New York’s beloved Irish Repertory Theatre kicked off its 2016-‘17 season last Saturday with a VIP filled ribbon-cutting ceremony and outdoor block party to celebrate its radically redesigned new home in Chelsea. Cahir O'Doherty talks to two time Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick and Irish Rep co-founder Ciaran O’Reilly about the revitalized center and its importance to the life of the city.
How happy are the Irish Repertory Theatre’s well-known founders and co-directors Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly this week? They’re practically levitating.
“We just realized yesterday that we opened our first production here 21 years ago this past week,” a beaming O’Reilly told the Irish Voice during last Saturday’s official opening of the Rep’s stunning renovated space at 132 West 22nd Street. “The opening night was September 21, 1995 and the play was Geraldine Aron’s Same Old Moon. Let’s just say that two decades later this is not the same Chelsea that we started in.”
O’Reilly points across the street at a glass and steel condominium. “This building used to sell unmentionable items to very naughty people. Our own building used to sell industrial chemicals, but now it’s the home of the Irish Repertory Theatre. There’s been some changes.”
It’s a story that’s over two decades in the making. The main renovations to the theater took two years to complete but the results speak for themselves. The Rep has nearly doubled the height of its performance space, widening the stage, adding 250 feet to the back stage area, increasing the audience capacity and creating a new 40 seat balcony that gives an unobstructed view of the stage. There’s also office space, a new gallery and new rehearsal space.
The soft opening of the Rep’s new season started in June with an acclaimed and sold out run of Conor McPherson’s Shining City starring two time Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick, who is himself an ardent fan of the Rep. He was on hand during Saturday’s party to cut the green ribbon, officially signaling the Rep’s new start.
“I loved doing Shining City here,” Broderick told the Irish Voice. “It was one of the highlights of my theater work as a matter of fact. I didn’t know the play but when Ciaran sent it to me I loved it. Then he kept after me until I said okay. So all credit to Ciaran.”
After a rave review in The New York Times that argued Broderick had gotten his mojo back from starring on the Rep’s stage the production was an instant sell-out, a brilliant return to form for both the actor and the venue.
“I do come here. I come here a lot as a audience member,” Broderick says. “I’ve had friends in plays here, I’m always coming to see somebody, and I’ve noticed over the years that it’s consistently good. You almost never see a lemon which is in itself amazing.”
There were many helping and generous hands that got the Rep to this new moment, co-founder Charlotte Moore told the crowd on Saturday.
“It would not have happened without the partnership of the city of New York. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and New York City Council and New York State officials were all instrumental in making it happen,” she said.
Moore added that the theater also has tremendous advocates in the Irish government including the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Anne Anderson and Consul General Barbara Jones.
“We knew 2016 was going to be a year for celebration –it’s the centenary year of the 1916 Easter Rising – but for us at the Rep it’s the year we returned home after a two year relocation,” says O’Reilly.
Brewer was effusive in her praise of the new space. “Without the Irish community we have no culture, we have no humor, we have no poetry, we have no prose, we have no playwrights and we have no actors, we have nothing!” she said to wild applause.
Anderson was delighted to participate in the Rep’s homecoming. “The Irish Rep adds richness to the cultural offerings of this great city, but the message I have today is that the Rep represents the very best of Irishness,” she told the Irish Voice.
“It isn’t just the plays they work with -- that’s just the beginning of it. It’s really about the heart and the spirit and the soul they bring to everything they do. It’s about the passion and the creativity that lights up every production on that stage, and I’ve been to many of them.”
It’s also the grit and determination that O’Reilly and Moore have brought to theater for almost 30 years that is the real story, Anderson says. The courage of getting this up and running in the first place and then rising to the challenge of making it their home.
“Great art can expand our horizons and deepen our humanity. It’s what great theater does and its what Ciaran and Charlotte do. It’s the gift they bring to every one of us when we take our seats in that theater,” she added.
Jones recalled that while the theatre was being renovated and redesigned as a flagship for the Irish in New York, the Rep’s operations moved to 345 Park Avenue to become her neighbors. “We really miss them up there. We miss their genius and their friendship,” she confessed.
Ellen McCourt, wife of the late writer Frank and chair of the Rep’s board, struck a personal note. “Ten years ago Charlotte and Ciaran came to our then smallish board and announced they were embarking on a renovation project,” McCourt said.
“In fact they were weaving a spell. It’s due to their incredible dynamism and vision that they really got this project rolling.”
At the opening night of Shining City there was a party afterwards. Once the caterers had packed up and the cast had left and the patrons had taken their leave, McCourt noticed that the lights were still on in the building. She went back in.
“I had been having dinner down the street. So I went looking for Ciaran when I saw the lights, and where was he but on the stage, and he was drunk with love, standing there on the stage marveling at what he had achieved,” McCourt remembered.
For a long time it was almost a lost cause. A few years ago the building was sold out from under the Rep, and the new owner planned to turn it into high-rise condos.
It was a development that was strongly resisted by writers as formidable as Brian Friel. “The Irish Rep has offered brilliant theater to thousands of New Yorkers, some with Irish connections, some without,” he wrote in a letter of support.
“The best theater involves an experience of the spirit, so the ground they occupy has now been made sacred by them. They have made their space hallowed. I am proud today to stand on that hallowed ground. I have been privileged to be a part of their story.”
Broderick shares the sense of how special the Irish Rep is in the life of the city.
“I had the privilege of appearing in the Rep’s first production in its beautifully renovated new theater. The atmosphere backstage is remarkable. It’s as nice a place to work as I’ve ever worked in,” he told the Irish Voice.
“My show was the soft opening, the precursor, the half open door toward the brilliant things to come. Now the opening day has arrived. My kids and your kids will be able to come here 30 years from now and be able to discover the best of Irish culture.”