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In Conversation with MIC's Dr Brian Desmond

Dr Brian Desmond in black and white in front of a cement wall

William Shakespeare famously opined: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts." Our colleague, Dr Brian Desmond, Teaching Fellow in Drama & Theatre Studies, has played many parts in the drama world: director, performer, writer, technician, producer, facilitator, and now academic.

In the second of our quarterly profile pieces on MIC Staff members, we spoke to Dr Brian Desmond, Teaching Fellow in Drama & Theatre Studies about his love for the Arts, his hopes for the new Drama Senior Cycle syllabus, the pros and cons of Irish success internationally, and why clowns don't get the respect they deserve!

Brian was born in Cork, the youngest of a large, sport-mad, working-class family. His father, Tim, played for Evergreen in the League of Ireland and although Brian’s self-described humble efforts at soccer never saw him make the professional grade, he was crowned the ‘Player of the Year’ for Sunday League team, Beaumont, when he was 19. Brian joked that his “mediocre” sporting career drove him to seek attention elsewhere in the performance arts instead.

Although growing up in a house with "books everywhere", Brian said it wasn’t until third-level that he became particularly interested in Drama: “Drama was something kids my generation didn’t encounter much at school. Even the plays we studied for the Inter and Leaving Cert were more or less taught as literature. When I studied English Literature at University College Cork, we had one lecturer, Victor Merriman, who taught Drama through practice. He was a big inspiration to me and I loved his classes.

“I was a nervous wreck at first having to perform or even stand up in front of classmates. But, when I was looking at doing a postgrad, I had a gut feeling that I wanted to do the Drama MA, so I applied and got a place. During the MA I got experience in all parts of the process – performance, production, technical - and I loved it.

“I've always felt that Drama - or live theatre - is the most dialectical art form. It began, arguably, with the ancient Greeks putting two characters onstage debating two contrasting points of view in front of a live audience. The liveness of it kind of radicalises what you choose to stage. There's a magical something about live performance whereby anything can happen. Even if it's a new production of a classic, the interpretation can make something new relevant for the audience. Or, in reverse, the audience can completely scupper the cast by reacting in an unexpected way to something that the actors don't expect.  

“Maybe that's why theatre has historically been a really effective way to engage with the politics of the day, with what's at stake in the present. And the live event can sometimes be almost like a protest, a gesture of solidarity and resistance. Look at the great theatre artists who have been censored (Seán O'Casey), harassed (Dario Fo), imprisoned (Margaretta D'arcy, Ngugi wa Thiongo'o), murdered (Garcia Lorca). The form has often been a powerful way to contest power.

“Then there's other types of performance which I love, such as storytelling and improv. Where the performance is never fixed, and kind of negotiated between everyone in the room. Again, the unpredictability is amazing fun and, potentially, transgressive.  

Brian has a wealth of theatre directorial credits behind him but last month made his professional radio directorial debut with The Man Who Talks to Statues, which was written and performed by Shane Casey. The absorbing production follows the story of Darryl, a thirty-year old Corkonian who crashes his father’s car and subsequently goes on a fantastical odyssey from Cork, through Limerick and on to Dublin, engaging as he travels with the many statues along the way, including Richard Harris, Terry Wogan and Molly Malone. Click here to listen.

For Brian, the experience was a rewarding one but he says the magic of the opening night was missing: “I suppose the main difference to live theatre is that the opening show is mediated. In other words, you don't get the magic of a live opening night. Where with a theatre show the civilian audience arrive in the door and the way they react to the material can challenge you about what you think the play is. Your own sense of what you've created can change a lot from the way the audience responds.  

“With the audio format, you're kind of drip-fed that response. But it's also nice that people can kind of check-in with you when they feel they have something useful to say, be it positive, negative or just speculative. Or, if they don't feel like sharing a response, that's fine too. Maybe they don't like to share the fact that they're not sure or just don't like it! I'm really appreciative if someone simply takes the time to listen to the work. There's a generosity in taking that time to just listen, or supporting the arts generally, which is important. I'd prefer if someone had the space to not like it rather than didn't engage with it at all.  

Brian has directed over 30 plays, not including many revivals as his shows have enjoyed revivals over the years. He has been Artistic Director of Be Your Own Banana Theatre Company (BYOB) since 2000.  As director, Brian has worked in professional theatre, theatre for young audiences, youth theatre and education. His professional work has been mainly in the area of new work for the Irish stage. This includes 12 world premieres of Irish plays. Best known for his work with BYOB, he also directed shows for Cork Midsummer Festival, Meridian Theatre Company and the Granary Theatre in Cork. His directed work has toured extensively in Ireland and has also been shown in the UK and the US. Two of his plays have been mentioned as theatrical highlights of the year in The Irish Times

Despite his extensive experience in direction, in addition to his work as a dramaturge, script-writer and playwright, Brian said he doesn’t foster ambitions to be a performer: “I’ve been in shows over the years and the red flag for me was when I got bored of performing them probably after the fourth or fifth night. I found it repetitive. I was never really seduced by the audience adoration thing. For bespoke actors, I think they love the tiny nuance of difference between one performance and the next and that might be where they are the real artists of that discipline. Finding ways of making something repetitive exciting over and over again, that never really did it for me. I much preferred the directing side of it.

“What I love about directing is the puzzle. You start on day one with a script and you begin the process of working out the best way of telling that story. Your resources are a team of actors, designers and stage managers who all (hopefully) commit to the dream of that realisation. Those 4-6 weeks of exploration are, for me, the greatest fun available to me as an artist. I love that process of discovery. The richer that process is, the more likely you have a memorable show, for the audience and the company.”

Although his preference is not to be front and centre of a performance, Brian has a performative background in clowning and loves the comedic art. It’s a term that isn’t fully respected, though, explaining that: “It’s possibly the most misunderstood word in the English language, or maybe the term just means so many things to different people that it gets confusing. I think a lot of people think of clown as a circus thing, but it's also Will Ferrell in Elf, or Captain Jack Sparrow, or the guy who gets up and dances with a brush at a ceilidh.  

“When you say it to young people, they often respond by saying they're scared of clowns and that clowns are terrifying. This makes me really sad. It comes from cheap horror show aesthetics, like ‘It’ and ‘American Horror Story’. You know, let's dress up a psychopathic killer in a clown costume and that's scary, apparently. Clowns are a much-maligned profession in this regard.

“Clown means many things. There are so many traditions, some aging back to the ancient world. Look at the great clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jean-Louis Barrault. Incredibly skilful physical comedians also capable of playing characters who create stories which complicate the way we think about the world we live in. Clown, first and foremost, must be fun. But, at its best, is also thought provoking. ‘Chaplin's City Lights’ may be the best example of this. We're not scary! We try to excite you to think differently about things.”

Brian was awarded a PhD in Theatre and Storytelling from the University of Liverpool in 2011. He has worked as a Lecturer in Drama at Liverpool Hope University (2007-2014), University of Chester (2014-2019) and MIC since 2020 to present. His third-level teaching has mainly been in the areas of actor training, directing student productions and developing original work for the stage with students. In addition to his academic work, he has held residencies with youth theatres (County Wexford Youth Theatre & Limerick Youth Theatre) and facilitated projects with community arts organisations. 

With his experience teaching third level and with on-the-ground involvement with youth theatre, Brian can speak to the potential benefits of the proposed new Leaving Certificate Drama, Theatre and Film Studies subject, which is expected to be rolled out in 2025. On the benefits to students of such an offering, Brian expressed: “It’s about critical thinking. That's the common element, in my view, of these art forms. With education, what you really want is kids going home and blowing the minds of their parents, and vice versa. Different cultural capitals respectfully creating conversations.  Stories bind everyone. Creating a mutual understanding of why stories are important is key.

“Some kids express themselves best through performance or non-written formats. The new Leaving Certificate programme, thankfully, respects the fact that young people are diverse in terms of how they how they view the world and how they express their understanding of the complexities of that world. It's a great opportunity. I sincerely hope the authors of this syllabus have considered how visionary the teachers need to be.”

The recent Golden Globes nominations are exemplary of the profile of Irish actors and filmmakers in recent years, with three of the six nominations for Best Actor going to Irish performers: Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy and Andrew Scott. Keoghan also represented Ireland, alongside Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, at the Academy Awards earlier this year, where Michael McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin was up for Best Picture. Dublin’s Element Pictures have seven nominations at this year’s Golden Globes for Poor Things. This is just a snapshot of some of the recent Irish successes, with Paul Mescal, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Fassbender and Ruth Negga regularly garnering acclaim, in addition to the wealth of movies and tv programmes filmed on the island.

Brian said this international recognition is positive but risks papering over an absence in attention elsewhere: “The Hollywood recognition and all the other international nominations are great. Is this progress? Of course. Ireland has some very good screen actors and there’s been lots of really good TV shows over the last decade or so, such as ‘Love/Hate’ and ‘Normal People’. Lots of actors have made great careers over the last while that never would have happened 20 years ago, including people I know from years ago like Shane Casey and Siobhán McSweeney.

“As for live theatre, however, I think a lot of former practitioners are doing something else for a living, especially designers. Lots of these are working in film now and a number of practitioners I know aren't working in theatre anymore because it takes forever for a project to happen. A lot of really good artists are being bored out of the industry.

“It's great at the moment to see so many Limerick-based actors employed in the pantos and Happy Christmas to them! But there's not a lot of work going around for Limerick-based theatre actors for the other 10/11 months of the year. For the one of the most populous cities in Ireland, maybe there should be more going on.”