George C. Heslin, artistic director of Origin Theatre Company

How It’s New York: The 1st Irish Festival was born in New York and reflects our city’s vibrant air of possibility.
How It’s Irish: The Festival brings Irish and Irish-American theatre to New York.

A version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Sept. 4, 2012. In this piece I preview the entire festival, with my picks of the plays and what might be great! It goes on through October 1. See as much as you can- it’s a party!

When the 1st Irish Theatre Festival launched four years ago, everyone was intrigued. Why does New York need an Irish theatre festival, wondered my then-editor at the New York Times. Wasn’t there enough Irish-flavored theatre in New York already?

 Not really, not contemporary Irish theatre anyway, was the answer of George C. Heslin, artistic director of Origin Theatre. New Yorkers had the opportunity to see plays by Conor McPherson and by Martin McDonagh and of course by Brian Friel, but there was an awful lot that we didn’t see, contemporary plays that were cutting edge, risky, fresh.

It was a great idea, and he’d got great support immediately, from the Northern Ireland Bureau, from Culture Ireland, from  Irish Examiner USA, and from many others.
1st Irish debuted in 2008, and I previewed it for the Grey Lady.

This year the festival is in its fifth outing. It’s a difficult economic time and inevitably some sponsors have fallen by the wayside, while others are joining in for the first time. There are young playwrights in their twenties who barely remember a time before 1st Irish gave them something to shoot for and the opportunity to share their work in New York City.

It officially began on Monday, September 3 (which, by the way, was my birthday!), and will run through October 1, presenting work by 11 living playwrights as well as one by Eugene O’Neill, with productions that hail from America and from Ireland.

There are two American premieres and two world premieres, presented at Irish Rep, 59E59 (, Irish Arts Center, the Cell and The Drilling Company.
The festival officially launched last week, and the plays begin on Wednesday, September 5.

Just how significant the festival has become is evident in the messages of support in the program book: messages from President Michael D. Higgins (whose brilliant slam of a tea party radio host two years ago has gone viral on Facebook); Jimmy Deenihan, TD, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Consul General Noel Kilkenny; New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn; Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau; Joe Byrne, executive Vice President of Tourism Ireland, US and Canada, and Roisin McDonough, chief executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Norman Houston (@James Higgins)

Some of the notables were at the launch party at Mutual of America last Wednesday, including Norman Houston, who reminded the crowd of over 100 that the

“arts have made a difference in Northern Ireland. The arts are absolutely fundamental to what we are trying to do.”

Vice Consul Peter Ryan recalled arriving in New York a year ago, and attending the 1st Irish launch. “As soon as it was over George came in and said he was working on 2012,” Peter said. He said that Consul General Noel Kilkenny and his wife Hanora O’Dea Kilkenny had viewed almost every single production in every single theatre – because it was that important, and the productions were that good.

George’s company Origin which celebrates its first full decade this year, coordinates the festival. The idea to found Origin, George said, came when he woke up ten years ago and told himself,

“George, you’re 34. You won’t have this energy at 44.” 

He moved a desk to the corner of a room, and prepared to direct Enda Walsh’s play Misterman.
That, George reminded the audience, was the beginning of Enda’s New York journey. Enda has since made a splash in town, including winning a Tony award for the book of the musical Once, with music by Glen Hansard.

In the past 10 years, Origin has made a difference to the theatre scene in New York, presenting new European work and supporting new work.
Writer Bernard McMullen, on behalf of Tourism Ireland, said that

 “George is one of those annoying people, that nobody has a bad word to say about him. It’s a really important part of Irish culture to identify people’s flaws, and to draw attention to them at public events like this. I did try, I asked about, but all I got was, ‘George helped me with this,’ and ‘Origin supported me with that.’ It made me sick.”

Jimmy Kerr (@James Higgins)

Bernard also put in a plug for the Gathering next year, encouraging everyone who is “Irish born, Irish bred, or Irish in spirit” to make the journey over in 2013.

Playwright Jimmy Kerr was choked up, his voice shaking, when he told the audience that this “brilliant, vital” festival which gives playwrights and actors a chance to work in New York “is huge.”

So now we know George’s age, but his fears about his diminishing energy clearly have not been borne out (George was Irish Examiner USA’s man of the year in 2010

(@James Higgins)

The festival this year looks as strong as ever. It’s found its stride and offers a selection of plays that encompass a broad territory without overextending its resources.
It’s big, but not so huge as a fringe festival where shows can miss an audience because of the overwhelming scope.The playwrights include Brian Friel, Suzanna Geraghty, Marie Jones, Garret Keogh, Jimmy Kerr, Pat Kinevane, Larry Kirwan, Tony Macaulay, Bernard McMullen, Ronan Noone, Eugene O’Neill, and Laoisa Sexton. We’ll cover as many of them as we can for you here.

The festival continues to challenge itself to find new ways of exploring Irish theatre in America. “1st Irish on Film – From Stage to Screen” on September 7 and 21 will explore the challenges of adapting plays to the screen. That series is hosted by the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, in association with Irish Rep.

A panel at Lincoln Center on September 18, “Celtic Cross-Over,” will look at the interplay of the arts and business – a perennial question that takes on tones of urgency in this election year.

The 1st Irish Next Generation Series, begun a few years ago, invites the audience to look at the development process and the way plays get to the stage. “Generation” does not refer to age: anything coming up is the next generation.

Origin also has a new patron in Brendan Coyle, who played Mr. Bates on television’s Downton Abbey. After the jump: lineup and picks!

Here’s a lineup of the shows, and our preview picks:

1. Fly Me to the Moon, by Belfast playwright Marie Jones. Jones, you may recall, is the author of Stones in His Pockets for which she won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and November. She is one of Ireland’s premiere playwrights (and one of the acclaimed women playwrights).

This play about two community care workers who look after an old man who loves Frank Sinatra, and how far they will go to make ends meet, couldn’t be more timely. This is the play’s American debut. The play, presented by Green Shoot Productions, runs at 59E59, 59 E. 58th Street, from Wednesday, September 5 to September 30.

2. Silent, by Pat Kinevane, from Ireland’s Fishamble, the New Play Company.

The play was an Edinburgh Fringe winner and had a sell-out run at the Abbey Theatre.
Kinevane was the playwright-performer of Forgotten, which had a well-received run at Irish Arts Center two years ago (read my review in Back Stage).

The play, which tells the story of a man who has lost everything, including his mind, and lives in a world inspired by Rudolf Valentino, is presented in association with Georganne Aldrich Heller and runs at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st Street, from Thursday, September 6 to September 23.

3. Hard Times, an American Musical. With a book by Black 47’s Larry Kirwan, and music by Larry and by Stephen Foster, this promises to be absorbing. The show looks at the clash between Irish American and African American cultures, against the backdrop of New York City’s Civil War draft riots.

Addicted to BBC America’s Copper? Don’t miss this.

Presented by and at The Cell, 338 W. 23rd Street, from Thursday, September 13 to September 30.

Very Promising

1. Auditions, Zoe’s Auditions, Part 2, written and performed by Suzanna Geraghty. I know it’s not fashionable, but I’m kind of a sucker for backstage stories, and this piece showing a young actress auditioning for Hamlet and Riverdance, among others, promises to be a good laugh.

The play, presented by The Be You, All Others Are Taken, in association with The Drilling Company, comes from Dublin and will be at the Drilling Company, 236 W. 78th Street, from Wednesday, September 5 to September 22.

2. Jimmy Titanic, by Bernard McMullen. This is the story of an angel, Jimmy Boylan, who spends time on the Titanic.

I don’t quite understand the description, but Bernard is a good writer, and the production is a coproduction between Boston area’s Tír Na Theatre and The Drilling Company, which seems a great sign.

At The Drilling Company, 236 W. 78th Street, Tuesday, September 25 to September 30.

3. House Strictly Private, by Jimmy Kerr. Set in Northern Ireland, Jimmy’s play looks at what happens to a family when an elderly uncle dies unexpectedly.

Jimmy wrote Ardnaglass on the Air, presented at 1st Irish 2010. While this one is not a farce, it promises to have Jimmy’s wry voice throughout.

Double Decker productions in association with The Drilling Company. From Wednesday, September 26 to September 30.

4. New Girl in Town, based on Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill, a musical with book by George Abbott and music and lyrics by Bob Merrill.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t really know where to put this, since it’s opened already. But it’s well worth your time.

Runs through September 14 at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. (our review is here)

Could Be Great

1. For Love, by Laoisa Sexton. This world premiere looks at three women looking for love in Dublin. Sex and and an Irish city? I know Laoisa as a smart actress; she’s joined by John Duddy and Georgina McKevitt.

Presented by Grand Scheme, in association with The Drilling Company, 236 W. 78th Street, from Tuesday, September 25 to September 29.

2. Brendan, by Ronan Noone. A play about an Irish immigrant to America struggling with some shocking news from home, this play is presented by Fat Violet Theater in association with The Drilling Company.

This play has won the IRNE Award (Independent Reviewers of New England) for Best New Play.

At The Drilling Company, 236 W. 78th Street, from Wednesday, September 26 to September 30.

One-Offs, Panels And Readings

1. Setanta Murphy, written and directed by Garrett Keogh.

Presented by The American Irish Historical Society in association with Origin Theatre Company, this play details a young man trying to break his 90-year old Grand Uncle out of a nursing home. At The American Irish Historical Society, 991 Fifth Avenue, Tuesday, September 11.

2. Paperboy, by Tony Macauly. Presented by the WB Yeats Society, in association with the National Arts Club, a memoir based on a book about rowing up in the Shankill Road in West Belfast in the ’70s.

The free event will be followed by a Q&A with the author. At the National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, Monday, September 17.

3. Dancing at Lughnasa, the film starring Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon, is at the New York Irish Center, with a monologue from Irish Repertory Theatre’s Ciaran O’Reilly.

Friday, September 7 and Friday, September 21, at New York Irish Center, 10-40 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

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