By the end of its eighth go round next month, the 1st Irish Theatre Festival will have presented the work of no less than 122 new Irish playwrights, an unprecedented achievement.
Famous names like Des Bishop and Pat Shortt are scheduled to perform alongside exciting new works from some of the country’s best-known theaters and playwrights.
So perhaps it’s time that the festival organizers took a victory lap, because since it began eight years ago 1st Irish has done more to keep Ireland front and center of New York’s cultural life than any other annual Irish event.
“The media marketing value of the festival last year was determined to be over $4 million,” festival artistic director George Heslin tells the Irish Voice.
“If we had to buy that publicity, which is a great marketing tool for Ireland, it would have cost our exchequer millions. The exposure in the media, the press, the photographs and the reviews all increase the marketing value of the country itself.”
Heslin knows the value of Irish culture to the Irish economy, but 1st Irish is never content to take the easy route and invite over the new plays that have attracted major buzz at home. The 1st Irish Theatre Festival matters because it creates new works as well as staging them.
“One of my great beliefs is that if you give writers deadlines they write something, you know?” Heslin says. “That’s been one of the great aspects of the festival in terms of just getting new writers out there, and sending their plays on their journey.”
The International by Tim Ruddy first began as part of the festival's Breaking Ground series, presented as a short initially, then as a full production a year later, a completely realized full length play on the main stage as part of the festival.
Very few theater festivals shepherd short pieces toward fully realized stage plays, and 1st Irish is now at the forefront of them. “This year the festival has seven new plays in competition, performed by theater companies from Dublin, Limerick, Belfast and a number of New York-based companies too,” Heslin adds.
Gifted actor, writer and comedian Pat Shortt will perform in his acclaimed one-man show Selfie, playing singing undertaker Mossey Burke and a host of other rural characters in his whacked-out journey through the surrealism of everyday Irish life.
Well-known comedian Des Bishop will also bring his Made in China show to the festival, recounting his real-life journey to China to study Mandarin in order to perform stand-up in front of Chinese audiences (he's ambitious like that).
“And each year we also like to screen a film that first began life as a play at the Irish Center in Queens, with the help of program director Jane McCarter,” Heslin adds.
This year the film selected is Kings, which began its life as the play Kings of the Kilburn Highroad by Jean Murphy.
“What we do is read segments of the play, discuss it, then show the movie afterwards. It’s the best way to show how the project moves from the page to the stage to the movie screen,” Heslin says.
An intriguing new production from Limerick that coincides with the recent marriage equality vote in Ireland is scheduled to perform this year. Titled Language UnBecoming a Lady, it’s the story of an Irish transvestite.
“I think it’s very timely coming to New York in the light of the recent vote and I’m very much looking forward to that,” says Heslin. “It’s the company’s first time in New York and actually it’s their first time outside of Ireland.”
Fishamble, the Dublin theater company that focuses on new writing, will present a new Donal O’Kelly play called Little Thing, Big Thing.
“He’s written a lot of plays about urban underworlds, with reality-based research. Little Thing, Big Thing is basically a depiction of the underworld of Ireland at the moment. It was developed under Fishamble and we’re expecting it to be a stunner,” Heslin says.
Not everyone knows that the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) has a cultural wing that takes over after the games, usually in winter. Scor is the name given to cultural competitions held by the organization each year.
“Last year was the first time the GAA held a Scor in America and so this year they want to promote it under the banner of the 1st Irish Festival,” says Heslin.
The plan is to present highlights of the recent Scor competition at the Irish Center in Queens. “It’s a little bit of an encore series because we’re bringing back the winning features for one night,” he explains.
Another tried and tested crowd pleaser is the play Pondling, a Stewart Parker Award winning play, coming to one of the festival’s home away from home venues at 59 East 59th Street Theatre.
“It’s a beautiful play and we first did a reading of it last year because it was an award winner. It tells the story of a six-year-old girl on an imaginary journey. It’s a beautiful, simple piece and it’s very well done. The writer is also the actress,” says Heslin.
Due to funding cuts in the arts and the wider Irish recession, a lot of the plays this year feature small casts. In light of the downturn in the economy it seems inevitable that many are comedies.
“The Holy, Holy Bus is a Belfast-based play written by Pierce Elliott, who presented a wonderful play at the festival last year called The Man in the Moon. His new play is selling out in Northern Ireland at the moment and was just playing at the Lyric in Belfast,” says Heslin.
In the play, four women of various ages take the bus to the holy sites of Ireland, but these are spirited Belfast women, so mayhem ensues.
“It’s directed by Tony Devlin of Brassneck Theatre Company. It’s genuinely hilarious and Pierce is a very strong writer. Hs big breakout movie was Man About Dog. We know this show will be a huge crowd pleaser,” says Heslin.
The Irish American Writers and Artists are an arts group that has been around for five years. Once a month they meet and present a salon to a group that’s made up of a cross section of writers, musicians and artists, anyone who has a cultural interest and background. This year they decided to partner with 1st Irish to celebrate their 100th salon.
“They’re going back through their files to reflect on work that started out at their salons and then went on to have a bigger life. Excerpts from plays that began there will be presented for one night,” says Heslin.
This year's Breaking Ground will see six writers participating. “These are the aspects of the festival that I am really excited about myself,” says Heslin.
“What we do is ask people to risk writing 15 minutes of new work. Tim Ruddy’s critically acclaimed play The International actually began at Breaking Ground three years ago, when he risked writing 10 minutes of a play.
“The whole idea is that we don’t have the end of the play, the writer doesn’t know the end of the play. They’re just ideas and we see how they land on audience.”
All of the festival's original sponsors are back on board gain this year including the Northern Ireland Bureau, the American Ireland Fund, Tourism Ireland, Mutual of America and McVicar and Higgenbottom, a printing company.
“But this year 1st Irish are delighted to announce that for the first time Goldman Sachs have come on board, as have the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council of Northern Ireland. The companies coming from the Republic are supported by Culture Ireland,” Heslin offers.
It looks like Ireland's preeminent cultural and tourism organizations have gotten the message: Irish culture is the country’s most enduring export. Head along to the festival next month to see why 1st Irish shows Ireland in its best light.
For a complete list of this year’s lineup of shows and performance times, visit www.1stirish.org.