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Interview with Seanan McDonnell

Revolver, the new play by Sugar Coat Theatre Company, opened in Theatre Upstairs this Tuesday past. The play is in full swing now entertaining the audience and wowing the critics; and I got a great opportunity to interview Seanan McDonnell, who wrote the piece.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your previous writing experience. What kind of writer are
you?  
I’ve been writing fairly consistently since I was a tot and my writerly sensibility probably calcified around age 8 watching The Simpsons and reading X-Men comics. In 3rd class, I remember keeping a notebook of short stories that were a mix of low fantasy children’s adventures and Bible fanfic.
My reading interests are pretty evenly split between genre writing – science fiction, horror, a little crime – and literary fiction and when I’m writing, I’m a magpie of my own interests. The best writing builds to ‘moments’, which I realise is a word that’s both plain and vague, but you know the ones I mean: the explanation for how the heist was pulled off, the closing of a causal loop in a time travel story, the memory of a piece of fruit that triggers a character to reflect upon a string of poor decisions. Great genre writing and great literary writing tend to go about creating them in very different ways: the former, usually, through story construction and the latter, usually, through burrowing deeper and deeper into its characters’ minds. But they’re not mutually exclusive, my very favourite writing marries them, and so when I write, I hope to build those ‘moments’ similarly.
Do you sit in the rehearsal room a lot?
I like to be a minimal presence in the rehearsal room. When it come to plays, you’re working in a collaborative medium so really the only functional approach for a writer (who has no interest in directing or acting) is to hand it over to the creative team and hope that the common understanding of the text’s scale and tone is close enough to your own that you don’t end up interrupting performances with “That’s not how you’re meant to say that line!”
How was the idea of Revolver born? 
I can’t really remember; I began the play five years ago. I wrote the female part for Charlene Craig, whom I’ve known since college, and whom I’m lucky enough to have play the part in the production. She swears that it was born from a suggestion I made in my old flat in London that we should do a play together but I have no recollection of that conversation. Her memory is better than mine though and it does make for a better story.
I do remember returning to the premise in my head because it offered a sustainable way to dramatise a pretty-difficult-to-dramatise aspect of human behaviour: the way the content of our opinions are overwhelmingly contingent not on the truth but on the perceived benefit it’ll bring us in whatever social set-up we assign most value. If you want to write a play about envy, you can write envious characters; if you want to write a play about malice, you can write a play about people who post Game of Thrones spoilers on Facebook; but if you want to write a play about people whose sense of self is ever-shifting, it’s hard to write credibly. People don’t speak about that and people aren’t conscious of it. But if characters can reset their encounters, you can have them passionately assume a position on a topic in one scene and then passionately assume the opposite position in the next. So, it’s a neat way of minimising the friction between the play’s character work and the play’s dramatic momentum and a neat way of having you question the reliability of the accounts the characters offer of themselves.
What was the biggest challenge while writing Revolver? 
The biggest challenge was creating dramatic tension when the characters are resetting the plot every five minutes. The temptation to have the play be a shapeless, discontinuous mass was high. But after a while, you spot ways to construct the story so you’re taking advantage of the structure. There were opportunities to create intrigue around the premise, to play with the differing levels of knowledge between the characters and the audience, to give the action urgency because it could be undone at any moment, and the writing was about finding those.
The editing was a nightmare though. The first version was significantly way too long and any time you wanted to make a cut, it meant looking at the entirety of the play: you’d remove some insignificant moment from scene 2 and then remember it was necessary for setting up a big moment in scene 8. That happened a lot.
What makes Revolver different from other plays? 
It’s science fiction. There are plays with science fiction premises but they’re usually called ‘absurdist’ or ‘playful’; this is unambiguously a piece of ‘science fiction’ about a technological advance and its consequences. It’s also a romantic comedy. Like everybody, I’m a big fan of the ‘Before Sunset’ movies: they’re wistful and charming but most importantly, I think, they follow the humps and hollows of real conversations. They strike this cadence that you’re at ease with at once and that was something I wanted to recreate, in parts, here. So, it’s a sci-fi rom-com and I don’t know any other plays, really, that are that.
What would you identify as the main message of the play? What do you want people to be thinking/feeling when they leave the theatre? 
The main message is “Our sense of self is a shaky thing and we’ll turn to anything, including kamikaze romantic relationships, to stave that notion off” but I hope that emerges from the drama rather than sits atop it. I really don’t like didactic drama. I’d hope, as hopelessly bourgeois as it is to say it, that people have a good time. It’s a comedy so I hope they laugh. It’s got revelations so I hope they gasp. And for all their flaws, the play’s two characters are motivated by desperation more than anything so I hope there’s sympathy for them. Mostly, I want people to come out feeling like it was 65 minutes of their life well spent.
Revolver, written by Seanan McDonnell and directed by Matthew Ralli, runs in Theatre Upstairs until June 4th. For more info or to book tickets: http://www.theatreupstairs.ie/revolver
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Theatre Upstairs: Revolver

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Unless you go through all the genuine angers you feel, both justified and unjustified, the feelings of love that you have will not have any legitimate base and will be at least partially false. Plus, eventually you will go crazy.
– Christopher Durang

You know that scene in Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, where Bruce and Prudence go on a blind date with each other? And everything goes from bad to worse. All the words, that would have been better left out, were said at the most inappropriate times; all the bits and pieces of personal information that should have waited at least until the third date, were revealed without any thought given prior to opening one’s own mouth… And even if you don’t know Durang’s play, sure you would have recongised yourself in the above mentioned situation. We’ve all been on a date after (or during) which we considered the option of leaving the country and never coming back for the way we’ve completely embarrassed ourselves and ruined any chances of further happiness and life together.

Aodh (played by Colm O’Brien) and Bea (played by Charlene Craig) are also trying out their luck on the “romantic front” with the help of the magical website with a speaking-for-itself name everlasting.con. The difference is that Aodh and Bea don’t have one single chance to make a first impression, they have countless number of opportunities to wow each other for the first time… for there is a magical button that they can press at any point during the date in order to get back to the starting line. The memory of how the previous date went will be completely erased. The only side effect is that every time the button is pressed, the love birds suffer from a minor stroke. But what is a minor stroke when you get a freshly clean slate with someone you might possibly like… again.

Revolver, written by Seanan McDonnell and directed by Matthew Ralli, is a beautiful comedy with strong dialogue and an intriguing plot. McDonnell in his script rises a very interesting question: if we knew we had a second chance, would we be more inclined to reveal our true selves or would we try to pull off the most ridiculous lies to see if the other person will fall into the trap? Every time the button goes down, we witness the already known scenario but in a completely different light. With practically the same first date questions and answers, each time presented in a new perspective and at a new angle, the mood of each scene differs dramatically.

Both actors, Charlene Craig and Colm O’Brien, give a strong memorable performance. Their way of portraying Aodh and Bea, and truly making those two characters their own, is hugely enjoyable. Their ability to play the same old scenario each time in a different way and with the same amount of novelty and enthusiasm is simply admirable. With the perfect set (by Dylan Farrell) and lighting (by Teresa Nagel) design, Revolver is a compelling play to watch.

Revolver is a piece of sci-fi comedy that leaves a place for thought in one’s mind long after it’s over. In this play Sugar Coat Theatre has brought up a truly beautiful production that deserves to be seen and heard. Revolver runs in Theatre Upstairs until June 4th, for more info or to book tickets: http://www.theatreupstairs.ie/revolver

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Filed under Revolver, Seanan McDonnell, Sugar Coat Theatre, Theatre Upstairs