Eagle Q&A: Tony Award winning director Garry Hynes
Don’t Forget to Call Your Mother
Twenty years ago, at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, Ireland, the Druid Theatre Company premiered “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” written by a playwright named Martin McDonagh, who was then still in his 20s, and directed by Garry Hynes, who, along with Marie Mullen and Mick Lally, founded the Druid in 1975. It was the first Irish professional theater company located outside Dublin. In the 40-plus years since its founding, the company has toured elsewhere in Ireland and internationally, with productions in, among other cities, London, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Sydney. The Druid does the classics (Synge, O’Casey, Eugene O’Neill) as well as new works from emerging playwrights.
After opening to ecstatic reviews, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” went on to become an international sensation. And McDonagh has become a celebrated playwright and screenwriter — winning the 1998 Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”; the 2003 and 2004 Olivier Award for, respectively, “”The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Pillowman”; plus Tony nominations for “Beauty Queen,” “The Lonesome West” (the second play of the “Leenane Trilogy”), “The Pillowman Man” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (the first play of the “Aran Islands Trilogy”).
Hynes has directed all three plays of the “Leenane Trilogy,” plus “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” In addition, she has directed acclaimed productions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The Plough and the Stars,” “The Weir,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” (at the Kennedy Center) and “Juno” (for the Encores series at City Center). Now, at the BAM Harvey Theater, she, and the Druid, have remounted a special 20th anniversary production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which reunites her with Mullen, who originated the role of Maureen 20 years ago, and now plays Mag, Maureen’s mother (Freud would have a field day). The set and costume design are by Frances O’Connor, who designed the original play and who has been a longtime collaborator with Hynes and the Druid. In addition to her work with Druid, Hynes has directed productions for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (where she was artistic director from 1991 to 1994), the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Court Theatre in London and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
And just for good measure, Hynes won the Tony Award for Direction for the U.S. production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” — becoming the first woman to receive the award. (Yes, “Garry” is a woman. More about that later…)
Now, the Druid has brought their 20th anniversary production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” to BAM’s Harvey Theater, where it runs until Feb. 5.
Recently, at Le Gamin cafe in Greenpoint on a cold, windy Saturday morning, I sat down with Hynes to talk about the origins of Druid, the challenges of McDonagh’s distinctive dialogue and having a principal actress switch roles after 20 years.
The following are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Eagle: When you, Marie [Mullen] and Mick [Lally] decided to create Druid what were your expectations?
Garry Hynes: There really were no expectations. Marie and I had been doing plays in university and we came back to Galway and we didn’t want to have to go to Dublin to do our plays. And Mick was in on our “conspiracy” from day one. We just had this idea that we would make plays that people in Galway would want to see and that we wanted to do. Gradually the company began to take root.
Eagle: Did you have a five-year plan?
GH: (laughing) We didn’t even have a five-day plan! No, no five-year plan. I mean the first five years were all about on-the-job training, finding our way. We developed a management team, a technical team. The second five years was the development of the company. Then we started traveling; we went to the Edinburgh Festival in 1982, then gradually made international tours.
Eagle: Was the Abbey Theatre supportive? Helpful? Or did they see you as competition?
GH: They didn’t see us as anything! They didn’t even deign to acknowledge our existence. We were the mouse that was trying to roar.
Eagle: What were the most daunting aspects to mounting this 20th anniversary production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”? For example, did you know from the start that Marie would switch roles?
GH: Marie and I had been talking about it for a number of years; that she was now of an age that she could play Mag [the mother]. Really, the remounting of the play was dependent on Marie being able to play Mag.
Eagle: So, if she hadn’t been able to play Mag, you wouldn’t have done this revival?
GH: I really don’t think we would have. I mean, I love the play; the play’s been very good to me and to the company. But without the possibility of having Marie switch roles, it would have just felt like something we’d done before. With Marie now playing Mag, we felt we could sort of re-investigate the play.
Eagle: In mounting, or, actually, remounting the play, were there any aspects of the play you thought needed revision or change?
GH: Frances [O’Connor, the set and costume designer for both the original 1986 production and the current one] and I sat down and said, “OK, what are we going to do here? Are we going to redesign the set or stick with the original design?” We decided that to make changes just for the sake of making [them] was neither a good idea nor worth the time and effort.
Eagle: So essentially this production at BAM is the same production that played at the Atlantic Theatre Company and at the Walter Kerr Theatre 20 years ago?
GH: I would say that the production decisions are the same. Of course, we made certain, small adjustments, but nothing major.
Eagle: To get a bit granular for a moment: Can you please explain the “business” with “Father Walsh-Welch?” [There is a running joke in the play about the correct pronunciation of the name of the local priest].
GH: Martin [McDonagh] loves to play with language. It was something Martin had heard locally — “Father Walsh.” “No, Father Welsh.” So he played around with it. And it becomes a running gag.
Eagle: McDonagh had such an exact ear for the lilt and cadence of spoken “Irish.” And there are all these unusual flips and twists in sentence structure. Is this reflective of the way a Galway man or woman would actually speak?
GH: Martin’s not recreating language — he’s inventing it. As I’ve said, he loves to play around with language. The dialogue, the unusual sentence structures … Martin’s making most of that up. For example, even the title: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” [last word pronounced with a long “e” to rhyme with “queen”]. That’s quite deliberate. In fact, there is not a word of Martin’s dialogue that’s superfluous.
Eagle: And I imagine, as with Beckett or Pinter or Mamet, the actors must be very precise in their timing and delivery.
GH: Yes, most definitely. One slip and it throws off the rhythm. It would be like an orchestra where one of the musicians is off-key.
Eagle: What are the special challenges for you as director in handling McDonagh’s abrupt, and often unanticipated, shifts in mood, color, atmosphere? One minute the audience is laughing, the next they’re filled with dread. It’s so finely calibrated. It must have been quite challenging for you and the cast.
GH: Well, Martin was a constant presence when we first began rehearsing “Beauty Queen” in 1986. He was there for all the rehearsals. Remember this was the very first performance of “Beauty Queen.” Unlike many playwrights who don’t particularly want to be there [for rehearsals] or who can write a play, but don’t have much knowledge of how to actually put it on, Martin was there daily. He wanted to help the actors with the dialogue; he knew it was difficult and he was patient and instructive in helping them get it right. He was also learning about staging, technique, directing the actors. And I guess it stuck, because, as you know, now he’s directing films all from his own screenplays.
Eagle: Because the rhythms, the nuance and the cadence of the dialogue are all so tricky, how long until the cast really nail it?
GH: Every actor works at their own pace. But the meaning of the piece is so inextricably tied up within the shape in which the play is written. So, unlike many rehearsal periods where there are table reads, with “Beauty Queen” we rehearsed on the stage. The dialogue and the movement have to be completely in sync.
Eagle: One final question, unrelated to the play: Your first name, I would imagine, throws a lot of people off. They’re not expecting a woman…?
GH: (laughing) Oh, yes, it happens all the time. I’ll arrive first for a meeting and when the others arrive they’ll say, “When will Mr. Hynes be joining us?” And I say, “You’re looking at her.”
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” finishes it’s run at BAM’s Harvey Theater this Sunday. For tickets and schedule, go to www.bam.org.
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