1st Irish Takes the Stage!


How It’s New York:  1st Irish, The Festival of Irish Theatre was expressly started by George C. Heslin in 2008 to present a wider range of Irish dramatic voices in New York (and by extension, America!)
How It’s Irish:  The playwrights are Irish or Irish-American, several of the companies hail from Ireland, and the Festival has become THE way to launch a playwriting career in America!

There’s SO darned much to say about 1st Irish and I’m SO behind on this I hardly know where to start!  So you’ll forgive me I hope if in subsequent posts I repeat tje New York/Irish thing a little!  As the Festival goes on I’ll be uploading some reviews and interviews here as well.

I wrote about the Festival before it debuted in 2008, for the New York Times:

Theater Festival Presents New Voices From a New Ireland

Published: August 31, 2008
He heard, “Doesn’t that already exist?” He heard, “That’s brilliant!” One thing he rarely heard was, “No.”

George C. Heslin, artistic director of Origin Theater Company, recalls with a laugh that when he was putting together New York’s first Irish theater festival, called 1st Irish 2008, “the process was shockingly organic.”

For Mr. Heslin, the idea for the festival was born in frustration. The Origin Theater Company’s mission is to bring European theater to New York, and he wanted to show New York a cross-section of the best of contemporary Irish work, much of which is unknown here. He did include a new adaptation of an Oscar Wilde children’s story, and one Conor McPherson piece (unseen here for six years), but most of the productions are New York premieres. Mr. Heslin, who came to New York from Limerick in 1994, said he hopes that eventually presenters at the festival will begin taking their work to the Dublin Theater Festival, which takes place in late September and early October. 

Read the rest here!
Now four years later, where are we?  Here’s my take on how the Festival has grown.  Coming up:  Vinny Murphy’s interview with George for the Irish Examiner (USA);  1st Irish Line-up, and my review of Temporal Powers at the Mint Theatre!  For the full list of shows go to the 1st Irish page.  I missed getting a brochure at the Launch, but, like Paul Keating’s amazing blue grid for Catskills Irish Arts Week, it’s a must.  How else will I schedule myself for 7 plays and 2 panels?

In 2008, the question about the 1st Irish Festival  was “how did this happen?”  Now the question is, “what does it mean?” 
 It means a lot.  
  The quantity is impressive– this year there are 6 American premieres, and 1 New York premiere; since its debut there have been 62 plays including 14 world premieres, 23 American and 5 NY–
— but the quality is what really makes the Festival significant.  Some of the talent who have been involved include Geraldine Hughes (who just finished opposite Mark Rylance in Jerusalem), Eoin O’Neill, Abbie Spallen, Sebastian Barry, Mary Murray.  Lucy Caldwell, Belinda McKeon (her book Solace has gotten raves; read Michelle Woods’ review here), Pat Kineavane, Lucy Caldwell and Gary Duggan all had  plays produced in America because of 1st Irish.  The Festival runs from September 5 to October 3.
Five companies are coming over from Ireland– Dublin’s Fishamble, which brought over Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street to critical acclaim (my interview with Barry for the Village Voice here!), Tall Tales (Co. Navan), the company run by Deirdre Kinahan; Cirque de Legume (Co. Sligo), and Brassneck Theatre Co. (W. Belfast).  
Eight American companies are presenting, including  Mabou Mines (I can’t wait to see founder Ruth Malaczech in Lucia’s Chapters Coming Forth by Day, about Lucia Joyce), Origin Theatre Co., British National Theatre of America (Las Vegas), Tir Na Theatre Co. (Boston), Inis Nua (Philadelphia), The Mint (including the outstanding American premiere of Teresa Deevy’s Temporal Powers), Irish Arts CenterAmerican Irish Historical Society.  And The New York Irish Center is presenting a film!
What is it about Irish theatre(and culture) that excites the world?  On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish– in New York, that spirit carries through the year.  The artistic impulse in Ireland is disproportional to the people there, whether it’s the music, theatre, or film.  Something about its cheeky, deadpan humor, its way with a melancholy insight, and the handshake way of making things happen– feels like home to New Yorkers.
Let’s face it, theatre companies and festivals get started a lot.  Rarely do they make it to the fourth year without changing their mission or cutting back, because while everyone’s interested in newbies, by year four something like this has got to put up or shut up; the new Festival smell has worn off.  Well– 1st Irish has made it.  Despite the sudden departure of the Celtic Tiger, the one area that the Irish government has continually invested in is the arts.  It has paid off.  The Ulster Bank Dublin TheatreFestival, for example, attracts scouts from all over the world, including New York. Culture Ireland’s Imagine Ireland, a year-long program of the arts in America, has supported theatre, dance, music and film.

And thanks to 1st Irish, some of that talent is making its way here directly.  The Festival receives funding from government sources in Ireland and has grown exponentially; this year receiving money from Northern Ireland too.  A panel at Lincoln Center will look at theatre in Northern Ireland.
George C. Heslin
 Started by Limerick-born George C. Heslin, the Festival takes place all over New York and brings American companies in as well as Irish ones, and has become the one that every Irish playwright wants to get into.  Heslin was driven by the realization that new Irish writing didn’t often make it to NYC, besides the lions of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh (and it’s through Origin theatre that Enda Walsh,  whose adaptation of Once will be at New York TheatreWorkshop in the Fall, first appeared in NYC).
 But it’s also a truly international experience, one that replicates in miniature the Irish-American exchange over time.  The Festival blends American productions with Irish ones, and forges ongoing relationships.  For example, “The Prophet of Monto,” seen last year in a production from Washington D.C.-based Irish theatre company Solas Nua, will appear at Axis:Ballymun in Dublin in November. (Axis: Ballymun just brought over their production of The Parting Glass, to strong reviews; here’s ours!).
Deirdre Kinahan had a short play in the Festival last year– and it changed her life.  She g had meetings with powerful agents, and now has an Off-Broadway run of her play Bogboy planned at Irish Arts Center.  She was back a few months ago to have a playreading at a major theatre.  Expect more from her– but it wouldn’t have happened without 1st Irish.
I’m  interested in the way new Irish writing is telling its own history, seeking to understand what Ireland is going through now.
Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company brings Dublin by Lamplight, set in 1904, by Michael West, directed by Tom Reing, a story that uses Commedia dell’Arte to look at the meaning of the Irish National Theatre and the “event of the century.”  Since the National Theatre in Ireland, as it did in Czechoslovakia, becamse a touchstone of Irish identity, a play about it also obliquely investigates those same questions of what it means to be Irish.  At 59E59.
And the very physical style of Cirque de Légume, using vegetables and acrobatics to tell of a love story between clowns, explodes the idea that Irish theatre equals verbiage.  That’s one of those things well known in Ireland and less known here– and it’s no surprise that this presentation is supported by Imagine Ireland.  This one’s at 59E59.
Begin making plans to see as much as you can now!
Festival Sponsors:
Funding support for 1st Irish 2011 is generously provided by the Festival Sponsors: the Irish Government, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Bureau; the Irish Consulate NY; Tourism Ireland; the Irish Arts Council – An Chomhairle Ealaíon; Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s year of Irish arts in America; the American Ireland Fund; Mutual of America; The Irish Examiner; McVicker & Higginbotham; NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, and the NY State Council for the Arts.
Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.