Fintan: I first encountered your work in 2003 around the time Blue was performed at Project Arts Centre. There was great excitement about the writing itself, but also about the fact that you were a female writer with Irish and Indian heritage seemed to grab people’s attention. Do you recall how you felt about the ways in which your work was received or framed initially, and how has your attitude to this changed over time, and indeed other people’s reaction to you and your work?
Ursula: I think I was amazed at the reaction to my early work. That was partly to do with the fact that I didn’t see myself as a playwright at all. I began writing and directing while at University College Cork and …touched..., my second play, was created in the months after my final exams in 1999. I wrote and directed it in eight weeks and worked with actors from the university drama society. It was only when we were in Edinburgh at the festival that I realised the play was being considered professionally and I was suddenly a playwright. …touched… brought attention from companies such as The Traverse, The National Theatre and the BBC so I was immediately thought of as an ‘Irish’ playwright. Other labels used were ‘young, ‘mixed race’ and ‘female’. I didn’t dwell on the response or the classification and I have never felt tied down or restricted by labels or by a sense of audience expectation.
I have been asked why I have not written more specifically about India and why as a woman I don’t write about women’s issues. That this is simply not the way I work as an artist. I am a character-driven writer, not an issue-driven one and so attempting to write with any agenda would feel unnatural. I don’t believe I have a duty to represent any community or gender but my identity and experiences automatically become part of the tapestry of the work. For example, my dual heritage has meant that I am very interested in the concept of home and what it means to belong. This theme recurs in my work. The work is an extension of who I am and how I see the world so in many ways perhaps it is ‘mixed race’ and ‘female’ but in general it’s not something I give much thought to. It is what it is.
In my experience, thinking too much about how the work will be received can be detrimental to the creative process. Once I start worrying about how something is going to be digested, it affects the truth of what I am trying to write. Once the script is finished, all I hope is that the work and effort will be recognised. For me as a playwright, it is more important to be brave and to try for something extraordinary than to recreate the same play over and over again. I find it comforting that my work is being considered within an academic context now as I believe that play texts are pieces of literature and that they deserve a more measured response than a short review. I spend years writing a play, sculpting and redrafting and it is enormously satisfying to know that even a few people are taking the time to study the text in depth. This goes back to my own academic background and how illuminating it can be to sit with a play text and discover only on the third read another layer carefully woven in by the author.
F: You are surely one of Ireland’s busiest and most prolific younger playwrights, although theatre
companies outside of Ireland mostly produce your work now. What are the reasons behind this?
U: I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate that I have only written to commission. Most of these have come from companies in the UK and I am currently writing plays for Soho Theatre, The Traverse and the Ambassador Theatre Group. When …touched… launched my career in Edinburgh I was brought to the attention of UK companies and the commissions that followed meant that I didn’t have an opportunity to forge a connection with new writing companies in Ireland. I have worked with Irish festivals and companies, via my company Djinn and as a playwright, such as The Abbey, Project Arts Centre and Cork Midsummer Festival
amongst others. It is important to me that I maintain a connection with the Irish theatre scene and I alongside my UK commissions I am currently writing for The Abbey and also developing a new Irish music/theatre project with Mick Flannery. My ideal working scenario is to continue working for companies both at home and abroad.
Incidentally, I must say I have been very impressed with the new talent that has emerged in Ireland in recent years, there seems to be a real energy and sense of innovation pulsing through at the moment.
F: One of the things that struck me about your early plays especially is that there was a lightness to your usage of words - not to be confused with simplicity, of course – which is quite different to Irish drama’s rhetorical tendency. I wonder what you make of this observation, and where you see yourself in relation to other Irish writers? I know you are an admirer of the work Tom Murphy, who to me, seems like a very different kind of writer.
U: My early work including Blue and …touched… were a combination of dense lyrical monologues, fast paced almost cinematic scenes that shifted location quickly with minimal set requirements. The monologues were influenced by elements of the Irish canon, the sense of luxuriating in language and of using words to create a sensory experience for the listener. I was probably more influenced by poetry and film than plays when I began as I didn’t have frequent access to the theatre in West Clare where I grew up. These plays followed no particular structure or pattern and I allowed the narrative to instinctively steer the shape of each piece. The more plays I was exposed to, the more I became aware of the tradition of dramaturgy. I began experimenting with using: more rigidly defined acts; less lyricism; and writing work that played out in real time and in singular locations. Recently, I have returned to writing without a consciousness of these things. The only thing I try to avoid is writing something that feels similar to something I have done before. I try to push myself to experiment as often as possible. I would rather a play have moments of the extraordinary and feel slightly fractured than create something which feels safe and familiar. I have a love/hate relationship with dramaturgy on the whole. I can see how script development can funnel a lot of organic and innovative writing into the blue print of what a ‘well made play’ should look like. The truth is I find most ‘well made plays’ quite dull if there isn’t something truly original within. At its best dramaturgy encourages the playwright to realise the plays they want to write, at its worst it filters everything down. Of the Irish canon I probably admire Tom Murphy and Frank McGuinness the most for their imagination and ability to write work that transcends. I respond to those moments of the extraordinary within their work.
F: You’ve recently moved to the UK permanently, and have forthcoming projects there. How do you see your work as still responding to our indeed relevant to Irish culture? Do you feel that Ireland has been supportive of your work?
U: As I grew up in Ireland and am Irish, everything that I write will always be influenced by that and in turn be relevant to some degree. Early plays like Blue and …touched… were firmly routed geographically in Ireland and yet both have been translated and are produced abroad frequently. It seems odd that sometimes the more specific geographically the work is, the more universally relevant the story becomes. Some of my recent plays are quite global in sensibility, not deliberately, but through the specific stories I have been driven to tell. The Dark Things, RIOT, The Spider Men and Without You are written without geographic specificity however
Birdsong, The Parting Glass and The Magic Tree, are either set in Ireland or within an Irish context. My version of Yerma for the West Yorkshire Playhouse became Irish accidently I think, both in the rhythm of the language and the rural setting I imagined. On the whole, I always aspire to write stories that capture an element of the human experience and this, I hope, makes them relative to any culture.
Ireland has been supportive of my work. The Granary Theatre, The Cork Opera House and Project Arts Centre to mention a few, all supported my early work and were instrumental in my becoming a playwright. The Arts Council and Culture Ireland have also supported me on numerous occasions, something which is incredibly important when you are a developing artist. I have also held a number of community residencies throughout the country including Galway, The Cross Border Centre and with CREATE in Dublin. My work has been directly fed and inspired by these residencies.
I would like to see productions of my plays in Ireland in particular, The Dark Things and Yerma.
The Dark Things was such a success for me and not just because of the CATS awards. It was a brave piece of writing for me and I loved the experience of working on it with director Dominic Hill who encouraged me to be as experimental as I wanted. That freedom and support when
trying to carve new territory is vital. It will get it’s second production in Montreal next year but I am hopeful an Irish company will produce it at some point.
F: In addition to writing for theatre, you have also worked in community contexts, write poetry, radio plays, and have recently been writing for TV and film. What do you see as the relationship between these separate forms and practices?
U: I began writing poetry at a young age and in my mind it is most closely linked with Playwriting. I love language and being submerged in it. Transitioning to writing for the theatre seemed a natural enough progression. Working on Yerma was the perfect merging of both as the play features heightened language and poems also. I loved being able to write lyrically with abandon, something that I had done without self-consciousness in my early plays. Radio drama is closer to traditional story telling: voices coming from the ether with people’s imagination left to picture the story as it unfolds. TV and Film are completely different beasts with their own structural rules and regulations. It is an area that is taking up more of my time and I recently wrote and directed my first short film The Woods. The major difference is the amount of information that you have to get across visually. I find it relatively easy to work like this as I have always written with a directorial eye. This is an old habit from when I was writing, directing, producing, set building and anything else that had to be done.
The community residencies I have loved. For me to have a continuous writing output, it’s very important to get out into the world and meet people, see places, witness life… to get some fuel for the fire.
F: Could you tell us about your involvement in the Cultural Olympiad?
U: A.T.G have commissioned me to write a new play inspired by 27 groups of young people across the UK to produce five short plays of approximately 15-20 minutes that are loosely inspired by the concept of the Olympic Truce. The piece is titled The Ripple Effect and each play will stand alone and will also fit together chronologically in a complete full length play. All five plays will be premiered regionally and then together at a West End Gala as part of the official Cultural Olympiad programme. It is a terrifying and exhilarating challenge. I have written several plays for young people but this is quite different. Each region is woven in to the tapestry of each segment and yet the piece must feel cohesive when performed together. I am also writing a series of songs for the piece. Coming from a musical background it is exciting to be able to bring this into my work as a writer. I am delighted to be taking part in the Cultural Olympiad as there was absolutely no chance of me ever being involved in the Olympics in an athletic capacity! It is an epic commission for a rather epic occasion.
F: And could you give a hint about what your project with Flannery and McBrinn is about, and when we are likely to see the fruits?
U: The project is inspired by Mick’s album Evening Train. I heard the album some time ago and felt strongly that the piece would work beautifully in a theatrical environment. I had a very clear sense of the world and the characters and contacted Mick to see if it was something he was interested in exploring. Since then, I’ve been working with Mick and Róisín on the development of the piece supported by the National Theatre, which has been wonderful. The work will premiere in 2013.
Fintan Walsh is Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London