What recession? Wall Street may have the vapors, but Irish theater in Manhattan is experiencing an unprecedented renaissance.
When Origin Theatre Company, helmed by Limerick man George Heslin, 37, was founded in 2002, the company’s goal was to produce exciting new European (often Irish) plays.
By last year Origin’s artistic mission had expanded to include an entire Irish theater festival in Manhattan. It was a mad idea, given all the financial constraints of a fledgling festival and -- let’s face it -- New York’s considerable distance from the old sod.
But it worked. In fact, it’s been such a critical and cultural hit that within a year it has more than doubled in size.
“When we launched the 1st Irish Theatre Festival in 2008, we knew what we wanted but we were less assured of what we could do,” Heslin tells the Irish Voice.
“But we not only achieved our goal, we exceeded it. Last year’s festival featured 13 plays by Irish writers. This year’s festival will highlight work by 21 playwrights and offer over 26 events, including live Irish theater and panel discussions with academics and artists from Ireland and the U.S.”
Just reading the festival program, which runs to 48 pages, gives you an idea of the ambition and scope of the month long event. With new Irish plays, premieres, academic talks and even a brand new award ceremony to celebrate the best work, the festival has really put itself on the map on its second outing.
The question is, who would be crazy enough to take on a project of this scale?
“It’s a good question. My own background is that I trained as an actor at the Sam Beckett Center at Trinity College, Dublin and after graduating I eventually moved to New York and set up shop here. I did the Broadway tour of Marie Jones’ Stones In His Pockets among other things, but living in New York I saw that there was a real gap between the new plays being produced in Ireland and here. Those new Irish voices were not being presented here in New York,” says Heslin.
With that in mind, Heslin set up Origin Theatre Company in 2002. The mission of the company was to produce American premières of European plays.
Living in Dublin and London in the nineties, he discovered that Irish playwrights were more enamored of getting their plays staged in London, and so his new company worked to change that. In 2002 Origin launched Enda Walsh here with their off-Broadway production of Misterman.
Contemporary Irish playwrights differ from previous generations in that they often want their plays to be seen far outside the so-called ghetto of the Irish play genre. They have an awareness of the wider world stage and a desire to see their work in as many forums as possible. Getting them there has become part of Origin’s mission, although the work is far from easy.
“I have a sign on my wall that reads, ‘Keep doing the most difficult things in life and they’ll eventually become habit,’ says Heslin.
“One of the challenges that we’ve had here in New York is that a lot of these contemporary Irish playwrights aren’t known yet. In 2009 The New York Times knows who Enda Walsh is, and they’ve profiled him, but in 2002 they didn’t, and they didn’t give us a write up.
“The New York media still say if we don’t know these names then why come along? It’s taken us about seven years for Origin to convince the media that they may not have heard of them yet, but they are playwrights worth knowing. Out of that back and forth with the critics the festival emerged.”
This year there are many banner Irish names participating. Plays by Sebastian Barry, Conor McPherson, Dermot Bolger, Paula Meehan, and celebrated Irish playwright and screenwriter Billy Roche are included in the lineup. In the latter case it’s a rare opportunity to catch the Wexford-born playwright on a New York stage.
“My show is based on two short stories from my collection Tales From Rainwater Pond, which came out in 2006,” Roche, 60, tells the Irish Voice.
“To promote the book I originally read some of these stories, a bit like a modern Irish seanchaí (traditional storyteller) in a way. I just tell the audience a story, we have sets and lights and music, but it’s not a play, although its rehearsed like one.”
Roche’s short stories have attracted widespread interest from readers and fellow writers alike. One of them was recently turned into a new film by Conor McPherson (who also directed).
The Eclipse, starring Aidan Quinn and Ciaran Hinds, which Roche wrote and McPherson adapted, wowed audiences at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York and will go on release here later this year (Roche himself makes a cameo appearance as the festival director).
“Conor fell in love with that story even before it was published, actually,” says Roche. “We’d be in contact quite a lot. So he made his mind up and it was very flattering to think he’d be interested in my story.
“It was very interesting to see how he made it his own in the end. It was a strange kind of a hybrid. I just handed it over eventually, it’s his film and screenplay really.”
The first story in Roche’s two-hander is called Maggie Angre.
“I don’t know where she came from,” says Roche. “She’s a strange and lonely kind of a character who makes an annual pilgrimage to Rainwater Pond to the place where her brother Stephen drowned.
“It’s a kind of a prayer of a story. Maggie is a great swimmer and she could have saved her older brother, but she’s only a very young child when he dies. There’s a sort of lament in her soul, you know? Her big beloved brother, who was her prince charming really, disappears into the belly of the pond.
“The second story is Haberdashery and it’s told by a baker who’s part of a love triangle in a village. I put a human in the middle of a myth and see how they respond.”
Roche admits there’s always a problem when you take your language and stories to another culture.
“So that’s going to be a nice challenge. The world is becoming reasonably similar, but language is still a difference between,” he says.
“Wexford provided me with my voice and my rhythm and my characters. I don’t mind what accent people use when they do my characters, it is an Irish accent probably, but I don’t mind what town you think it is.
“The actors do insist on speaking with Wexford accents but that has nothing to do with me! I just need a small town in the middle of nowhere. They might as well come from the place you know best.”
With any festival of the scale, serious financial backing becomes imperative. The 1st Irish Theatre Festival have scored some heavy hitters. With funding from the Irish Consulate, the Northern Ireland Bureau, Tourism Ireland, Mutual of America and private philanthropists like Tina Santi Flaherty, the festival has doubled in size this year. Each of these groups and individuals knows the importance of the arts in promoting Ireland here in the U.S. and they’ve risen to the occasion.
The only thing left to do now is book your own tickets before your show sells out.
For tickets visit: www.1stirish.org.