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Lost Lear director Dan Colley: ‘Go with a person’s reality. Step into their world’

Lost Lear uses Shakespeare’s tragedy as the scaffold for a new play that confronts the way we deal with dementia

“There tends to be a track of theatre-making in Ireland of which I’m not really considered a part,” Dan Colley says. “Somebody’s doing an Ibsen, they’re going to call 10, 20 people before they call me.” It sounds like disarming honesty, especially when Colley adds, “I know the limits of my creative talents in front of a typewriter and a blank page.” But, actually, he’s expressing a thoughtful, measured understanding of his artistic practice and a commitment to the unique needs of self-generated projects.

Colley’s innovative ensemble piece Lost Lear, which premiered at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, begins a tour of Ireland next week, and we’ve been talking about the relationship between process and perfection. I’m generally suspicious of stage productions that are so slick the audience might as well be behind an invisible wall, as well as of plays with such busy scripts that they buckle under the weight of the writer’s intentions. Until now, unfairly, I’d have reserved most of my scepticism for the words “ensemble piece”. Hearing Colley’s take on the creative process is enlightening.

“If you’re hoping to write a play that then turns into a marvellous night at the theatre, even if you’re the most amazing playwright, if you’re working with ink and pages, you’re only working with up to 60 per cent of what the event is. I would push back against the idea that a perfect play creates a perfect event ... In truth those things are intertwined, interweaving. Not a straight line.”

Colley might be the director, but he doesn’t see himself as the person with all the answers. His initial process is “to noodle around with ideas and research. Then, at a particular very early stage, I’ll ask collaborators to come in, usually for about a week of development rehearsals — as many actors as I can afford, and the musician. I might have a scene breakdown or an outline. I’ll set up improvisations and record those. Sometimes those improvisations will form part of the script, but more likely it’ll just start to make things begin to feel real. Then I’ll begin the discussions that start the script,” he says. “I’ll do the slightly high-wire thing of coming into rehearsals with a script that I know isn’t finished, and I’ll make a commitment to them about halfway through rehearsals: ‘I swear you’ll have your last draft, but before that — tabhair dom do lámh — we’ll continue to improvise around it.’”


In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear tests his daughters by promising to divide his kingdom according to their love for him. He banishes Cordelia, the youngest of the three siblings, after she refuses to flatter him. Lost Lear is a new construction within that scaffolding, a story about the relationship between a parent and an adult child, told from the viewpoint of a person with dementia: Joy is a retired actor living in a nursing home; its staff facilitate her care by acting out her happy memories of rehearsing King Lear.

Colley was inspired by the Specal method of managing dementia, which connects intact memories from a person’s pre-dementia life to their activities in the present. It chimes with his grandmother’s experience of dementia: she lived in a residential facility in which a row of fake shopfronts had been built into a corridor. This was “a comforting setting rather than a care-home setting”, he says.

When, in Lost Lear, Joy’s estranged son Conor comes to visit, her carers have to find a role for him. Were this Shakespeare’s play he would forgive her, as Cordelia forgives her father. But Conor, disagreeing with the way the nurses are caring for his mother, disrupts the plot.

Lost Lear, which was nominated for four Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, began with a series of improvisations during the pandemic. To help the play take shape, the Dementia Carers Campaign Network and the Irish Dementia Working Group, which both operate under the auspices of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, introduced Colley to some of their members. “Those groups really helped both me and the actors to understand the experience of dementia from various perspectives,” he says.

When restrictions eased, he and the team began to experiment with technology that might help to tell the story, such as a vision mixer that changes people’s faces as they look into a camera. The finished production uses video effects, projection and puppetry to bring the audience into Joy’s world as her past and present, and fiction and reality, overlap and distort.

Colley sees common ground between the Specal method and his approach to making theatre, particularly in relation to improvisation: “You don’t ask questions,” he says. Instead you “go with the person’s reality, step into their world and keep offering back and forth”.

He was also struck by the ways people use theatre in everyday life to construct realities for each other. We are all “narrativising our lives, our reality, in a way that makes coherent, comfortable sense”, he says. “Somebody who’s starting to experience dementia is finding the ways in which that story is starting to crack.”

Layers of reality, and of perspective, are also a feature of Colley’s first short film, the “strange and delightful” The Painted Man, which he has been making in addition to getting Lost Lear ready for the road. In the film, which he has written and directed and is now editing, a young person becomes fascinated with a street performer played by Raymond Keane.

“Once again I’m surprised by how little what you have written makes a difference to what the film is,” Colley says. “This isn’t unique to me: people warned me about it. You make three films: the film you write, the film you shoot, the film you edit. They are three different things, and you need to abandon the previous one with each successive phase.”

Wouldn’t it be a great experiment to make all three versions, I suggest? Colley quotes his director of photography, Colm Hogan, who says he’d be fascinated to see the results if you gave five editors the same material to work with.

Colley’s style celebrates the empowerment and collaboration inherent in working things out as you go, yet he is clearly a director who knows where he’s going. “Sometimes you do feel like you’re not necessarily the person who’s up to the task of creating the things that you want to see, that it doesn’t level up to what you want. And that’s hard,” he says. But “you have a conversation with yourself along the way and say, ‘I have to be enough. Because I’m the only one making it.’”

Lost Lear, produced by Mermaid Arts Centre and Riverbank Arts Centre, opens at Riverbank, in Newbridge, Co Kildare, on Friday, October 20th. It then tours until Wednesday, November 29th, visting Everyman, Cork; Westival, Westport; Watergate, Kilkenny; Town Hall Theatre, Galway; Project Arts Centre, Dublin; Hawk’s Well, Sligo; Ramor, Virginia, Co Cavan; Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co Wicklow; Draíocht Arts Centre, Blanchardstown; and Civic Theatre, Tallaght