Come one come all and join us as we learn how to be the perfect personification of ‘Man’.
Earlier this week actor and theatre maker Stephen Tadgh, from Good Buzz Productions, answered some questions about his upcoming show I Am Man. Described as “the Late Late Toy show with less Christmas jumpers and potentially more swearing” I Am Man runs as part of Smock Allies: Scene + Heard, the festival of new work at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.
I Am Man takes a light hearted look at a great deal of “manly” topics, such as should I grow a bread and what is a “lumbersexual”. What inspired this?
It’s a multi-layered answer to be honest. I think growing up in rural Ireland meant my initial view on masculinity was quite confined and somewhat limiting.
When I was much younger, I remember getting irritated when activists would speak about the objectification of women and ‘the ruling patriarchy’ without mention to male objectification and oppression in Irish society. It felt like there was a double standard being created that only served the purpose of creating a wider barrier within our culture/society.
Since then I’ve educated myself about systematic patriarchy and have tried to address the issues by looking at the bigger picture. In saying that, I am still a believer that the male voice is not being advocated for in the right way during this discussion.
Jump to 2014 where I co-created a show with Cork artist, Shauna Lee Lynch, to try and tackle this momentous issue. We submitted the piece, entitled ‘Who’s a Pretty…[Insert Gender Here]’, to what was then the ‘collaborations’ festival and got accepted. Through many hours of research, we started narrowing in on the media’s portrayal of gender and how limiting that can be to personal growth as the main topic of the production.
We started to look at the people that we we’re told we should aspire to be – Barbie for girls or the Action Men for boys. We knew the more we worked on the piece it could only ever be a comedy as the content was so ridiculous that to play it straight would be too absurd for an audience to get on board with. From there we began making a list of all the rules, expectations and guidelines you need to be the perfect man or woman as dictated by the media and advertisement companies.
The show was only 40 minutes long (each of us carving a 20 minute section to have our say). It was my first step tackling gender stereotypes. Ever since then I’ve had a desire to revisit the issue, but knew it would require a large restructure, in terms of format, delivery, and content, and so it sat in the recesses of my brain over the next few years.
So why now?
I was lucky enough to spend most of 2017 working in the States and while there saw a country that is shackled by gender stereotyping on a level that makes Ireland look like a hippie commune. While there the #metoo campaign began, and I think that ended up being a tipping point. It was surreal seeing that the majority of my friends had been victims of male privilege (it’s a phrase some people hate but I think you have to call it for what it is). I think it was a moment of real reflection for a lot of men globally, myself included.
The show has been on the tip of my tongue ever since the 2014 iteration, and the months I spent abroad coupled with the current social movements made me want to try and say something meaningful about the male role in society and, hopefully, offer a potential solution.
This isn’t the standard theatrical piece. Why did you choose this particular format?
I knew from the previous outing I wanted the audience to be much more actively engaged in the process. I love theatre that makes the audience complicit, in the success or failure of the work.
I think with the subject matter it’s crucial that we stop encouraging people to think about this passively and recognize the role that we have to play, which is where the idea for the audience to be a part of the show was born.
I originally wanted to have no actors and comprise the cast of selected audience members but that only led the narration of the show to be led by a disembodied voice. Logistically, however, you have to take into account your audience’s needs and comfort levels so I’ve settled on one presenter who will act as a ‘guide’ of sorts as four men compete in a series of challenges to be crowned the ‘ultimate man’.
Have you encountered any difficulties with it?
I think this type of theatre isn’t something Irish people naturally gravitate towards. The idea of being selected from the audience invokes genuine fear for some people, and, as such, we’ve been trying to secure as many of our male contestants prior to the show as possible by not telling them the format but asking for a commitment to show up and trust we will look after them on the night. It’s been a battle and we’ve no way of guaranteeing that the people will actually show up. While we have provisions in place should someone not, it does make it very difficult to keep the blood pressure down.
What can the audience expect from I Am Man?
What we’ve tried to do is create a really fun environment by navigating the show through a game format. The humour will be within the challenges, but the thrill of knowing you could be called upon at any point of the performance will keep audiences on the edge of their seat. It is definitely silly, but we’re looking at a ridiculous list of rules you’re meant to follow to be considered a real man!
Think the Late Late Toy show with less Christmas jumpers and potentially more swearing, whatever happens on the night we are just going to roll with it.
What we’d love to happen is for the audience members to start to question the advertisements that are marketed to their gender and the intention behind those messages. To gain a better understanding, underneath the humour and satire displayed there is a genuine problem that if left unaddressed is only going to grow and fester.
You’ve been involved in theatre for a good few years now and performed in many shows. How does the preparation for I Am Man differ to other projects you’ve worked on?
Good Buzz Productions is a collaborative process through and through, as we’ve found our feet in the Irish Theatre scene we’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing artists that have poured their heart and soul into the work.
I’ve been equally blessed for this show with our presenter, Gavan O’ Connor Duffy, who has given himself over to the production. Obviously, as the show is so audience dependant it makes rehearsals more conversational than physical and even hypothetical as you try to predict answers, reactions, or potential points of discomfort for the contestants.
We’re also very grateful to the Conservatory of Music and Drama in Rathmines who have allowed us access to work within their drama department and try out ideas with their students. It’s been an invaluable resource and allowed us to gauge real time reactions.
Overall, the artistic process is more akin to researching and developing a TV show with all the complications and budgets of theatre that have made it a very interesting journey to say the least.
This is the third year of Smock Allies: Scene + Heard. What attracted you to SASH and how have you found the process so far?
I think one of the main reasons I was drawn to SASH was the production team. Caoimhe Connolly is a force of nature and a huge advocate for Art in all forms in Ireland. Her dedication, hard work, and willingness to have a chat with you even when she’s up to her eyes is rare to see for the head of a festival this size and is something that can’t be commended enough.
This in turn creates a trickle-down effect where, on the ground level, the festival embodies all the good in Irish theatre. I enjoy watching people work together for the good of the show and benefit of the audience. From the venue techs to the box office team they want you to succeed and will offer all the help and guidance they can.
For anyone uncertain about going to a show dealing with what it is to be a man, what would you say?
The main rule I set myself when producing this show is that it doesn’t turn into anything preachy. I’m a firm believer in giving facts – give your opinion and then open a discussion.
It’s something we constantly checked in with during the pre-production phase. So if anyone thinks you’re entering an environment whereby you’re going to get lambasted for what’s between your legs let me reassure you that you’re safe with us.
We’re addressing it all through satire and farce. It’s an important subject with a light-hearted delivery, which means if you’re not laughing then we’re not doing it right.
Will it appeal to more than men?
I believe the themes are universal, maybe some jokes might land better on one side or the other at times, but overall the content is designed for both genders. So whether you’re a woman who has been told all she does is ‘nag’ or that you should like jewellery because of your genitalia, or a man who is ostracized for not enjoying sports or for your fondness of ‘lite’ beer this is the show for you.