This month heralds the arrival of the twelfth 1st Irish Theatre Festival, the celebrated festival of Irish writing for the stage that has had an outsized impact on both New York and Ireland

The first thing to know about Origin's 1st Irish Festival is that, despite its name, it's been around for ages.

This is actually the twelfth successful year of the annual theater festival, a month-long series of Irish arts events in New York City that runs from January 7 to February 3. 

It's a juried festival too, meaning it's judged by prominent arts critics with an awards night that includes Best Actor, Actress, and Production as the festival wraps. This year, the 1st Irish Festival features the work of 15 writers, with three visiting theater companies coming over from Ireland to participate. 

The timing couldn't be better. With the success of shows like "Derry Girls" and Irish screen acting talent winning award nominations, the country is back on New York's radar for the first time since "Once" conquered the Oscars and later Broadway.

“We have Fishamble theater company coming over from Dublin at 59 East 59 for four weeks with Eva O'Connor's comedy-drama 'Maz and Bricks,'” festival director George Heslin tells IrishCentral.

“We also have the Wexford Arts Center downstairs at the Irish Rep with Michelle Dooley Mahon's one-woman show 'The Scourge' and 'Guna Nua,' a theater company from Dublin, will be performing Sarah-Jane Scott's comedy about being a reluctant soccer bride called 'Appropriate' at the New York Irish center in Queens.” 

Colin McPhillamy, Elliot Joseph, Caroline Strang, Rachel Pickup, Robert Zuckerman, Evan Zes, Meg Hennessy, Brian Keane, and Ian Holcomb in London Assurance at the Irish Rep

Colin McPhillamy, Elliot Joseph, Caroline Strang, Rachel Pickup, Robert Zuckerman, Evan Zes, Meg Hennessy, Brian Keane, and Ian Holcomb in London Assurance at the Irish Rep

That's quite a lineup. “Already on the main stage at the Irish Rep we have 'London Assurance.' We also have a new project called 'The 8th,' a new play by Seanie Sugre about a family’s tensions when they collide unexpectedly with the very public fracas caused by the country’s epic referendum vote to legalize abortion, which will be performed at The Secret Theater. "

Other forthcoming shows include the Next Generation Series new play in development, which this year will be Dublin-born Honor Molloy’s 'Round Room.'

With music by the Grammy Award-winning Irish singer and songwriter Susan McKeown, 'Round Room' introduces us to two centuries of Irish women from widely divergent backgrounds as they come to life in the corridors, back staircases and cavernous wards of the Dublin’s infamous Rotunda Hospital, where they finally tell us the stories that were never told.

There will be three special performances of 'Round Room' at The Alchemical Studios on Monday, January 27 at 7 P.M. and Tuesday, January 28 at 6 P.M. and 9 P.M.

“For 2020 I've commissioned five young Northern Irish women to write short plays set in Belfast in 2050. This came out of a trip I recently took to Belfast where I got to meet a lot of the young emerging writers. We commissioned five of the women to write on the theme of Belfast 2050 under the Albert clock. The idea is that these plays take place in the future. The performances for it will take place at the A.R.T. Studios on 36 Street on Saturday, January 18 at 3 P.M. 

“This year in a partnership between New York and Northern Ireland we are also presenting  Vital Voices, a series that builds a new cultural bridge. This year we'll present a staged reading of a new play by Clare McMahon about three Irish women in their 60s who attempt to visit every county in Ireland on a whirlwind vacation of a lifetime.

"The play has been in development at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast for the last number of years and the first US public reading will be held at the American Irish Historical Society on Wednesday, January 15 at 7 P.M.

"Another timely event, due to the recent sad passing of legendary Irish broadcaster Marianne Finucane, is the documentary she narrated about her friend and colleague Nuala O'Faolain called 'Nuala.' Marianne was very much the driving force behind the documentary and had planned to be in New York for the screening on January 20. She was planning to host the question and answers session with us after the show and in her place now the celebrated Irish author Colm Tobin will step in.

"The documentary follows Nuala's new life in New York and it follows her struggles on moving here. It's won many awards but this is the New York premiere and it takes place at Scandinavia House on January 20 at 7 P.M."

As for the festival itself, what does Heslin wish that people knew about it? People who may be thinking about coming to it for the first time?

“Well, when you run a festival what's very difficult is over the long term you don't see the impact the festival has had. But you know now that it's twelve years old I've had numerous artists reach out to me across Ireland. The sheer amount of projects that have come to New York meant they could often return and tour across Ireland based on performing here.” 

“So that's one way the impact of the festival continues afterward. We have had companies who have returned to book a sixteen-week tour across Ireland after being acclaimed here. We've also had companies that received their first Irish arts grants from the arts council at home because they've traveled to New York. And we've had Irish theatre companies build relationships across America.”

When you produce an annual festival professionally, you move on to the next one very fast so it can be very hard to gauge its impact, he says: “But just the ripple effect of a dedicated Irish theatre festival of this nature in New York City has for all the artists involved is inestimable.”

Do the Irish government and the funding agencies here understand the impact of Irish culture globally? Are they more successfully harnessing the power of the Irish diaspora? Is that still something that doesn't grasp yet or is it something they do?

“Oh I think that they grasp it, and I suppose the footprint of Ireland is becoming bigger across the world. New York is always going to be one of the most important places  to produce and perform in because there's such a big Irish community here, number one."

"I think this festival is different in that it brings people together. You know, this year we're working with twenty-nine organizations all across New York City. This is the only time in the year that all the organizations come together under one banner for a big Irish cultural festival. Everyone's here and everyone's welcome!”

For more information on the 1st Irish performance schedule Click Here.

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