Reading between the headlines
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above:   Aysan Celik in Gin in a Teacup 
Photo:    Richard Termine

Below:  Spinning the Times cast members
Photo:   Richard Termine

Reading between the headlines

New York's Origin Theatre Company has just produced Spinning the Times, five new monologues by Irish women playwrights, as part of the 2009 First Irish Festival. Tanya Dean went along to the 59E59 Theatres, Off-Broadway, and talked to the writers about the commission.

“Five Irish women Playwrights, Five New York News Stories” read the tagline for Origin Theatre Company's Spinning the Times, with a New York Times quote  - "Stunningly written monologues" - emblazoned on the promotional flier (although an observant eye will note that this quote actually referred to Origin's 2005 production of Mark O’Rowe’s Crestfall). As part of the 2009 1st Irish Festival, which ran over five weeks in twelve different New York venues, Origin Theatre Company ("Where European Theatre Lives") offered five Irish female playwrights a commission to write a short monologue based on a news story they found in the New York Times.

The festival's rubric of "Irish theatre" covers theatre exported by Irish companies, such as Fishamble's The Pride of Parnell Street, as well as theatre of Irish origin produced by American companies, such as Blood Guilty by The Bronx Company. So what does it mean to further sub-categorize work under the heading of Irish female playwright? (It seems to be a trend of late: witness the Abbey's The Fairer Sex series, which commissioned six new twenty-minute plays by women writers for rehearsed readings in June of this year.)

Playwright Belinda McKeon admitted to some mixed feelings about the general heading of "women playwrights". “I have to be honest here and say that I didn't know (or perhaps, through selective hearing, didn't hear), when taking the commission on in the very first instance, that the five monologues were going to be presented as five monologues by female playwrights – it was only later that this element of the show sank in for me. I'm never that keen on this kind of categorising, and I have to admit… I've never become more comfortable with it, with the sense of having these plays thought about first and foremost as plays by women, or plays somehow with a female perspective.

“I'd much prefer if they were just considered as plays, but that's not how the work of framing and especially of promoting a theatre show or festival works. So I just have to live with it, and it's a small price to pay for the experience of seeing a show come together and live in front of its audiences, which has been the real pleasure and also the real learning curve of this experience."

Rosemary Jenkinson concurs somewhat. "Sometimes I can’t help feeling that being permanently categorised as a ‘female’ playwright, always with that qualitative adjective pegged to it, makes me sound as if I’m an aberration against nature like some kind of flying pig! However, it is true that female playwrights haven’t been getting enough opportunities and acclaim, and initiatives like Origin’s gives us a vital introduction to New York."

This introduction by necessity involved a certain amount of adaptation to "translate" these Irish works for the American stage: Origin's Literary Manager, Rebecca Nesvet, explains that sometimes this involved obvious elements such as dialect, or it could mean something as minor as finding a brand of Irish alcopop that would be recognisable to the American audiences in 59E59 Theatre. (Not all the cultural idioms translated perfectly: at the performance I attended, mine was the lone voice laughing at a joke about Marks & Spencers).

Nesvet said that despite the diversity of the writers, certain shared themes emerged across the five works: "the five writers uncannily were drawn to stories and experiences that explored the same constellation of themes, including home and loss of home… attempts to understand and empathise with the experiences of strangers, and the use of music, storytelling and imagination to assert one's human dignity and hope in the face of inhumanity."

Spinning the Times opened with The Lemon Tree by Rosemary Jenkinson, a tale of firebombs and tribalism in the shadows of the Troubles. The smugly indolent Kenny (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) mooched onto a dusty bare stage (accented by the glowing filaments of dangling lightbulbs) and, with an accent that only occasionally hit the Northern mark, he opened up a depressingly familiar world peppered with references to "the taigs" and "sectarianess”. Jenkinson explored a parallel between the Troubles in Northern Ireland and Palestine, the idea that, she says, “if you remove a rival tribe from their land, it becomes part of their history and the injustice you’ve inflicted will come back to bite you even hundreds of years later when your own tribe is chased out".

A natural segue, then, to The Luthier by Lucy Caldwell, which took its inspiration from a news story about a teenage apprentice luthier on the West Bank. Caldwell fleshed out this story to create a sensitive, gentle man (played with quiet dignity and humour by Ethan Hova) who talked of himself as a child who could find joy in the world, even as he and his sister "prayed that the rockets hit someone else".

After this, the anthology splintered slightly: stranded in the middle of these contemplative musings on civil conflict and the search for identity, Geraldine Aron's darkly humourous Miracle Conway broke out like a loud laugh in a cathedral. Rosemary Fine brought brio and bold comedic timing to the titular character, a mentally unhinged woman who plots to murder her love rival so that she might live out her romantic fantasies with her boss (a famous pop song composer). Farcical to the point of pantomime (although skirting uncomfortably around issues such as abortion and mental illness), this cheery monologue was played with braveness, but jarred against the overall tone of the anthology.

A change of mood followed, in the shape of Rosalind Haslett's softly gorgeous Gin in a Teacup. Aysan Celik played Nooshin, a first-generation Iranian-American woman dressed elegantly (if conservatively) in 1920’s/1930’s garb, sat perched at a bar, sipping from a china cup. It transpired that her vintage clothes reflected her passion for the telling of stories: with shy, embarrassed pride, she told the audience, "I never wear an outfit that doesn’t have at least one vintage piece in it. Because each item tells a story, right? I found a name tag in a jacket once. ‘Romayne Phillips’. I imagine her as a wild girl moving from bar to bar in her oxblood rouge and that very jacket. Drinking gin out of a china teacup."

Nooshin was so enamoured of this name, Romayne, that she adopted it for her Flickr, Blogspot and Twitter accounts. For all her love of stories, she never succumbed to escapism: she spoke quietly but affectingly of her mother's worsening Alzheimers, and how the telling of a story through clothes can be a rebellious act: "Even on Twitter, Iranians were saying ‘wear black to honour the dead’ and ‘wear green for Free Iran’: clothes make a statement."

The anthology ended on a soft note: Belinda McKeon's Fugue once more touched on the issue of the Troubles, but transposed it to foreign soil. David (Mark Byrne) had been forced to flee his home in Northern Ireland: "You think it's all calm and reasonable up there", he told the New York audience, but he found himself living abroad in order to save his life and protect his family in the face of sectarian threats.

Even as it reinvoked the issues of Lemon Tree, Fugue also touched on the reluctant nostalgia of the ex-pat: "Fuckin' eejit. I'm always dreaming about home." And so Spinning the Times ends with a glance towards Ireland in undimmed (although unsentimental) glory: an exile’s recreation of the land lost.

Tanya Dean is a Managing Editor for Theater magazine and is currently studying in Yale University for an M.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism.

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