New York’s acclaimed Irish Repertory Theatre, celebrates a landmark 35th season this year. The renowned company is helmed by Artistic Director Charlotte Moore and Producing Director Ciarán O’Reilly, whose longtime partnership began when they founded the Rep in 1988. Over the years, Irish Rep has been honored with special Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortel awards, as well as a 2019 Irish Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad presented to them by President Michael D. Higgings.
Memorable productions include an immersive production of James Joyce’s “The Dead” with a full dinner for participants, a powerful “Juno and the Paycock” starring J. Smith-Cameron in perhaps the most gripping performance of her theatrical career, and a revelatory and electric “Emperor Jones” with the extraordinary classical actor, John Douglas Thompson. For a company dedicated to Irish artists, its production history is incredibly diverse, featuring classic Irish plays from celebrated writers like Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill to contemporary playwrights such as Enda Walsh and Conor McPherson. The Rep has also staged one-person shows, large musicals, radio plays, an annual reading series, and more.
The current season includes The Friel Project, a retrospective of the great Irish dramatist, Brian Friel, featuring three of his most popular plays. We spoke with Charlotte and Ciarán about the Rep, their connection to this writer, and how the company is faring in the post-pandemic world.
Can you tell us about the genesis of the Irish Rep? What inspired you to create a theatre devoted to Irish and Irish American theatre makers?
Because Ireland has produced more playwrights per capita than any other country, we felt it should be represented in the “Theatrical Capital of the World.” In 1988, there was the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre, The Pan-Asian Rep, The Jewish Repertory Theatre, The New York Shakespeare Festival, Teatro Español, and many other cultural companies spreading their gospels. But there was no full-time professional Irish theatre company in the United States. We felt that the land that produced legendary classical playwrights such as Shaw, O’Casey, Wilde, Lady Gregory, Yeats and then Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Enda Walsh, Deirdre Kinehan, and, of course, the great Brian Friel should have a permanent pulpit to preach from.
It’s your 35th Season. How has the Rep changed over the years? Have you noticed a change in the make-up of your audiences over three decades?
When we began, our audiences were mostly Irish and Irish American, but within a very short time, we attracted diverse mainstream New York theatre-goers who came to witness good works regardless of the accent! We continue to entice audiences from the metropolitan area but also a see lot of attendance from patrons around the country who were introduced to us through our online work during Covid 19 lockdown.
Yours is one of the longest partnerships in theater – to what do you attribute this longevity? Have your roles changed over the years?
We trust each other in life and work and….
CHARLOTTE: Because Ciaran knows that I have never been wrong about anything in my life, so we always do what I say without question. That is the secret of our survival.
CIARAN: Because Charlotte agrees with my every thought and action, and we do exactly what I propose. That is why we endure.
We have generally performed both roles together over the years with each of us involved in all aspects of putting on a season.
How did your theatre fare the Covid 19 shut-down?
To use the oft-repeated phrase, we “pivoted” during the lockdown and produced fifteen on-line productions that attracted a lot of attention and new audiences. We used green screen technology to bring actors digitally into the same room and we put on plays and musicals with props and costumes as if we were live and open for business. We offered it for free with a suggested donation and we were well rewarded in goodwill and funds.
Many theaters in NYC are facing unique challenges post-pandemic, how is the Irish Rep weathering this period?
We struggled like every other theatre company when we re-opened and fought to bring people back in what we affectionately call “the battle of the couch”. Box office income was and remains below pre-pandemic levels despite glowing notices for our work. Things are improving and we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We just hope it’s not an oncoming train!
What made you decide to program The Friel Project this season? He has a huge body of work. How and why did you pick these three plays?
We wanted to do something big and bold and full of heart to celebrate our 35th year. We have had a long relationship with Brian Friel having produced “Philadelphia Here I Come” in our second season and nine more productions in the years following. We felt he, more than any other playwright, encapsulated the spirit of what we set out to do when we began. We wanted to present three plays from three different eras whose denizens are from diverse social stations yet live in the same small town of Ballybeg. “Translations” (1833) is set in a hedge school; “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” (1964) is set in the family quarters of a grocery store; and “Aristocrats” (1979) in a decaying mansion Their struggles and yearnings complement each other in profound and revelatory ways as the country lives through the woes of colonialism and its aftermath.
What do Brian Friel’s plays have to say to American audiences in 2023?
Each play has its own spark and triggers many associations.
What they have in common is their universality and humanity that has endured through the ages. All three plays offer glimpses into who we were and what we have become.
“Translations” speaks to many issues in American life including marginalization, poverty, cultural appropriation, and the power and importance of language. Watching a scene from this lucid play, where ancient Gaelic names, laden with history and folklore, are being anglicized in the image of the British crown, triggers awareness of the plight of those who lived in this land before the European conquests. The love story within the play could be from “West Side Story.” It all feels real and present, and it resonates with the young and old.
“Aristocrats” is set in Ballybeg Hall in the seventies, where we are introduced to an American academic who is looking for insights into a disappearing way of Irish life. Ballybeg Hall is a crumbling, culturally and socially dislocated monument to a past with no more meaning to the present generation than a dusty academic tome. Yet these characters cling to the past as ferociously as they run to the future.
“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” allows us to eavesdrop on this only child’s most private moment as he wrestles with a heartbreaking distant relationship with his taciturn father on his last night in Ireland. Since America is a nation of immigrants, the story of one boy’s departure from everything he knows to seek a new life is a tale that reverberates through every culture.
Friel was often said to have drawn inspiration from the plays of Anton Chekhov. What are the similarities between these two playwrights?
Anton Chekov was Friel’s favorite dramatist and from whom he derived much inspiration. Each playwright writes about subjects close to his heart…very often family dilemma and family drama and relationships are at the center of his plot…looming large. Each writes about families, both native and assumed, to be on the edge of change…often by unyielding circumstance. Both write about families forced out of their comfort zone….forced to make choices and stick to them, and both are super conscious of changing times and resulting isolation.
“Translations”features many Irish Rep favorites, including John Keating, Rufus Collins, Seth Numrich, among others. Is there a particular style or quality that you look for in an actor when casting a Friel play?
We just seek the best and many who we re-hire again and again are just that. We also welcome many new actors who can throw themselves headfirst into his language and make it real.
Can you speak to Brian Friel’s legacy both as an Irish playwright and as a chronicler of the human condition?
Ireland was a maimed country, still reeling from ills and immoralities of colonialism when Friel began writing his stories. His legacy is in his striving to define a national identity —-to create a brand out of the ashes. The brand wasn’t always readily available, and he struggled with the notion that maybe it didn’t exist…
It’s the drama within that search in all its complexities that makes him great.
And, of course, there is the small town (Baile Beag) –as a microcosm to the world. It’s a world that, through his own life experiences, he is deeply empathetic to. It’s his canvas. He knows this world and he paints it with delicate strokes. All his work is suffused with a longing and a yearning to escape its confines. To escape the thing they love the most. It reeks of humanity. There is no place lonelier than being in a sort of contentment.
Information and tickets to the The Friel Project can be found at IrishRep.com