Stage Set for Prolific Young Playwright Ross Dungan

A palpable anticipation built as the audience took their seats on opening night of Before Monsters Were Made in The Project theatre.

Playwright Ross Dungan made his way across the empty stage to the only remaining front row seats to watch the show with Matt Smyth, his producer and friend, at his shoulder.

Played in the round the audience had different vantages of an open plan house proudly featuring a piano with sheet music open on it.

“I would suffer from awful anxiety. There is a feeling of utter powerlessness while sitting there. The way the seating was, on three sides, it felt like everyone was watching me watching the play.”

Clearly more comfortable with the actual writing, Dungan abhors opening nights and their trappings.

“At halftime I was genuinely thinking ‘what else could I do with a drama degree? There has to be something that isn’t this painful for me. Also because it’s opening night as well you’re passing people and you’re like, ‘oh hello critic from this thing, oh hello luminary from this place.”

“It’s like that bit in Birdman when they’re talking about previews and Edward Norton’s character is like, ‘Well previews aren’t important, they’re just people who can’t be arsed buying a ticket to the real show. The only thing that matters is opening night, press night and the opinion of that one person from The New York Times who’s sitting in that seat there’.”

Talking to Dungan you might wonder how he is so prolific a playwright at 26 years of age, what with the crippling anxiety opening nights engender in him but then you hear his matter of fact dismissal of writers who lean on excuses, “You could make endless excuses why you’re not writing” and his inherent drive to write plays starts to shine through,

“If you think about these things, and I wouldn’t look at it this coldly, but if there’s a career progression in this you kind of want everything you do to be shooting a bit further and swinging for the fences a bit more than you did the last time.”

The self-deprecation only cuts it so far and really it should stop here: this is the fourth play he has written and there is a real maturity to his latest offering. He has taken on a difficult theme and is determined to push himself in challenging and fascinating ways every time he puts his head above the parapet with a new piece.

He is clearly in a hurry to make his mark as a playwright and Before Monsters Were Made is further evidence of his ability at this level.

***

The way Dungan got into drama is a conventional enough story of the English teacher who did more with his class. This sparked enough of an interest for a teenager to put Drama down on his CAO form when it came across his desk that February in Wesley College.

We sometimes forget that whims are what teenagers go on.

English teacher Niall MacMonagle didn’t give any sort of Robin Williams, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ speech instead he simply bought his class tickets to Faith Healer by Brian Friel in The Gate starring Ralph Fiennes. The play was not on the curriculum and kids could opt out if they wanted.

Ross went along and the four monologues had a profound effect on him. At the time he was mainly into film but he remembers leaving the play saying, ‘Film could not do what I just saw there on stage.’

That play is still one of his favourites and as part of an Advanced Playwriting class in fourth year of his drama degree in Trinity College he had to write ‘either one monologue or three monologues’. The exercise was given by guest lecturer and playwright Marina Carr and he was keen to impress.

With Faith Healer still front and centre he penned three monologues on the Omagh Bombing. They became the play Minute After Midday which was his first professional production and won him a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, “By professionally produced I mean a bunch of us put it on in Edinburgh.”

When filling out the form at the Fringe there was an empty box marked theatre company. Flummoxed, Dungan juxtaposed two random parts of previous college plays to make 15th Oak productions, which he admits means very little. This was the company he co-founded with producer Robert Kearns as a vehicle for their plays.

The Edinburgh festival was a major influence on him, “The possibilities were endless there. It’s the biggest arts festival in the world.”

The next year he was back with The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle which won critical acclaim and toured, “Momentum is a funny thing. A very illusory, ephemeral concept but you know when it’s there and you know when it’s not there. The houses weren’t great for Eric but it got good reviews.”

“Edinburgh is the best shop window in the world for theatre and because people in Soho were interested in Eric people from New York were interested and it’s just momentum. Next thing you know you’re lining up all these places for a tour.”

***

New writing in theatre is to be treasured, especially when it is of this quality.

Before Monsters is a family tragedy set in 1968 and 1972 small town, rural Ireland – Ballina to be exact. It is a taut, gripping thriller. You don’t see these on stage too often because thrillers are a Tv genre that lend themselves to quick cuts allowing plot points to be explained at pace. There is no such luxury on stage where language, timing and stagecraft are the tools at the writer and director’s disposal.

A story of rumour and familial delusion based around a pillar of the local community, piano teacher Vincent Colgan (Lorcan Cranitch) soon becomes the focus when a girl goes missing and things start to crumble as the murky past is mirrored too closely.

The genesis for the play came to Dungan about two years ago after he read a story in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell,

“The inspiration, if you could call it that, came from an article that I was reading at the time about Jerry Sandusky who is the disgraced former assistant college football coach of Penn State University [in the States].

“He was a very much loved, benevolent member of the community. He had his own retreat and kind of safe house for disadvantaged boys and he was seen as this lovely, jokey, goofy figure by the football team.

“The head coach Joe Paterno was the most successful college football coach of all time. Then the allegations started coming out about Sandusky. And with all these things allegations came out until they were just everywhere. It was a massive child abuse scandal and, as always with these scandals, it was the cover up of it too.”

“Then at the same time the stuff about Jimmy Savile was coming out. That made me set the story specifically in the past. Setting it back in the 60s and 70s allowed for a culture of ‘look the other way’ that doesn’t exist anymore today.”

***

When Arts Council funding came through Dungan set about completely rewriting the script in October of last year.

He only started to make real progress with the rewriting when he figured out that it had to be about the one family. He had struggled with previous iterations,

“It came down to the Aristotelian poetics of blood is thicker than water. Bringing it back to the family is the oldest trick in the book but it made everything much easier.

“Setting it in the past and in a family setting was conducive to the plot. It just made it much more interesting. Then you also had the whole thing of the character of David who has built himself up in his father’s image. To have that big totemistic figure in your life and then have it gradually hewn away and torn down.”

Some of the best theatre came out of the family dynamic, particularly the dinner scene that invited the audience into the dysfunction of this extended family and provided some relatable comic relief through the character of Graham (Manus Halligan) which balanced the harrowing events.

Director Ben Kidd was so influential in bringing the play to life, in honing the writing and Dungan credits his director as a great sounding board and editor for rewrites.

“When you aren’t directing the play yourself you’ve got to let the person direct. The director Ben is collaborative but at the end of the day it’s got to be his call on everything. The buck stops with him.”

“When Ben came up with that conceit of setting up the stage that way with the seats on three different sides it clicked with every design and creative party within the show. In the Project you lose two days of tech moving the seats around, it’s inordinately difficult and expensive so it’s a big risk but once it was done it quickly became the only way of doing it.”

“And particularly with that dinner scene it worked. Because you don’t have that thing of one actor with their back to the audience at all times, the fact is the audience can see things from different angles and that’s the whole play – it’s about seeing things from different angles and the ambiguities that creates.

“It was pretty inspired from Ben, definitely.”

***

The real challenge of the play was making the characters three-dimensional; each strand had to have some skin in the game,

“The best plays are the ones where every character thinks they’re right. Bad people don’t go to bed thinking they’re bad. They can rationalise what they do.”

“The most helpful way of writing the character of Vincent was thinking of how someone who was intelligent, rational and logical can compartmentalise things sufficiently enough to get on.

“Lorcan Cranitch is just superb in the part. Lorcan could play the complexities of the character and also find a way to make things simple. At one stage Lorcan said to the director, ‘Having toyed around with it a while the only way to play this guy is to play him as someone who believes he is innocent.’

“And that is the only way of doing it.”

Director Ben Kidd, Dungan and producer Matt Smyth got lucky in that their first choice cast all accepted the offers – that never happens. They sent out a first draft script couched in a page long apology from Dungan (that’s just in his nature). But there was obviously enough in there for Peter Coonan, Orla Fitzgerald, Janice Bryne, Manus Halligan and Cranitch to commit to the project.

***

I glance down at my recorder and notice that we’ve been chatting for over ninety minutes. Dungan has been effusive, articulate and only caustic in his self-deprecation. There’s just a couple of questions left really, why the piano?

“I love the piano, I love the way it sounds. I take any chance I can to put music into a show; it’s the most helpful thing possible.”

Are you happy thinking of yourself as a playwright now?

“Emm…it’s a weird kind of compulsion. I’m consigned to the fact that it’s always going to be very difficult but there is some kind of compulsion to keep doing it in me. Playwright is such a hilarious title, it’s bizarre, but maybe I am.”

What strikes me when we’ve finished up is that Dungan’s fretting over opening nights and all the palaver has nothing to do with the actual writing.

When at the keyboard with an idea the prolific fervour that has seen him write four stand alone pieces of theatre grips him and that’s all that matters.

Then when he’s finished tapping away and is ready to do it all again he picks up the phone and calls his 15th Oak producer Matt Smyth and says,

‘I’ve got this new thing that we have to put on.’

Matt must enjoy fielding those calls.

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