As a fan of Irish writers Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson and Colum McCann, I’ve always fancied myself a Celtophile. But thanks to Origin’s 1st Irish’s artistic director George C. Heslin, I now know that those writers are just the tip of the iceberg. And thanks again to Heslin – we’re about to be treated to the abundance and diversity that makes up the true wealth of Irish talent.
Now in its sixth year, Origin’s 1st Irish 2013 is the world’s only theatre festival dedicated to Irish playwrights. It runs from September 2nd through September 29th and is curated and coordinated by the New York-based Origin Theatre Company. Origin’s 1st Irish features plays and productions in an array of styles by contemporary Irish playwrights from Belfast, Dublin, Boston and New York. It’s the brainchild of George Heslin, who founded Origin Company eleven years ago, shortly after arriving in New York. Heslin – who’d been working with extraordinary playwrights back in Ireland such as Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh – was struck that “what America considered contemporary Irish and British theatre… was actually very old.” So in 2002, Heslin produced Enda Walsh’s “Misterman” for four weeks off-Broadway. Walsh, who penned the eight-Tony-award-winning “Once,” was completely unknown to American audiences back then. And so Origin was born, and out of that Origin’s 1st Irish – a must-see rare chance to discover vital new talent before it hits the mainstream.
Since its inception, Origin has produced the work of about forty European playwrights, including commissioning original works such as “End of Line” which five Irish playwrights wrote based on different MTA subway lines. “We’re trying to nurture the next generation,” George explained, “A lot of plays that make it across the Atlantic make it across because they’re suitable for big Broadway houses. Plays by Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh are brilliant … but there’s thousands of Irish writers who haven’t written a play with a 300 or a 900-seater theater in mind.” George cites this as the key to Origin’s sensibility and success, “We attract plays with big hearts that need a small venue.”
In his role as Origin’s artistic director, Heslin understands that by creating opportunity, he’s creating work that would otherwise not exist, making him something of an impresario. From his background as an actor and on-going work as a director, he also knows that community is the most powerful and organic fertilizer that money can’t buy. So many of Origin’s 1st Irish plays are the result of his having fostered decades-long relationships with both emergent and established Irish talent. Origin has not only created a breeding ground for cross-fertilization between Ireland and the U.S., but Heslin also fosters the relationships between actors, writers and directors, encouraging them to stretch their talents by wearing different hats in each other’s projects. The result is a rich diverse mix of talent overflowing into several venues over the next month.
The mainstage shows will be presented at 59E59 Theaters, the Green Room at Ryan’s Daughter and Theatre 80 St. Marks. The 1st Irish Next Generation Series, a programming initiative launched last year, will consist of three world-premiere-first-look productions – all at The Cell. These shows, more developed than workshops but small enough to allow for continued experimentation, will compete with the Festival’s larger-scale productions for jury-voted awards honoring the outstanding performances and productions. At the Festival’s Closing Night Awards Ceremony on Monday, September 30, the festival’s prestigious Audience Awards will also be handed out.
In all, four world premieres and three American premieres will be unveiled. The American productions include “The Cure” by Conal Creedon, directed by Tim Ruddy, “McGoldrick’s Thread” a new play by Marianne Driscoll, directed by Kira Simring and “The Compass Rose” from the acclaimed Boston-based Irish playwright, Ronan Noone, directed by David Sullivan. The shows coming from Ireland include “The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle” by Ross Dungan, directed by Dan Herd and “I Can See Clearly Now (The Wheelchair on my Face)” written and performed by Sonya Kelly, directed by Gina Moxley. The Next Generation Series (premieres) include Anto Nolan’s “A Lady is Waiting” directed by Laurence Lowry, “The Morons” by Dan McCormick, directed by Christopher Scott and “The International” a new play by Tim Ruddy, directed by Christopher Randolph.
I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the talent behind the Next Generation Series – Laurence Lowry, Dan McCormick, Christopher Randolph and Tim Ruddy. Although their stories are not necessarily about Irish people or events, they evidence an empathy for anguish and a condemnation of those who turn a blind eye to suffering which belies a heritage that understands suffering all too well. Tim Ruddy’s “The International” grapples with the genocide at Srebrenica via three monologues – a Muslim woman who’s at the center of it, a Dutch soldier who’s a part of the international force sent in to protect people and an LA truck driver who watches the war on TV and bets on it. As Tim says, “(Violence) doesn’t discriminate. The war in Ireland and the war in Eastern Europe and the war in Syria all have the same effect on the communities – the destruction of the innocents, those people caught in the crossfire.” Lowry will be directing his talented wife, Fiana Toibin, in “A Lady is Waiting” which asks questions about love, loss and lust through a middle-aged woman whose life seems to have come to a full stop. And McCormick’s “The Morons” is about the preposterous lengths an American family will go to become the next big reality TV sensation.
The stories of how these plays came to be – and came to be in the festival – all feature Heslin prominently. As Laurence Lowry explained, “What George does (for Irish arts) is unbelievable. He even gets people apartments just through friends of friends.” In some case, these writers, directors and actors have known each other – and George – for years, from acting together in Dublin and later, in the States. In other cases, George is simply the brilliant curator. According to writer, Dan McCormick, when George first saw a staged reading of “The Morons”, George said, “Danny, please tell me you’re a dual citizen of Ireland! (Irish citizenship being a prerequisite for playwrights in Origin’s 1st Irish.) Fortunately for all of us, he was.
When I asked Lowry why Ireland has such a thriving theater community, he explained that the arts are better funded in Ireland than they are in the States, through Ireland’s Arts Council. As a result, Lowry explained, “Theater wages in general are higher in Dublin than they are in America, especially in New York, where it’s much more expensive to live than in Ireland.” However Ruddy says that funding for the arts in Ireland has been cut very severely because of the recession. “The arts are always the first to go,” he admits. But he also feels there are “enough people in New York City who love the arts. Support (is there) if you go out and search for it.”
Given these two models for funding, Origin’s 1st Irish actually fosters economic sustainability for plays by cross-pollinating theatre artists from the US whose home-grown shows are self-produced the American free enterprise way with artists from Ireland whose work is supported by public funds so they can rise to a level of professionalism that US commercial theatre prizes. Each side learns and grows from collaboration with and exposure to their counterparts. It’s actually built into the festival’s funding that there be a mix of plays from the US and Ireland. And this is what makes Origin’s 1st Irish so uniquely energized – the sense of community, exchange and the joy of creation.
This year, Origin’s 1st Irish has expanded to include an array of performing arts… music, author readings, discussions, poetry, film screenings and a walking tour that follows in the footsteps of writer Maeve Brennan (the alleged muse for Holly Golightly) presented by the Irish Arts Center ahead of their upcoming premiere of a play based on her work. There’s even a doc screening followed by a Q&A with my aforementioned favorite novelist, Colum McCann. And even though you’re my competition to get into these events, I urge you to make your plans now because many of these events are free…
The newly re-branded Origin’s 1st Irish, powered by Origin Theatre Company, runs from September 2 through 29. For festival information, visit www.1stIrish.org