On a sunny September Saturday in New York, just off Washington Square, NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House played host to a day-long symposium titled 'Theatre Talk: In Transition, In Translation: Irish Theatre in the US Today'. In an effort to kickstart a panel conversation on "The Irish Brand", moderator Annette Clancy called upon the audience to offer some words that they might associate with this term. A mini-deluge of descriptors were thrown out and hastily jotted down on a whiteboard: Satire. Green. Language. Heritage. Music. (Dark) Humour. Pain. Rain. Fabrication. Hyperbole. Pride. Drink. Conflict. Hunger. Beckettian. Religion. Clever. Violence. Wanderlust. Guilt. Emigration.
And then from a corner, a gravelly voice offered up “the perpetual question: 'Who the hell are we?'" Indeed.
Concurrently, the 2010 1st Irish Theatre Festival, founded in 2007 by New York-based Origin Theatre Company, was busy offering New York a medley of productions by Irish companies, and US productions of work by Irish playwrights. The Theatre Talk event was set up, in the words of George Heslin (artistic director of Origin) to be "a space within the festival for academic reflection." And so an array of academics, journalists, playwrights, artistic directors, and other sundry theatre-makers (including myself, a dramaturg on a daytrip from New Haven, Connecticut) gathered in this spirit of reflection and self-reflection.
Tania Banotti, Chief Executive of Theatre Forum Ireland, summed it up beautifully when she referred to "Brand Ireland" as that "godawful term" – yet she and all on the panel argued passionately and persuasively for the importance of understanding how Irish theatre is viewed from without. As arts publicist Nik Quaife put it, understanding how Irish theatre is viewed from abroad allows for a presentation of "the stuff we're known to be good at, and then upsetting those expectations in an American context." Finding further footholds for Irish theatre depends upon understanding where we can fit in.
George Heslin talked about the importance of New York as a platform for Irish work, citing it as an entry-point for Irish theatre. But he also cautioned about the risk involved in launching a playwright in America – "even if you've had four shows at the Abbey, nobody here cares.". The 1st Irish Festival, he added, has an unofficial rule of "only playwrights with Irish passports." Linda Murray of Solas Nua Irish Arts Organization in Washington D.C. added the "unsexy but practical" proviso that it is more expensive to import full productions, so many companies that want more Irish voices to be heard will opt to produce work by Irish playwrights with American casts, although collaborations with Irish companies are often more financially viable.
Echoes of an identity crisis hovered over every conversation. The Irish imports (myself included) tended to skirt uneasily around the notion of what exactly it is to be Irish. Contrariwise, the Irish diaspora asserted their identity proudly and enthusiastically. One first-generation symposium attendee told the room how she woke up one morning and "just realised that I was Irish." In a country where tribes come in hyphenates (Irish-American, African-American, All-American, etc.), ancestry is a fiercely defended issue.
How we present ourselves and how we are presented are two sides of an identity-crisis-coin. On a panel about 'Tradition and Nostalgia: Contexts and Challenges for a New Generation', Charlotte Moore (Artistic Director of the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York) described, with some world-weariness, the numbing experience of hosting open auditions where every single auditionee opened with the lines "…and I can do a perfect Irish accent." (I hastened to add that Irish theatre is just as often guilty of presenting shows under the aegis of "America: The Accent.")
Several of the theatre-makers on the panel discussing 'Economic Realities: Building Irish Theater in the US'talked about how the US concept of Irish theatre is dominated by the trio of Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. Tom Reing, Artistic Director of Inis Nua Theatre Company in Philadelphia, discussed the issue of the "modern show," and the necessity of educating an audience about modern Ireland. Half the battle, he said, was explaining that it was not Riverdance. There was, he emphasized, an audience out there beyond the traditional "Guinness and Beef Stew" fans; a demographic of young people of Irish descent who are out there looking for stories (a demographic he cheekily termed the "wine and sushi" generation).
Finally, keynote speaker Garry Hynes (in conversation with writer and journalist Belinda McKeon) mused on how the US helped shift her perceptions of Irishness and Irish theatre. It was on a student visa to America one summer that she had some of her first experiences of theatre. And when she, Marie Mullen and the late Mick Lally set up Druid Theatre Company in Galway in 1975, the choice to present Playboy of the Western World as their first production was a purely strategic one, set to take advantage of the Galway tourist industry (made up largely of Irish-Americans returning to their roots). "However, over a couple of drinks after rehearsals, we came to the realisation, 'you know, this Playboy isn't a bad play after all.' We decided that if we survived as a company, we'd do it again and try and get it right." Years later, she says, her work has helped her get a clearer bearing on who she is: "Theatre taught me how to be an Irish person."
Tanya Dean is in her final year of an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale University and is currently dramaturging a production of Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice.