Interview with James Riordan

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In the spirit of sharing more of who we are, what interests us and what we do, we’ve decided to set up a new Galway Actors Workshop Blog in order to connect with the wider community, both here in Galway and beyond.

Our Autumn Term started this week, with two really interesting plays in rehearsal which shall be performed in the Town Hall Studio coming up to Christmas and a brand new group of beginner students who started our Introduction to Acting course last night. 

For those of you with some experience of performance -  you might have done a beginner’s course,  or perhaps some plays in school or university - we still have a few places left on a very special course which is tutored by the very talented and super inspiring James Riordan. To give you a flavour of what he is about, our director Sarah O’Toole conducted a recent interview with him where we muse on all things performance, teaching and, of course, Galway.

James is a familiar face on both the Galway performance scene and further afield, and, as an actor, choreographer and art director, his work spans many disciplines. After being awarded a BA (hons) in Drama for Queen’s University, Belfast, he trained in physical theatre at the APT in Berlin and at LISPA in London. He has worked with the English National Opera and the Spiegeltent in London and is a member of the internationally acclaimed alt-drag group The LipSinkers. Locally, he has been working with Macnas, An Taibhdhearc, Tuismitheoiri an nGael and Telegael.

He has given workshops with the Artful Badger and Clipperton Project in London and taught theatre to children and adults in Ireland, England, Germany and Japan.

James teaches one of our Level Two “Next Stage” courses “Physical Theatre and Devising” which focuses on helping students with some experience of drama to explore and develop how they use their bodies on stage and create their own material through ensemble work. More information here.

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When I set up Galway Actors Workshop in 2008, the word “actor” was much more commonly used by people who work in theatre than it seems to be now. Same with “director” and “playwright”. Somehow these terms have come to be perceived as quite rigid and hierarchical in comparison with more fluid, all-encompassing terms, such as “theatre-maker”. I’m wondering what terms you like to use to describe the way in which you work?

These terms have really changed of late and when someone asks me what I do I find myself saying I'm an 'artist' more and more. I feel like whether writing, performing or directing I am creating something and I think artist is a helpful term as it doesn't limit your work and remains true to the creative spirit. 

I think that sense of not limiting yourself is so important, and when I teach my own classes here at Galway Actors Workshop, I’m always careful to impress upon students the importance of owning your creative process from the outset, whatever the role, and have something of your own to bring to rehearsal rather than seeing the actor’s role as a “gun for hire” who just does what they are told. So, when did this creative process start for you? How did you get into the world of performing? And was there a clear moment when you decided that, yes, “this is definitely what I want to do with my life”?

I started drama classes in Performing Arts many moons ago and from that joined Galway Youth Theatre when I was 16. I loved the ritual of the theatre, the line learning, the blocking, the make up and the electricity in the air when the curtain goes up and you know that anything can happen. I was hooked early. 

I’m a proud GYT alumnus myself, and a stand-out teacher for me was the amazing Max Hafler, who now runs Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland, and whose courses I still frequent from time to time. Was there a teacher that had a huge impact on you, and what was it?

A teacher I will never forget is a woman called Mina who taught physical theatre in Berlin. She was Italian and laughed big and hard but had a great work ethic and a high standard and I'll never forget her way of doing things.

From having witnessed your work with students last term, and your ability to push them while still keeping it really enjoyable, I can see where she might have inspired you! Do you have a particular ethos as a teacher? Or principles you try to adhere to?

My ethos is to try my best to listen, to remain curious and to play. It's also helpful to remind myself that I don't have the answers. 

I remember one of my other formative teachers in the Gaiety School of Acting, Tara Derrington, saying to me that her class was more about drawing out of us stuff we didn’t realise we already knew. And when applied to physical theatre, that must be even more so the case, as the body remembers so much! Can you tell us a little about your course and what you hope to achieve?

In this course I'm aiming to help people unlock their own creative potential. I want to give people space to learn, laugh and express themselves in a safe space. I want to share my passion for the theatre with people who love it too. I also want to help people understand all of the things that 'physical theatre' can mean - from puppets to mime to improvisiation. 

Is there a performer you really admire? Or a particular performance?

I love Pat Kinevane's work. I saw his trilogy again recently and am in awe of his musicality and grace on stage, his relationship with the audience and how he treats contemporary themes within his writing. I find him inspiring as an artist and recommend anyone who hasn't seen his shows to do so immediately if not sooner. 

Pat Kinevane is such a unique performer. We actually organised a Galway Actors Workshop theatre outing when the Trilogy was last on in the Town Hall, so two of our groups got to see some of his work. I felt it was really important, because seeing theatre like that really extends students’ conceptions of what theatre actually is and the extraordinary things it can do - how it is different from the television and film we have become so used to.

However, having seen several incarnations of your work over the years, you’re a pretty unique performer yourself with a powerful presence and a profound ability to connect with your audience! Have you a top three of performing moments/work you’re proudest of you’d like to share with us?

Top threes are always tricky but a definite artistic highlight was Edinburgh Fringe 2015 with a company I'm in in London called the LipSinkers. The show we created was great, the reviews were glowing and the energy around the show was unforgettable. A highlight of my year is always performing on the streets with Macnas, the aesthetic and work ethic and people involved all come together to make something very special and I feel lucky to play a part in bringing that magic and madness to the masses. 

James performing with Macnas - photo by Julia Dunin

James performing with Macnas - photo by Julia Dunin

I looooved the LipSinkers when you brought them to Electric in Galway. The piece was entertaining and looked amazing of course, but I particularly loved the sly little bits of political satire, and it was a more expansive form of drag performance than my, admittedly limited, experience had me used to. I think when you see both male and female bodies dressed up as drag queens, you’re going that one step further towards exposing how much of a construct femininity, and by extension, gender, actually is. I hadn’t seen it done like that in Galway before. Speaking of which, now that we have you back from big bad London, how do you see the performing scene in Galway? What are you really excited about here? In which direction would you like to see things go?

The Galway performance scene has great potential. I think for such a small city there are many talented theatre makers working here and there is space to create. The likes of Druid, Baboro, Blue Teapot and Moonfish are all up to exciting things in different ways and I look forward to what's coming our way in the next few years. NUIG's theatre departments is also getting bigger and bigger and with it will come more talent and resources for this great place on the wild western coast. 

And hopefully through your courses with us, we at Galway Actors Workshop can add some new physical performers into the mix!

Finally, give us one completely random, non-drama related fact about yourself

I wasn't once almost killed by a jaguar in the Amazon but that story is for another's day. 

Course Info:

Needless to say, if you want to hear the rest of that story, you’re going to have to sign up to James’ course which starts on 3rd October!

It’s a 12 session course that runs on Tuesday nights over 10 weeks, with a couple of extra sessions in the lead up to the showcase performance which takes place in the Town Hall Studio on Monday 11th December.

Cost is €300 or €280 (student/unwaged) . For more information visit our website, call 087 237 3531 or email galwayactorsworkshop@gmail.com in order to book!