Christina Reid

I was very sad to learn yesterday of the death of Christina Reid, the announcement of which appears on the Lyric Theatre website. I’ve long appreciated and enjoyed Reid’s  plays, and on the two occasions when I met her she struck me as a lovely person: modest but passionate about her work, good humoured but serious about the capacity of theatre to change lives and to correct injustices.

Her work has sometimes been included in academic studies of recent Irish drama, mostly in discussions of theatre from Northern Ireland. That’s appropriate of course: most of her plays are set in the north, and many deal directly with the Troubles and its consequences. Reid was from a working class protestant background, and showed a rare ability to both value and criticise her community: she created characters who could be nostalgic about twelfth of July parades in the 1940s and ‘50s – and she could understand and express the importance of the First and Second World Wars to her community. But she was also able to analyse those things too, to incisively identify the roots of anti-Catholic prejudice, and to place the Civil Rights movement in the north in the context of international developments: not just civil rights in the United States but also the emergence of Second Wave feminism.

Indeed, Reid gave us one of the clearest feminist critiques of the Troubles, suggesting that sectarianism had the impact of obscuring many other forms of injustice, including the marginalisation and oppression of women on both sides of the conflict. She was also a working class playwright in the sense that Sean O’Casey (a clear influence) was a working class playwright: her theatre displays a fascination with and love of working class culture (music hall particularly), and a keen sense of social injustice. Reid’s plays give us many different characters and situations, but all of them share one important trait: they all dramatise the stories of people who attempt to realise themselves fully, refusing to be defined by roles imposed upon them by their families and communities.

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I think her work can also be seen in the context of the politicised theatre that emerged in Britain from the late 1960s onwards. It’s always made sense to me to think of Reid’s drama in relation to plays from the 1970s and 1980s by Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and David Hare – work that combined an intense political engagement with a desire to do new things with popular forms. Reid’s work could also be compared with that of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy – two writers who worked within (and across)  the Irish and the British traditions and whose theatre has been neglected within Irish criticism (as Reid’s has).  I think it could be helpful to think of Reid as occupying a place in the development of a Brechtian theatre in Ireland: work, that is, that displays Brechtian forms and ideas (even if the writers/directors were not directly inspired by Brecht himself) – a pattern that might also include work by Tomas MacAnna, Mairead Ni Ghrada , Tom Murphy, Garry Hynes, Jimmy Fay, and others (including of course Arden and D’Arcy).

Reid also wrote plays that were popular: people enjoyed going to them and I think actors enjoy appearing in them too. Perhaps the most accessible was her first produced play, Tea in a China Cup, which premiered at the Lyric in 1983, where it told us the story of three generations of Belfast women (a set-up that would later become familiar, of course). As often happens in theatre about Northern Ireland, the play presents history not in terms of linear progress but as a series of cycles: we repeat ourselves over and again. We thus see the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s and early 1970s being set against earlier military conflicts, notably the two world wars. Reid keeps faith with her community’s need to see the first and second world wars as defining moments for them, but she also explores those wars from the perspectives of the women left behind rather than the men who went off to fight. Again like O’Casey, she uses that gendered perspective to think about heroism, military sacrifice, cycles of violence, and the legacies of the past.

So the china cup in the play’s title becomes a metaphor for identity. As a family heirloom it is passed down from one generation to the next, and it thus takes on value not just because of what it is but also because of what it meant to those who came before. Reid uses this simple object to ask how our communities should manage other forms of inheritance: she was showing that Northern Ireland would not find peace until people were wiling to let go of the past – but she also showed that many of our ties to the past are rooted in real feelings of love for family-members (and grief for their loss). She understood that the letting go of a community’s ideals can feel like an intimate betrayal of a loved one. And she sets out to show how such feelings can be acknowledged, accommodated, and overcome.

Another important play is Did You Hear the One About the Irishman? which was written in 1980 but premiered in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company on tour in the US. It (like China Cup) gives us a set-up that has since become  too familiar, focusing on a doomed relationship between a middle class Protestant woman and a working class Catholic male – the Troubles via Romeo and Juliet, in other words. Matters reach a suitably tragic ending for the pair, whose communities refuse to believe that their love for each other can be a good thing. But where the play becomes quite interesting is in its use of a framing device. Reid allows the action to be interrupted occasionally by a stand-up British comedian, who tells a series of offensive Irish jokes in the manner that was still very common on British TV at that time. By juxtaposing a tragic love story with stand-up comedy Reid was doing the things that made her work distinctive – blending high art with popular culture, using tragedy to critique comedy (and vice versa), and disrupting notions of “us” and “them”. She also challenges her English audiences to re-think their awareness of, and engagement with, Ireland generally, which she shows is more than a mere joke.

Also worth noting about this play is its use of role doubling, which cut across the different communities on either side of the Troubles. It’s a simple technique, but by using one body to play people on different sides of the conflict, Reid shows that the antagonisms between the communities may not be quite as insurmountable as might have been imagined. When Thomas Kilroy did something like this for Field Day with Double Cross at roughly the same time he was rightly praised for using the actor’s body to challenge political pieties – to show that certain forms of identity should be seen not as inherent but as performed. As is the way with these things, no-one has wanted to “go there” with Reid, but Kilroy and Field Day have been widely celebrated for this.

Reid’s most successful play was Joyriders, which is set in the Divis Flats. It is framed by a production of O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman, setting up an interesting continuity between pre-Independence Dublin and Belfast in the 1980s. Again there’s great use of music in the play. Joyriders had a sequel in the 1990s called Clowns. Both work very well with young actors and of all of Reid’s plays they most merit production today.

The play I’m most interested in by Reid is The Belle of the Belfast City, which opened in Belfast in 1989, and which I was proud to be able to include in an anthology for Methuen Drama back in 2008. Again we have three generations of Belfast women, who gather together on the eve of a protest against the Anglo-Irish agreement. The youngest is Belle, who is a young black woman brought up mostly in London, who is visiting her Northern Irish relatives for the first time. We read much nowadays about plural Irish identities, but Reid was exploring this topic meaningfully 25 years ago – showing how race, gender, and disability function in her society. And in the character of Belle she gave us someone who could be faithful to her many identities (Irish, English, British, American, black, protestant, etc) without being imprisoned by any of them.

 

There’s also a fabulous send-up in the play of a particular style of firebrand unionist politician, whom Reid displays practising his speeches in a state of what she calls “masturbatory ecstasy”. By showing how politicians rehearse, she was also underlining the extent to which what they do is a performance, is theatrical. And from there it becomes possible to see how politics can be governed by self-interest, manipulation of the weak,  masculine insecurity and sexual dysfunction.

 

As mentioned above, I met Reid twice: first during a visit to NUI Galway in 2008 and then to the Synge Summer School in 2009. She was a very warm presence on both occasions: delighted to talk to our students but also interested in them and their own work and ideas. She was modest about her plays, but had a clear sense of what she was trying to do with them; she also spoke impressively about her determination to say what she felt needed to be said. For example, she mentioned how members of the UVF attended the production of The Belle of the Belfast City – as did the politician upon whom she based the main male character. I think most people would find such encounters intimidating (to say the least) but Reid was able to laugh about both of them.

 

She was also philosophical about her career. She enjoyed a lot of success in a relatively short period, with China Cup premiering in 1983 and Belle in 1989, with three other plays in between. Clowns followed in 1996. But other than that, she found it difficult to have her work produced from the 1990s onwards. There was an adaptation of Les Miserables in 1992, and she wrote a short play for the National Theatre’s Connections series of plays for young people towards the end of that decade. When asked about this, Reid suggested that she had benefited in the 1980s from the fact that her plays were topical: audiences in Britain and the US wanted to understand the Troubles better, and dramas like Reid’s managed to be both informative and (usually) uplifting. As Northern Ireland disappeared from the world’s headlines, so were there fewer opportunities to produce work about the north (Seamus Heaney has made a similar observation about his own career).

 

It is only fair to say that she also experienced some negative critical notices from time to time. When reading about her online today I came across the following quotation on the Ricorso website, from a review of a revival of Joyriders from 1995, which is described as “deeply flawed”

 

‘as with much of Christina Reid’s work, it is incurably sentimental, while the dramatic structure is non-existent … uses methods of narration abandoned in England in 1956…”

 

I would disagree with this assertion, of course. Her plays certainly have moments of sentimentality but I don’t think that’s the dominant mood in them (and what’s wrong with a bit of sentimentality anyway?). I also think that she did things that would later gain praise when done by other (male) writers. She wrote about the importance of the World Wars within the Irish dramatic tradition two years before McGuinness did so in Observe the Sons of Ulster and long before Sebatian Barry wrote The Steward of Christendom. She was writing about race in an Irish context five years before Donal O’Kelly wrote Asylum! Asylum! (often described as the first Irish play to broach that topic). She blends music hall and dramatic experimentation in ways that are valued when identified in the works of O’Casey, Beckett and Behan, but which were criticised when she did them. And as implied earlier, she was trying in her work to do many of the things that Field Day are now routinely praised for having accomplished.

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There has been some good critical work on Reid (though I’d like to see more of it). Maria Delgado’s introduction to her collected plays is an excellent and suggestive overview – and it helps that it’s written by someone who doesn’t come at the plays from the usual Irish perspectives. Reid also features in Imelda Foley’s (underrated) Girls in the Big Picture, an exploration of theatre by women from the north). And there are good articles about her work from Lisa Fitzpatrick, Joanna Luft, Carla McDonough, and Riana O’Dwyer (among a few others). She also features in books by Maria Kurdi and Tony Roche. Most of those articles focus on Tea in a China Cup (though Belle has been getting some attention in the last few years). But as I hope to have suggested above in this very brief outline, there is a lot more to be said about her work.

 

She is a loss, then, and I deeply sympathise with her family, friends and former colleagues, who I am sure must feel that loss very keenly. And I hope we can  take the time in the months and years ahead to remember her contribution to Irish theatre, and to appreciate it fully – for its humour, its accessibility, its idealism, its passion, and its determination to show that people can change.

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Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?

Eight Irish Dramatists Discuss Irish Playwriting Today

I’m just back from the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum in Wicklow. I’ve been directing that event since 2008 and because this was my last year in charge I decided to invite eight Irish dramatists to come and speak about Irish playwriting today. So we heard from Stuart Carolan, Deirdre Kinahan, Mark O’Rowe, Owen McCafferty, Marina Carr, Dermot Bolger, Declan Hughes and Enda Walsh. Rita Ann Higgins also attended and while she is better known as a poet, she has also written plays. And we went to see Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed! and heard him and Gavin Kostick speaking about it afterwards.

This is something we’ve always done at the Synge School: although most of the talks are by academics, during my time as director we’ve also had occasional interviews/readings with Sebastian Barry, Una McKevitt, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor, Bernard Farrell, Louise Lowe, Pat McCabe, Christina Reid, Billy Roche and Conor McPherson.

But this year I thought there would be some value in dispensing with the academic perspective altogether and hearing only from the writers.

In programming the event I was motivated by some of the thoughts expressed elsewhere in this blog: a feeling that if Irish playwriting is not exactly in crisis, nor is it as healthy as it used to be. I wanted to find out how Irish dramatists see matters – and I wanted to give people an opportunity to focus on the excellence of contemporary Irish drama: something we don’t really give enough attention to these days.

We heard a huge amount about each writer’s career, and Irish theatre generally, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But there were some general patterns that I found interesting.

I should make clear from the outset that all opinions below are my own and unless explicitly stated otherwise are not those of the writers or participants. I also should state that the comments below are based on my memory of events over the last few days, and may therefore be subject to correction. But leaving those health warnings aside, I hope the observations below might be of interest.

On Getting Started

We heard a lot from the writers about how they got started as playwrights.

I was struck by the fact that for some, the ‘lucky break’ arose because of fortuitous personal contacts: Stuart Carolan was able to give his first play Defender of the Faith to Noel Pearson, for example – while Owen McCafferty gave his first play to Martin Lynch, who was running a workshop that one of Owen’s relatives was attending.

Mark O’Rowe spoke about how he went around from one theatre company to another, pushing copies of his script into letter boxes. “I didn’t even get rejection letters from most of them,” he said – but Fishamble replied and told him they wanted to do his play.

Deirdre Kinahan, Enda Walsh and Declan Hughes had to do things for themselves: Kinahan and Hughes had set up companies and gradually began to write their own work; Walsh likewise was working with Corcadorca and gravitated towards writing. And Dermot Bolger has done an enormous amount to foster new writing of all kinds in Ireland, as a publisher and commentator.

I was also very interested in what writers had to say about learning how to write. Hughes, for instance, spoke about how he had spent a number of years directing and performing – first in Players at Trinity and then with his own company Rough Magic. A conversation with Declan Donellan at the Dublin Theatre Festival inspired him to write an adaptation of Woman in White and that in turn gave him the confidence to write I Can’t Get Started.

Hughes’s talk underlined  for me the value of having great international plays in the Irish repertoire: he spoke about how his work on the “Howards and Davids” (Brenton, Barker, Hare and Edgar) in the early 1980s fed into his own development as a playwright.

In contrast, Enda Walsh spoke about how in his early years he would produce short bursts of writing for Corcadorca – sometimes as much as one piece a week, each lasting maybe five or ten minutes. The company would stage these short plays and would then come back out on stage and talk to their audience about what they had done and how they could improve. Walsh said that he found people stopping him on the streets in Cork to give him notes. So what was crucial here was the freedom to experiment. I asked Walsh how he found an audience for such work. “We gave away tickets,” he explained – pushing them through letter-boxes, giving them out in nightclubs, and so on.

The overall point here is that no-one will ever succeed by sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. This will be obvious to everyone who works in the theatre but is perhaps not sufficiently well appreciated outside the sector. I was constantly struck by how many of these writers had to go out and carve out opportunities for themselves before the Irish theatre ‘took them in’, so to speak.

On Transitioning

We had quite a bit of discussion about how playwrights’ careers develop over time.

Declan Hughes and Dermot Bolger both spoke about times in their lives when, for various reasons, they felt that they’d had enough of writing plays; both went off to do other things but have since resumed writing drama.

Enda Walsh spoke about how his own career had distinct phases. Bedbound in 2000 marked a new development, as did Walworth Farce in 2006. He’s working on a new play at the moment, he says – and that too represents a new direction.

Likewise, Mark O’Rowe told us about his forthcoming work, saying that although he is very proud of his last play Terminus, his new play is a significant step forward.

We found ourselves spending a surprising amount of time discussing the business of how playwrights transition into new periods in their writing life. An example given by one of the participants is Conor McPherson’s play The Veil, which was greeted with disappointment and some bafflement when it appeared at the National in London in 2011. The comment was that the play was actually very good – it just didn’t seem like a typical Conor McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps critics and PR people) didn’t seem to know what to make of it.

The problem here is that many Irish writers became well known for a particular kind of play – and have since found themselves encountering negative or indifferent reactions when they’ve tried to move into new areas, as McPherson did with The Veil. We’re in a bizarre situation where we criticise playwrights who keep doing the same things, but then ignore their work when they try new things.

Marina Carr was especially interesting on this subject. She became famous for her five midlands plays The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats, On Raftery’s Hill and Ariel. Yet she decided after Ariel appeared in 2002 that she didn’t want to write any more plays set in the midlands: she needed to do things differently. Her subsequent plays have not always been well received, partly because (I think) of audience expectation and partly because of other problems such as direction (and this is my opinion, not hers).

Listening to Carr reading from On Raftery’s Hill and then Marble, I was very struck by the continuities in her career rather than the disjunctions: the humour, her focus on power, the way she treats familial relationships, the way she creates brilliant scenes that display women in conflict with each other… and so on. If we look beneath the surface of Carr’s plays – beyond the midlands accent, for instance – there is a very clear trajectory in which important themes are being developed. We just haven’t been paying attention to those themes up to now.

Owen McCafferty was also very interesting on career development. He pointed out that, especially in the north, there is great support for the discovery of new plays. But he also called for more support for playwrights across their career.

This proved a recurrent theme: it’s often said that it’s easier to have a first play staged in Ireland than a second play. But hardest of all, perhaps, is getting a tenth or eleventh play staged. Carr spoke about the difficulty of having new work produced in Ireland – and we also considered the case of Frank McGuinness, whose last five original plays have all premiered abroad.

The overall suggestion was that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a career as a playwright in Ireland.

On Directing and Being In Control

Another recurrent strand was the desirability of having control over one’s work. Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh have both been directing their own work, and both spoke about the value of directing the first production of their own plays (something that Conor McPherson does as well).

Marina Carr also said that she’d love to direct her own plays – and indeed other people’s plays (she’d love to direct Tennessee Williams and some of the Greek tragedies, she said).

Other writers discussed their relationships with directors: Deirdre Kinahan spoke warmly about David Horan, for instance, as Dermot Bolger did about Ray Yeates. And Owen McCafferty said that although he has directed his own plays, he values the objectivity brought to the process by a director.

Stuart Carolan was very interesting here too. He acts as Executive Producer of Love/Hate, and it was very clear from listening to him that that show is good precisely because he’s given the freedom to do things his own way.

But we also heard other stories during the School about the frustrations of having one’s work interfered with or dismissed, often by people who are not themselves working from an artistic perspective  – such as TV and film executives,  critics, and others.

One good example of this issue was the use of music. Stuart Carolan and Declan Hughes both spoke about how important music is for their work – how the choice of a particular song is essential for the communication of a particular set of sensations or emotions. Other writers spoke about how their choice of music is often treated as a kind of ‘optional extra’ which directors are sometimes inclined to ignore or overlook.

In general, the old view that writers shouldn’t direct their own plays was fairly thoroughly dismissed during the School. As someone put it, just because Brian Friel got a hard time when he did it in 1997 doesn’t mean it should never be done. Someone else made the great point that Conor McPherson had been directing his own plays with success for years – but when The Veil appeared, critics immediately said that the production showed why playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work. The general feeling was that there are benefits to having writers direct their own work.

On Devising

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, there is a view around at present that there is a clash between devising and playwriting. Over the course of the four days, we saw evidence of a much more nuanced approach to that subject. Both Kinahan and Walsh spoke about how they began their careers by doing work that would now be seen as devising, for instance. And in general at the School there was respect for devising as a process of making theatre (though of course there was some dissent too).

On this subject, the overall point I took away is that devising is like any other kind of theatre – some of it is good, and some of it is bad. The writers all spoke about the need to be rigorous in their own work: it takes up to two years to write a play because there’s a need to be very precise and detailed with language, and so on. We’re all aware of devised work that meets those kinds of rigorous standards (and, as you’d expect, Louise Lowe’s name was cited a few times in that context).

So just as there are some conventional plays that need more work, that aren’t ready when they go on, and that could have been more rigorous, the same is also true about some devised work. We just need to have more good work in Ireland, I think (and again this is not a criticism of anything currently being done and is my own opinion).

Kinahan put it well when she said that there doesn’t have to be a clash between playwriting and devising, but there could be more mutual respect.

A Playwright’s Theatre and the Audience

Many of the writers spoke about the need for a theatre in Ireland that would be dedicated exclusively to the regular production of new work, and not just by new playwrights. Of course people admire the work being done by Theatre Upstairs – and I kept hearing people talk about how important Fishamble have been for them at various times in their career. And there was also some appreciative discussion of the new writing that has been emerging from the Abbey/Peacock in recent years.

But we don’t quite have anything like the Royal Court  or the Traverse – a high-profile and well resourced theatre (or theatre company) that would produce 10-12 new plays in Ireland every year, by a mix of established and emerging voices. So it’s important to say that no-one was criticising the existing provision in this area, but we were all just expressing the wish that we had something a bit more intensive.

Many people present at the School (not necessarily the writers) expressed their doubts about whether such a theatre might be viable – the fear seems to exist that there isn’t a big enough audience for new plays out there.

I wonder if that’s true. I am of course aware that new plays represent a risk for theatres and that this is in many ways not a great time for theatres to be taking risks. And I’m aware of examples of new plays that have not done well either critically or commercially. But if an audience trusts a theatre – as they do the Royal Court and the Traverse – they are more prepared to take the risk, I think. It’s easy for me to say that, I know, but perhaps more can be done here.

As I write above, no-one was being critical of existing provision, but there was a wish that we could find a way to do more for new playwriting in Ireland, so that established playwrights can actually make a living out of their writing over a longer period of time.

On Adaptations

Also notable is that so many theatres are now mitigating risk by commissioning adaptations. Many of the writers spoke about how they’re being commissioned to adapt novels – or to change existing works of art into something else (quite a lot of musicals seem to be in the works).

Other Issues…

We spoke a lot about the status of women dramatists in Ireland (improving but still much more to be done), of the importance of London as an outlet for the production of Irish plays, of the impact of Hollywood cinema and new American TV, about the importance of good storytelling, and much more. I might try to write more about some of these during the weeks ahead. And my hope is that others present might also do some blogging… Ciara O’Dowd has already posted a great entry here which has some thoughts on Dermot Bolger and Stuart Carolan’s contributions.

What Next?

All of the people we heard from were honest about the difficulties writers encounter, from financial to artistic to practical challenges. But all of them spoke about their work in progress with a lot of optimism and positivity.

Stuart Carolan, for instance, was very exciting on the future of Love/Hate (but when pressed to tell us what has happened to Darren he wouldn’t say anything!). Deirdre Kinahan told us about a play that she’s writing which is trying to do something I’ve seen in the cinema before but never on stage. And every other playwright had interesting things to say about their forthcoming work.

I left Rathdrum feeling very excited about the coming years: if every play that we heard about is produced in Ireland during the next 18 months, we could be in for a really great period of new writing – perhaps one that could push us back towards the spirit of that mini-Golden Age from 1995 to 2003.

But there are challenges too, the biggest of which is that it’s getting harder for playwrights to have a career.

I find myself wondering if perhaps we need to slightly refocus our priorities  in Irish theatre. I know how important it is to find and nurture new voices. But are we doing enough to nurture our established writers – to help them to develop, to move on, to keep writing? This isn’t an either/or – we can do both, of course. And again, I’m not criticising anyone who’s involved in doing this work at present – but perhaps there’s a need for a more systemic (that is, system-wide) consideration of playwriting.

It was an amazing experience to share a space with eight extraordinarily talented writers at the Synge School: they are all doing great things, and can continue to do great things. We just need to find new and better ways of letting them get on with it.