Performance, Nation and Globalization Summer School at NUI Galway

We’ll be running a Summer School on Performance and Globalization at NUI Galway later this week. We’re going to be looking not just at theatre (David Greig, Conor McPherson) but also at such performances as the Eurovision Song Contest, Mad Men, and more.

The event is intended for postgraduate students of theatre, but if anyone would like to attend, just drop me a line on

Performance, Nation and Globalization Summer School

Funded by the Irish Research Council

National University of Ireland, Galway

17-18 July 2013

This two-day Summer School explores the interrelationships between performance and nation in an era of increasing globalization. We will consider major international dramatists such as J.M Synge and David Greig, but the discussion will also take in other forms of performance, including the Eurovision Song Contests, recent American TV drama including Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and new devised work from Ireland by such companies as Brokentalkers and Anu Productions.

The event takes place at National University of Ireland, Galway, and coincides with the Galway Arts Festival ( Participation in the event is free.


Wednesday 17 July

14.00: Introduction and Welcome

14.15 – 15.45 – Session 1

  • Shaun Richards, ‘Were You Off East, Young Fellow …?’: The International Playboy of the Western World
  • David Clare “Irish Writers, Ally Croker, Bridget and the Countess of Sligo: Hibernian Presences in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer

16.00 – 17.30: Session 2

  • Karen Fricker “Terry Wogan, Melancholy Britain, and the Eurovision Song Contest”
  • Erin Hurley, “Subjects and Objects: The Personal is Political”

Thursday 18 July

9.30 – 11.00: Session 3

  • Shannon Steen, “Pacific Neoliberalism: Foxconn, Mike Daisey, and the Performative Imperative”
  • Vicky Angelaki, “Global Products and Local Targets: Reception, Perception and the Internationalized Audience”

11.00 – 11.30:Coffee

11.30 – 13.00: Session 4

  • Clare Wallace, “Performing, processing and resisting—the nation and globalization in the work of David Greig”
  • Charlotte McIvor “Ireland, China, Belgium, Finland: Brokentalkers and the Transnational Connectivities of Post-Celtic Tiger Performance.”

13.00 – 14.00 – Break.

14.00 – 16.15: Session 5

  • Patrick Lonergan, “Faust and the Credit Crunch”
  • Aoife Monks, “Virtuosity, Mobility and Homesickness in Performance”
  • Brian Singleton, “The Routes to Memory: Site-Specific Performance in Ireland and Global/Social Capital”

16.15– conclusion of workshop


Vicky Angelaki, “Global Products and Local Targets: Reception, Perception and the Internationalized Audience”

The talk will explore the factors determining our identities and sensibilities as spectators (on an individual basis) and audiences (at the collective level). Much has been said about globalization and its effect on aspects of quotidian life as well as artistic production and consumption. My paper will probe to what extent there has genuinely been an impact on our viewing and responding habits. It will also explore the question of whether we have moved beyond cultural stereotypes and into an era of rigorousness and agility, reaping the benefits of mobility, the wealth of information and educational possibilities available, but also of the artistic border-crossing that characterizes our time. The paper will interrogate to what extent the internationalized art product has served to liberate us in a certain way, or whether we are essentially reproducing the old familiar national and classed perspectives. Can it be argued that we are experiencing a new, hyper-aware state, or are we forever bound to local frames of reference and what are their respective benefits and pitfalls? Ultimately, the talk will seek to problematize exchange and reception, addressing the question of how issues of perception are especially urgent today.

Suggested Reading:

Bourdieu, Pierre. ‘The Sense of Distinction’. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London and New York: Routledge, 1986. 260-317.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. ‘The Crisis of Understanding’. Adventures of the Dialectic. Trans. Joseph Bien. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 9-29.
Wickstrom, Maurya. ‘Introduction’. Performing Consumers: Global Capital and Its Theatrical Seductions. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2006. 1-12.

David Clare, “Irish Writers, Ally Croker, Bridget and the Countess of Sligo: Hibernian Presences in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer

When critics discuss the ways in which Oliver Goldsmith’s Irish background influenced the writing of She Stoops to Conquer, they usually focus on two aspects of the play. First, the plot is built around an incident (mistaking a country gentleman’s home for an inn) that allegedly happened to Goldsmith himself while he was still living in Ireland. Second, in the play, Goldsmith (like later, London-based, Irish writers) attempts to portray hypocrisy as a peculiarly English vice. While these ‘Irish’ aspects of the work are certainly important, there are other, more explicit, references to Goldsmith’s native country in the play. I will carefully analyse them in this paper, since they are routinely ignored by critics.

Among these Irish references are the moment when Goldsmith has a character allude directly to Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem and when his depiction of the character of Hardcastle betrays the influence of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. The Irish song, “Ally Croker”, is used in a way that links Ireland to the Orient, a connection that Goldsmith and other Irish writers have frequently made over the past two and a half centuries. The Hardcastles have a cook maid named after the Irish St. Bridget, thereby placing a (possibly) Irish servant in an English home. Finally, the Countess of Sligo is one of the ladies name-checked by Marlow during his courtship of Kate, one of a series of reflections on the Anglo-Irish in the work.

In this paper, I will also consider the ‘Irish’ elements that have been either accentuated or imposed upon the play in recent Dublin productions (The Gate Theatre’s in 1995, The Abbey’s in 2003, and Smock Alley’s in 2012).

Karen Fricker, “Terry Wogan, Melancholy Britain, and the Eurovision Song Contest”

‘Europe’s favourite TV show’ (as its producers brand the Eurovision Song Contest [ESC]) has much to tell us about the relationship between nation, identity, feelings, and politics in the expanded, 21st century Europe. Founded in 1956 to test the newly-created capacity to share live television signals between countries, the ESC has become a significant symbolic contact zone between European cultures: an arena for European identification in which both national solidarity and participation in a European identity are confirmed, and a site where cultural struggles over the meanings, frontiers, and limits of Europe are enacted. This presentation focuses specifically on the United Kingdom’s fraught relationship to the ESC, arguing that this relationship reflects deep-seated British anxieties about the place of the UK in the context of the evolving Europe, but is also symptomatic of a particular strand of postcolonial melancholia (after Paul Gilroy) and a nostalgic mode of engagement with the British colonial past and imperial supremacy. I focus in particular on Sir Terry Wogan’s increasingly conservative ESC commentary for the BBC over several decades, showing how it mediated and constructed a particular vision of Europe and the UK’s place in relation to it. If we shift our perspective from the UK’s nostalgia and look at its participation in the ESC in its own right, however, we can see that its recent Eurovision entries offer a portrait of a lively and diverse society attempting to adapt to a cultural showcase whose codes and conventions are rapidly changing.

Erin Hurley, “Subjects and Objects: The Personal is Political”

It is a commonplace, and a truism, to say that “Quebecois theatre” began in the late 1960s with the politically engaged, nationalist dramaturgy of Michel Tremblay. Contemporary Quebecois theatre, however, seems to be marked by a turn away from the political or collective, an orientation that marked its birth and efflorescence. Of late, critics and scholars have remarked a clear turn toward the personal or individual. Louis Patrick Leroux and Hervé Guay itemize the “subjective affirmations” of contemporary Quebecois theatre both within the dramatic universes presented by playwrights and in institutional discourses of theatre culture. They suggest that such subjective affirmations – that is, critical affirmations of the theatre’s own success, performative affirmations of the particularized subject (especially in solo performance), and institutional and dramatic affirmations of playwrights’ personal aesthetics and singular imaginaries – have multiplied in recent years.

And yet, we might remark another, seemingly contrary turn in contemporary performance: a turn toward the object, the subject’s presumed “other”. Consider, for instance, the following protagonists from productions in recent Montreal theatre seasons as featured in venues ranging from a children’s theatre to an experimental house to a puppet festival to a fine arts museum: A child’s white dress. A drawing of a birthmark on a stick. Three life-sized automata. Animated mannequins. Dancing kitchen utensils. A wax figure. Two school-desks. [1]

The shows from which these characters are drawn, and others like them that put the object in the position of the dramatic and theatrical subject, interest me for two reasons. First, by putting an object in the position of the “speaking subject” of a “character”, they evince a complex relation to the subjective affirmations and affirmations of subjectivity that are trending contemporary Quebecois theatre. Second, they allow us to read an occulted history of Quebecois theatre in which women’s performance is featured and assumptions around the political value of autonomy versus heteronomy are undone. How might we reconcile the incursion of objects – these things without speech, without voice, without subjectivity proper — into a theatre culture where “dramaturgies of subjectivity” seem in favour? What might these objets désincarnés tell us about artistic engagement, the shifting Quebecois collective, and it theatre history?

Three recent solo performances by women featuring performing objects will feed my analysis: Joseph-la-tache [Joseph-the-Birthmark] by Catherine Vidal (2010), La robe blanche [The White Dress] by Pol Pelletier (2012), and Le Salon Automate[The Salon Automaton] by Nathalie Claude (2008). Through these pieces, I explore the discourse of the object on the subject of the Subject. How are on-stage subject-object (that is, self-other) relations figured in contemporary Quebec theatre? What might these relations intimate about stage-audience and art-society relations? And what are their engagements with the world around the subject, beyond the theatre?

Patrick Lonergan, “Faust and the Credit Crunch”

A vareity of cultural responses to the global credit crunch (2008-) are already evident, from novels about banking (such as John Lanchester’s Capital) to revivals of plays that explore issues of wealth (such as a recent NT production of Timon of Athens). This paper explores how one of the defining charateristics of cultural responses to the credit crunch has been a significant increase in new performances that draw on the Faust motif, which is often directly taken from work by Goethe, Marlowe, Mann, Bulgakov and others. This paper explores the significance of this motif for contemporary performance. I briefly explore new work by dramatists such as Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Mark O’Rowe David Mamet and David Greig, before analyzing in some detail the impact of the Faust motif on contemporary American television, particularly in Mad Men, Damagesand Breaking Bad. The aim of the paper is to consider those works as responses to our changing understanding of issues such as indebtedness, austerity, personal value and – in particular – the nation.

Suggested Reading/Viewing:

Conor McPherson, The Seafarer, David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

Damages Season 1, episodes 1-3; Mad Men season 1; Breaking Bad (all seasons).

Charlotte McIvor ,“Ireland, China, Belgium, Finland: Brokentalkers and the Transnational Connectivities of Post-Celtic Tiger Performance”

This talk queries Dublin-based theatre company Brokentalkers’ focus on the role of transnational networks as the future of innovation in the Irish arts through an analysis of their works, In Real Time (2008) and Track (2006). In Real Time and Track present two overlapping stories of the role of the transnational in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. In Real Time animates European networks via an act of artistic collaboration, while Track stages an encounter with Dublin that brings participants on an exploration of the City Centre through the perspective of the Chinese community, both long-term residents and recent arrivals, living in Ireland. In Real Time literally enacts an inter-EU network physically manifested through actors’ live and virtual bodies in theatrical time and space. Conversely, Track challenges discourses of Irish nationalism and forces recognition of transnational networks of migrants in Ireland that reach outside the space of the nation and the EU.

Aoife Monks, “Virtuosity, Mobility and Homesickness in Performance”

It was in the 18th Century that the virtuoso emerged as a category of performance (rather than a connoisseur and collector of fine art as in previous centuries). This was the moment in which virtuosity came to embody superhuman performance, emerging in a performer capable of apparently magical (if not demonic) transcendence of the material conditions of the stage. This paper investigates the relationship between the birth of the virtuoso and the emergence of the emotional category of nostalgia – homesickness – and suggests that they might both be viewed as symptoms of the disorienting affects of industrial modernity. Furthermore, I will ask whether virtuosity (as a category of performance, and later a quality ascribed to particular forms of work) and nostalgia might grow out of, and enable, global mobility. It may be no coincidence then, that the virtuosic performers that I will draw on in this paper – Dion Boucicault and Dan Bryant in the 19th Century and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler in the 20th Century – have all traded in nostalgia, wedding performances that inspire terror and awe with the longing for ‘home’. I will examine how the material conditions of labour in these two periods produce forms of virtuosity and nostalgia in performance.

Suggested reading:

Gabriele Brandstetter, ‘The Virtuoso’s Stage: A Theatrical Topos’, Theatre Research International, Volume 32: Issue 02 (July 2007), pp 178-195.

Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Trans. by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson (New York: SEMIOTEXT(E), 2004), particularly Chapter Four: “Labor, Action, Intellect : Day Two” [accessible at:].

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

Shaun Richards, ‘Were You Off East, Young Fellow …?’: The International Playboy of the Western World

George Ritzer’s concepts of ‘something’ (indigenously conceived) and ‘nothing’ (centrally conceived) appears to duplicate simple ‘positive/negative’ binaries of the local and the global. However, he adds the significant qualification that even the most local product is touched by the global, so making it ‘glocal’. This paper will address the ‘glocal’ aspect of theatre through productions of Playboy of the Western World from the Abbey production in 1907 and its US tour in 1911, to the work of Druid Theatre, Galway, Pan Pan Theatre’s production in Beijing, the Roddy Doyle and Bisi Adigun adaptation, and Desperate Optimists’ play-boy.

Shannon Steen, “Pacific Neoliberalism: Foxconn, Mike Daisey, and the Performative Imperative”

This presentation examines how the inter-embeddedness of Foxconn’s labor structures, Mike Daisey’s theatrical monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and Apple Corporation’s attempt to shape advanced capitalism with a human face instantiates what we might term Pacific Neoliberalism – a set of political imperatives predicated on unique forms of economic and cultural flows within and across the Pacific Basin. I use this trio of objects to explore how neoliberalism in general is itself a performative project, and how its Pacific Basin variant instantiates particular ideologies of creativity and labor distinctive from those of its Atlantic counterpart.

Suggested Readings:

Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event, 7:1.

Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Downloaded from

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Catherine Kingfisher and Jeff Maskovsky, “The Limits of Neoliberalism.” In Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 28 (2): 115-126.

Lara D. Nielsen and Patricia Ybarra (eds). Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 (see especially essays by Margaret Werry, Eng-Beng Lim, and Patricia Ybarra).

Brian Singleton, “The Routes to Memory: Site-Specific Performance in Ireland and Global/Social Capital”

Celebrated contemporary site-specific performance, most notably in the work of the UK’s Punchdrunk, has been branded by Michael McKinnie as ‘monopolistic’ as it trades on the theatrical efficacy of spatial disuse. Touring their work most recently to New York that monopolism has further begun to trade their theatrical efficacy/spatial disuse paradigm as global capital. Contextualising their work historically we place Punchdrunk among celebrated European companies such as Brith Gof of Wales, Dogtroep of The Netherlands and La Fura dels Baus of Catalunya, all of whom engaged similar global performance routes. But what of Irish site-specific performance? Certainly festivalised productions such as Playgroup’s Berlin Love Tour (2010), Junk Ensemble’s Bird with Boy (2011) and Wilfredd’s Farm (2012) operate within similar paradigms though arguably with less global potential. Anu Productions Monto trilogy (2010-12), however, resists the efficacy/disuse paradigm. The company’s site-specificity lies in their social capital of having emerged from and engaged with the lives and histories of an inner-city Dublin community’s spaces and places in very material ways. Rooted in the materiality of their social history, Anu Productions’ performances also address the issue of site-specific performance as speaking to but also resistant to the globalization of Irish theatre.

Clare Wallace, “Performing, processing and resisting—the nation and globalization in the work of David Greig

My proposed presentation derives from research I have been doing on the work of Scottish playwright David Greig. Since the 1990s Greig has produced an extensive body of work both as a writer and in collaboration with the Suspect Culture theatre company which he co-founded. As part of a new generation of Scottish writers whose work emerged at the end of the twentieth century, Greig has actively participated in the ongoing re-imagining of Scotland in the wake of devolution. However, critics at times have seemed slightly disgruntled at the apparent lack of familiar Scottish co-ordinates in some of his work. Greig is not alone in his ambivalence about signposting national specificity in his writing and theatre making. Nadine Holdsworth (2008) for instance has noted how relationships between place and identity are prominent features of Scottish playwriting more generally and contends that ‘there is a marked trend amongst many contemporary Scottish playwrights and theatre-makers to theatricalize multifarious sites, geological formations and landscapes as a way of articulating the diversity of Scotland’ (126). Yet, what makes Greig’s work a fascinating field of investigation is the way this ambivalence about national specificity is coupled with an ongoing attempt to address a wider set of economic and cultural conditions catalysed by globalization and broach forms of transnational identity within the amorphous context of the contemporary. ‘Theatre doesn’t change the world’ Greig has claimed, but ‘if the battlefield is the imagination, then the theatre is a very appropriate weapon in the armoury of resistance’ because it cannot be ‘globally commodified,’ since it is founded on possibility, contingency, changeability and is ‘accessible to everybody.’ With reference to selected plays and interviews, this presentation would chart how Greig’s ideas about how theatre can or should engage with questions of nation and globalization have evolved since he began writing and would attempt to position this work in relation to wider debates about theatre and globalization.


Dublin Theatre Festival programme 2013: some first thoughts

The Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out – a few weeks earlier than usual. So I’ve been enjoying browsing through the brochure for the last few days. What immediately strikes me is that there are a lot of companies and artists in there that I know nothing about – which is great. But it also means that I don’t quite know what to make of the programme yet. But here are some first thoughts…

Stripped Back?

On a rough count, there are 27 productions in this year’s Festival, and a very generous selection of additional free events.

I’ve heard a few people say already that it feels like a smaller programme than in recent years, perhaps because the REVIEWED programme (which revived successful Irish productions from the previous year) has not been included this year. But it’s closer to where it was in the mid-2000s when there were usually about 25 productions on average.

This number feels about right to me. One of the things I loved about the DTF when I started going back in 1999 was that if you had enough time and enough money it was possible to see everything being produced over the fortnight. I’m delighted to see that there is a good selection of matinees this year (including some on Wednesdays), and that the show starting times have been arranged in such a way that you can see a couple of shows in a night. That will suit people like me who are travelling from outside Dublin: if you’ve got a six-hour round-trip to the theatre, you want to see something a bit longer than an hour…

There also seems to be a slightly more austere approach to some of the productions, at least insofar as they are presented in the brochure. Corn Exchange are producing Desire Under the Elms, for instance, and promise that they will “strip a modern classic down to its bare bones”. I’ve written recently that I wished that there we could see more Eugene O’Neill in Ireland, so this production is very welcome. I wonder what stripping it back to its bare bones will entail though? My copy of the script runs to about 65 pages, and the estimated running time of 100 minutes for this production seems roughly equivalent to that number of pages. And although the DTF is an international festival, Corn Exchange will need to contend with the fact that many members of its audience won’t know the original play (and thus won’t know what it is being ‘stripped back’ from). So it’s already an intriguing prospect. Good also to see Corn Exchange returning to an American writer; I think the last time they did so was with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years back.

I always find myself looking for a Shakespeare production in the programme every year – and this year rather than a full cast working through one of the plays we have a one person re-enactment of The Rape of Lucrece. Camille O’Sullivan’s musical version of the poem has been getting good reviews in the UK so this 75-minute production looks worth checking out. It’s interesting that Galway and Kilkenny have both hosted visits from Propeller and the Globe in recent years – at a time when the DTF has largely avoided conventional stagings of Shakespeare. Off the top of my head I can’t remember a full-length Shakespeare at the Festival since Propeller’s Winter’s Tale at the Festival since 2005. Though of course we have seen SITI’s Radio Macbeth and the Wooster Group Hamlet.

On the “less is more” front we also have Rough Magic doing The Critic. I’d heard rumours about this one and was anticipating a full-blown restoration romp in the style of Lynne Parker’s stagings of Farquhar and Moliere. So I’d been imagining sitting back in the Project Upstairs space for a couple of hours and watching people speaking in posh accents and moving around in big wigs and frocks.

We might still get something like that, but again the brochure copy seems to promise something else. We start at the Culture Box and then move to the Ark, and somewhere along the way, we’ll see a staging of a play by students from UCD DramSoc, the Gaiety School of Acting and DU Players. It’ll be interesting to see Rough Magic taking to the streets (is this a result of Louise Lowe’s impact on Irish theatre?), if only to walk us from the Culture Box to the Ark, and with a cast of five Rough Magic regulars this promises to be a lot of fun.

And good also to see more Sheridan being staged: Irish audiences only ever get to see The Rivals and The School for Scandal and he did write other plays too, some of which are quite good. The Critic is not one of his best, but its metatheatricality makes it ideal for a theatre festival. And it’ll be interesting to see how the reviewers tackle it. Again we have a short running time (about 80 minutes) but the company are staging it twice on many days (at 7 and 9). So, as I write above, it seems that less will be more here.

McGuinness Returns

We haven’t seen an original play by Frank McGuinness in Ireland since 2002 when the Gate staged Gates of Gold, a play about that theatre’s founders Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir. Dubbed (a little cruelly) Gays of Old, the play wasn’t particularly well received at the time – so it wasn’t much of a surprise when McGuinness’s next play was staged in the UK. But after the appearance of his play about Guy Fawkes (Speaking Like Magpies, brilliantly directed by Rupert Goold), he also staged There Came a Gypsy Riding, Gretta Garbo Came to Donegal and the Matchbox over there.

Those are all plays that deserve to be more widely seen in Ireland – especially in the case of There Came a Gypsy Riding, an important and moving play about youth suicide. For me, McGuinness had become an emblem of a problem that afflicted Irish theatre from (roughly) 2002 onwards – which is that most of the best new Irish writing was being produced in Britain.

So it’s great to see the Abbey staging his new play The Hanging Gardens – which, incidentally, will be the third original new play they’ve presented on their main stage this year – impressive in its own right. It reunites McGuinness with his long-time collaborator Patrick Mason, whose version of Observe the Sons of Ulster from the mid-1990s defined (for me) the things that made Mason’s tenure as Abbey Artistic Director so important. The production was theatrically daring and politically generous, and it paved the way for a fuller representation of homosexuality on the Irish stage: I was struck when watching Alice in Funderland on the Abbey stage last year how far we’ve come since Mason left in 1999.

And it’s a great cast also. Marty Rea gave the best performance I saw last year in DruidMurphy and he’s joined by Declan Conlon, Cathy Belton, Niall Buggy and Barbara Brennan.

New International Work

One of the things I find myself doing with the launch of every DTF programme is seeking out productions from the high profile (or newly hyped) international companies and directors. We’ve had a great series of productions since the turn of the century: the 2000 Festival gave us Robert Wilson and Peter Brook, and since then we’ve seen new work by Cheek by Jowl, SITI, the Wooster Group, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Ontroerend Goed, Victoria, Propeller, Romeo Castelucci, Robert Lepage, and Thomas Ostermeier and the Schaubuhne, among many others. There have also been terrific strands of German and Polish productions. I’m sure I’ll be corrected on this, but the only major figure I can think of whom we haven’t see is Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre Du Soleil.

I have to be honest and state that when I read the DTF programme for the first time I was a bit disappointed that there were no major productions like those mentioned above. The return of Desperate Optimists is definitely interesting, and Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero also caught my eye. But as I looked through the programme, I didn’t find much else that I recognised.

Upon reflection, that’s actually a very exciting element of the programme. I’m delighted to have the chance to see some new Japanese work in Ground and Floor by Toshiki Okada – I still vividly remember another Japanese production called Tokyo Notes from about ten years ago, and am glad to have the opportunity to learn more about contemporary practice in that country.

Likewise I’m intrigued by a production called Germinal which apparently has nothing to do with the Zola novel of the same name.

And there is some other work from Portugal, India and Canada that I’ll definitely be trying to see. Again it’s all quite short – running to about 80 minutes on average. It’s interesting that so much international/Festival theatre nowadays is matching the running time of the typical movie, dispensing altogether with the interval. Venue managers must look at their bar receipts and weep.

So the international programme looks very exciting this year, precisely because so much of it is unfamiliar and new. I think we can’t understate the importance of the international work to the development of Irish theatre generally: every year I see evidence of companies being inspired (or provoked) by the international work. We’ve also seen countless examples of writers and companies emerging as a result of something they’ve seen at the Festival. I am not sure what company or companies might have that impact this year, or what patterns will emerge. It’s nice to be facing into a Festival not knowing what to expect.

The Big Guns

Brecht and Beckett are each often described as the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, and I note that the Festival brochure is describing Godot as the century’s most important play. (As an aside, some day I will have to learn German sufficiently well to be able to read the notes Brecht wrote about a production of Godot he intended to present – wouldn’t it be great if someone had the chance to stage that?).

So this year we have Gare St Lazarre doing Godot at the Gaiety. Last year, a lot of people were surprised when Corn Exchange staged Dubliners at that venue, and I’ve heard similar reactions to news about GSL appearing there. We’ve been watching the same Gate Theatre Godot in Ireland since 1991, so it will be interesting to see if this production can shake off the legacies of that version. Last year, Dubliners found an unexpected resonance with the Gaiety’s past as a venue for music hall, and that could also be interesting with Godot too. This looks like an interesting one and – as was the case with Dubliners – a bit of a gamble for the Festival too. Will Dublin audiences flock to Beckett when there is no John Hurt in the cast – or no “Beckett Festival” umbrella to tie things together? I certainly hope so.

Meanwhile it’s Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Gate, in a new version (apparently?) by Mark O’Rowe. At the Synge School this year, O’Rowe was talking about his experiences at the Gate in 2003 with Crestfall (the Gate audience truly hated it), so it’s interesting to see him returning to that venue. This is directed by Wayne Jordan, who already has a strong track record with musicals – and indeed with Irish versions of European classics. Jordan’s Enemy of the People may not have brought the Alice in Funderland audience to the Gate – but this production might, and it should also satisfy the theatre’s regular audience too. It looks like smart programming – but, leaving all that aside, I just can’t wait to see what O’Rowe does with Brecht. I suspect this will be the first ticket on my list when I get booking next month.

The Children’s Programme…

Louis Lovett has a new production at the Ark. I saw his House that Jack Filled at Baboro last year in an audience that had only five other adults in it – and found it brilliant. I expect (as happened with Tim Crouch’s run at the Peacock this year with I Malvolio and I Peaceblossom) that there may be a few too many grown-ups in the room when this is staged, but this is one I’ll be trying to see.

In Development

There’s a very strong strand of free and/or ancillary events this year. I’ve been involved in the Irish Theatre Magazine Critics Forum every year since 2006, and this year am taking a break – so am looking forward to enjoying it from the audience. But the highlight here is the chance to see work in development from two of the best companies around: Anu Productions and Pan Pan. This strand of the Festival is becoming an annual highlight.

David Greig’s The Events

I’ve written already of my desire to see more Greig in Ireland, so this is great news. There was a minor skirmish on twitter when elements of the Scottish press took Greig to task for (as they inaccurately put it) writing a musical about Anders Breivik. Greig refuted that claim robustly. But this is a play that asks how communities can respond to acts of violence like those commited by Breivik, and it also makes interesting use of music. This too is something I’ll be booking early for.  There’s a good overview of the controversy over on The Guardian


There’s much more to enjoy in there than I’ve noted above – a new play from Fishamble, Eamonn Morrisey in a one-man show about Maeve Brennan, Junk Ensemble, and lots more.  And I’m sure as I learn more about the programme, the thoughts above will develop, expand and change.

Overall, I think this is a very good programme. There is, I think, something for (almost) everyone in there – with the possible exception of a high-profile international play like The Pitmen Painters or Death of a Salesman or Enron (something that would normally pack them in at the Gaiety). In the last few years, I’ve sometimes felt that the DTF was becoming an umbrella for several micro-festivals and while I enjoyed that variety, I think this year seems more coherent overall – it reminds me a bit of the Festivals that were programmed by Fergus Linehan just over ten years ago (and those were all great Festivals). As I said above, it’s the first Festival in a while where it’s possible to see everything, but (being blunt) it’s also the first Festival in a while where I’d actually like to see everything. There’s good continuity with what has worked well in the recent past, but also a sense that Willie White is putting his mark on things.

Now I have to work out how to see everything I want to see. A good problem to have.

And we’ll also be booking tickets for our undergraduate and postgraduate students at NUI Galway, so we’re starting to discuss the balance between their seeing work that will inform what they are doing (Brecht seems an obvious choice) while also opening up new avenues for them. Last year, I was delighted to be able to bring our First Year drama students to see Brokentalkers, Pan Pan and the Wooster Group – as well as the Abbey and Gate. So I’m hoping to find a similar balance this year. Another good problem to have.


Dublin Fringe Highlights

I got an email this morning with highlights from this year’s Dublin Fringe. Some great stuff in there already, with more to come when tickets go on sale on 14 August.

The hottest tickets this year will surely be for the new work from Louise Lowe, Thirteen. This is, we’re told, a “citywide exploration and interrogation of the 1913 Lockout; building each day from one to thirteen events around themes and locations associated with the dispute through site-responsive performances and installations.”

One of the most impressive features of Louise Lowe’s work over the last few years is the way she’s been able to change direction and do new things from one production to the next – while also maintaining the core integrity of her work. Really looking forward to this.

Also delighted to hear of a new work from Amy Conroy, whose I ♥ Alice ♥  I and Eternal Rising of the Sun are among the most interesting new productions of recent years. The new production is called Break and – quoting again from the press release – it “brings the audience behind the closed doors of the school staff room, exploring the complicated lives of teachers and their role within the education system”. Should be interesting, especially given that the production will happen at a time when parents are returning to school to find their kids in bigger classes than ever before. And we won’t even start talking about how difficult it is for some parents even to find schools for their kids at the moment.

I’m also very excited to hear that Nic Green will be back with a show called Fatherland. Her production of Trilogy in 2010 was one of the best things I’ve seen at the Fringe – it was so inventive and invigorating, showing that intellectual rigour and theatrical exuberance don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We’re told that the new show will ‘unearth national identities and the notion of fatherhood’.  It’s probably an oversimplification to suggest that this sounds like it’s doing for masculinity what Trilogy did for feminism and the representation of the female body. Anyway – I am looking forward to this.

Lots of other interesting things there, including a strand that ties in with the Gathering. Looking forward to finding out more on in a few weeks.

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.

New British Drama and Playwriting in Ireland

Last week I was in London for a few days, doing some research. When I visit that city I always try to make time to visit the Royal Court bookshop. It doesn’t have as wide a selection of new plays as can be found in the amazing shop at the National Theatre – but what it does have is cheap scripts. Almost every new play the Court produces comes with a playscript that is usually priced somewhere between £2 and £5. So it’s possible when you visit to stock up on some great new writing for an affordable price.

That’s exactly what I did last week, coming away with new work by Lucy Kirkwood, Martin Crimp, Polly Stenham, Bruce Norris, and Bola Agbaje. Since then I have been reading and enjoying those plays – some of them very much.

I’ve been struck by a few thoughts while reading through that new work. The first is that so many of the best new British plays are being written  by women – not just people like Agbaje, Stenham and Kirkwood, but also really interesting writers like Laura Wade and Alecky Blythe. As I’ve already stated in this blog, that situation contrasts with Ireland, where women dramatists seem to find it more difficult to have their work put on.

I was also struck by the variety of styles and perspectives employed. Stenham’s No Quarter is about a well to do pair of brothers’ attempts to come to terms with their mother’s death; Kirkwood’s NSFW is about the way in which women’s bodies are used to sell magazines not only to men but also to women. Norris is not even a British writer, yet the Court chose to premiere his play The Low Road earlier this year – and that too contrasts with Ireland where we rarely see new British and American plays.


These plays were all produced by the Royal Court, and it’s only fair to say that this theatre does not necessarily represent the entire British theatre sector. But we’ve been saying for some time now – really since the mid to late 1990s – that British playwriting is undergoing a renaissance or a new ‘golden age’. And it’s showing no sign of abating. Many British theatres are producing excellent new plays by exciting new voices – and when I see those plays being staged, they are usually in theatres that are close to being full, and usually there are a significant minority of younger audience-members present (people under 40 I mean). That’s particularly true in Scotland, where there are some brilliant new plays being produced.

Now, I know that every tourist risks idealising what he or she sees abroad, especially when those sights seem to contrast with deficiencies at home. And I am aware of the problems faced by the British theatre, especially in terms of funding and the desire of the British government to instrumentalise everything from education to culture.

Nevertheless, I found myself wondering why things aren’t quite the same in Ireland – a country that is supposed to have a reputation for producing great writers.

Of course there have been plenty of good plays in Ireland over the last few years – and last year’s nominees for the Irish Times best play award were all very strong (they were Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days, Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Morna Regan’s The House Keeper and The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle  by Ross Dungan). But there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of excitement about new writing as would have been the case from, say, 1995 to about 2003.

One explanation is that Irish theatre has taken to devising during that period. We’ve had quite a bit of debate about the “play vs. devised piece” distinction over the last year – and I don’t want to add to that debate except to say that I don’t think the distinction is all that necessary or helpful. Michael West’s Freefall was devised with Corn Exchange, but it’s also a brilliantly written play, for example.



And as Dylan Tighe has pointed out on a number of occasions, his No Worst There Is None may not be a literary text such as a Friel or a Tom Murphy might write but it was still written by someone who sought to meld its constituent elements into something artistic. Likewise, the most important work of the last decade is by common consensus the site-specific work of Louise Lowe – and although you can’t buy the script for Laundry or The Boys of Foley Street – and although you wouldn’t come close to understanding the performances by reading a script, the action can still be committed to print.

So I don’t worry too much about the amount of devised work in Ireland at the moment, simply because we’re kind of playing “catch-up” with the rest of Europe in introducing these practices anyway.

But I do worry that we are missing out on the exciting work that is being written in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. We’ve seen some of it, especially at the Galway Arts Festival which has in the last decade brought in new plays by Craig Wright, Bruce Norris, Bruce Graham, Che Walker, and David Greig. The Dublin Theatre Festival has brought in some of the bigger British hits of recent years – Black Watch, The Pitmen Painters, and Enron. And Rough Magic and Prime Cut – not to mention such practitioners as Annabelle Comyn and Tom Creed – did much to introduce us to new writing from abroad. But we’re not really seeing much evidence of such work inspiring comparable developments in Ireland in the way that David Mamet did in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I’m very excited by the devised work that’s being done in Ireland, especially by some of the younger companies. But I’m struck by the fact that there seems to be an imbalance now. For example, this year’s Galway Fringe Festival has a great programme, but from a quick glance at it, I don’t see any evidence of any company producing a play that has already been produced professionally somewhere else. And that hardly ever happens in the Dublin Fringe either.

In short, I’d just like to see a few more plays being produced in Ireland – not just new plays by new Irish writers, but also Irish productions of some of the great new work that’s appearing abroad. I really feel that Irish audiences and young theatre-makers would be inspired by this work: inspired to write new plays, inspired to visit the theatre more often. But they need to have access to it first.

The arguments we’ve been hearing over the last few years about devised work are actually muddying the waters, I think. We can continue to have great devised work and should appreciate and value it. But we should also do more to encourage the development of new plays, and to encourage the appreciation of what’s happening abroad. The devised work vs. new play argument is not an either/or – we can have both/and.