Interview with Joey Kavanagh, Director of Whelp

Originally published by, Wednesday 11th September, 2013. To read the original, please click here

WHELP!: Mary Conroy (Left) and Lola White (Right)

BILLED as ”a new show about extended adolescence and protracted parenthood”Whelp, from Dublin company Come As Soon As You Hear explores Ireland’s ”Boomerang Babies” in a quirky and irreverent style.

We chatted to director Joey Kavanagh about Irish adolescence, the vibrant theatre scene in Ireland and how Margaret Atwood inspired Dublin’s latest recession-era play.

What attracted you to write and direct a play about Irish adolescence?

It was inspired by own experiences and those experiences of those involved in the show. At the time, all of three of us were living in our family homes, at an age where we felt that maybe we should be living independently. I had just finished a masters in college and I was just completely broke and I couldn’t afford to live on my own, so I ended up having to move back in with my parents. The other guys involved in the production, too, had to move in with their parents.

Interestingly enough, one of the guys who originally inspired the show – though is no longer involved in the show because they moved to Berlin – has now found his dream job in London as a designer for Generator hostels, so things worked out well for him. He’s no longer involved in the Fringe show as he’s gone on to bigger and brighter things. Our show is only for people who haven’t fulfilled their potential! So it’s based on our own experiences, really.

The tone of the play seems to be quite quirky, quite irreverent, in spite of the crime times we live in…

I think that’s a fair assessment. The stuff we do is generally a bit whacky, but also we don’t want to be feeling too sorry for ourselves. We’ve had to constantly remind ourselves during the rehearsal process and during the development of the show of the Twitter hashtag that seems to be doing the rounds quite a bit lately: #firstworldproblems. We don’t want to be moaning about or playing it like a sob story, because, at the end of the day, we’re very lucky and grateful that when things don’t go right, or don’t go our way, that we do have an opportunity to move home and we are all very fortunate to have our families.

The central message of the show is that you can either get caught up in these things and make them out to be bigger than they are or you can get frustrated by it all. At the end of the day, though, if we’re failing, at least we’re failing together and that’s something. So the show, in that respect, could be considered quite off-kilter; it doesn’t really follow much in the way of a conventional narrative. There’s going to be installations, different episodes where whacky things will happy on stage. I don’t want to give too much away! What I can tell you, though, is that it’s going to be a little bit hysterical, a little bit over the top… but hopefully good fun. We’ll be in Smock Alley, so the space is perfect for audience participation and interaction, which is always fun.

Smock Alley is a fantastic space. I saw Pat Kinevane’s Silent in Smock Alley and there was certainly a lot of participation. Is that what attracts you to the stage? That in the era of video uploading, the spontaneity and adrenaline of the stage can’t be matched?

What we really love is feeding off the live energy of people. We’ve done a few shows now and one show is never the same as the next: they’re all different. We always try and bring an interactive element to the shows, so that the audience can feed off the performer and the performers can feed off the audience and together we can make a show and we can make a performance. So that’s where the thrill in theatre is for us. It’s from the danger and the risk that things could go horribly wrong at any point in the performance, but also for the potential for things to get elevated to the next level and to become more than we originally set out to do, so that’s, I suppose, what the draw is for us. We try to involve the audience in a way that isn’t uncomfortable for them or for us.

WHELP!: Mary Conroy (Left) and Lola White (Right)

How long have you been involved in Come As Soon As You Hear?

I’ve been involved in Come As Soon As You Hear, the company behind Whelp, since 2009 and it’s very loose; the way we work is very loose. So while I have the title of director, it’s actually much more democratic than it seems and we do take each other’s suggestions and opinions on board. And we are blessed with a fantastic group of people: we’ve got a fantastic designer, we just drafted in a choreographer, an assistant director… so it is quite democratic and we do try and bring our own experiences and opinions to the thing. I’m not ruling with an iron fist! I don’t tell people to do things that aren’t coming naturally.

The last performance I did was a show in the 10 Days in Dublin festival and it was one it was called ”Lovely Girls Guide to Lovely Living”, which, again, was quite tongue-in-cheek and it was like this one woman crusade against 21st irony and sarcasm and it went down quite well and we’ve since performed it in Cork and we’ll hopefully stage it again. The main focus at the moment, though, is Whelp.

Who would you rate as writing or directing influences? The work seems to be laden with no small amount of social satire. Neil LaBute is a name that springs to mind…

It’s interesting that you would say that about one of my favourite ever playwrights. One of my favourite plays is LaBute’s ”Bash”, which i did in college. In Yer Face theatre is certainly an influence: something that gets under your skin and provokes a reaction. One of the lynchpins in Whelp is Karl Watson, who is really influenced by German theatre. In general, there is a sense that the Berlin theatre is really exciting. But I think there’s also so much going on in Dublin, too. Dublin has really become a really interesting hotbed, especially for scratch pieces and works-in-development. There’s so many opportunities now for up and coming theatre makers and we’re really encouraged by all that.

From looking at the Fringe program, this year, do you think that the goal posts have moved in Irish theatre since, say, ten years?

I think we did see a lot of shows – and Whelp may well fall into this category – that were directly inspired by the recession. I do feel like the playing field has leveled out quite a bit: that there aren’t as many plays about the recession and that we were looking beyond the everyday realities for inspiration. There’s such a variety of things on. If you look at what the Paperdolls Performance Company are doing… just fantastic. There’s also quite a lot of spoken word events, such as Oisin McKenna’s ”Grinder: A Love Story”, which I think is one of the highlights. There’s also a lot of whacky stuff; stuff that quirky and there is, I hope enough variety for everyone on the program: that theatre can be a lot of things.

Can you tell me about the cast?

The cast is just two people: Lola White and Mary Conroy. Lola had been with the show from day one and Mary came on board when we performed it first in Cork. Mary, at the time, was in UCC. That was really fun, because we got to perform it in a house, which is obviously the most natural found space for the play.

What’s it like when a new cast member comes into a production when existing cast members and crew may have already got comfortable and found their rhythm? Does it affect the dynamics of the production?

Well when Mary came in, the show was still very much sketch-based and episodic. It was far from a finished piece. And even when we performed it the first time with Mary in Cork, it still wasn’t finished. It is always great to have another perspective; it worked so smoothly for us, which is why we immediately asked Mary to come on board for the Fringe production because she just did a fantastic job. She’s a wonderful performer and I’m in awe of both of them. Mary brought in fresh ideas and new energy to the mix. Mary and Lola do make a good double act and we did consider expanding the cast for the show – perhaps adding a third person – but we figured that it might be enough to have just Mary and Lola, because they’re more than up for the job.

In Irish theatre, childhood, adolescence and friendship are becoming recurring themes and settings for plays – whether it’s the recent production of ”Disco Pigs” or Declan Hughes’ ”The Last Summer”. What do you think that’s down to?

I guess they’re themes that will never go away; that will never really be irrelevant to people’s lives. There was a poster that we put up on our Facebook page, the other day, and it was a quote from Margaret Atwood, which is ”everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.” I think that’s definitely something that everyone feels, now and again, if you have those moments where you remind yourself of your responsibilities as an adult.

I do think that this idea of living at home and the fact that people are a little bit stuck at home and feeling as if they’re not moving forward at the pace that they would like to… it does bring to mind a feeling of prolonged adolescence: a feeling that you’re still waiting to grow up. No one I know, my age, is buying a house in the current climate. All these things that we expected we would be beginning to do in our lives – mortgages, marriage, children – they all seem much further away than we ever really though they would be. The recession kicked in while I was in college, so I guess, like many Irish people my age, there was a sense that we had been working towards prosperity and, all of a sudden, the rug was pulled out from under my feet. So, in a way, there are many, many people who feel like they are in limbo. All that said, I think what the Fringe program reflects is that there are people out there making things happen for themselves and making lemonade from the lemons.

Whelp runs in Smock Alley Theatre until 13th September at 6.30pm. Tickets: €11 – €13. For more information and to book tickets go to:

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