How it’s New York: At the Irish Rep in New York
How it’s Irish: Written by and starring Irish Actor and Writer Laoisa Sexton
Slung over the shoulder of her erstwhile brutish boyfriend, actress/playwright Laoisa Sexton makes her entrance in her new play falling into a drunken heap in the corner of the stage. Dressed in a cotton candy confection of a hen-night costume, she is the text-book example of the fake-tanned rambunctious dolly having the last gasp before taking the plunge into marriage. But there is much more than a typical hen-night-gone-wrong story here.
Sexton weaves a tale of love, loss, yearning, awakening and abject despair all wrapped up in a big ball of comedy. A wild ride she takes along with the hilarious John Keating as Pigeon, and the raucous and ribald Zoë Watkins as Aunty Rosie and Johnny Hopkins as the brutish boyfriend Josie. There is a fragility to both Lolly and Pigeon that draws them together and makes them seem to instantly understand each other. Keating gives a stellar performance in the first quarter of the play which is a monologue of his life and isolation, all the while talking to and trying to to prop up the living Barbie Doll that has been dropped into his lap.
Run to see it in its limited run now through December 31st. You can get tickets here – Irish Rep Tickets
I got to chat with Laoisa about her journey, the play and women in Irish theater…
AF: Laoisa, tell me a bit about your journey to New York and history of shows here? What drove you to come here?
Laoisa: I’m not very good at making plans, much better at the dreams. Like, I didn’t really ever have a plan like to come to New York or to leave Ireland. These days I seem to be always coming and going, leaving for somewhere else, but that’s the way isn’t it? We moved a lot when I was a kid too, we’d move at least once a year- I went to tons of different schools and lived all over Ireland. I suppose deep down I don’t really like staying in the same place, for too long. I was going to be a ballet dancer for a while, but after being in a ballet of “The Playboy of The Western World“ I went into acting. I suppose I initially came to NY because I wanted to go to a good drama school to study. I figured Marlon Brando studied acting there and he is the best so that’s what I should do, no joke like. My Mam was a dancer and she was into the arts, she would always encourage me to do my thing and do it my own way, ye know. She would be doing the ironing, blasting Rachmaninoff or Swan Lake or Broadway Shows and tell me stories about who played what part. She always had stories about all these actors and films and all these stories excited me and lit a fire in me. If I told her I wanted to swing on a moonbeam she’d say what are you waiting for, go do it?
AF: What do you think you have to say to an American audience?
Laoisa: As a playwright you mean? As an artist I think you reflect what you see and want and present that in your own way. And if you’re a good one (artist), someone could probably spot that it’s you, before they know you wrote it, you sung it, you danced it – painted it etc. I think you have to feel very strong about something to do anything in the arts. Especially making something.
Theatre is a place where you can travel, but as an art form it can sometimes not reflect what we know. I want to show you what life is like now. I’m not writing ‘about Ireland’ I’m writing about human beings who happen to live there.
I write plays that I want to go see in a theatre. I want to be entertained, to laugh, to cry, to dance- to be moved to be taken away from here- and we all know that does not always happen but that’s what I strive to write. The plays I write are often described as modern. I also like to play with language and character.
I would love to be able to write a play and have it like a song, you know the way you feel when you listen to a song and all it that conjures up in you, if I could do that -that would make me very happy. Like when I was in drama school I used to do Tom Waits songs as monologues, my teacher would say “what’s that from?” And I’d lie and say it was from a film or something cos she would kill me if I said a song. But that is what I strive for with my plays that they can do what a song can do to a person, .if that makes sense?
But I’m gonna show an American audience real Ireland, the Ireland I know or have seen and experienced, and that might not be what an American audience is used to. It might not be a world they want to go to or let themselves go to as freely as what they are used to from an Irish play. But it’s like acting, you know, the writing has to be honest and truthful and cross-cultures. Cos it’s about the human condition. Audiences always know if you are lying. Its new writing and you might be breaking new ground and that can be vital.
I suppose my plays have a very working class sensibility to them too, so that might not always be someone’s cup of tea. I always write from a place and I love to tinker with that language from that place and that will be the rhythm of the piece. I am very particular in that way with everything I write.
Ye know it’s funny with US critics they want to compare it to something they have seen before Enda Walsh or some other Irish fella? Put it in some Irish box that they feel they have somewhat of a grasp on. I mean I remember someone said about the women in my play “For Love” could have been from anywhere- but that’s exactly the point, ye know, the play was about love and sex and yearning and is love not universal? Who cares that it takes place in Dublin, why do we always have the Irish stamp on it? It’s just a place but it’s still people dealing with real human issues, getting hurt and making mistakes…
Theater is so commercial, especially in New York; new writing can be a challenge for everybody both to produce and to support. I mean look at Broadway movies being turned into Broadway shows like as if there is no other writing out there …these stories keep being told over and over and in the same way… and everyone keeps buying these $400 tickets to see the story they have already seen because…because I don’t know cos it feels comfortable, I don’t know.
New plays are a challenge but there is an urgency to new writing cos you are showing real life and what life is like now, but it can also divide people here as they might not be ready for it. Irish plays that are presented in the US can be conservative, but I want to show what my generation looks like, in its modern poetry.
But with new plays you are gonna be met with heartache and perhaps incomprehension and having to explain things you’d much rather let be. But you only ever do anything because you have to do it.
AF: Tell me about the play “The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal” and what it took to bring it here?
“The Pigeon in The Taj Mahal” is a story about a bride to be, I’m playing Lolly who has lost the rest of her Hen party and finds herself in the company of a very strange man who has sort of come to her rescue. And in turn they both sort of rescue each other.
They are both from very different worlds, he is mentally challenged and she is a settled traveller from Limerick. She has lost her phone so she can’t get home and he is cut off from modern life and only experiences glimpses of it as the modern world finds him. But eventually the Hen party comes to the caravan and mayhem ensues as they all must learn to communicate.
It’s a clash of worlds coming together, mythology against technology, community based folklore and contemporary modern speech set in grinding poverty. It’s dark and funny and touching and is sort of a Fucked up love story of sorts.
The script was picked up by The Irish Repertory Theatre. They offered me a reading of the play as part of their New Works Reading Series. Then after the reading they wanted to produce it, it took a few months to schedule it, as they were out of their space and were moving back into their newly renovated home so it was on hold for a bit. But it is a huge honor to be included in their first season in their new space, especially as this play is new and risky and dangerous.
The first play I appeared as an actress at The Rep was 2009 and now 7 yrs. later, here I am. I have had two plays produced by them, that feels so wild. It’s a very special experience always at The Rep as they have so much respect for artists and the work itself. It’s always loving and it comes in abundance from the top, the legends that are Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’ Reilly. Maybe because they are both performers themselves, but it’s a house of love. Every actor loves working at The Rep, its pure family there.
AF: Can you talk a bit about the rising movement in Dublin for women’s equality in the theatre and how that affects you as an actress and playwright?
Laoisa: I’m not sure I am an authority to speak on it’s progress per se, there are women involved who would be more able to speak on what has been put in place far better than I could. I have not seen any real changes as far as I am concerned me being an individual artist. I certainly feel it’s great that the discussion is finally open for gender equality in the arts. I always thought that it was unfair, especially with Irish plays and Irish films, they are always male heavy in terms of the ratio of male actors to female actors. And they very seldom cast Irish actresses- they will cast all the female roles out of the Uk or the US anywhere but Ireland. It’s not for want of talent, there is huge talent in Ireland. But it seems a lot of Irish male directors prefer not to cast young Irish actresses. And people don’t even notice it, seriously look at the top Irish films in the last few decades, you won’t have to look far to see what I mean. I don’t think we should be Ok with that. Also I think as women, we are brought up to fight over a few scraps so it causes women not to support other women and that in itself is a huge problem but its been going on for so long no one notices. I mean how can you support a female playwright- go see her show-Buy a ticket… Ye know its not that hard, but some people who are protesting would not even give you a like on Facebook!
For me, I just decided to put my head down and do the work and try to make the changes in my way, write stuff with good female roles and with stories about women or with women in them. Do that and that will be my contribution. its not easy at all, its very very hard.
I mean look at every show on HBO, it’s always the same. Big mean enigmatic misogynistic bad guy, and his long suffering wife who puts up with all his indiscretions, then all his girlfriends or hookers who supply the T & A, and then the bulk of the story is him an and his male mates doing male things. I mean it’s the basis for most storytelling on TV; it needs to be changed up a bit… But audiences have a responsibility too, they need to get out there and support female artists, you know buy a ticket, so see a female perform…turn off some of that Shite…that’s my feeling anyways.
This is my third produced play Off Broadway in NYC and my first two plays were critically acclaimed and I still cannot get an Irish Theatre to read one!
I am living back in Dublin now and I hope that will change and that my work will be seen there. Ireland is tiny, and the companies that are heavily funded that can afford to produce plays there, all have their own writers they work with or who they commission, (same with film companies) and artists they work with, ye know. I mean look at Druid it’s always the same actors, and of course it is, because they all work well together so ye know if it ain’t broke… But certainly it makes it very daunting to try and crack that, so you end up having to make your own work to at even get your work seen and that’s no easy feat… I mean how do you get a play produced? The Fuck if I know!
AF: Where do you find your inspiration for what you write about and do you think your experience as an actress in other people’s pieces helps inform your own writing?
Laoisa: “The Pigeon in The Taj Mahal” was inspired by where I grew up and to all those misfits and aliens out there who are misunderstood. Also I get inspiration from music a lot and from places and images, maybe I’ll start with an image…, my first play was inspired by a Rhianna song ‘we found love in a hopeless place…hopeless place’ summed it all up.
I have a fourth play “Ave Maria”, and it is inspired by the Ave Maria statue on Clontarf beach. It’s a play about an alcoholic narcissist who thinks he’s got depression but it might just be he’s an alcoholic. It’s also about all the women in his life, social media and how it feeds into a particular sort of dangerous narcissism. And it’s a comedy of course.
I am definitely a performer first, because of that I have an ear for dialogue and as a performer you have an added sense of how provocative you can be and what you can achieve in a Theater. Maybe visually or technically I don’t know how people write plays or films who are not performers or not in the business or have never had any theater background, one informs the other as far as I am concerned.”
AF: Which do you prefer, acting or writing?
Laoisa: Acting definitely, I absolutely hate writing, it’s so hard and so solitary and you pour your heart out and strip it of all its tendrils and leave it there bare and twitchy. Then you have to go back and cut into it further, a big deep cut… and go back to it again and again and again. It’s such hard work. I only ever look forward to getting on those boards, that’s all I am thinking about the whole way. I write to perform
AF: Could you see one of your pieces making the jump to film?
Laoisa: Yes of course, I actually wrote my first play “For Love” into a film and then into a TV series, but I got turned down by several production companies and producers because they compared it to Girls or Sex and The City, Ye know cos it had 3 women in it, that’s all anyone thinks, it’s crazy even though mine was about three working class women from inner-city Dublin trying to make it through.
Everyone has a different way of looking at things and people don’t see what you see, I used to think Oh maybe they are not seeing it cos it’s a fault in the writing and it’s not clear, but it’s not that at all, its cos everyone is coming from other places and maybe don’t have the experiences you have no matter how deeply you describe it, they cannot see it.
It’s like sometimes people will go to my plays and say “your play is hilarious” and I will be like, Ok so you got like 2 percent of what I was trying to say…but ye know that’s the way she goes…
I am writing a screenplay currently based on the self-funded tour of “For Love”. We went on tour across Ireland in 2013 after the Off Broadway run, without a director or stage manager. It was a complete disaster! I mean not critically, the play was lauded, but there was a lot of out of control egos, narcissism and drama taking place off-stage. It will also be based on some other tours I’ve been on… Needless to say it’s a black comedy and a theatrical road trip with a group of motley actors; I am hoping to send it into the Irish film board in the next few months.
AF: What do you want people to take away from “The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal”?
Laoisa: I’m not sure I can answer that, it’s not something I can do, ye know we just be doing our thing every night and hopefully somebody out there in the dark will be listening and involved and cine away with us- Hopefully they will feel something. Even if they throw a shoe at me, at least I know something has risen. At least I will know we were there!