’s exactly how Tom wants to engage his audience. “That’s what good art is”, he says, “telling your secrets. And this is what this play – The Belly Button Girl – is. It’s the most unfiltered thing. He – the main character – is so free and lovely, and so disgusting. This play tries to show every part of a person and every part of a relationship.”
Not hugely relaying on the set design or props, the play is as stripped down as the protagonist’s soul in front of an audience. “He is there and he is telling you his story”, says Romana. “There is nothing else. It’s this guy on stage telling his story”.
Both Romana and Tom want the audience to have a real truthful understanding of a human experience. In his play, Tom aims to show people that it’s ok to go through different emotions internally but it’s even more ok to release them to the outside world. There is nothing to be worried or scared about. Even if you are a man. Especially if you are a man. Because before being a man, you are a human being. “Comfortable vulnerability” is the beautiful term that Tom uses for it, “to be comfortable with your own emotions and showing them.”
Tom and Romana have big plans for The Belly Button Girl. It’s less than a week before the play opens in one of Dublin’s city center venues, but the talk has it that the play will be well up for the Edinburgh Fringe in the next couple of years. Described as an “Unflinching, romantic and personal” play, The Belly Button Girl promises to be truly epic! So start booking the tickets before they are gone. For one week only with one day (Monday) preview at the price of 12.50 EUR only: http://www.thenewtheatre.com/tnt_php/scripts/page/show.php?show_id=268&gi_sn=57b34ad04e5ef%7C0