Powerful Women in the Arts Blog: Deirdre O’Connell

Deirdre O’Connell (1939-2001)

Artform: Theatre

by Mary Moynihan

Eleanora Deirdre O’Connell was born to Irish immigrant parents on June 16, 1939 in the South Bronx district of New York City. Deirdre was one of five siblings. Her father Michael J. O’Connell was born in Glengala, county Sligo and her mother, Nellie Taafe, came from Banteer in county Cork.

After finishing school, Deirdre won a scholarship to attend night classes and study at Erwin Piscator’s New York Dramatic Workshop. Her parents had ‘encouraged her to pursue her passion for acting. While performing in one of the various productions at the Dramatic Workshop’s Repertory Theatre, she was spotted by Lee Strasberg and invited to join the Actor’s Studio where she discovered the Stanislavski system, which was to become her lifelong passion’, and, later, ‘the Focus Theatre’s artistic policy’.[1] The Stanislavski system refers to a system of training created by the Russian Theatre practitioner, actor and director Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), co-founder and theatre administrator of the Moscow Art Theatre and creator of the Stanislavski system of actor training, ‘the most influential system of acting in the Western World.’[2]

The Stanislavski approach is a system of training, not a specific style of acting, that aims to provide the skills necessary for the actor to develop the inner life; the emotional and sensory life of the character. There is a commitment to ensemble acting and teamwork and work characterised by a truthful and deep ‘moment-to-moment aliveness’[3] in performance, generating theatre that is creative as opposed to representational. The work is rooted in the actor’s sense of self and the development of the ‘sensual and emotional capacity of the actors’.[4]

Under supervision, the actor works on areas such as relaxation, focus and concentration, imagination, physical action and a belief in it, sense memory, emotional memory, the creative flow, and the use of objectives and given circumstances, exploring how these areas help to train the actor’s inner creative state in order to create truthful behaviour on stage. The actor develops the skills necessary to recreate, through the senses, the conditions conducive to a creative state before beginning work on a role. Stanislavski’s approach to actor training is based on continuous observation of successful acting practice and is not a rigid approach. As he said himself, ‘create your own method’.

By 1963 Deirdre had completed her formal education in theatre and had also become a ‘life member’ of the Actors Studio in New York which she attended for two years. When Deirdre O’Connell arrived in Dublin in 1963 at the age of 23 her main aim was to establish a full-time repertory company ‘and the only way to start a company was to train one’.[5] As Deirdre said herself she was aware of her skills as a ‘communicator’’[6] and so she set up the Stanislavski Acting Studio in order to train actors and directors in the Stanislavski System and more importantly to lay the foundation for a permanent repertory company – an objective that led to the founding of the Focus Theatre four years later.

The first studios were conducted at the Pocket Theatre, Ely Place, in Dublin, at the invitation of its director Ursula White Lennon, and commenced in April 1963 after advertised auditions had been held. Early members of the new company included Declan and Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, Sabina Coyne (now Coyne-Higgins), Tom Hickey, Tim McDonnell, Frank McDonald, Johnny Murphy, Meryl Gourley and Joan Bergin. According to original studio member and actor Tim McDonnell ‘I saw an article in the Irish Press with a photograph of Deirdre O’Connell stating that the “method” was coming to Dublin and that she was about to begin classes in a small theatre called the Pocket Theatre and I ran down immediately and made an appointment to see her the following Saturday. In those days Deirdre did auditions for the studio. She gave you… tests, a test in relaxation, imagination and… depending on how you did, you were either accepted or not. But I think she accepted everyone (laughs). So I went down and saw her and within a month started classes in the Pocket Theatre in Ely Place… It was 1963, we met every Saturday and Sunday and did classes and exercises by Stanislavski, myself and other founding members of the studio including Tom Hickey and Johnny Murphy.’[7]

The Stanislavski Studio was the first actor-training studio of its kind in Ireland. At that time there was no ‘Irish Academy of Dramatic Art… no real training in theatre’.[8] The development of the actor’s skills has always been at the heart of the Focus Theatre and Deirdre’s introduction of the Stanislavski system to Ireland was seen as a radical move, which enabled the actor while being individually supervised to be trained in how to work on his or her art and develop a conscious acting technique. The deeper the actor’s experience of his or her part, selected, controlled and artistically expressed, the fuller the audience’s involvement and participation will be. The philosophy of the studio emphasises the creative role of the actor while at the same time insisting on group or ensemble teamwork as the essence of good theatre. This emphasis on ensemble became the hallmark of many Focus productions over the coming years as observed by The Irish Times: ‘superb acting, a strong sense of ensemble playing’.[9]

The studio members trained and rehearsed from April to November and the first production by the studio was For Madmen Only, an adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, staged at the Pocket Theatre on October 7, 1963. With the closure of the Pocket Theatre the following year for development, the studio members had to move elsewhere. The studio then had a number of different bases, including the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the Pike Theatre, and the Dublin Shakespeare Society premises then in Fitzwilliam Square. During this period studio members continued to meet twice weekly to work together on the Stanislavski System and to develop skills in improvisation. Public improvisational performances were held in different venues around the city including the Dublin Shakespeare Society venue, the Embankment in Tallaght, and the Project Art Gallery, and also as open-air performances in public parks. Studio members performed in Meryl Gourley’s productions of Calvary and Resurrection by William Butler Yeats, staged at Players Theatre in Trinity College, Dublin. Having to constantly change venue for productions encouraged Deirdre and the other studio members to look for their own permanent premises to house the Stanislavski Studio.

During this period Deirdre O’Connell worked as a singer and actor in order to raise money for a permanent theatre space. As a ‘noted ballad and folk singer’ [10] she sang in working men’s clubs in England, returning to Dublin to run the Stanislavski studios and on one of the visits home she met the singer Luke Kelly (1940-1984), a member of the Irish music group the Dubliners. They met in ‘O’Donoghue’s pub, Merrion Row, Dublin, and they were married on June 21, 1965. Deirdre also returned to New York several times to work in summer season productions to raise more money for her project’.[11]

In 1967, after a long period of searching and determination by the studio members, a permanent premise was eventually found in a lane off Pembroke Street by Declan Burke-Kennedy – an empty and abandoned clothing-label factory space at 6 Pembroke Place that was in a considerable state of disrepair. A lease was taken out on the premises, organised by Deirdre O’Connell and Declan Burke-Kennedy and a fund-raising campaign launched to raise £3,000 required to renovate and convert the disused space into a 72-seat theatre. Money came from donations and subscriptions, including income provided by Deirdre O’Connell and Luke Kelly, from Mick McCarthy, owner of the Embankment in Tallaght and from co-founders/studio members Mary Elizabeth and Declan Burke-Kennedy, and eventually funding was also received from the Arts Council and Dublin City Council. With assistance from Burke-Kennedy Architects, the derelict site was transformed into a working theatre space. As part of the fundraising campaign, in return for £10 or more, friends and supporters were offered ‘the status of patron and an unlimited promise of free admission to the theatre’.[12]

The Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski Studio was officially opened on September 29, 1967 with a production of Play with a Tiger by Doris Lessing which ran at the premises for four weeks.

Deirdre O’Connell worked as Artistic Director, Manager and Fundraiser of the Focus Theatre and Stanislavski Studio from 1967 until her death in 2001, as well as acting in most of the major productions presented. The artistic policy of Focus Theatre was to present plays not commonly known in Ireland, which may not have been seen by the Irish public, and plays were never chosen for their commercial value but on the basis of merit. According to Deirdre O’Connell, plays were chosen on the basis of having ‘central, very focused relationships, strong characterization and strong, inner-based themes’[13].

At that time the Evening Press saw Focus as ‘one of the most exciting theatrical ventures we have had in Dublin’ and The Irish Times said ‘Dublin Focus Theatre is performing a great service to the city and country by its integrity, dedication and the excellence of its actors’.[14]

The company enjoyed critical acclaim for presenting high quality productions of the powerful classical dramas of the Norwegian playwright, poet and theatre director Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Swedish author August Strindberg (1849-1912) and Russian dramatist and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1828-1906). Plays by these authors provided a unique vehicle for the Stanislavski-trained Focus actors to bring to life the fullness of the psychologically-driven relationships through ensemble playing, and a depth of emotion that became hallmarks of Focus productions. Deirdre and the original founding members of Focus created an artistic policy that put the ensemble at the heart of the work:

From the beginning, the Focus Theatre has attempted to create an all-too-rare example of group art, that is to say a concerted pooling together of individual talents and energy towards a commonly-agreed artistic goal. By its constitution and structure, it is not, and does not desire to be, a platform for individual performers more concerned with their own careers than with the artistic endeavour on hand. It is no surprise, therefore, that the finest Focus productions have been noted for ‘teamwork’ and ‘integrity’; for their clear sense of direction and their ‘disciplined performances’. [15]

The works of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov are ensemble plays depicting universal human conditions and emotional crises, exploring the conflict between private and public spheres and the lives of men and women trapped or struggling in various ways to break free and find fulfilment.

In January 1970 Focus Theatre presented the long-running Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov which played to full houses for ten weeks (the company had already performed his play The Wedding in 1968). Uncle Vanya was followed by Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which ran for 12 weeks. In this and other Ibsen plays, Focus had great success in portraying the emotional turmoil of Ibsen’s characters as they struggled to free themselves from the suffocating conventions of a class-ridden society.

Press coverage for Hedda Gabler stated that ‘one must once again return thanks to the brave little Focus Theatre for bringing to the Dublin stage the type of quality play which the major theatres steadfastly ignore… This is the only theatre in the country which regularly puts on great plays and I mean the only theatre. It is also unique and exciting in its methods of approaching a play’.[16]

In 1971 the company presented A Doll’s House, also by Henrik Ibsen, which ran for five months from November 1971 to March 1972. Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House is a woman searching for freedom and independence. She is trapped in a male-dominated environment and struggles against domestic oppression and the traditional, subservient role of wife and mother. Themes of sexual identity, desire and the individual struggle for self-determination, present in this play, can also be found in other productions by Ibsen presented by Focus Theatre including John Gabriel Borkman (1974 and 1991), Rosmerholm (1976), The Lady from the Sea (1980), Ghosts (1985), Little Eyolf (1990) and The Master Builder (1991).

Improvisation

From its inception in 1963 until the early 1970s an important part of the Stanislavski Studio was the development and use of improvisation for public performances. According to Deirdre O’Connell, the studio only did one production from 1963 to 1967 but ‘theatrically we kept performing as Ireland’s only improvisation theatre’.[17]

In February 1971 the studio members began an innovative programme of Sunday night improvisation theatre:

… the studio members inaugurated ‘a year long series of improvised performances’ which showed ‘oodles of resources and ingenuity’ according to the Evening Press and provided ‘an enlightening and stimulating evening’, as per the Evening Herald. One of the performers, Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, described the work as ‘nerve-wracking, we would sometimes take a theme and develop it from week to week, like a soap opera. I remember one which concerned an imaginary family in the west of Ireland, near where uranium was supposed to have been discovered, it went on for about 6 weeks.[18]

The improvisations were unscripted ad-lib enactments on stage, based on a specific pre-chosen theme or issue. After agreeing on the dramatic issue at the core of the work, the actors prepared by setting up and working on character development and relationships beforehand as well as discussing in detail the time and place (where and when) for the improvisation. However ‘because it is unscripted an “improve” has a spontaneous power all its own and often a degree of realism which can be quite unnerving… the actions and words that the audience witness are in no way rehearsed or prearranged’.[19]

The improvisations were like plays ‘communally and spontaneously created and in that way can take on a richness and an authority which it takes a truly gifted author to possess’.[20] During the live performance of the improvisations the actors used soliloquies to develop the audience’s understanding of a particular storyline by moving ‘in and out of naturalism at the switch of a particular light, to give a personal view of what was going on, in the sense of some personal story or recollection’.[21]

According to Declan Burke-Kennedy another important element of the improvisation work was:

… its immediate relevance to the social context in which it is performed. The issues proposed and embodied by the actors are those which most bear down on them from day to day. Even when the issue is proposed by the audience, the individual interpretation of it is inevitably coloured by the social experience and outlook of each individual actor. It is the fusion (sometimes confusion) of those individual personalities and points of view that constitute the dramatic essence of improvisational theatre.[22]

The public improvisations played a key role in developing the ethos of ensemble-playing because in improvisation ‘togetherness and co-operation are the basic ingredients and the process, as well as being of dramatic value for the audience, is an experience which continually directs the actor away from the isolationist and virtuoso tendencies that bedevil this most vain of trades’.[23] Public improvisations ceased after the 1970s and were revived briefly during the late 1990s. Improvisational exercises continued to be used extensively as part of the training provided by the Stanislavski studio and in rehearsals for Focus Theatre productions.

In 1986 Deirdre O’Connell received the Harvey’s Theatre Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Theatre. Another success for Focus Theatre was Diary of a Madman translated by Ronald Wilks and adapted by Tim McDonnell from the work of Nikolai Gogol, with Tim performing the sole role of Poprischin, and Deirdre O’Connell directing. Tim was one of the original founding members of Focus Theatre acting in early productions including the first Focus show Play with a Tiger.

After being involved with Focus in the early years, Tim moved to the United States to work on building up a successful acting career there. In 1981 in New York Tim was involved in a tragic accident in which he lost the use of his legs and became confined to a wheelchair. After the accident Tim returned to Ireland and in 1987 took to the stage with Diary of a Madman, produced by Focus Theatre. The play ran at the Project Arts Centre for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1987 and Tim won the Harvey’s Award for Best Actor in the same year. In March 1988 Diary of a Madman ran at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin and in 1989 toured to New York and played for 22 performances at the Irish Arts Centre where it again received excellent reviews. Tim won a Best Actor Obie award for his performance in New York in 1989. Diary of a Madman was made into a film, produced and directed by Ronan O’Leary, sponsored by RTE, and filmed over five-and-a-half days in Ardmore Studios in 1990. In the film Deirdre O’Connell performed the role of Mavra.

Later Years

The 1990s began with a very successful production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by American playwright Edward Albee directed by Ann Maloney O’Driscoll with Deirdre playing the role of Martha, Sean Treacy as George, and Bairbre Ní Chaoimh and Brent Hearne as Honey and Nick. ‘Like its giant forebear, Strindberg’s Dance of Death, the play begins in hell, and all the revelations and reactions take place within that landscape’.[24]

The emotionally violent production at Focus Theatre received excellent reviews, portraying the depths of a disturbed relationship and the struggle for psychological growth in the face of thwarted ambition, expectation and hope. ‘To take on Edward Albee’s mammoth work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and attempt to stage it at the tiny Focus Theatre (without Liz Taylor and Richard Burton) could be described as foolhardy indeed… (however) four wonderful actors… have attacked the play and succeeded in wrestling out of it one of the most rewarding night’s theatre a Dublin audience can hope to see’[25] and ‘Albee’s play reaches a shattering climax. The Focus production is one of the best for years… With a portrayal of intense emotional power, marvellously sustained by Deirdre O’Connell’.[26]

Throughout the 1990s, Focus Theatre continued to produce old and new plays ranging from nineteenth century classics to contemporary world drama. The last play Deirdre acted in was The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, which opened on February 11, 1999 at Focus Theatre. The play was a success for the theatre, running for nine weeks and was directed by Focus-trained actor and director Jayne Snow. The central part of Bernarda Alba was played by Deirdre O’Connell and all except one of the cast of ten actors trained at the Stanislavski Studio under her direction. In the production ‘Deirdre O’Connell gives a towering performance as Bernarda – a shuffling monster of bitterness’ [27] and ‘creates an intelligent and credible performance in the title role’.[28]

A feature film documentary Hold the Passion was completed in 2000 by Focus Films, produced by Ann McRory and directed by Ronan O’Leary. It premiered at Cork Film Festival. The documentary was made to commemorate and pay tribute to the life and work of Deirdre O’Connell. It relates Deirdre’s journey as artistic director as well as the history of the Focus Theatre and Stanislavski Studio, and contains unique footage of Deirdre’s last performance in her role of Bernarda Alba as well as direct interviews with Deirdre and other artists of the Focus Theatre and Stanislavski Studio. Several public screenings have taken place at film festivals and at the IFI cinema in Dublin and the makers of this documentary are still waiting for it to be screened by Ireland’s national television station RTÉ.

Deirdre O’Connell died suddenly at her home in Dartmouth Square in Dublin on June 10, 2001 ‘four years after Focus Theatre celebrated “Thirty Years of Magic” ‘.[29] Deirdre’s funeral service was held in Whitehall Church on the northside of Dublin where, 36 years earlier, Deirdre had married Luke Kelly of the Dubliners. Following a service attended by several hundred people Deirdre was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. Deirdre was an extraordinary human being and artist and she was mourned and missed by many friends and associates both personally and professionally.

In 2004 Deirdre’s sister and life-long friend, Geraldine O’Connell Cusack published her book Children of the Far-Flung, a ’true account of a remarkable Irish-American family, four generations of emigration and return, from Ireland to New York and back again. It is also the story of the author’s sister, the late Deirdre O’Connell, founder and artistic director of the critically-acclaimed Focus Theatre in Dublin, her marriage to popular singer Luke Kelly, her successes and failures, and her remarkable and long-lasting impact on theatre in Ireland’.[30]

The Focus Theatre has played an invaluable role in Irish Theatre over the years presenting over 300 plays, and the Stanislavski Studio has made a significant contribution by providing a unique training in the Stanislavski System to a large number of actors and directors. Many of Ireland’s leading theatre and film artists started their careers at Focus Theatre under the direction of Deirdre O’Connell including Gabriel Byrne, Olwen Fouéré, Margaret Toomey, Joan Bergin and Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy.

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins has said that we all owe Ms O’Connell a debt of gratitude because she brought ‘the acting techniques developed by the foremost theorist of theatre in the 20th century, Constantin Stanislavski, to Ireland… The introduction of these techniques was the primary purpose of her coming to Ireland… The result was a unique and invaluable contribution to the creative arts in Ireland’. He said that without the Focus Theatre, Irish people ‘would have been deprived of access to some of the finest works that are important for an understanding of our humanity and the purpose of our human existence’.[31] Deirdre O’Connell was, he said, ‘the single greatest influence in Irish Theatre since the 60s’.[32] Deirdre followed her dream and has made a rare and unique contribution as an artist to countless individuals and to the world she lived in.

*The above is adapted from a chapter by Mary Moynihan titled Loving the art in yourself from Stanislavski in Ireland – Focus at 50 edited by Steve Burch and Brian McAvera, published by Carysfort Press, 2013.

Mary Moynihan is a writer, director, theatre and film maker. Mary is Artistic Director of the Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Human Rights incorporating Smashing Times Theatre and Film Company and Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble. Mary is also a Drama Lecturer at the DIT Conservatory of music and Drama, Dublin, Ireland.

[1] www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/140_FocusTheatre.pdf, p. 5

[2] Edited by Banham, Martin, (1992), The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, USA, Cambridge University Press, p. 923.

[3] Strasberg, Lee (1989), A Dream of Passion, The Development of the Method. Edited by Evangeline Morphos. Great Britain, Methuen Drama, p. 38.

[4] Interview with Deirdre O’Connell, Artistic Director, Focus Theatre by Mary Moynihan, April 22, 1999.

[5] Interview with Deirdre O’Connell, Artistic Director, Focus Theatre, by Mariosa de Faoite July 1994, tape 1.

[6] Interview with Deirdre O’Connell, Artistic Director, Focus Theatre, by Mariosa de Faoite July 1994, tape 1.

[7] Interview with Tim McDonnell (1991) Focus Theatre Newsletter, Issue 2, September/ October 1991, p. 8.

[8] Manning, Mary (1975) The Arts in Ireland, Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 63.

[9] Review by Derek West of The Balcony by Jean Genet, The Irish Times, April 27, 1992.

[10] www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/140_FocusTheatre.pdf, p. 6.

[11] ‘’www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/140_FocusTheatre.pdf, p. 6.

[12] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 6.

[13] Interview with Deirdre O’Connell, Artistic Director, Focus Theatre, by Mariosa de Faoite July 1994. Tape 2.

[14] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 8.

[15] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 3.

[16] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 12.

[17] Interview with Deirdre O’Connell, Artistic Director, Focus Theatre, by Mariosa de Faoite July 1994, tape 1.

[18] Moynihan, Mary (1991), The Stanislavski Studio of Dublin. Exploring the use of the Stanislavski System (exercises and programme of actor training) as practiced by the Focus Stanislavski Studio, dissertation, April 30, 1991, p. 12.

[19] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 17.

[20] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 17.

[21] Thompson, Peter (1987) Method in their Madness 21 Years of the Focus Theatre, Theatre Ireland – Retrospective, p. 32.

[22] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 17.

[23] Burke-Kennedy, Declan, Booklet Dublin Focus Theatre incorporating the Stanislavski studio, article on The Focus Theatre by Declan Burke-Kennedy, p. 17.

[24] Kauffman, Stanley, June 24, 1966, Movies, New York Times.

[25] Roche, Lorcan, ‘Fearless Cast Reap Success’, Irish Independent

[26] Finegan, John, January 3, 1990, ‘Classic Return’, Evening Herald

[27] O’Kelly, Emer, February 14, 1999, ‘Lorca’s Sexual Rage kept in a very clever Focus’, Sunday Independent.

[28] Colgan, Gerry, February 12, 1999, ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’, The Irish Times.

[29] www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/140_FocusTheatre.pdf, p.6

[30] http://www.amazon.com/Children-Far-Flung-Geraldine-OConnell-Cusack/dp/1904148336

[31] Gartland, Fiona, The Irish Times, April 30, 2012 ‘Final Curtain for Focus Theatre’.

[32] Donovan, Kathy, The Irish Times Weekend Arts, July 25, 1992 ‘Memories in the Focus’.