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Entretiens : arts visuels et performatifs

Interview with Sarah Jane Scaife, Artistic Director of Company SJ

Entretien avec Sarah Jane Scaife, directrice artistique de Company SJ
Hélène Lecossois
p. 87-95

Notes de la rédaction

A French translation of this interview has been published under the title “Beckett hors les murs aujourd’hui” in Théâtre / Public, no. 241, October-December 2021, p. 69-76. It is reproduced by kind permission of Olivier Neveux, chief editor of Théâtre / Public, and Sarah Jane Scaife.

Texte intégral

1Sarah Jane Scaife is artistic director of Company SJ, which she founded in Dublin in 2009 with Polly O’Loughlin (producer). She has toured many of her own productions internationally and has, since 2000, been invited to direct Samuel Beckett’s plays with theatre companies and universities in Georgia, Mongolia, India, Singapore, Malaysia, China, USA and Greece. She holds a PhD in the work of Samuel Beckett from the University of Reading; is assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin and has given countless workshops, lectures and residencies internationally. Her work mixes theater, dance, installation and performance. Her latest productions include Beckett Sa Creig: Laethanta Sona (Happy Days) (Galway International Arts Festival and Dublin Theatre Festival, 2021), Beckett in the City: The Women Speak (Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, 2015) and Beckett in the City: Fizzles (Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, 2014).

2Company SJ’s website:

Hélène Lecossois: You have staged Samuel Beckett’s works all over the world in non-institutional places of performance. How do you conceptualise a production? How do you start? Is it just you? You and the text? You and an idea? A place? Is it a collective process?

  • 1 Beckett in the City: Act Without Words II first performed for the Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival, 2 (...)
  • 2 Beckett in the City: The Women Speak performed for the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, 2015, by Bríd (...)
  • 3 Beckett in the City: Fizzles performed for the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, 2014, by Raymond Keane

Sarah Jane Scaife: I wrote a piece for The Beckett Circle about COVID, Beckett, and life. I was really terrified to write it, but it had to be written. My husband died about two years ago – and this is leading into what you are saying – so it was about the first steps of walking where we lived, where we used to walk together and how that affected me and how that brought the memory of Beckett, love, and loss. It is exactly one instance of how I am inspired. Beckett has been an integral part of my life. People have religion, different philosophies through which they live their lives. For me, two things have gone side by side: one is Beckett’s writing, the other a really deep engagement and feeling of loss with people in my family circle, society and past: Ireland’s socio-cultural past which I am connected through with my own body right back to my grandmother, in the 19th century. And I feel that I will link on to the future through my own children’s children.
The other thing is that – and again this is very personal but my whole art is personal – I have known people who are addicted. In fact, I have two sisters who are addicted. So that world of disenfranchisement, of female insecurity and feelings of no self-worth. One of my sisters’ description of being clean, whenever she did manage it, was that somebody had turned on a light and everybody was looking at her. She was just in horror, because she was afraid that she was going to say something stupid. My other sister had been abused when she was younger by someone outside the family circle. These are stories of a lot of women in Ireland. Although they are my family, they could be my socio-cultural age-group background. For instance, I remember a dinner with eight friends: there was not one woman amongst us who had not been, in some way, abused, growing up. Also, I used to live abroad. I was always travelling when I was younger. You would be in a place, some flat with immigrant workers from Ireland: a few drinks; the conversation late at night; the amount of people who had been sexually abused, who had come away from the country to come out. It felt like the whole country was this big wound that nobody acknowledged at home. You felt bad about yourself or you felt guilty all the time and you did not really know what it was but when you went away, you heard all these stories. I began to look at Ireland from the outside and in some way, Beckett allowed me to conduct that kind of conversation with myself and my past without getting too emotional or specific.
Once, when I came back from one lot of my travels, I was walking down one of the streets and I saw this person who had an addiction. He was a young man, quite beautiful, really skinny. He was bending down to pick up a cigarette off the ground, but he was in that kind of drug-addicted fog: he was going really, really slow. It was like watching a piece of dance. Everybody was flying around him. But he was there in his isolation, trying to reach for the cigarette. I remember thinking “This is it! If you put a frame around this, this would be a physical embodiment of what Beckett writes about”.
Then I started looking at institutional buildings that were in disrepair. All of the windows in Dublin. All the Georgian windows. And all the people inside the windows, trying to look out. In my mother’s time and probably my youth, there were thousands of people living in institutions. The time when I came home – around 2009 – and began to see a lot of the homeless that were exposed on the streets was also a time when a lot of work was being done on the issue of institutionalisation. In a country where nobody said anything, all of a sudden, on the radio, there was an outpouring of people from the margins talking about how their lives had been ruined, how they had been beaten, sexually abused. The homeless could be seen as a symptom of the illness of our nation. It kept going round and round in my head.
So, for the first piece: I had first loved Beckett because I studied mime and dance. I always thought from my body. Everything I’ve learnt came from my physical, embodied experience. Moving, walking, feeling. When I came back from New York, I looked at our society, listened to the radio and felt that I wanted to explore this wound. It all happened when I saw that guy on the street. It was quite shocking. I think it was Christmas. Everybody was going around, spending and doing happy things. And literally right in the middle of their path was this homeless guy, or people in sleeping bags, everywhere. Then, it just happened: I had this vision of this guy I had worked with in a mime company in Dublin when I was very young: Raymond Keane. He was like this sculpture of despair, a sculpture of addiction. I began to see Act Without Words II1 as the two opposites of Ireland: one character, A, who takes the pills and prays, I imagined as slow-moving – my sister when she used to go into that kind of sleep or dropping out of consciousness. I read that as the two ways in Ireland of coping with the wound: the prayer, people who looked outside of themselves, to this higher power, and the ones who drank or took drugs to escape. One character is getting out of his head on religion and pills. The other one is focused on making it. He is so self-conscious about himself and his body: exercising, combing his hair, washing his teeth even though in our production he is on the street. There are the people who are obsessed with making it in the world and the people who want to absent themselves from the world. This play has everything that Beckett has written about. I feel it is deeper almost than Godot. Because it says everything and there are no words, so you don’t have to translate and can perform it anywhere. I contacted Raymond and asked him would he do it. That was the beginning.
I had done Beckett in other countries: places like India, Malaysia, Singapore. I always worked physically with Beckett. I always played with space, sound, all the different phenomenological aspects. Working in Asia, in lots of different countries, gave me that kind of otherness: how to look at certain things from another perspective and how to see yourself from an outside perspective. Everything connected and I started seeing everything in Ireland in an exotic framing. So, my work does not come out of a “OK, let’s just take a play and rehearse it”. It comes out of a very deeply-felt response. Whether it is women, the abuse they have suffered and all those years of women trying to say something. The women I worked with for the piece Beckett in the City: The Women Speak2 were amazing. Every single one of them understood the piece that they were doing from a really specifically personal perspective. In fact, they did not see just nonsensical language. They did not see fragments of mad women. They saw women who were trying to tell the story of what it felt to be them and existing in the world. It was just the fragmented way that a woman in that situation with no power and with no voice was able to tell it. The women I was looking at were my mother’s generation. My mother had been lent by her mother to her aunt who was living in the country. And her sister had been lent to another aunt who did not have children. They spent their formative years in the countryside in Ireland and so we used to go down to that place all the time when we were growing up. But there were all these women around whose mothers had supposedly been “kicked by a donkey” when they were pregnant. One of them was like this (mimes a distorted mouth), another was lame, one of them had a child by the one’s brother further up. In what looked like lovely, holy, Catholic Ireland, they were all living difficult lives. Most of them had at least about eight kids and their husbands all seemed to have died. And they went out and got jobs. All these women who worked really hard but just did not have a voice. That is where The Women Speak came from.
So basically, all of the pieces I work on are coming from something that I cannot suppress any longer and that I want to give voice to. With Beckett in the City: Fizzles3 those pieces are just so beautiful: this person who is lost in moments of phenomenological realisation that they are alive, moments of the journey through life that are pure sound, and touch, and smell. And again, I suppose, I am much more attracted to all those pieces than Godot.

HL: Is there a production that worked particularly well for you?

  • 4 Tim Martin, longbeardsound Studio.

SJS: They all have had their own beauty. I don’t mean that in terms of “Waow, this is something amazing”. Because the only point of them is if somebody comes to them, feels something and it changes something for them. We don’t make any money out of it. We get an Arts Council grant and we can just about make it. We don’t necessarily try and get loads of people in. A lot of the time there are only very small audiences because it won’t work for a big audience. One of the main things for us is that our audience feel cared for and care for each other. So that’s another very important aspect. I got demoralised with the kind of contractual arrangement that goes on in mainstream theatre where you buy your ticket, go in, have your seat and don’t have to touch anybody. The lights go down and you don’t have to deal with anything. When you are outside or when you are in an old building you are confronted by the past. What I wanted to do was put Beckett’s writing side by side, so the audiences’ body-mind figure out the connections. Their history is in their bodies as well. The surprising thing was that I thought it would be a certain age group. But actually, quite a wide demographic range have come to the pieces.
Fizzles I really loved even though in one way it was the most difficult. I gather that people felt that as an experience. It was in this very old Georgian house in Henrietta Street. The house has now been made into a museum. At the time it was just stripped back and bare. It had had many iterations over the years. Originally it would have had this big, grand staircase and was owned by some colonial governor. That is another aspect that is very interesting to me: Ireland’s colonial past. So, this house was there. It had beautiful Georgian windows. But at the same time, the staircase had been ripped out so something else was put there. One hundred people had lived in it at one stage as a tenement. There were layers of kind of paint, and the past. You could have just walked in and lit the place and any Irish person would have felt something.
When I read Fizzles, I kept on walking it in my brain, and I kept on feeling it and hearing it. My husband was a sound engineer.4 His Beckett was sound. We tried not to decide exactly. We wanted to find what the person in the piece was: the physical embodiment of that voice. Raymond is my idea of… him, I mean, he even looks like Beckett. We brought Raymond into this old Power House: it’s the most incredible building. It’s like a cathedral of decay. It’s covered with pigeon shit. It’s like the Tate Modern in London before it was dolled up. There are all these colours from our institutional past. There’s rusted iron. But you can’t get permission to get an audience in. Tim recorded Raymond speaking the short pieces; then we brought the recording in and we let him improvise in different rooms with the idea of the other house in our mind: there is a door in the wall of a room in Henrietta Street; we had him walk down a corridor in the Power House and filmed that; then we projected that corridor onto the door in Henrietta Street and used another projection for the wall. We really used that institutional space to paint onto the other historical, abandoned space to try and link all of those power structures of our past together. And Raymond literally performed walking across walls. We had improvisational things, but we had our idea of movement, of tempo, of rhythm and our idea of framing. We were working with those kinds of constructs. Then we played with the editing and we played with how we fitted them in into the actual space.
The second piece for that is Still. It’s just a man sitting and looking out of a window. The whole phenomenological thing of the restricted perspective: that you can never see your back and your front at the same time, so you can never be an object for yourself. That’s what drove me to that. That and Flemish painting: there would be a woman looking in a mirror, and you can see her back and you can see her front, but she can’t. So that idea. We filmed Raymond in the chair against the beautiful wall, then had him sit in front of the window. We had to make more windows because we weren’t allowed to touch the building at all. So, we created frames within the frames and then put diffuser paper behind them so that you could not see out but the light and the shadows from outside would light the room. On the wall we had his filmed movement as in a painting on the wall, while he moved in real time. It was just like a meditation, or a haiku poem. The visual picture was him going like this (moves her head slowly into her hand) with the voice describing the movement and the projection on the wall was a picture of him from the front doing it but we could see his back and his front. Then the painting froze, and he left the room. It was very beautiful.

HL: It’s fascinating. I’m struck by the importance of tempo in your work.

SJS: Beckett was writing the rhythm of grief. He was sticking his hand into the wound that was in Ireland. Even though everybody thinks he is very abstract, he is not. The fact that he can slow everything down into being in this moment in time, I think is brilliant. And also, to get an audience to slow themselves down in this day and age is amazing.
The phenomenological kind of release that his writing gives is pretty important. For instance, we are doing Happy Days. We are going to do it on Inis Oírr, on the back of the island. People laugh at Happy Days: it’s a little odd; she’s stuck up to her waist in the mound. Every time I’ve seen it, it has been done in a funny way: the audience was laughing at her rather than anything else. I just bawled my way through Happy Days when I read it. A man and his wife and she keeps saying: “Can you hear me?”, “Just yes or no, can you hear me, just yes or nothing”. Could he just say yes or whatever to acknowledge that she exists. It reminds me of my mother and father, especially when they got old. They knew each other so well. They lived in the same house for sixty-five years, and yet it could have been that she was buried up to her waist. She used to stay in the kitchen, and he was up in his office writing and reading philosophy. For me Happy Days was kind of like that. It’s so heart-breaking, the way I see it. And then, again, Inis Oírr is another whole kettle of fish. My husband and I spent all our married life going for five weeks to Inis Oírr, off the West coast of Ireland, every year. Walking on Inis Oírr was another huge part of our relationship together. The Happy Days project comes from that world. So, it’s all that fascinating relationship and engagement with the island, with what it is like to live on an island. I had this image of Winnie buried up to her waist in beautifully constructed stone-walls of a mound. It is going to be a sculptural mound literally inspired by years of walking past those walls with all those different patterns. Each family does, or used to, have different patterns.
The other thing is funerals on the island. I have only been to two. For one the whole island walked up to the graveyard, up on the hill near the old church and the sons dug the grave in real time. This amazed me. For the other, when the body came over to the island from Galway, the whole island was standing there at the pier. Nobody said a thing. When the boat came in, everybody followed the coffin up to the church. The burial took place the following day. This woman was so loved. I felt that she was taken back into the earth. That really resonated with Winnie as well. There is a terrible sense that Winnie is swallowed back up. But there is also the sense that she is swallowed back into the womb of where she came from.

HL: I would be interested in hearing you talk about your experience as a female director.

  • 5 Michael Colgan was the former director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin.

SJS: Back in the day theatre in Ireland was a male-dominated world: men wrote, men produced, men ran theatres, men performed, men wrote great parts for men to perform, there were male managers. Women went around mopping up after them or batting their eyelids or agreeing with them in the hope of getting a part. I could not bear all that and kept speaking up and having discussions with the director. That was the last thing you should do. You were either a hairy-legged feminist or you were a nice girl. There was no grey area. It was awful. I have very little boredom tolerance. I just could not do the waiting around to see whether somebody would cast me or not. So basically, I just started doing my own stuff. The more I started doing my own stuff, the more even the institution and the buildings started feeling constricting. I found myself working outside all of the theatrical institutions. Site-specific is now de rigueur. It wasn’t when we began Beckett in the City. When I started exploring Beckett nobody was doing it really. Except for Colgan.5 We did the first Beckett festival at the Peacock Theatre: a lunchtime festival of the shorter plays, in 1990.

HL: What is the Beckett Estate’s position regarding your work?

SJS: Edward Beckett saw Rough for Theatre I and Act Without Words II in the Barbican Theatre in London and in Paris. He said it was the best interpretation he had ever seen of the pieces.

HL: Did you do it in the streets in Paris?

SJS: No. It was in the outdoor setting of the Centre culturel irlandais. It would have been too difficult to get permission from the City of Paris. In New York we did it in a laneway. We are going to Brighton in May and we are doing it there out in the public. We are doing it in different places in England: London, Greenwich, Watford. We did it in Limerick as well in the most fabulous laneway. And we did it in Tokyo. It is amazing. No matter where you put that piece, it creates a real, great feeling.

HL: How do you choose your locations? Do you walk the city and stumble upon the place?

  • 6 Coláiste Mhuire (Parnell Square) was established in 1931 as the first all Irish post-primary school (...)
  • 7 The meeting of the signatories of the Proclamation took place on 9 September 1914.

SJS: Totally. I walk the city. Now I talk to Dublin City Council as well. Originally, I wanted Coláiste Mhuire6 for The Women Speak. We had been given all the permissions. It is a huge amount of work. It is almost like making a large sculpture: there is so much work that goes in the making of all of these things. The performance is just at the end. Then it’s gone because the pieces are very hard to tour. We toured The Women Speak to New York but that took about two years to negotiate. To find a space in New York that would work is not easy as it might be demolished two months later.
In Dublin, I wanted Coláiste Mhuire. The Office of Public Works (OPW) owned it and gave me permission. It was incredible: long corridors, an incredible building, smelling of our religious and nationalist past. Japanese photographer Futoshi Sakauchi comes over for a month every year. He came to Coláiste Mhuire. We went upstairs. There were murals of the Christian Brothers in the Artic and in Africa and in India, going around “saving the world”. There are traces of them all over the school. And then there are these plinths stuck into the corner of a wall where you know a statue had been. It is just incredible the feeling and traces of the past. Also, a room has “seomra 1916” (“room 1916”) written on it. It was the room where the Irish Republican Brotherhood had made their decision to go ahead with a rising.7 Futoshi told me that we could almost have a séance there. All the layers of history… So, we were going to do it in there. Then the Dublin City Council took over from the OPW, or something, and we were told we could not do it. They said we could do it back in the house in Henrietta Street. I said it would not work. They said: “But it’s an old building”. We said it would not work. They kept saying “health and safety”. Then they gave us another building. Because they were probably feeling guilty, they were able to do a lot of things to that building, like rip out carpets, put structural underpinning so we could use the upstairs, which we could never have afforded to do. They have been great. I am waiting to see if they will give authorisation for the Happy Days project. We are planning of filming the second part: we are doing workshops with the women down on Inis Oírr, then filming the actual sculpture. I want it to be a sculpture on the horizon. We are going to film it from every angle with the skies changing. When we get to Dublin, we are going to build the facsimile, but we are going to projection-map onto it. I want it to feel like you are going into this big white womb and it is all projected: the rocks of Inis Oírr, the mound, etc. She will be inside this projection. The idea is that nothing is real. Our projected past that is a mixture of Synge and Yeats, and France. I really wanted it to be in three languages. The production in Inis Oírr is going to be in Irish. The actress, Bríd Ní Neachtain, is a native Irish speaker. We are working with a brilliant Irish poet and translator: Mícheal Ó Conghaile. The one in Dublin will also be in Irish, with English surtitles.
The language of the play is quite different from the language of the other pieces. It is quite simple and uses repetition. Most Irish people would not necessarily understand everything if someone fluent in the Irish language started to speak to them in Irish. But they can understand bits and pieces. So there is going to be an embodied understanding and memory of the language. When you hear and see the words in two different languages at the same time, it gives you such a visceral feeling of the transitional nature of language and that we are all like drug addicts, reaching out to try and grab the meaning, and conceptualise it or objectify it, or something.

HL: On your website you use the word “installation” to describe your own work. How do theatre, performance, dance and installation intersect in your work?

SJS: The installation aspect of my work is that I want the visual to never be real. It is not like we are trying to make a construction of Inis Oírr in Dublin. We know it is projected but we can feel the light and we can feel the stones. But we know it is a projection. So we know our notions of landscape, country and nationalism are to a certain extent a projection. And then the language is transitional. I really wanted to bring in French. But I thought that if I brought that into the idea, I would not get the rights. I live in dread that I won’t be allowed to do whatever production I am doing. To go back to my work as installation: when I came back from New York, I thought everything was separated: you had theatre, then you had art, and dance. I put in an application to the Arts Council for a sculpture I wanted to create: it was of ice. I would be moving through it and the ice would be melting and everything would be changing in real time. Everything I tried to do back then was very visual and mixed the art forms. The reason is I don’t want anybody to hold on to the thing and think: “Oh that’s what it means!”. If you do that with Beckett, you lose it. It becomes small. The way I like art is where you’re hovering between nearly understanding, and nearly seeing, and nearly hearing everything really clearly. I’ve never been interested in doing well-made plays. I always feel theatre is more like a piece of art. Fizzles, especially is much more akin to installation art than to theatre. We had a different room for each piece. I wanted it to feel like an art gallery. If we do Happy Days, that’s what I want as well. I want the voices and the faces of the women that I am going to talk to – this is the idea, anyway; hopefully it will work out – to be part of this installation that you walk through. Then you’re bathed in light and textures and visual aesthetics of Inis Oírr. I hope we get a site, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to access those sites that speak of the past. Ireland is painting over its past. The sites are getting dolled up as museums or carparks… Still I find process is more inspiring than an end. I suppose what I would like to do is give an audience a feeling of process, a feeling of constantly being created rather than finding its place at the end, because there is never a right way to do something.

3The interview took place remotely on 11 December 2020.

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1 Beckett in the City: Act Without Words II first performed for the Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival, 2009, by Raymond Keane and Bryan Burroughs.

2 Beckett in the City: The Women Speak performed for the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, 2015, by Bríd Ní Neachtain, Michèle Forbes and Joan Davis.

3 Beckett in the City: Fizzles performed for the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, 2014, by Raymond Keane.

4 Tim Martin, longbeardsound Studio.

5 Michael Colgan was the former director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin.

6 Coláiste Mhuire (Parnell Square) was established in 1931 as the first all Irish post-primary school for boys in Dublin.

7 The meeting of the signatories of the Proclamation took place on 9 September 1914.

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Hélène Lecossois

Université de Lille

Hélène Lecossois est professeure de littérature irlandaise à l’université de Lille. Ses recherches portent sur la relation du théâtre moderniste irlandais à l’histoire et à la mémoire. Elle est l’auteure de “Endgame” de Beckett (Neuilly, Atlande, 2009) et de Performance, Modernity and the Plays of J. M. Synge (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). Elle a récemment codirigé, avec Renaud Bouchet, Delphine Letort et Stéphane Tison, Résurgences conflictuelles : le travail de mémoire entre arts et histoire (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2021), et, avec Élisabeth Angel-Perez et Aloysia Rousseau, Scènes britanniques et irlandaises contemporaines, numéro d’octobre-décembre 2021 de la revue Théâtre / Public. Elle travaille actuellement à la rédaction d’une monographie sur l’épistémologie des corps en relation dans la littérature et les arts irlandais contemporains.

Hélène Lecossois is professor of Irish literary studies at the University of Lille. Her research focuses on the relationship of Irish modernist theatre to history and memory. She is the author of “Endgame” de Beckett (Neuilly, Atlande, 2009) and Performance, Modernity and the Plays of J. M. Synge (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). She recently coedited, with Renaud Bouchet, Delphine Letort and Stéphane Tison, Résurgences conflictuelles: le travail de mémoire entre arts et histoire (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2021), and, with Élisabeth Angel-Perez and Aloysia Rousseau, Théâtre / Public, October-December 2021, Scènes britanniques et irlandaises contemporaines. She is currently writing a monograph on the epistemology of bodies in relation in contemporary Irish literature and arts.

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