Interview with Jack Lynch

A version of the following interview appeared in “Storytelling and Theatre” by Michael Wilson (Palgrave Macmillan 2006), a study of contemporary professional storytelling in Britain and Ireland that seeks to situate it within a tradition of popular theatre practice that has its roots in the alternative theatre movement of the late 1960’s.



Jack Lynch: Well, let me see, I’m fifty now and I was late to acting, I was in my mid-twenties. I’d go to loads of plays in the university drama soc. And there was a very interesting wave happening there at the time with Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan and others, but it never occurred to me to act. From 1979 I was involved in the protest movement against nuclear power stations in Wexford. We were planning a roadshow that involved musicians like Christy Moore and Donal Lunny and an agit-prop playlet. This coincided with the Dublin Theatre Festival, and the Living Theatre of America were over. There was audience participation and I found myself going every night and ‘playing’ a different character in this amazing play, Metamorphosis. I had organised the tour in the sense that I arranged where people were staying and all that – and they said, ‘Oh, Jack wants to act’ – they realised it before I did. So they wrote me a part in the playlet. So my first time on stage was with professional actors and I got the buzz and found it was something that I loved to do and have been doing it and starving ever since. (laughter) Soon after that I spent three seasons with TEAM, a touring Theatre-in-Education company, and that threw me in at the deep end. One small independent company I was involved with was funded by a government training scheme. It meant that we could take six months to learn juggling and fire-eating, and this, that and the other and we started telling stories in gobbledygook, trying to get the meaning of it across through the tone and the phraseology.


Mike Wilson: So, like a kind of grammelot?


Exactly like grammelot – though we didn’t know it at the time. It was round that time that I came across Dario Fo. We avoided using mime beyond the everyday gestures a person would use in telling a story. There were six in the group, it was a street group and we took on different characters. One guy told a traditional Chinese folktale. I made up a story that was anti-religion, about a priest character. It was very simple but we went out on the street during the Dublin Theatre Festival, spoke no English, and were taken as being foreign clowns and told these stories to people and people began to follow it. So I look back on that now and see that it was elemental in some way towards a training in storytelling. The gobbledygook was like wearing a half-mask. And in different ways I fell into the storytelling thing. There was a friend, Art O’Briain, who was doing a telly programme, Ten Minute Tales. He asked me to perform. He gave me a couple of stories from writers who had been commissioned, and one of the stories I didn’t think worked that well, so he said, “Can you come up with one?” And I thought of mixing two stories, one from The Arabian Nights and another story I’d come across a fragment of. And so I wrote the tale, learned it and told it to camera, which is not the way I would work now. But anyway, I started doing solo acting things, comedy things that weren’t stand-up but theatrical comedy. At other times I was part of a troupe of actors (The Crack-90’s) and we would do a show three nights a week in different parts of Dublin and then we’d write the next week’s thing – topical, comical social commentary. And through that I had come up with a character. So I began collecting stories and I just developed that. And I would hear stories and I developed lots of characters to inhabit the milieu of the first character. And after a while somebody pointed out to me that the main character in it – PJ – he’s like the trickster character and so you find yourself using these stock characters (Quighie, another character, is the Holy Fool), because those stories are sort of picaresque. So I always resisted doing stand-up venues, because it’s not stand-up, it’s narrative, it’s character-based, and you’re not having to deal with hecklers because they’re going to break the narrative.

      So I then found myself on the edge of what was becoming the revival of the storytelling scene here. Liz Weir had been a dynamo in the North, with the Cultra, Omagh and Derry festivals and then Nuala Hayes started organising things down here in the South. So then I began to hear a lot of other storytellers and of course I’d grown up listening to Eamon Kelly and I would have heard him on the radio when I was growing up and would have seen him on the telly. And for a lot of people he would have been their image of the seanchaí, the traditional Irish storyteller. And Eamon, of course, was coming from an acting tradition too – he was an actor. A lot of his stories were highly crafted (like my father, he had been a carpenter), very like John Campbell’s style in that way, a lot of work goes into putting them together.

       As time has gone by, the acting and the storytelling have gone hand in hand. It means that I am not sitting and waiting on the phone. I love the wealth of the storytelling tradition in Gaelic and English, and I know for the rest of my life I’ll be delving into it and I won’t exhaust it.


So, do you separate those activities of acting and storytelling?


You can’t help but separate them. If I’m in a play, if the script is written by Ibsen or Shakespeare or whoever, I have to stick to that script. I know I’m telling a story, but as part of a company and involving all the effects and the lights and having been directed and all that. And I love acting, you know, it’s something I enjoy doing and I enjoy stage work much more than film or television work. Being a storyteller means that I have a live audience. I would very rarely write out the story. If I write it out I’m not going to learn it, like a script, but I’ll tell it conversationally, so it’s different every time.


Do you find that it does eventually become fixed, that the actual variation in how you tell it becomes limited after a while, so it becomes fixed through doing, rather than sitting down and learning? Or is it constantly fluid?


I wouldn’t say constantly, but it does tend towards getting fixed. I wouldn’t use the word ‘limited’, but it never does get fixed, and the reason is because of the audience, because of the listeners.


But is that not to do with the fact that it’s a live performance rather than the fact that it’s storytelling rather than theatre? You get some variation as a stage actor because you’re still responding to the audience, aren’t you?


Yes, you are, although they are not visible. They are there and one half of your brain is judging their response and the other half is judging how the actor opposite you is responding to you. A third half is portraying your character! So, if I’m telling a story as a storyteller to an audience, the story will change for a number of reasons. What I’m saying is, you tell the story differently depending on your audience, but also sometimes depending on a new thing you see in the story. I’m always doing ‘maintenance’ on stories. Collecting and adding details, strengthening effects. Sometimes, now, you can find yourself in a disastrous situation – say, in a pub venue at a local arts festival, the wrong pub. I did one where the entire audience had been ensconced since midday when they’d returned from a tragic funeral. If you’re trying to muster a listening quota in a damage–limitation situation like that, you find yourself playing to the few responsive faces and paring the stories back down to the bone in an effort to retain your dignity. On other occasions a story can bloom. If you get an audience onto your wavelength you can really relax, coax them into the palm of your hand and begin to tickle them under the chin. When you’re that relaxed, you find new riffs coming out. I usually discretely tape my performances to catch new flourishes that might emerge. So the story will change and I think the main thing that changes, that keeps the story changing, is the audience – the importance of the act of listening. It’s the gift of the audience, and people have said that to be a good storyteller, you need to be a good listener.


Is the difference then more the process that goes behind the storytelling? On the one hand storytelling is an extension of what you do as an actor anyway, but if you’re preparing story material then you go about that in a different way that if you were working on a play, because you’re working on your own for a start? And it’s not that theatre can’t be made in that way – theatre can be improvisational, it can be a solo performance –but it usually isn’t. Is that where the difference is for you then?


Yeah, you’re right. I don’t think it is intrinsically a different activity, although if you’re doing, say, a Beckett play, there’s a precision to the language that can be quite far away from telling a comic story or even one of the old stories that I’ve refashioned myself. It keeps occurring to me that it’s very like jazz, really. Before going on stage it’s very hard to say, ‘I’m going to tell this one, this one and that one, depending on the time that I have’, because once you get up there, something else will probably occur to you. It’s often the case, also, that if you’re following another storyteller, you will pick up on a theme that may have come up and you will do your part some way in helping to weave a common thread.

        Sometimes I forget, I get lost in a story, so I have to improvise in the way that an actor who gets lost on stage will improvise and try and not let the audience know that the plot has gone awry. I’ve been in plays where you’re in the first act and an actor will jump to the third act and how do you get out of that? But I think maybe my writing experience and the fact that I’m a talker, if I get lost in a story, I can pull myself back onto the rails, because I can think grammatically, I’m not going to get stuck in a cul-de-sac of words.


You don’t have a formal actor training?


No, there were very few formal training opportunities in Dublin at the time I was starting, but working in Theatre-in Education, there was a kind of training there. In the early eighties I was involved in an intensive project with teenagers using the method of Augusto Boal. And then over the years, being in certain productions meant receiving training from this director or that….Cicely Berry, the voice coach, co-directed a show I was in and I spent some time in the Stanislavski Studio in Dublin, but not long – Brecht was closer to my sensibility. But you’re learning all the time. You find yourself soaking up things from other actors. We were talking about jazz musicians, but I could also say a singer, because I tell a story in the way a singer would sing a song. You can sing a song differently or arrange a song differently, you know what I mean? Also some actors are fearful of a style where you address the audience directly, and in a lot of plays I’ve been involved in, you get that, but in naturalism there is the fourth wall and a lot of actors are afraid to go beyond that. But I never was. It’s just my style of acting. So it’s very easy for me to tell a story directly to the audience. (I had the job, one time, of scripting a series of ghost stories for a Ghost Bus tour of Dublin and the competition to cast a teller was between the bus company tour guides and two actors – who, along with the director, were Stanislavski-trained. While the tour guides had a natural garrulous charm, they weren’t up to learning the stories with a precision that was demanded for the Le Fanu-like effects –  the actors, on the other hand, had a problem with the necessity for direct-address.) If I’m doing support for musicians, I sometimes go up on stage, forgetting to ask them to bring down the stage lights or bring up the house lights, because it’s important in telling stories to see people’s eyes, because you’re making contact. You know they’re following the thread of the story and I think you need to see people’s faces, whereas some storytellers who’ve come through acting, they’ll want to be lit, they’ll want to be seen and, therefore, also want to be playing into the darkness. They don’t want to see their listeners’ faces. It is quite a definite point of difference between some storytellers. And, of course, many actors make lousy storytellers. They can succumb to the rhetorical or the twee. There can be an issue about character. A script can handcuff a story. Some can’t see the direct, immediate, and interactive nature of storytelling, where, for once, you’re not showing – you’re telling.


You said something quite interesting, that you didn’t spend long at the Stanislavski Studio because you’re more of a Brecht man. Unlike a Stanislavskian actor, who inhabits a character, a Brechtian actor shows character whilst still showing themselves as the actor, and the storyteller also likes to be themselves.


Yeah. I’ve done the character, PJ, on the radio a few times and the presenter will often introduce me as ‘PJ’, but I’m not PJ. I’m the fella that tells about what this character, PJ, gets up to. So my persona is different again. It’s very close to Jack, although I am using an accent. The sense of humour in the telling is mine. They’re laughing at PJ but they’re laughing at my telling of the story. So I haven’t really a character, I’m just telling the story. There is an amount of artifice and I’m using actorly techniques, like projection, and writing techniques in how I put the story together and how, if inspiration tickles me, I can leave a story, improvise, go off on a tangent and then bring them all back at the end. Billy Connolly was saying recently how he has a name for doing that, but sometimes, he says, he never comes back!


But that approach to character is, wouldn’t you say, much closer to what Dario Fo was doing in Mistero Buffo? He’s showing that character, but he’s not inhabiting their psyche and we’re kind of laughing at Fo showing us Boniface by being Boniface. It’s a different kind of relationship that the actor has to character, or it’s a different relationship between audience, actor and character.


Yeah, sure. I was always interested in Dario Fo. I was never in any of his plays, but I got to see as many as I could. And then I did see Franca Rama do Female Parts and it was after that and after I’d started storytelling and after I’d started that grammelot exercise with the other actors, it was only then that Mistero Buffo was translated and published. But sure, a lot of what I do is closer to Dario Fo, but not consciously. Now I was thinking of going back to the grammelot stuff, and some of Fo’s writing and the techniques he’s used that are in The Tricks of the Trade, for a scurrilous story. I would need a director, but it’s a very short, simple piece, but to try and get the audience to understand just by the rhythm of the words and the tone. And by getting the listeners to believe that you believe that they speak and understand the same language as you. (If it really works, if you can take them airborne, it can be quite outrageous – you can throw in asides in gobbledegook!) And, of course, I would also have an affinity with Fo’s politics as well.


Even now, when you’re doing the storytelling, do you see that work as implicitly, if not explicitly, political? Would you do it as part of the same project?


It’s a hard question. I often do storytelling as part of campaigns or benefits for this or that. In the past I’ve been involved in many ad hoc agit-prop groups. But when I put together a new story it often comes out of something I hear. I don’t want to make it explicitly political, but I would like to find ways of making it more implicitly political and it can be implicitly political in that there’s maybe an anti-authoritarian or an anti-clerical thing to it, in the way you get with Dario Fo. And that is also very strong with Eamon Kelly and it’s strong with John Campbell. Because of the power of the clergy, which is, thank goodness, fast draining away in Ireland because of all sorts of things. The priest was an authority figure, so the stories put the priest down, the priest has his come-uppance, you know.


So for you there’s a political agenda that’s implicit throughout?


Yes. And even not taking a stance is taking one. The Dario Fo connection wouldn’t be uppermost in my mind, but it’s very true what you say. I bed down with that noble tradition in folklore that mocks the master, the tyrant, the exploiter, the unjust, the cruel, the pompous, the greedy… Jack the Refusnik.

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