‘One of the great artistic privileges of my life’: Conor McPherson on writing and directing Girl from the North Country

Fresh from his acclaimed TV debut Paula on BBC Two, award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest project sees him weave the masterful songs of Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan into a poetic, haunting tale of love, loss and obligation set in Minnesota during the Great Depression. As Girl from the North Country premieres at the Old Vic Theatre, London, McPherson reflects on how he found the inspiration for the show, and his deep respect for Bob Dylan’s skills as a musician and writer…

Maybe five years ago I was asked if I might consider writing a play to feature Bob Dylan’s songs. I initially didn’t feel this was something I could do and I had cast it out of my mind when, one day, walking along, I saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s.

I had been in Minnesota twice in the years leading up to this – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind, the vast distance from home, these things had stayed with me. And I saw a way Mr Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play.

I was invited to write down the idea I had seen and send it to Bob Dylan. A few days later I heard back that Mr Dylan liked the idea and was happy for me to proceed. Just like that.

Ron Cook rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And then I received forty albums in the post, covering Mr Dylan’s career. While I owned Dylan albums already, like Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and loved many of his songs (often without knowing he’d written them) performed by hundreds of artists from The Byrds to Fairport Convention, I had no idea of the real search he had been on his whole life.

It strikes me that many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time. When you realise this you can no longer have any doubt you are in the presence of a truly great, unique artist.

Working on our production of Girl from the North Country, sometimes I would wake in the night with a Bob Dylan song going round in my head. The next day I would come into rehearsals and we’d learn the song and put it in the show. Did it fit? Did it matter? It always fit somehow.

Many books have been written in an attempt to explore this universal power. Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them. Whatever they mean.

Sheila Atim rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Every time I hear these songs I see a picture like I’m watching a movie. Sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different, but you always see something.

Like Philip Larkin, like James Joyce, Mr Dylan has the rare power of literary compression. Images and conceits are held in unstable relations, forcing an atomic reaction of some kind, creating a new inner world.

But let’s talk about his musicality. Spending time with his music has taught me a few things: Firstly, writing something that sounds original is rare, but writing something that sounds original and simple at the same time is the mark of genius. Anyone can keep making things more complicated, but to keep a song simple, like it somehow always existed and would have surely been written by someone, someday… try writing that one.

Secondly, Mr Dylan always goes through the right musical door. Listening to a Bob Dylan song is like being in a room you’ve never been in before. It’s full of characters and images and tons of musical atmosphere. But then Bob changes the chords, moving through a bridge or a chorus, and a door opens up in that room, so you go through that door into another room – but it’s always the right door.

Thirdly, Mr Dylan sings about God a lot. Sometimes God appears as an impossible reflection of yourself. Sometimes as someone you could never know. But however God appears, however Mr Dylan begs for mercy, you understand that cry.

The company rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Anyway, I write this on the eve of moving from the rehearsal room to the theatre. Whatever happens next I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that having had Mr Dylan’s trust to create a piece of work using his songs has been one of the great artistic privileges of my life.


This introduction is taken from the published script to Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, which includes the full text of the play plus the lyrics to all of the Bob Dylan songs featured in the production.

Get your copy via our website at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – here.

Girl from the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 October 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Mel Melcon.

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The ‘X Factor’ Actor

The Acting Book

John Abbott has enjoyed a varied career in theatre – as an actor, director, educator (namely, Head of Acting at ArtsEd) and author. He has written three books for NHB on theatre, and his latest – The Acting Book – is published this month. John identifies charisma as one of the most important attributes for the modern actor – but what exactly is ‘charisma’? Here, he demystifies the notion…

Lately I’ve found myself shouting at the television more and more often: ‘“ConTROversy” not “ContraVERsy”!’ I yell. Or: “A road map is something that shows you all the roads in an area, you idiot. It gives you thousands of different ways of getting from A to B. What you mean is a route! Something that tells you the best way to get where you want to go!”

But the thing that drives me round the bend is Louis Walsh bouncing up and down behind his desk when he rejects the public’s favourite X Factor contestant and defends his decision by shouting, “But it’s a singing contest, Simon!”

No, Louis. It’s not. The clue is in the title of the show. The contest is to find a performer with the X Factor. That indefinable something that touches an audience’s imagination. Bob Dylan would never have won a singing contest based on the quality of his voice. Neither would Frank Sinatra. Nor Kylie Minogue.

In fact, almost no one on The X Factor has the X Factor. Yes, they can be trained to sing like Rihanna or Adele or Jessie J, but there is always something missing. Very few contestants on reality TV shows have sustainable careers because that special something – that X Factor – is hard to find. It’s elusive. Let’s call it what it is: Charisma.

They say that trying to explain Buddhism is like trying to explain Beauty. Or Love. Or Happiness. Once you begin to analyse it, you’ve already missed the point. You know it when you experience it, but try to explain that experience to someone else and it just comes out wrong. Charisma is like that.

We’ve all seen charismatic actors. We go to see a play or a film just because they are in it. No other reason. We want to see them. You know who the charismatic actors are. And although there are a lot of brilliant actors in the profession and we can teach committed students how to act like them, can we teach the students how to become charismatic actors?

*

Ten years ago, Jane Harrison (now the Principal of ArtsEd) and I set about writing a document that would establish the academic credentials of the acting course we were teaching at ArtsEd. Lots of drama schools do it. They get their course validated by a university so their students can get a bachelor’s degree. We were lucky enough to get involved with City University, and I knew we were talking to like-minded people when the Dean of Validation, Steve Stanton, questioned one of the sentences in our proposed document: “You have used the word ‘heart’ when assessing a student’s creative commitment, but surely a heart is just a machine that pumps blood round the body. Wouldn’t it be better to use the word ‘soul’?” (Yes indeedy! Thanks, Steve.) ArtsEd logo

When you write a course document that needs to be validated by an academic institution, you have to come up with assessment criteria in order to give each of the students a mark for their performances. Some aspects of a performance are easy to assess: Have they learnt the lines? Is their character believable? Could you hear them? Did they look confident? And so on. But time and again you come up with the same problem because there are some actors you just want to watch. They draw you in to their performance. They could stumble over their lines and their characterisation could be flimsy, but when they are on stage they… what is it? They nourish you. They excite you. They make your heart flutter. They take you out of yourself. They thrill you. They have charisma.

So we wanted to add ‘charisma’ into the list of assessment criteria for performances and in order to do that we had to define it to some degree. Here’s what we came up with:

‘Charisma –

The students are assessed on their ability to:

  • Use their own personal qualities as a performer to convey plot, character and mood.
  • Display an understanding that personal focus and concentration is engaging for an audience.
  • Demonstrate a positive use of their unique qualities as a performer.’

One of the jokes we often tell ourselves is that if we could teach students to be confident and sexy we wouldn’t have to teach them anything else because that’s what people want to see in an actor. But actually ‘sexy’ isn’t quite the right word, because the quality we are referring to is something that appeals to both sexes. Perhaps ‘appealing’ is a better word. Or ‘charming’. Or ‘engaging’. (I’m using the thesaurus now, but you can see where I’m coming from).

Whichever adjective you choose, there is no doubt that confidence is the driving force behind them all. An agent once said that ArtsEd students were ‘confident without being arrogant’ and that was the biggest compliment we could have got, because confidence without arrogance is sexy, appealing, charming, engaging and, of course – charismatic. I do think it’s possible to teach ‘confidence without arrogance’ (and I’ve touched on an approach to that in The Acting Book when I refer to the ‘Confidence Trick’).John Abbott at ArtsEd

We don’t teach our students to act in any particular style or expect them to become disciples of any special methodology. All we do is introduce them to a collection of styles and methodologies and let them choose what suits them best. It’s what I do in The Acting Book as well, which outlines the course at ArtsEd and the different techniques and approaches that all actors, at every level, should be familiar with. It’s knowledge of these techniques that gives the students confidence. Our aim is to empower them, not enslave them. If drama teachers can help acting students to value their own unique qualities and then show them how to realise their personal artistic vision, then we will be on our way to training students to become truly charismatic actors.

The Acting Book is published by Nick Hern Books. For a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £10.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p (international rates apply) by using the voucher code ‘ActingBookPP’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy.