A revival of Eugene O'Neill's celebrated play 'A Touch Of The Poet' was scheduled to be The Irish Rep's main stage production this spring, but then the coronavirus hit.

That left the theatre to become the first in the nation to take its shows and entire season online.

So how close was the Rep to the opening night of the play (last seen on Broadway in 2005 starring Gabriel Byrne and the Rep's own Ciaran O'Reilly) this spring?

Well, they had rehearsed a full four weeks and the costumes and props were assembled, which in the theatre means they were ready to take to the stage. Then came the pandemic. 

Johh Keating, Dan Butler & Sean Gormley in The Weir

Johh Keating, Dan Butler & Sean Gormley in The Weir

For a time, like the rest of us, the theatre's staff and performers were stuck in lockdown, then they did something radical, they took the ambitious decision to take all their shows online, where they could be watched by an avid audience, allowing their productions to find a new stage of sorts and their cast and crew to find employment in a suddenly precarious economy.

It's the kind of innovative response to a crisis that the Irish, who history has turned into formidable disaster relief specialists, excel at.

In fact, the Rep has been at the forefront of the American theatrical response, keeping its virtual doors open and the lights on when most of the nations stages have gone dark.

“We had done so much work already on 'A Touch Of The Poet' with four weeks of rehearsals and two large racks of costumes just sitting there,” Ciaran O Reilly, the Rep's producing director says. 

“We had the production ready to go. And, you know, once we started doing online shows with Conor McPherson's 'The Weir' and with all of the other shows we have staged since we thought,  well let's see how the O'Neill does online.”

Interior of New York's celebrated Irish Repertory Theatre.

Interior of New York's celebrated Irish Repertory Theatre.

Set in 1828 near Boston, 'A Touch of the Poet' tells the story of Irish immigrant Cornelius Melody, the son of an unscrupulous father who once clawed his way toward wealth in Ireland.  Now his son presents himself a distinguished gentleman to his unconvinced family and neighbors in America, but the truth is he's anything but. 

As the play progresses Melody's illusions (and notions) are shattered after his daughter falls for a wealthy native born Yankee. In this way O'Neill sets up the plays main theme, how greed and materialism can dominate and wreck the lives of all who indulge them. 

“In America, the Yankees are almost like the new oppressors to him. And it's set in a fascinating time period. It's the time when Andrew Jackson is running for for election and there's quite a few comparisons between him and the current occupant of the White House.”

Con feels alienated in both nations too, which is so typical of the Irish in America in the 19 century and in so many cases still is.

Interior of New York's celebrated Irish Repertory Theatre.

Interior of New York's celebrated Irish Repertory Theatre.

“It's the early days of the melting pot, where they talk about how the Irish assimilated into Yankee society here. That's exactly what you have to keep in mind with this play. 'A Touch Of The Poet' was the first of what was supposed to be a six-part series of plays and only one other survived, 'More Stately Mansions.”

In the surviving sequels, Con's wife's wish that her daughter will one day ride in fine carriages with all the lords and ladies of the land comes true after a fashion, but at what cost, and at what profit? On whose shoulders and dreams are we standing now, O'Neill asks us?

People easily forget the long journey the Irish had to take to some kind of respectability here. So O'Neill's characters remind us of the class struggles they faced and the impact it had on those who had to endure them. “This rise was slow and it was over a hundred years before Kennedy showed up in 1960 to the White House,” O'Reilly says.

And no sooner did the Irish achieve a measure of success here than people with last names like O'Reilly and Hannity appear to pull the ladder up, forgetting the lessons of their own hard past as though they had never happened.

Exterior of The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York

Exterior of The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York

As the Rep gears up to stage their next big show online, the main Broadway theaters have announced they won't be reopening until next summer at the earliest. So how are the Rep's production staff and actors handling the current closures? 

“The actors are going through a really, really hard time,” says O'Reilly. “And things are not getting better. Because there's no money going into the coffers of the unions, they don't have health benefits now either, in the middle of a pandemic.”

Losing health insurance as the coronavirus rages may be the worst part of it, but they also don't have their secondary hospitality jobs now to support their incomes.

A stage manager recently put the challenge in perspective for him. “She said, it's not even the money, it's the fact that I will wake up tomorrow morning and think oh I have to go to work in a couple of weeks time. That's what really counts.”

So what needs to happen? What does the city need to do? Theatre is a huge engine of the economy after all. “They need to do something for the actors at the federal level. Chuck Schumer's trying to get a bill passed. I hope he will get the support he needs.”

Exterior of The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York

Exterior of The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York

O'Reilly also expresses his frustration with the asymmetric state of the current re-openings. “We need to start thinking about how to get back to work in the safest way. I find it kind of strange to be honest that you can go to a gym, but it's unheard of to think of going into a theater or a cinema. I completely understand that it needs to be safe for the actors and the audience. But those regulations and guidelines need to be worked on to the point where we can say let's go try this.”

And has the Irish community and the theatre community come to the Rep's aid, because the Rep has been important to their communities for decades. “We have great support, honestly,” says O'Reilly.

“You know, we've done a whole summer season and we're doing a whole fall season and I'm going to be doing another winter season. We have had great support from the Irish community and from our own patrons. We offer our shows for free because there's many who can't afford it these days, and there are those who can pay who pay more, which subsidizes those that can't and it's been rewarding in that way.”

So what can people expect of 'A Touch Of The Poet'? The answer is a full scale production, staged remotely, in costume, with all of the focus and drama of the original production but this time online starting October 27. To reserve your tickets click HERE.

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