In Focus

Down a lane off Dublin's Pembroke Street there is a small theatre, seating seventy-one people whose contribution to Dublin theatrical life over the last fifteen years is far out of proportion to its size. Opened in August of 1967, the Focus Theatre has consistently presented productions of the great plays of turn-of-the-century drama, the output of Strindberg, Chekov and Ibsen, as well as the work of contemporary European and American writers, with an assurance and strength which are rare in Irish theatre.

Ireland has from time to time produced individual actors of excellence but, lacking a tradition of training in performance, it has not often been possible to enjoy the experience of ensemble playing, to find the kind of theatre which arises from a shared understanding of craft and purpose. But the heart of the Focus Theatre is its Studio in which, under the guidance of Deirdre O'Connell and Mary-Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, young actors are trained in the methods of Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian director whose scientific development of techniques through which an actor could discover and channel his or her emotional and imaginative energies has had an enormous influence on twentieth-century theatre.


It was in 1965 that the young Irish-American actress Deirdre O'Connell "came home" to Dublin to work in what she regarded to be her country. Despite the warnings of concerned colleagues in New York that she was going to "bury herself in the arsehole of Europe", she believed, she says now, "that I had something I could give to people and a place that I loved". Having trained for five years with the great German director Erwin Piscator and spent three years with the Actors' Studio of Lee Strasberg (whose pupils included Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, exemplars of 'Method' acting), she had arranged on a previous visit to use Ursula White-Lennon's Pocket Theatre in Ely Place as a base.


And so in April of '63 a number of people, including Meryl Gourley, Timmy McDonnell, Sabina Coyne and Tom Hickey (later notorious as television's Benjy Riordan, currently producing magnificent work at the Abbey), came together as the Stanislavski Studio. Although Deirdre O'Connell did not, in her own words, "go around speechifying about Stanislavski or Lee Strasberg" there was some resentment of her challenge to the notion of the "born actor", some not entirely amusing encounters. Almost twenty years later, there are still members of the theatrical profession

in Dublin who view the essentially practical methods of Stanislavski and of the Focus with suspicion, under· mining as they do the idea of reliance on inspiration.


Within six months the Studio had mounted its first production, an adaptation by the American Saul Collin of Herman Hesse's epic novel 'Steppen· wolf'. It was a resounding success, a considerable coup for a new company. It could have been disastrous for a group less conscious of its limitations, of the still unexplored possibilities of the chosen method of work. But rather than be carried away with the exhilaration of an early success, the actors continued quietly with the work of the Studio, re-emerging in their own time to present improvisational pieces, at first to an invited audience, then to the paying public. Although caution may have limited to some extent the fame of the Focus it is a characteristic which has also contributed enormously to its survival.


The improvisational shows were a spectacular exhibition of the fruits of Stanislavski's methods. The actors would take a theme and a group of characters and would then, without the security of a script, create a play before the spectators'. very eyes. They sometimes found themselves presenting serials which followed the fortunes of a particular group of people, the audience returning every week to see how the dramatic situation had developed. And when the actors became really skilled at this ad lib play making, the audience would be asked to give a theme, sometimes just a time and place, which after five minutes consultation backstage, the improvisers would expand into two hours of performance.


For the first four years of its existence, the Studio moved base around the town, from Ely Place to Kildare Street, to Westland Row, to the premises of the Shakespeare Company in Fitzwilliam Square. Then in 1'967, Declan Burke-Kennedy discovered a disused garage in Pembroke Lane and over a table in Gaj's Restaurant of Baggot Street, the garage was christened the Focus Theatre.


Developed in tandem with his productions of the plays of Chekov, Stanislavski's methods lend themselves readily to the exploration of personal emotions in a realistic setting. Partially due to the great success of their renditions of plays such as Chekov's 'Uncle Vanya' and Ibsen's 'A Doll's House', the Focus Company is identified in some people's minds with what Mary-Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy describes as the "long skirts and monocle" plays of that era. But the range of the eighty-five productions mounted over the fifteen years in Pembroke Lane is far wider than this. The names of Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, the Cuban Surrealist Eduardo Manet, Doris Lessing, Albert Camus, the Marxist Trevor Griffiths, exemplify a varied richness unmatched by any other Irish company, most of which operate within relatively narrow thematic and formal terms of reference.


The policy of the Focus is as simple as its results are eclectic: to produce good theatre. Rooted in a coherent method whose applications can be as apparently opposed as the public, political theatre of Piscator and the more intimate concerns of Strasberg, the company's strongest identifying mark is the power of its performances, whatever the particular context. The work of actors such as Tom Hickey, Ena May, Frank MacDonald and Deirdre O'Connell herself has' a coherent strength and force which often seems to threaten the stability of the walls of the tiny theatre. These are performers who have no need of sentimental tricks by which to acquire the sympathy of an audience.


Broad though its range may be, the output of the Focus has included only a small number of Irish plays, a decision based, according to Deirdre O'Connell on survival. The general view of Focus as being a company

best-known for its productions of modern classics results in a situation in which the presentation of new Irish work is a considerable gamble. In recent years, however, Mary-Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy's adaptation of Irish folk-tales and legends has indicated a new direction, not merely for the Focus but in the broader context of Irish theatre.


Influenced by the theatre of Peter Brook, the English director whose work exploits to the utmost the resources of his actors and does not rely on the customary support of lighting, costume and scenery, firmly rooted in her Stanislavski classes and drawing on the tragi-comic richness of Irish mythology, Burke-Kennedy's pieces represent a development which takes the Focus way beyond the world of dramatic emotional repartee. Only one other company in Ireland, Druid in Galway, are engaged in the exploration of the resources of theatre on anything like this level of skill and imagination.


The survival of the Focus to this point has not been easy. In the early days, Deirdre O'Connell would sing to subsidise her theatrical work. (The fee for the Studio classes has not kept pace with inflation; £1 a session in 1963, it is currently £2.) For the most part, actors worked for shares of the box-office - Mary-Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy remembers earning £6 a week for playing the leading role of Nora in 'A Doll's House' in 1971. Although the company has successfully toured its work around the country, such expeditions can be risky, could threaten the existence of the base in Pembroke Lane. However, in recent years the Arts Council subsidy of the Focus, critically important to a tiny theatre in which even a box office hit only delivers a small return, has improved to the degree of £20,000 per year.


Nowadays, Equity actors receive the Equity rate for the job, others not too much less. Although its financial existence is still far from comfortable, in this as in other areas the Focus seems to be constantly and steadily developing. The company's production of Artur Schnitzler's comedy of sexual bad manners, 'La Ronde', transferred successfully earlier this year to the larger Oscar Theatre in Ballsbridge, perhaps indicating a trend for the future.


The Focus still suffers under some of the strange paradoxes of Dublin theatrical society. Fourteen of the twenty students in Deirdre O'Connell's current workshop found work outside Focus in this year's Dublin Theatre Festival - at least partially in recognition of the Studio's reputation as a training-ground. And yet, on the opening night of the Focus' own Festival production, 'Louvain 1915' by Barbara Field, only two of the five Dublin-based daily papers were present - a curious critical tribute to fifteen years' work. But the work goes on. "And my God", says Deirdre O'Connell, "it has to be done".