Ivan Birthistle primarily works collaboratively with Vincent Doherty. The pair have been collaborating for over a decade and have long-standing relationships with most of the major theatre companies in Ireland. Both also have long histories in the music world. Ivan spent several years writing and recording with Nina Hynes and is also Head of Sound at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Together they have designed for productions by Fishamble Theatre Company, Abbey Theatre, CoisCeim Dance Theatre, Lyric Theatre, B*spoke, Rough Magic Theatre Company, The Corn Exchange, Bedrock Theatre, Landmark Productions, Semper-Fi, Inis Theatre Company, Derry Playhouse, Lane Productions an ANU Productions.
When first approached by director Jim Culleton to do Tiny Plays For Ireland there were a number of challenging aspects that were quite apparent. The fact of there being 25 plays by different authors all in very different styles from complete realism to complete surrealism and absurdism with emotional journeys to match (and sometimes mis-match). The plays were also to be performed in the round with multiple playing areas. Given the variety of plays, we would have to try and unify them without homogenising them, luckily Jim was very open to experimentation soundwise.
A show played in “the round” always requires a good bit of thought about what needs to be achieved. In this case we needed to be able to support all of the playing areas and deliver balanced sound to all of the audience whatever their orientation. We also had pieces that played centrally in different ways and requiring different focuses. In the very first piece – Safety Announcement by Joseph O’Connor, our actor delivering the safety announcement is interrupted by a debt-collector, the first actor calls for help and our other actors appear and proceed to draw imaginary weapons, the sound of which had to be placed with the actors even as they advanced our villain. Sword, bow and arrow, shotgun, and finally the throwing star, which made full use of our custom surround-sound PA by flying all the way around the audience before thumping into the head of the debt collector, finishing him off. We achieved this by using 6 speakers in an outer ring, 1 speaker above in the centre,1 below in the centre of the median walkway and of course some rather hefty sub-range speakers – a train won’t feel like it’s coming through the space unless the seats are shaking!
Lots of different techniques were employed to create the piece, field recording, studio recording, concrète-style audio manipulation and of course composition.
Since there were so many pieces to bridge we thought having two central themes, both composed in quite a modular format, would help unify the whole without being repetitious or fatiguing. We wanted to base the themes on how we felt about Ireland of the time (immediately post- economic crash) yet still ensuring that we helped carry the evening without shifting the focus to ourselves – as always the writing is primary. We decided to make a theme each and, as happens so often when we work together, the two pieces of music had the ability to combine seamlessly and complement each other.
The first piece we have included – A Body by Adrienne Michel-Long, starts with locally recorded traffic which then splashes underwater to take up the point-of-view of our body lying at the bottom of the canal whose voice we then hear narrating the piece, mourning his lost life, the stage is empty save for a net-covered bag dimly lit with a spectral shimmer.
The second piece – Isolation by Joan Ryan, an actor stands centre stage in a slightly dishevilled suit, he appears to be calmly mentally going through his day, prompted by the voices he hears from all around, he gets more agitated as we move through the piece, he says nothing.