Spotlight On… James O’Neill (Directing, Volume 1)

Welcome to a brand new series here at DCU Drama! We’re going to stop by with some of our own (and some from afar!) to discuss their experiences in DCU Drama and beyond! First up, we’ve got the amazingly talented James O’Neill, director of the dark and mysterious play “Moment”. From audition tips to character development, James reveals all in this wonderful interview piece.

So, tell us a little about the show you directed to set the scene, how about a quick blurb?

“Moment” was one of DCU Drama’s Semester 1 contemporary plays, written by Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan. It was set in Chapelizod in Dublin and followed the story of a seemingly ordinary Irish family with an extremely dark past. Teresa, the mother of the family, is having her eldest son, Niall, back to the house for dinner for the first time in 15 years since he had been released from prison for the murder of his sister’s best friend. A seemingly quiet dinner with his mother and his new fiancée Ruth becomes a fully-fledged dinner party with all of the family present, and Niall’s sister Niamh is more than happy to dig up the past for all to see… 

What inspired you to put yourself up for the role of Director?

I had been acting for a couple of years before, and found it really enjoyable, but wanted to try a different kind of creativity. Also, two years previous, DCU Drama had kindly given me a go at co-directing “The Importance of Being Earnest” with Lizzie Breen, and that was so much fun and such a great experience, so I really wanted to throw myself back into it as soon as possible. The subject matter of the play was so interesting, as it explores the Irish tendency to sweep difficult conversations and feelings under the rug, something that I’m sure all of us are very familiar with. I wanted to see what it was like to really dig into this issue with a cast and crew, and in the end, I am so glad that I went for it. 

How did you go about creating the world for such a heavy play? Were you drawn to specific characters to anchor the scenes?

While it was a heavy play, I think that everyone has had some experience of hiding secrets, and the lengths we go to keep them secret. In “Moment”, this experience is dialed to 100. I wanted to make sure that when the audience saw this play, they could relate to it with whatever their own experiences were. I aimed for immersion, which is why the set was very comprehensive, and the audience was situated on the stage itself, as close to the actors as possible. With this closeness, more subtleties could be picked up on. 

I didn’t try to anchor the scenes to any one character, as each character had their own motivations regarding the conflict in the play, the family’s secret. However, I did try and anchor each character to certain areas of the stage, as this reflected their stance on the conflict. Some characters actively try to hide it, like Niall, Teresa, and Ciara’s husband Dave, and others were trying to reveal it to the world. I represented this push-and-pull by having the actors be physically near each other and stationary during times of peace and harmony, and more distant for times when they were arguing or fighting. As a result, Niamh was always tending away from the table, and her movements were often a sign of conflict. Dave, Ciara, and Teresa were situated in the center, as they represented the peacekeepers, wanting to keep the secret hidden in order to reduce conflict, but their efforts would only ever lead to larger and larger outbursts.

What do you expect from actors as a director of a play? Where does your work meet theirs?

I try to keep the audition room as open to creative input as possible and welcome anyone in the cast, the crew (or even guests to the rehearsal!) to give any opinions or suggestions. A lot of times the creative team can get bogged down in their own ideas, and fresh perspectives are a must in the rehearsal process. 

I don’t usually give the actors any direction in the beginning apart from maybe the motivation behind the scene and the general idea of what I’m trying to go for. After that I let them move and interact with the scene as they see fit, and then from there, I can give some specific direction. I also always ask the actors to almost over-act their part. That way they can see the range of different ways their part can be played, and it is always easier to bring the drama down a notch than to try and bring it out of an actor.

What tips would you give to auditionees? What did you look for in the room?

I would definitely say don’t be afraid to have some fun with the part. Show the director that you are not afraid to try out different ideas, and even ask them which way they might like the part to be played. If you have any questions about the part, it is a great idea to ask them in the audition room. 

You can practice and prepare for the audition as much as you like, and it can really feel like a test sometimes, but try and put those thoughts behind you, and instead have as much fun as you can! 

Furthermore, what tips would you give to actors? As a director, is there anything you need your actors to do before even the first rehearsal?

I like to have fun in the rehearsal room, to really mess around with and stretch the characters, to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. I would ask my actors to be open to this style of rehearsal, as I think it can really bring out some interesting ideas. However, for this style to work correctly, some groundwork needs to be done by the actor and by the director. Lines need to be learned (which I am severely guilty of NOT doing…), motivations, intonation, and delivery need to be thought about before coming to the rehearsal. If you can do these, then you’ll really be having fun in the rehearsal room and on stage. 

And finally, looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

My experience directing “Moment” is one that I cherish very dearly. Looking back, I don’t really think there is much I would change. I was so happy with the cast, crew, and committee that I had, and honestly would love nothing more than to do it all over again. Except maybe without the coursework part…

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