Lisa Tierney-Keogh brings her succesful play to an online audience
Adapting her play for Zoom was ‘probably the hardest thing I have ever done’
Lisa Tierney-Keogh’s This Beautiful Virtual Village premieres online via the Abbey Theatre on August 17th. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Lisa Tierney-Keogh grew up in the theatre. Her father is the actor Garrett Keogh, her mother is production designer Marie Tierney, and, as the playwright explains, she “spent a lot of time as a kid backstage, watching from the wings. [My parents] tell stories about me being in rehearsals for Tom Murphy’s Famine, sleeping in my Moses basket. But let’s not glamorise it. There were no babysitters, so I would be sitting in rehearsal rooms doing my homework, or in production meetings entertaining myself.”
There were opportunities to sit among audiences watching her parents’ work come to fruition too. “I remember sitting on a cushion in the stalls at the Gate watching my dad in Arsenic and Old Lace, but I wasn’t watching it to learn about theatre. I wasn’t an independent observer, I was watching it thinking that’s my dad up there. I was just so proud.”
If it seemed inevitable that Tierney-Keogh would somehow find herself following their footsteps into the theatre, it wasn’t always so.
“I studied business, marketing, PR,” she says, “then I thought I would try a bit of acting, but I only lasted a month before I realised there were no parts for women and if I wanted to work in the theatre I would have to start writing my own plays. So I did. The thing about being in rehearsal rooms when you are a kid,” she adds wryly, “is that you learn to be silent. I am not silent any more.”
The Abbey asked would I be interested in adapting it for Zoom. It was a brilliant idea, and I can say that happily because it didn’t come from me
Sitting on a bench on the seafront in Monkstown village, Tierney-Keogh has met me to discuss her latest project, a digital adaptation of her 2019 play, This Beautiful Village, for the Abbey Theatre. The play, which won Best New Play at The Irish Times Theatre Awards earlier this year, unfolds over the course of an evening when a residents’ association come together to discuss a piece of sexist graffiti painted on a neighbourhood wall.
The play was a critical and commercial success for the Abbey, and was due to start a six-week national tour this summer. In lieu of that physical tour, “the Abbey asked would I be interested in adapting it for Zoom. It was a brilliant idea, and I can say that happily because it didn’t come from me.”
Working on the play again, Tierney-Keogh says, was “fun and creative but probably the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to take a lean 90-minute play and pare it back to 60 minutes. There were certain things I knew would have to go immediately: some of the characters have these big, oratorical speeches, and that sort of theatricality wouldn’t work if you were watching it on a screen. But it was really, really tough to make those decisions.”
One idea that presented itself as she began the rewrites was to address the necessity of the play (and the residents’ meeting) taking place in a digital context.
“Basically the only reason we are all online all the time is because of the pandemic; just like it’s the only reason we are doing a play in this way at all. So I felt we needed to address that, and the best way to do that was to make sure the setting was really specific.
“So I set [This Beautiful Virtual Village] over the June bank holiday weekend, when we were all still very much in a state of lockdown. The way the news cycle is going at the moment, I thought, if I don’t root it in a certain time I will be demented; we just have no idea at the moment what will be relevant or irrelevant from one day to the next.”
Tierney-Keogh herself is actually a Zoom veteran. Unlike those of us who discovered the group video platform during the pandemic, she attended her first Zoom party almost five years ago, as a new mum in New York trying to stay connected with a dispersed group of first-time parents. Tierney-Keogh, who moved back to Ireland two years ago after 10 years in the US, explains how handy a tool it was “for keeping up with people you can’t see in person. As an emigrant, technology was basically how I maintained my relationships in Ireland. I’d be just walking down the street, chatting to a friend back home on Facetime. When you are away, you get used to living your old life on a screen.”
The playwright loved living in New York. America, she says, “really is the land of opportunity. I started writing when I was living in Dublin, and my first play, Four Last Things, had been really successful at the Dublin Fringe, but I just couldn’t get anyone to do my plays. I was young. I wanted to work. I wanted to have fun. So I just thought I would see what New York had to offer.”
She soon found out that “there was a lot more opportunity to work as a writer over there. There is a bigger pool of talent, there are more theatres, more creative people. I mean it is still a hustle – you have to work really hard – but if you do it right, you can get yourself into rooms with extraordinary people.”
To be honest, I probably would have just stopped writing if
I had stayed in Dublin
Tierney-Keogh found herself writing a TV pilot and shadowing directors Marielle Heller during the filming of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Don Scardino on the set of Murphy Brown. Crucially, she says, it was in New York where she found her voice as a writer.
“To be honest, I probably would have just stopped writing if I had stayed in Dublin. There are a lot of small-town politics that get in the way of opportunity. No one wanted to stage my plays. So getting out of town really helped me. It helped my confidence. It helped my work.”
Leaving New York, meanwhile, was “a difficult but essential” decision. “It is an amazing place, but it is hard to live your life there. It is so busy people don’t have time for compassion.” The contemporary “culture wars” threw the issue into relief for her.
“It is shocking to see how badly [the current administration] has failed people, but that’s what happens when you don’t prioritise the education of your citizens. I didn’t want to live there any more. I didn’t want to bring my daughter up in a place where she would have to do a shooting drill on her first day of school.”
Those same culture wars, however, left a lasting impression on her as a writer. “It was during #MeToo and Waking the Feminists that I really started thinking about issues of gender and power,” she explains. When the Abbey Theatre commissioned her to write the play that would become This Beautiful Village, “that relationship was very much on my mind”.
Her first proposal, she says, “was bonkers. I came up with this idea for a Greek-style epic play, where someone would be shot out of a cannon. It was nuts, but I was feeling around in the dark, trying to find a way of examining those issues of inequality that were so potent.”
Eventually, Tierney-Keogh settled on the scenario that presents itself in This Beautiful Village and its online counterpart, where a group of men and women are drawn into revealing their own prejudice and privilege. The issues revealed by the diverse characters, however, transcend the origins of those ideas. The play remains as timely now as it was when it premiered last year.
And while audiences across the country won’t get to see it live as originally planned, audiences across the globe are in for a treat.
This Beautiful Virtual Village premieres online via the Abbey Theatre on August 17th. It will be available to view until September 17th. abbeytheatre.ie