The 1st Irish 2009
is actually the second festival called 1st Irish. The Festival, which is the brainchild of George Heslin
, Artistic Director of sponsoring Origin Theatre Company
, has doubled in size since it debuted last year—21 playwrights are represented in the Festival, and Origin achieved a special agreement with Actors Equity to bring over three companies directly from Ireland. You'd think that merely presenting so many productions (there are 26 events) would be enough of a challenge for anyone, but Heslin sees the Festival—believe it or not, the first Irish theatre festival in New York (hence the name)—as a cross-fertilization project and so, as he did last year, he commissioned new work from Irish playwrights. He commissioned five of them, whose monologues all appear together in an evening called Spinning the Times
. Three of the playwrights are from Northern Ireland, two from Ireland. The Festival goes on through October 4, but Spinning the Times
has its final performance on Sunday, September 20, and it's worth checking out.
Heslin likes to say "If Origin had a gender, it would be female," and since female Irish playwrights are relatively unrepresented in New York, he decided to focus on women this year. The women were given a specific task: all of the monologues, which were to be 18 minutes in length, had to be inspired by stories in the New York media. Irishness is not directly in the theme, though the playwrights are Irish and some have written Irish characters. "New York media" does not mean New York story, though: the five short plays depict a lute-repairer in Palestine (Lucy Caldwell's The Luthier
), an Iranian-American who loves vintage clothing (Rosalind Haslett's Gin in a Teacup
), an assistant to a songwriter (Geraldine Arons' Miracle Conway
), an Irishman who loses his passport and possibly his identity in a New York fire (Belinda McKeown's Fugue
) and a troubled teenager (Rosemary Jenkinsons' The Lemon Tree
), are nothing if not alive.
Why women? "I see Conor McPherson
and a lot of Irish male playwrights playing around with the monologue and thought it would be interesting to see what female playwrights would do with it," Heslin stated, during the final rehearsals of the plays.
Asked if he noticed anything different in what the women did, Heslin paused and ventured, "what surprised me is that even though they're dealing with pretty dark issues, some of them, there's a very gentle quality to the whole thing. I'm just wondering if that's a female viewpoint on the world. There is conflict but it's a very different kind of calm conflict. If there's such a thing."
Gender disparity in playwriting has been a big issue
in New York (and by extension America) these past few months, after a Town Hall meeting with a Emily Glassberg Sands
, a senior economist from Pittsburgh who had investigated the subject. For the five Irish playwrights, however, femaleness was what they wanted not to talk about—and yet became most animated when they did.
One thing that does seem clear is that these women all have burgeoning, productive careers—some as novelists and radio dramatists as well—so they feel free to focus on their work itself.
M. Burke Walker, formerly the artistic director of the now-defunct Empty Space Theatre
in Seattle, directed all five. I spoke to four of them a few hours before their opening:
Belinda McKeown, author of Fugue
, lives in New York and contributes to the Irish Times
. She has short hair, an engaging, determined tone.
Rosalind Haslett, author of Gin in a Teacup
, has a blond ponytail, a strong Northern accent—she's from Derry—and a quiet wit. She has completed her dissertation—which looks at play development methods—and will defend it in October (when she will also turn 30).
Lucy Caldwell, from Belfast in the North, has long straight hair. Her voice is breathy and soft, playing in counterpoint to the clarity of her statements. Her play is titled The Luthier
Geraldine Arons, at fifty-something a bit older than the others, who are mostly in their thirties, has an elegant blonde bob and accent that sounds Londonish—it's where she now lives. Her play is titled Miracle Conway
Unfortunately, Rosemary Jenkins, author of The Lemon Tree
, could not make it to New York.
Throughout, the playwrights supported one another with "hmm" and "ah," nodded, laughed, and leaped off one another's comments.
The L Magazine: Are you excited, nervous, elated?
Rosalind: I'm excited. One of the reasons I was really keen on was that it was all female playwrights from Ireland, which is an unusual thing and a really positive one as well.
Geraldine: I'm very excited. I sound like Facebook.
Lucy: Having five different writers spreads the pressure.
Geraldine: Absolutely. I've never been more relaxed.
Lucy: It's really hard to see your own work, at this stage, if it's just your play it's really hard to be objective. You sort of oscillate between thinking it's terrible, and thinking it's abysmal. The other plays are like sister plays… we all had the same brief, the same length, the same set.
Belinda: Sometimes a prompt can be limiting, but this one actually allowed me to do something with a piece I'd been carrying around for the last three years.
The finished play… I hope it's finished… departed quite a lot from that piece but it was the story of an Irish man in New York whose building had burned down. I literally had cut it out and I'd emailed my editor about it, I write for the Irish Times, and I emailed my editor pitching it as a possible story and nothing really came of that… it was just sort of in my head all the time. When George suggested this idea it kind of clicked into place.
It must have been a bit easier for you to find the story in the New York press, you're based here. Was it difficult for (the rest of) you?
Lucy: You can read the New York Times
Geraldine: I just saw on somebody's iPhone, the very first subhead I saw, I took that one.
What was it?
Geraldine: "Hard times loosen creativity." I thought that was interesting. I bent it into something I'd also had in mind for a very long time.
Rosalind: It's interesting to hear how other people responded to the prompts actually. At the time I was following twitter after the Iran election. Out of reading all of those tweets the ideas came to me. It was something that evolved that way. I mull things over for quite a long time. It was really good because it forced me to work faster. It's generated so much new material for me, I don't know about everyone else… I couldn't choose just one article, I was using lots of different bits and pieces, I've got loads of material.
[general murmurs of surprise from the others]
Lucy: I just got into the habit of reading the New York Times
over breakfast for a couple of weeks. I didn't know what I was going to write. I had absolutely no idea. And then one morning I read this article about a young apprentice luthier, a repairer of stringed instruments, on the west bank in Palestine… suddenly it just clicked into place and I thought gosh, all the metaphors are just there for the taking. My work is done.
Geraldine: When you think of all the hours that you sit around it would be great if there was like a prompt service you could subscribe to. I would write anything if I was asked to.
There are things like that for fiction writers but not so much for playwrights.
Geraldine: You need to know there's a theatre waiting for it.
That makes a difference doesn't it?
Rosalind: It's helpful to know that a theatre company is going to put it on, and I was just talking to George a moment ago about how fantastic it is that not only do you get a commission but it happens so quickly and then you see it, it's put on.
How long did you have to write this?
Belinda: Maybe two months. The deadline was July 1st… I was contacted mid-May. I remember I was talking on the phone to George, he'd emailed me with initial approach, we talked on the phone and I said when is the deadline and he said really apologetically, uh, July 1st?
Geraldine: It's better…
Belinda: It's better.
A short deadline is better?
Belinda: I think so.
Were you surprised when George contacted you?
Geraldine: I met George socially a few years ago when I was here for another play.
Lucy: It was one of those emails that on a bored day you're kind of checking your email hoping something interesting will come. It was literally an email that came into my inbox. I didn't know him.
Rosalind: I hadn't met him, but I think he had got my information from Jim Culleton
who's directing one of the other plays (Culleton runs Fishamble Theatre
), so I knew how he had got in contact with me but yes it was definitely a surprise. For me, it was pretty poor timing with a short deadline because my deadline for the Ph.D was exactly the same day.
Belinda: I'd known George from the theatre scene in New York but the email was also a complete surprise and very welcome. I had to resist the urge to run and brag on my Facebook status.
[At this point, Rosalind left the room to see her play for the first time, so her comments are not included in the first part of the discussion of gender below]
We see a lot of plays by Irish men in New York, but not so many by Irish women… there's been a lot of talk recently in NY about the disparity between male and female playwrights in America so I thought I'd ask you about the state of female playwrights in Ireland.
Lucy: Do you know actually, I find it quite a boring question, to be honest, to be constantly asked what it means to be a female playwright…
Geraldine: I've never felt rejected on that basis. I've never felt that at all.
Lucy: I consider myself a writer, I'm a novelist as well, I broaden it out to author. This monologue is male. I didn't make a conscious decision to write a male character or not a male character. That was just a character that came. Obviously it's very important to think about “are women discriminated against?” and I'm an unqualified feminist, unreservedly, but as well you have to be careful not to insist on the femininity or otherwise of playwrights who happen to be women.
Geraldine: I've always just seen it because of the demands of time… you need to be quite flexible to attend rehearsal and travel and stuff.
Lucy: It's possible to write a novel, you know, while the baby's sleeping… Geraldine and I were talking last night about how public and performative being a playwright is because you do have to attend rehearsals. We haven't for these but they are shorter. If you are having a play you need to attend rehearsals and they often run on quite late, we didn't finish until around midnight last night. You're required to be publicly more present, which maybe makes it harder if the woman is the primary childcarer or nurturer.
Belinda: I've been aware of the argument, but I have to say I'm really not interested in it and I have a lot of resistance to it. I'm glad that people like George are doing something about it, because Origin Theatre Company does a huge amount of work by female playwrights, but at the same time that's partly because those playwrights are good playwrights not because they are women. If I start thinking about discrimination and that maybe we are up against a wall, it would just be another excuse to procrastinate for me.
Rosalind: I think that's what I was thinking as well. How can we take in the broad scope when we are trying to focus on our own work, which is much more personal, much more individual.
Then you haven't felt any resistance to your work, you're equally reviewed, equally championed?
Belinda: It's such a subjective thing as well. I know that Ursula Rani Sarma, who had a play here last year, feels really strongly about this issue and she's very vocal on it. I just don't really agree. I can only talk about it on a personal level. Whatever number of plays I've written has been taken on, and produced, and treated well. And I've always felt respected and that the people producing were doing their best to bring it to an audience.
It's interesting that that's just not something you've experienced. You're not experiencing that in your careers.
Belinda: One of the plays being talked about most in Ireland is Little Gem
, by Lane Murphy, which just won the big award at Edinburgh Fringe
and won the Dublin Fringe
George: ..and will be done by 1st Irish 2010.
Belinda: …it's three female characters of different generations, very much a woman's story… you'd think that a play by a young female playwright about women's lives would be a prime target for narrow-minded or damaging criticism, but it hasn't been in evidence. I'm trying to write a play at the moment and there are several other plays that I want to write and if I start talking about this that work won't get done.
Will you expand these plays or work with these characters?
Belinda: Right now it's self-contained, I don't feel I want to make larger piece out of it, but it helped to unblock me in a longer play which is completely different. I wouldn't be surprised if this character came back in some form.
Geraldine: I borrowed a character from a full-length play. If she does well here I'll bring her on to greater things. If she behaves herself.
Lucy: I love writing radio, I've never written any film or TV but I love radio, it's such a great medium. With my play The Luthier
there's a little bit of classical music… I've been thinking it might work well on radio so I'm toying with the idea of doing something with it.
What do you love the most about being a playwright?
Geraldine: I always surprise myself with coming up with anything. It's such fun and I resist it so much, I pace the whole house rather than start, so I wonder why I'm so resistant to starting. Moving an audience, laughing or crying, is wonderful.
Lucy: For me I think the best thing about being a playwright is the same as being a theatergoer, and it's that moment just before the lights go down, and people somehow hush, and there's just this expectancy.
This is why theater is perhaps the hardest medium, I'm a novelist and I write short stories, and in theater it's quite brutal because it either works or it doesn't. When it works you can feel people stop breathing. And when people laugh and all the separate people in the audience become one together and it's alive… I always feel that after I've finished a play, I'm dying to get back to writing a novel because I want the solitude, and knowing that no one is allowed to enter my world unless I let them. Conversely if I've been writing a novel for too long I'm dying to have input of other people and someone making it alive.
Rosalind: Processing ideas over time and then finding a place for them. I've got lots of different ideas floating on the top of my head and then something happens and a few of them fall into place and they come together. It's funny you ask me that, because just today I was walking through New York, and on one of the curbstones there was an Emily Dickinson poem, which I knew anyway,
"a word is dead
when it is said
I say it just
begins to live
…in no other form do you immediately get from the actor, director, audiences watching, that excitement. It also makes it scarier. The stakes are higher as a playwright because you're right there.
Geraldine: We've been very fortunate, this can happen and be a big mess, with people not knowing who's doing what … George is just extraordinary. He's put this entire thing, not just us, but this whole festival together. I feel very confident, whatever happens.
Lucy: Going back to the earlier, thorny question, it's going to be people like George that mean in a decade or two that the issue of women having long-running plays on Broadway just won't be a question anymore, because I think it starts on the level of someone like George doing something like this and doing it well.