A growing genre across Continental Europe, music theatre is an alien concept in the UK. Nick Awde meets Zoe Ní Riordáin and Maud Lee, the sisters behind award-winning Irish music theatre company One Two One Two
The world’s go-to laboratory for new work, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe  has also evolved into a platform of choice for honing existing shows – although, this being the fringe, you’ll search in vain for a user manual.
“That’s why we’re keen to come to Edinburgh and have the work among a wider palette,” says Zoe Ní Riordáin, half of Ireland’s One Two One Two. “It’s our first year doing Edinburgh, so we’ve gathered as much information as we can from people who have done it… and then we finally realised you’ve just got to go through it yourself.”
Ní Riordáin won the award for best performer at last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival with the company’s show Everything I Do, which has now been tweaked for Edinburgh. Billed as “a music-driven theatre show about love, loss and floating in space”, it’s the latest production that has come from the creative partnership of Ní Riordáin and her sibling Maud Lee.
It was music that got the sisters into theatre. They started their band Maud in Cahoots 10 years ago in New York. “We called our shows live stagings of albums and they have always been performed in theatres,” says Ní Riordáin.
“But there’s a difficulty in Ireland, maybe in the UK too, that people have with the categorisation of our work, which I don’t think exists in other parts of Europe. We see it as theatre but it’s very heavily music-influenced of course.”
They billed their first show, The Well Rested Terrorist, as a ‘live concept album’, performed by Lee and directed by Ní Riordáin. “And that was the beginning of the whole thing. The term ‘concept album’ has a certain connotation [of 1970s prog rock] but it’s a good reflection of how there’s a story that doesn’t necessarily have a formal narrative yet the songs give it a cohesion.”
Work on Everything I Do started in 2017 when Dublin Theatre Festival gave One Two One Two a platform to share it as a work in progress, and it then premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2018 at the Projects Arts Centre.
Maud says: “When we worked on the piece initially we had a dancer for the fringe in Dublin. But when we were doing development on the work afterwards, we felt it made more sense as a one-person show.
“It’s very much Zoe’s story, it’s her ‘break-up album’, so it’s very personal and it felt wrong to dilute that and to add things that didn’t need to be there. We’ve produced an album alongside the show because, as all our projects have begun in a way as albums, the songs are the script.”
Because of our heritage and background we have an outlook that is very international and non-geographical
The sisters were born and raised in Dublin where they went to Irish-speaking schools, matching their proud Irishness with a strong sense of international identity – having a Brummie mother and New-Yorker father.
“Because of our heritage and background we have an outlook that is very international and non-geographical,” says Lee. “We make work with no particular place or people in mind.”
They recall being pressed recently about who the work is made for and where it’s coming from – they are reluctant to categorise themselves, mainly because they don’t see a pre-existing bracket to fit into.
“That can sometimes be a challenge for audiences at home,” Lee says, “but it doesn’t really matter what language our shows are in or what nationality our audience members are.”
Everything I Do builds on the previous shows by incorporating more theatre technique and longer sections of text. “It’s always been a challenge for us to bring spoken texts to live alongside the songs but they’re necessary to help tell the story and add another angle,” says Lee.
Music theatre in Europe
Not to be confused with musical theatre (although opera and cabaret overlap), ‘music theatre’ is a growing genre in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France. It’s best defined as theatre where music plays one or more of the following roles: dialogue, singing, dance or physical expression, where the musical organises and justifies the theatrical. Pioneers such as the US’s John Cage (starting in the 1950s) and the Netherlands’ Hauser Orkater (’orchestra theatre’ from the 1970s) established boundaries that took shape in the 1980s, with different countries developing and supporting their own focus of styles. A good place to start (although perhaps a touch opera-heavy) is Berlin-based Music Theatre Now, an international network for practitioners. mtnow.org 
Ní Riordáin did her Master’s degree in London and has worked as an independent theatre director there and New York, and with companies such as Pan Pan in Ireland. But this time it’s Lee who takes the directing helm, which must have created some interesting dynamics.
“It has been quite daunting,” Lee says, “especially coming into a festival like this, which is renowned for being so manic and mad and stressful with so many people. But my musician background means my professional experience is touring and gigging so I’m very practised in making a show happen quickly.”
That musician’s input however doesn’t instantly make this a gig theatre piece. As Lee says: “My instinct was that we are not gig theatre – it does not sound like something I would ever describe my work as.”
But if Edinburgh was in Continental Europe, Everything I Do would fall under ‘music theatre’, a crossover term favoured (and massively funded) in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands.
Ní Riordáin says: “In Ireland, apart from perhaps the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Live Collision International Festival, which is more live art, we’re still quite a conservative country when it comes to what people think is theatre. [For them] it involves text and narrative and that’s why, since the beginning, we’ve been regularly met with those questions about what is it that makes this theatre.
“Maud and I travel quite a lot and make a point of going to festivals on the continent of Europe, like in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and these questions aren’t the issue there. The issue is just the work – what it is, what the experience is.”
What it definitely is, is a show for a festival context: an hour-long live experience where sparse, yet sophisticated, narrative songs challenge assumptions about pop sensibilities, “and get the post-dramatic in the back door somehow,” adds Ní Riordáin with a laugh.
“The questions that we’re asking are about the nature of performance and to justify that, we’ve spent the last year with a designer talking about how we’re going to make this thing tourable.
“It’s a deceptively simple show: a 10ft trampoline, me, a guitar, an amplifier and a microphone. But there’s a huge amount of work that’s gone into making it a viable option for people to say: ‘Okay, we’ll take this show seriously’.”
Lee adds: “Because we’re sisters we’re challenging each other at every opportunity. So I think the work continues to evolve and change. Perhaps there will be a time when we will make a show with no music in it. For us that would be pretty radical, but I would like to continue to examine what it is that we want to do in theatre.”
Everything I Do  is running at Summerhall, Edinburgh Festival Fringe until August 25