Success stories that involve innovative theatre companies are incredibly rare, so let's hear for Origin and its artistic director George Heslin, who this month is celebrating the conclusion of the company's dynamic 15th season.
Next Monday, May 14 the award winning company behind the long-running First Irish Theatre Festival, will host its annual Spring Gala at Mutual of America, taking a victory lap in the company of local and visiting Irish theatre luminaries, business leaders and supporters of the arts.
The evening will honor actor Phil Burke (best known for his role as an Irish immigrant on the TV series Hell on Wheels) who will receive Origin’s Artistic Leader Award, and it will also hail well known peace and social justice advocates Ed and Brigid Kenney, who will receive Origin’s prestigious Community Leaders Award.
Widely know in the New York Irish community, for decades the Kenney's have tirelessly promoted Irish-American causes here in New York. Brigid, a social worker, has been a powerful advocate for persons living with mental illness and Ed's remarkable career started in with the FBI where he specialized in Russian counter-intelligence and continued for many years with Mutual of America, where, among many projects, he worked with his colleagues Tom Moran and Bill Flynn on the Irish Peace Process in the 1990's.
“Good global citizenship starts at home, and no two people exemplify this better than Ed and Brigid Kenney,” Heslin told IrishCentral. “Both are from New York and they reach out whenever they can, never for conspicuous recognition, but to help those in need, and more importantly to tackle urgent social issues.”
Speaking about the latest challenges posed to the Good Friday Agreement by Brexit and the threat of a possible return of a hard border, Kenney is philosophical.
“It's a little bit discouraging to see how this Brexit situation has caused such negative results in the north after such hard work. I think when Martin McGuinness passed away he was a great loss, he was such a key player in the whole process. There's a new bunch of leaders taking new directions now.”
Modestly Kenney insists (although other's would disagree) that his role in the Irish negotiations was small. “I was lucky to have started with Tom Moran and Bill Flynn back in 1994 and that was the time they really started engaging with the peace process and I got to go with them. I didn't have to engage so much as listen. But the Troubles always had to be resolved by the people that lived there and not by some Americans coming over.”
What are the grounds for optimism now? “They would come from a new generation have grown up knowing only peace, and I hope they will help to build on it. Economic and educational integration is the key to their future.”
For Brigid aiding the wellbeing of people who struggle with mental health issues is like a commandment of her Irish heritage. “I first observed the mental health system here in 1961 and I learned very early on that unless a person has an advocate and someone to speak them they get lost. Families become exhausted, because they're working with a system that often communicates hopelessness. When someone breaks a leg they go into the hospital and get flowers and cards. But when its a psychiatric illness there's silence.”
Breaking that silence has been part of the work of Brigid's life. “At the crux of this is the demonization that happens to people with mental illness. It requires tenacity to fight. Things have changed a little bit in terms of access to treatment. The key to it all is education. There's such an element of shame, for the families and the person that has the illness. They can go into hiding. But I have great hope that things are getting better.”
Hearing them talk with passion about the work they have done and continue to do, there's no doubt why Origin has selected them for their prestigious award. But, again in the Irish way, they would rather you didn't make a fuss, which only makes their achievements more commendable.
Meanwhile since Origin's mission it to present the New York and American premieres of new plays from Europe’s brightest contemporary playwrights, a task it has performed since 2002, it has introduced works by 162 playwrights from every corner of Europe.
This month in partnership with the Delegation of the European Union to the United States it will launch a new, annual arts and culture festival showcasing new voices from across Europe from May 10 through the 28, 2018.
“Our plan is to make this an annual event,” Heslin told IrishCentral. “The formula we’re developing for this Pan-European festival has us showcasing the work of individual countries every year.” To see the new festival lineup and book tickets visit origintheatre.org.