1st Irish Festival Press Launch: A Wunder-Brew of Marvelous Irish eccentricity

Thomas Burns Scully

When you walk out of Grand Central’s North exit, you find yourself on one of the glitzier parts of Park Avenue. As you walk up the street away from the station, you walk past corporate headquarters after corporate headquarters, bank after bank, insurance firm after insurance firm. The giant Orwellian skyscrapers, and the hints of the Scrooge McDuck fortunes that lie within are enough to make you feel very small indeed. Normally these aren’t the sort of places I end up as a indie theatre-writer. Normally my press invites take me to hole-in-the-wall, black-box theatres and converted basements all across the boroughs. All lovely and charming in their own way, but it’s a different sort of day entirely when you get invited to the Mutual of America Building to attend the launch of a theatre festival. Which is exactly what I was doing on Wednesday. Origin Theatre’s ‘1st Irish Festival’ is unquestionably launched, and what an evening it was.

Things kicked off with a reminder of the finer things in life: good food, good drink, good company, and a piano player turning out jazzy renditions of old favorites. Origin Theatre founder George Heslin was making his rounds of the room, shaking hands and taking photographs. Very much the man of the hour, and seemingly everyone’s date to the dance; he was impossible to pin down for more than two minutes of pleasantries at a time. I found myself chatting to Origin’s PR guru, Beck Lee, who talked effusively about the festival, “Tonight we’re visitors and hosts all in one… Expat Irish New Yorkers are waiting with open arms to welcome their friends and get this thing going.” When asked about what sets the 1st Irish apart, he spoke to the long-standing levels of good-taste in play-selection that Origin has been known for. “The great thing about 1st Irish, is it’s a well-curated festival. You can see just about everything in the festival without killing yourself.” Origin has always had an acute sense for good-programming. One of their earliest productions was ‘Misterman’ by Enda Walsh, then unknown in the States, now famed worldwide for his work on the book of Broadway-musical ‘Once’. The shows for this years festival are not to be missed. (Descriptions for all of these can be found in the preview article I wrote last week: http://goo.gl/8Nnrjq)

As the evening progressed, the gathering crowd was called to attention for the evening’s speeches and welcomes. A certain amount of proceedings was the obligatory thanking of sponsors and donors, but throughout there was the personal touch that the Irish, and, hence, Origin, are known for. “Even though we are now in our eighth year, we like to think that every year is the 1st Irish festival. It might be the first time a playwright has had something performed here in the States, it might be the first time an audience has seen a play or playwright produced. We like like to think that everyone gets a little ‘1st Irish’ during the five-weeks of September,” said Aisling Reidy, long time Origin Board member, and Senior Legal Advisor to Human Rights Watch. “This festival is one of the jewels in the crown of our annual programming.”

“The literature of the festival describes it as a cultural beacon, I think that’s very apt,” said Irish Deputy Consulate General, Anna McGillicuddy. She also mentioned Origin Theatre’s latest endeavor in to new writing “Origin isn’t only about staging. We were so thrilled this year to work with Origin and our friends at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on an emerging playwright competition inspired by Yeats.” Details of this competition can be found on Origin’s website, where they ask young writers to submit ten pages of a new play, inspired by the work of W. B. Yeats. 

“This festival shows the ability of the Northern Ireland artistic community to make an impact well beyond our very small shores,” Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, said in his speech. “During the dark old day in Northern Ireland, when thing were really bad, in my view, the arts were the backbone of our sanity.” Patrick Tully (New York & National Director of The Young Leaders for the American Ireland Fund) added “No one is better at bringing Irish playwrights to New York than George Heslin and the 1st Irish Festival.”

George Heslin himself then took the stand, thanked everyone profusely, and shared the impressive statistic that Origin Theatre last year provided tangential free advertising for Ireland to the tune of eighteen million dollars (as verified by a sixteen page independent report). But as always, Origin is a theatre company first, and a corporation second. Heslin took the time to remind everyone of the festivals many successes including Morna Regan’s ‘The Housekeeper’ and Tim Ruddy’s ‘The International’ which both had premieres at 1st Irish. He then welcomed Paul Nugent to the podium, who will be starring in ‘Python’ in this year’s festival. “1st Irish has provided a place for the whole Irish theatre community in New York,” he told the crowd, adding “The entire Dublin theatre community would come to this festival if they could,” to gentle laughs.

With speeches over, the merry-making and meeting and greeting resumed. I spoke to Jenny Green, who will be presenting new work at this year’s ‘Breaking Ground’ event. She offered a a preview of what she’ll be bringing to the table, “This year I’m doing a devised piece that’s currently in a fledgeling form. It’s going to be a comedy based on dating stories from women who are slightly advancing in years.” When I was finally able to pin down George Heslin, he spoke passionately about the ‘Breaking Ground’ series, citing it as one his favorite parts of the festival. “Every year we invite about five or six artists to write ten to fifteen minutes of new work. It’s very much a laboratory, but some extraordinary full-length plays have come out of it, like ‘The International’.” When asked as to why he finds it so exciting, he replied simply, “I always believe if you give writers a deadline, something will happen. Of all the writers I’ve known all my life, if there isn’t a deadline, nothing happens… that’s what excites me most about the festival… the ‘new writing’ aspect.”

And there you have the 1st Irish Festival in a nutshell. A whirlwind of excitement, new writing, the intrinsic Irish ‘bon-temp’ spirit mixed with savvy New York intelligence. The 1st Irish Festival will be running throughout September, closing officially in early October. For OnStage I will be attending the shows and posting reviews, but I urge you to get tickets now, the lineup is most impressive (see my preview article or 1stIrish.org for full lists and descriptions of shows). This year features everything from runaway nuns to Chinese stand-up comedy. A wunder-brew of marvelous Irish eccentricity. You would be a fool to miss it.

Full details of 1st Irish shows, as well as ticketing links can be found at 1stIrish.org. My previous article on 1st Irish is available here: http://goo.gl/8Nnrjq

This article was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

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