Talking to Four (Female) Irish Playwrights

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09/18/2009 1:00 PM |

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.