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September 27, 2016
Interview: Collapsing Horse Director Dan Colley on the Brilliant “Bears in Space”
Aaron Heffernan and Eoghan Quinn in BEARS IN SPACE at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Idil Sukan.
Aaron Heffernan and Eoghan Quinn in BEARS IN SPACE at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Idil Sukan.

There are a number of adjectives that spring to mind when watching Bears in Space, a play currently taking part in Origin's 1st Irish theater festival at 59E59 Theaters; words such as "ludicrous", "puerile" and indeed "brilliant". Its combination of puppetry, physical theater, comedy and music seems committed to drawing out the inner child from jaded adulthood. The space bears, brought to us by Dublin-based theater company Collapsing Horse, could cheer up the depressed and downcast on a miserable Monday. StageBuddy spoke to Bears in Space director and Collapsing Horse co-director Dan Colley about the boys behind the bears.

Having read Eoghan Quinn’s script for Bears in Space, I can see small, intentional gaps where musical and dramatic improvisation are encouraged. Can you describe the collaborative elements of the play’s fine-tuning, including having your cast interact in character as the audience files in?

We try and keep the rehearsal room loose. Eoghan is always open to collaboration and genuinely believes that five heads are better than one when it comes to making theater. When working on an Eoghan Quinn play, you'll get a document with some highly scripted moments, where there needs to be a very specific rhythm in order for it to land, and he just has that in his head. Then you'll also get scenes which just say "to be devised" so we have to come up with that in the room. I remember when he said, "we need some sort of forest creature to get in their way," and Jack just started riffing. What emerged was a narcissistic character called Skin. It made us laugh so much and most of the lines he came up with that day are still in the show and still making us laugh.

Bears in Space is reminiscent of the best of anarchic kid’s TV, absurdist TV comedy (Monty Python, The Mighty Boosh) and old-school Star Trek. Amongst the core members of Collapsing Horse, are there many shared influences and if so, what are they?

Yeah, I think you've identified our collective influences pretty well there. Though there aren't any Trekkies among us, I don't think. But we are big sci-fi fans in general, we refer to Blade Runner in conversation a good bit, and we're huge fans of Futurama - which itself draws on Star Trek so I guess that's how that influence ended up there.

mag22-dan-colleyDoes the potential, of which there is plenty, for transitioning to television seem like a tempting proposition?

We're always thinking about working in different media. Though we never set out making a piece of theater thinking "this will make a great TV show" or an animated cartoon or whatever. If we're working in that medium, we're only thinking about how that idea is served by that medium. I think if you have one eye on the TV adaptation while you're in it, you're doing your audience a disservice if you don't commit to the dangerous liveness of theater.

A massive amount of energy is spent during the play. The props are plentiful and the character changes are quick. The potential for error adds to the show’s excitement. In all of its performances, has the show ever played somewhat differently because of the domino effect of a minor glitch?

Yeah we like to think of it as something of a high-wire act. One of the joys of live performance is the perilous potential of the whole thing falling over. I think if performers are working hard it's satisfying for an audience to watch but it also makes people lean in and commit to the performance a bit more. You're more willing to suspend your disbelief if you're in on the joke. The show is genuinely different every night as a result. And some of the gags that have remained in it came from an improvisation in front of an audience once. As a director, it's a terrifying postion to be in because you're like "well, let's see what it is this time" but it helps to have really miraculous performers who I trust completely.

Your Collapsing Horse co-founder Jack Gleeson is known to many thanks to his role as King Joffrey in the first four seasons of Game of Thrones. With regards to selling tickets, has his presence in Bears in Space summoned any curiosity from otherwise non-theater goers?

I don't know, we've never done any audience research with this regard. We really should. I presume some people come along because they're GoT fans rather than anarchic, puppet, sci-fi comedy fans... but whether or not that means they'll become theater-goers after seeing it, I'm not sure.

The Bears in Space cast includes a playwright (Eoghan Quinn), puppeteer (Aaron Heffernen) and composer (Cameron Macaulay). Does the future of Collapsing Horse depend upon multi-skilled collaborators?

Absolutely. We're admirers of Total Theatre and try to reflect that in our work. We want the people in front of you are bringing this thing into existence before your very eyes, and for you to see the strings.

The Irish sense of humor travels well and the play’s New York stint has received standing ovations. Have there been any notable differences now that you’ve played to a number of international audiences?

Yeah we've been pleased with how well the humor has travelled. Though maybe we shouldn't be so surprised given our influences are world famous and have affected people's senses of humour across the world, as well as our own. We thought it was risky enough having a Scottish-accented bear in the Edinburgh Fringe as doing the local accent for the local audience rarely goes down well. Just ask any American actor who has to play an Irish person in Ireland. But I think in this case we got away with it. Just.

Aaron Heffernan and Jack Gleeson in BEARS IN SPACE at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Idil Sukan.
Aaron Heffernan and Jack Gleeson in BEARS IN SPACE at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Idil Sukan.

You’ve developed shows for children as well as putting child-like elements into your adult shows. As artists in residence at Dublin’s Draíocht Arts Centre, how do the youth based components of your community workshops blend into your material?

As you can see from the show, I hope, we work hard to bring about child-like wonder and turn everyday objects into something magical and other-worldly. This gives adults space to feel like children and it creates a space where young people and old people can share an artisic experience equally. Perhaps it's a non-existent, nostalgic idea of childhood with finger painting and washing up liquid bottles turned into spaceships that nobody really does, but all the more reason to create the space for it. Both in our finished work and as part of our process in working with Youth Theatres.

From the description and short clip I’ve seen of Collapsing Horse’s new play, Conor at the End of the Universe, the mix of creative disciplines, puppetry, dance and animation, remind me of Chicago’s Manual Cinema and their dreamscape presentation. From a director’s standpoint, what challenges present themselves with telling a story via multiple methods?

I'm not familiar with the reference unfortunately, and I'm afraid to look it up because I'm in the middle of rehearsing it at the moment and I don't want to be unduly influenced. The challenges are mostly technical - animators, video projectionists and recorded music can't change as quickly and as easily as an actor or a live musician. It means that you have to make all your decisions early and then place your faith in those people that they'll deliver.

2017 looks very busy for you. The Bears probably need a rest but are there any plans to revive them?

No plans yet, I think you're right they do need a rest. Though we've been told it would go down well in Australia. So we'll see...

Through October 2 at 59E59 Theaters.

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Written by: K Krombie
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