If anyone knows how to live through tumultuous times it's the Irish.
Forced to close the city theaters last week, Irish actors, directors, and singers here in the US have migrated online where they are responding to the crisis in the way they always do, with poetry, speech, and song.
It may come as second nature. If you run a working theatre in New York City then in a sense you're always in a bit of a crisis. But theaters really have to think creatively to reach their audience when the theatre itself is shut down.
It's said that Shakespeare wrote King Lear (itself based on the Irish myth of the Children of Lir) during a plague outbreak that shut the London theaters in 1605. But what theatre director in 2020 ever thought a modern-day virus could bring the world to its knees?
The Irish Rep's producing director Ciaran O'Reilly, a lifelong actor, and director, knows all about the ups and downs of theatrical life, even in a time of plague. “It's the same old, same old,” he tells IrishCentral with a laugh. Then he lays out the challenges now facing the Rep.
“The whole staff is working remotely from their homes and trying to keep the work going forth still. You know if people can't come to the Irish Rep at the moment, then we're going to bring a little bit of the Irish Rep to them at home, so we're expanding our presence online in order to show them what's going on here, and we're going to try to expand that a little bit farther and maybe do some discussions and longer readings. The point is to try to sort of just keep, and do what we can from, from where we can.”
That's O'Reilly speaking as a producing director, but he's as alarmed as anyone by what's happening. “It's just unreal. I just, you know, I don't know what to think of what's happening. We were so close so the debut of the Eugene O'Neill play "A Touch Of The Poet," we were days from getting the set design and costumes ready and so the heartbreak is real.”
People may not understand how much his latest production of O'Neill means to him. O'Reilly starred alongside Gabriel Byrne in the Broadway production of "A Touch Of The Poet" and this latest production was a long time in the making. “I've been wanting to do it for a long time and you know, I was feeling good about it, how this production was turning out, too.”
But first, there's the little business of how to survive, economically and now literally, in this terrifying era. “It's going to be a whole game-changer, this thing, I suspect,” says O'Reilly. “And I don't know, I don't know which direction things will turn in, you know, good or bad?”
And what about the people who work front of the stage in the Rep? The actors? Everyone knows the basic deal in the theatre, they understand that every new production is make or break and the same rule applies for set designers, sound designers, costume designers and so on. They all feel a bit of the threat of this?
“We're not, just from a purely financial point of view, in a position to pay all the actors indefinitely. When we stopped the production of "A Touch Of The Poet," we paid everybody two weeks on top of the production payments, you know.”
Hopefully, productions will resume in a period of months but the word from the national and state government has been hard to parse. “I don't know if we'll back soon or back in the fall because the current reports are just so contradictory.”
The mixed messages have done nothing to quell the panic that O'Reilly feels is kicking in. What do workers do when they have no jobs? Where will the money come from to keep the economy running? Will the government be able to get ahead of this tsunami or will they fail to deliver the help where it's needed?
“I think the panic is going to get even greater soon and I don't know what happens then. I mean there's a lot of people who are already pissed off. There are people who are showing up and taking all the supplies, leaving others with hands empty you know. I don't know, things feel very unleashed and almost revolutionary.”
In the city, the larger and more expensive stores have taken to boarding up their windows. Clearly they may have received some advice about things getting worse.
The combination of a viral outbreak and an uneven government response can build resentment that can have far-reaching consequences.
Meanwhile, speaking as a father, the difficulty of sheltering and social distancing is taking a toll on his kids, O'Reilly says. “I've got two kids and they're going up the wall. They don't mind doing homeschooling stuff, but they just don't understand this. No social life, no going outside, no friends and family visits?”
In Washington D.C. the celebrated Irish theatre company Solas Nua has also turned to online broadcasting to weather the current crisis. Playfully calling the initiative Cyber Craic, the company takes a typically Irish attitude to adversity.
Washington may have been stuck at home on St. Patrick's Day this year but that's not stopping them from celebrating the best of Irish culture in a month-long festival.
Their website and social media outlets are currently presenting a digital festival of contemporary Irish art with new content added daily, including their annual Irish Book Day (which is actually a book month now through March 31).
Eleven e-books from New Island Books, Royal Irish Academy, Tramp Press, The O'Brien Press, and Poetry Ireland are available to download for free at solasnua.org. With selections in fiction, non-fiction, history, and poetry available, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Solas Nua will also be releasing daily videos of Irish artists reading poems from two of the available books, Hello, I Am Alive (Poetry Ireland Introductions 2018), Female Lines, and New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland.
Every one of these events, downloads, and screenings is free of charge, but with a suggested donation of $5 per day, you view the festival. There's a very good reason for this, artists have to eat too and that's harder to do when the venues they normally perform in are closed down due to government edict.
So all proceeds from the Cyber Craic festival will be used to put Irish artists back to work here during this time when the coronavirus has shut down arts venues across the entire country. Visit solasnua.org to view the full lineup, enjoy the terrific new film, theatre, literature, and music and let Irish culture remind you of better times ahead as we wait for these clouds to pass.