Playing With Theatrics: Conor MacNeill

From cracking jokes to breaking eggs, Conor MacNeill talks to Eva Griffin about his career to date in the run up to his performance in Shibboleth as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.[br]As any young person can assure you, trying to pin down the right career path is one of the great pains of life. From misguided childhood dreams to haphazardly filled in CAO forms, sometimes the best course of action is to sit and wait for the right job to fall into your lap. For Belfast born actor Conor MacNeill, acting wasn’t so much a vocation as it was an accident. “It was a real off-road thing for me. It wasn't a plan or anything like that, I didn't go to drama classes or anything. It was really flukey. Then I got an agent and after that just started working. It found me.”As a teenager, he wasn’t too keen to commit when the opportunity first arose. Despite taking on a few jobs from the tender age of 14, it took a few years of maturation for MacNeill to take things seriously. “I made a decision not to act, I didn't want to be an actor anymore and I stopped until I was about 17 and a half.” But the chance to participate in Conall Morrison’s production of Scenes From The Big Picture saw acting sweep MacNeill off his feet and straight out of school into the world of theatre.Having been accepted by a drama school in London, MacNeill wasn’t given the option to defer, so opted to start working without any formal training. Despite this, he has accumulated a vast amount of acting knowledge and sticks by his ‘learn by doing’ approach. “I was really lucky when I was younger that I got put in shows with much older actors who had been around for a long time, so you picked up very quickly. Thankfully, they were very kind people and helped and guided me through the shows and stuff and I felt like that was drama school for me.”Both his West End and Broadway debuts were in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan alongside Daniel Radcliffe and Sarah Greene. Michael Grandage’s production seems to have been a turning point for MacNeill, and he speaks of it with unparalleled enthusiasm. “The experience was mental, it was absolutely mental. I miss it all the time. I absolutely loved it. I think we were so lucky in that we landed in that show, which was for quite a long run with a group of people that we all loved. Everyone got on really, really well, which is rare on a job with that many people. I fucking loved it. We had so much fun and it was hard work but it was the most enjoyable show I've done to date, actually. I absolutely loved it.”Of course, in transitioning a production from one continent to the other, some changes in audience reactions are to be expected. MacNeill claims that the Americans are slightly more vocal in their enjoyment. “In New York they really go for it. I think a Broadway audience is like... they bought their ticket, they're out for the night. They're going to have a good time whether you're good or not.”With six Tony Award nominations to its name, it seems that the production was a success. McDonagh’s play possesses a quintessentially Irish sense of humour, and though the tone could slip through cultural cracks, the cast could still work that to their advantage. “I think you have a set thing in your head of what the show is and if you're telling the story properly there will be a certain tone... certain audiences will change how you behave. If you had a silent audience, which we’d get on matinees a lot, you would get a lot of tourists and stuff like that where they mightn't have a grasp on the accent or even the language, who would have been there to just see Daniel. But when they were quiet it was actually killer, because putting on that show, which is a comedy, to silence is fairly difficult, so it puts a different pace to things I suppose.”
“Plays are like a marathon. You go in and you have to work the whole way through and you work quite hard. You don't get paid a lot of money… you’re not doing it for a big wage, you're doing it for the love of what you do.”
With Ireland on the cusp of celebrating the centenary of the Easter Rising, the Irish Film Board is running their ‘After ’16’ scheme which will ruminate on what the events of 1916 left in their wake through the medium of film. MacNeill has written a short film, The Party, which has been accepted as part of the memorial, and will be directed by Andrea Harkin. MacNeill wanted to address his own frustrations with the representation of Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles by tracing the effects of post-1916 Ireland on young people. “I'm sick of watching stuff about Northern Ireland in the seventies that is just absolutely grim and everybody is killing each other. I wanted to make something about young people and about that period of time... about young people just living normal lives.”The centrality of adolescent characters is key to his exploration of the theme of rumination, and MacNeill lends an emotional edge to his portrayal of the Troubles by focusing on young people. “It is absolutely nothing like Skins, but if you can imagine I was going for that audience: ‘What was the Skins audience of 1970? Who were those kids?' They were placed in a period of time and a place that was horrendous and there was really horrible stuff going on in the early seventies in Belfast and it was very scary to live in that time as well, so I wanted to explore being a young person growing up among that chaos.”In terms of film, does MacNeill think that Belfast is caught in a perpetual loop of reliving the Troubles? “I don't think you can focus on anything too much, I think, as long as you're telling an interesting story. I think people are rehashing the same story again and again and again, and I think that is done too much. I think you have to look back to try and understand, and pick apart and make sense of things. I think there's a very specific version which you know of a film and I know of a film that is done far too much.”Though the interest in writing began solely as a distraction from audition limbo, MacNeill says that “now it's become something that I actually want to get better at and become good at.” He seems keen to continue balancing it with his acting career, so long as inspiration continues to strike and the timing is right. “If something comes into my head and it feels like it's a good story to tell then I'd tell it. I don't think I'd limit myself.”Directing is also on his list, though he is tentative to take on anything too major at the moment. “I was like 'what can I write that I can direct?', because it would have to be something that I think would be safe enough for me to direct because I don't think you could just jump into something huge, but I'd love to, I'd really, really love to. I'm producing a bit which I'm really enjoying as well, although there's a certain degree of paperwork and stuff which isn't necessarily my bag,” he jokes.When discussing future career prospects, MacNeill pulls out an endless list, growing increasingly animated as the possibilities spread out before him. “There's certain stuff I'd love to do like, I'd love to be in a band! Do you know what I mean? So if there was a film or something where I'm in a band, I'd love to do that. Stuff that's fun you know, I'd love to be a boxer for a bit. Things that I can't do in real life, I sort of love those types of things. I'd love to be in a gangster movie.” This child-like sense of curiosity isn’t completely at random; MacNeill seems genuinely invested in discovering new passions as his career progresses. “You find the stuff you love and go 'I'm quite interested in that, what's that about?'”Though theatre acting may not always be the most lucrative business, MacNeill is grateful for the opportunity to throw himself into a profession that genuinely excites him. The challenge of stage work is what attracts him, not the size of the pay cheque, and it seems this is something of a requirement for any stage actor. “Plays are like a marathon. You go in and you have to work the whole way through and you work quite hard. You don't get paid a lot of money… you’re not doing it for a big wage, you're doing it for the love of what you do.”Of course, MacNeill isn’t one to limit himself, and he frequently appears onscreen when he’s not in the midst of a theatre run. He manages to slip between the two without much difficulty, and doesn’t see a great difference in the way a production is approached whether it’s on or offstage. “I feel really privileged to do screen work because it helps you, the camera helps us and it does make our job slightly easier. I don't think that, in terms of approaching characters and that stuff, there's nothing... there's no great difference, you still approach characters the same way. The only differences, I suppose, are technicalities. On stage you have to look after your voice, you have to hit the back wall with your voice, you have to make sure everyone can hear you, everyone can see you.”The immediacy of theatre can have added perks in the realm of silliness too, as MacNeill found out during his stint as Bartley in The Cripple of Inishmaan. “I had like 72 eggs in a box that I had to smash with a mallet and I had three eggs broke over my head as well. Every night they go flying, and they'd hit the front. Not every night you'd hit the front row but some nights you'd hit the front row and there'd just be screams from the audience because they'd be covered in egg. I loved it. I loved that. It was so much fun,” he says, his optimism bursting through. This wasn’t the only benefit, as he managed to unearth a new beauty tip amongst the eggy mess. “My hair was incredible! It was getting three eggs a night broken on it, I heard it's amazing. It's so shiny! Yeah, my hair looks amazing.”It’s not all fun and eggs though, plays can be plagued by mishaps, from forgetting lines to knocking over props. “One night, actually, on stage in Cripple, I knocked over an entire pile of books and they made a massive noise so why I was like 'do I pick these books up?' But there was loads of them. I was like 'do I start collecting these books and start putting them back on the shelf, like, what do I do in this scene?'”MacNeill wasn’t the only one to experience a slip up during his stint in Cripple, as one story about an audience member attests. “A man stood up in the show, an old man, I don't think he was very well, he stood up during the show when Pat Shortt came on stage and just kept going "John! John! Is that you, John? John?" People just had to sit him down and have him fucking calm down!”Though stories like this are common in the theatre world, one hopes the running of Stacy Gregg’s Shibboleth as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival goes smoothly. Taking on the role of Mo, MacNeill is part of the first cast to bring the words to life on stage, and as a Belfast man his love for the script runs deep. “I think Stacy's touching on stuff that no one's touching on at the minute in theatre, or in literature. She's posing a lot of questions about where we are at and where we want to go as a place, the effects of a really difficult, and a really slow conflict transition and what that's like on working class people and people who have no option but to stay in Belfast, who don't have the financial support. They don't have the economic structures to move on and do whatever they want. They have to stay in Belfast and they have to live in the world that they live in so, what is life like for them now 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement?”Though the play could have been written with a heavy hand, MacNeill assures us that it is as enjoyable as it is educational, his excitement palpable. “Having said that, it's done in a really interesting and theatrically genius and funny and very intelligent way so it's not battering you over the head with a lecture. It's a really fun show: there's a wall that talks and there's sand. It's fucking brilliant, I love it.”The staging for Shibboleth promises to be outlandish, with tales of prop antics and unusual practices tickling the imagination and making MacNeill giddy with excitement. “It's so much fun and for Hamish [Pirie], our director, there's no such thing as a ridiculous idea. You could literally be like ‘Can we have a trapeze in here?' and he'd be like 'Yeah can we get a trapeze? Let’s try and get a trapeze!' We had a rat on stage at one point, like live rats in the rehearsal room which isn't happening anymore, which I'm raging about but there was. Because I was like ‘Do you think it should be just like a real rat?' and he was like 'Let's get real rats! Get real rats in!' There's nothing out of the realm of possibility.”For one month, The Abbey’s Peacock Stage will give rise to a talking wall and ensuing discussions surrounding the aftermath of the peace process. For MacNeill, the primary concern is giving Gregg’s play the world premiere it deserves. “We all sort of think that this show, as theatre, is magical, so we should always try and make it that and make it sort of crazy and out there if you can because we have the room to do that that you don't have in real life.”Shibboleth is running in The Abbey Theatre until October 31st. Tickets for both matinee and evening showings are available to buy at now.