The First Irish Theatre Festival: More than Friel to Shaw You

How do you build a bridge linking Manhattan Island with the Emerald Isle, and, in New Yorkers' eyes, the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland? For George Heslin, the answer was simple: create an Irish theater festival. That festival, First Irish 2008, opened on September 6th, with most plays running for three weeks. With all tickets prices at $21 or less, First Irish 2008 is one bridge that's definitely worth crossing.

An Irish actor and director who first came to the United States in 1996, Heslin has been a full-time New Yorker since 2000. He is the Artistic Director of Off-Broadway's Origin Theatre Company, which produces American premieres of plays by contemporary European playwrights. In early 2008, Heslin decided that Origin should produce the city's first-ever festival of Irish Theater. Soon, First Irish 2008 had offers of productions from eight theatre companies. Heslin garnered the cooperation of New York's City Hall, the Consulate General of Ireland, the Northern Ireland Bureau, and even Irish President Mary McAleese. "I never heard a 'no,' and that is the truth," he said.

First Irish 2008's repertory ranges from the American premiere of Broadway veteran Conor MacPherson's 1992 work Rum and Vodka to Amanda Coogan's "tableau vivant" Yellow, about the unwed mothers sent to Ireland's Magdalen Laundries to repent their alleged sins. Origin's contribution is End of Lines, a series of five short plays by Irish playwrights inspired by journeys on the New York subway. The resulting snapshots of New York life, as understood by travellers from someplace else, glimmer with oblique glimpses of the travellers and the places from which they came.

One End of Lines playwright, Ursula Rani Sarma, pointed out that what excited her about the project is the 'inspire' part. There is a whole lot of time when artists try to find ideas, when we try to find out what we have to say about the world. That's okay, but in being brought here and told to wander round the subway, to find inspiration, I was being told, 'that's okay. You're not wasting time. You're being inspired. Surely, spectators of Sarma's play and its four companion pieces will agree that her random reconnaissance was time well spent.

According to one actress who appears in End of the Lines, Paula Nance, the project is exciting in part because it incorporates the work of three Irish playwrights who are women, including two from the North, Sarma and Nance's play's author, Morna Regan. "I've written a thesis on Irish women playwrights," Nance told me, "so this is very exciting. There are a lot of great female Irish playwrights, and they don't get as much exposure as they deserve." Rani-Sarma agreed. "I'm pleased by Origin's support of women playwrights," she said. "It's about being aware, about having an awareness. That's very progressive." Of Regan, author of the critically acclaimed Midden, which Origin stage-read in May 2008, Nance added "I love Regan's gift for creating intensely complex women who find themselves in extreme situations, but have maintained fire and humour, and her ability to balance her characters' points of view, to make us see both stories in every conversation."

In the past few years, Broadway has played host to several Irish playwrights, including Brian Friel (Translations), Martin MacDonough (The Pillowman) and Conor MacPherson, (The Seafarer), whose work is famously distinguished by its lyricism, or, as Irish actor Mark Noonan puts it, "that witty storytelling." At First Irish 2008, Noonan will perform MacPherson's early one-actor play Rum and Vodka, stepping into the shoes of one of MacPherson's storyteller-(anti)heroes. Why this play? "Rum & Vodka was the first play I ever read, back in 2002," Noonan recalls. "It was my first move into the world of theater and I actually I used a snippet of it to audition for the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin. It especially has value to me because of this." A departure point for Noonan, the piece also was for its author. "I think that Rum & Vodka is where Conor MacPherson first found his voice. I think it may be one of his best pieces of writing and in time will be an Irish classic." So when Heslin told Noonan about his idea of an Irish theatre festival in New York, Noonan said "that is genius, and I want to be a part of it." When not performing Rum and Vodka, Noonan wants to see "all" of the plays in the festival. "I'm a big fan of Gary Duggan"--one of the co-authors of End of the Lines, he added, "so I really want to see his work."

One critically acclaimed Irish playwright whom Origin introduced to American audiences is Enda Walsh, one winner of Ireland's prestigious Stuart Parker Award for first-produced-plays by emerging playwrights. Walsh's play The New Electric Ballroom was performed in New York earlier this year, and now, New York audiences can encounter more of Walsh's words at First Irish 2008, thanks to D.C.-based company Solas Nua. Who are Solas Nua? In 2004, Washington D.C.-based Linda Murray, who is originally from Dublin, noticed "a lack of representation for contemporary artists from her country in the US." With Dan Brick, she co-founded Solas Nua. According to National Public Radio, Solas Nua is "perhaps the only theater group in the country that produces nothing but contemporary Irish plays."

This company has since become D.C.'s second resident contemporary-Irish theatre company, along with the Keegan Theatre (which is also bringing a show, Liam Heylin'sLove, Peace, and Robbery, to First Irish 2008.) Besides producing Irish plays in the American capitol city, Solas Nua presents film festivals and literary events, including, says Brick, "a large book giveaway every St. Patrick's Day." Solas Nua started considering producing Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs after Murray saw the 1996 original production at the Triskel Arts Center in Cork. In 1995, Solas Nua produced it as their first-ever production. "It's exciting," Brick reflects, "that a new production of this play is our way of introducing ourselves to New York."

What is Disco Pigs about? "Two seventeen-year-olds on their birthday," Brick explains. "They were born at the same time, have grown up together and have created a separate world for themselves cut off from everyone to the point where they speak their own imagined language. In essence, the play is about entering life as an adult. One of the characters starts to realize that they can't exist in their own little bubble forever and the other doesn't. The tension comes as they start to experience different desires and thought processes." Walsh's plays are notable for their unpretentious lyricism, non-naturalistic conventions, and, as the London Times critic Brian Logan put it, "characters on the edge of madness." Brick agrees. "In fact," he says, "you could say that Disco Pigs is the play that defined Enda Walsh's style of writing. From this play forward, you can trace the claustrophobic environments and fierce language that recurs in all his other plays." When Heslin asked Solas Nua to bring a play to First Irish 2008, Brick and Murray "immediately got involved." While Brick is in town, he's looking forward to participating in First Irish 2008 not only as an artist, but also as a spectator. "I'd like to see the Canal Creedon Piece, When I Was God, he said, "and also catch some of the new plays written for the festival. And as I've performed Conor MacPherson's Rum and Vodka in the past, I'm interested in seeing that production, too."

If you'd like to hear more about contemporary Irish theater in America from the directors who bring it to life, First Irish 2008 will present a panel talk at the New York Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, with the kind assistance of Irish Rep, who have also donated to the festival much-needed rehearsal space. Don't miss the panel, titled Directing the Irish: From the Page to the Stage, on September 24th at six p.m.

As preparations for First Irish 2009 begin, which Irish and American theater companies will it showcase? Brick and Noonan, the two producers to whom I spoke, are already hoping to be back in New York at this time next year. "Of course we want to be part of First Irish 2009," Brick said, on behalf of Solas Nua. "If we're invited back, of course."

First Irish 2008's opening reception was held on Wednesday, September 3, at Mutual of America's Park Avenue offices. There, Norman Houston, Director of the British Northern Ireland Bureau, announced the news that the non-sectarian, non-governmental Independent Monitoring Commission has declared the IRA "no longer a threat to peace." Northern Ireland "isn't about conflict and division anymore," Houston said, "it's about creativity and energy. We're undergoing a renaissance." Theatre, one product of that creativity, is essential to building cross-cultural bridges, as it "helps us to challenge assumptions." Heslin agreed. "This festival is made up of individuals," he said, "and also groups, corporations -- and nations."

More Information:
First Irish 2008 Website: http://origintheatre.org/1stIrish

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