Never let it be said that the arts in Wexford are not fighting fit. Despite torrential rain, lightning storms, a bank-bursting river and a national transport strike, WexFour – four plays by Wexford writers – went on to a full house in Paris last week, marking a European debut for the dramas. It was followed by a panel discussion featuring two of the authors, John Banville and Billy Roche, which provided the occasion for another debut: the launch of an eBook version of the plays by new independent imprint, 451 Editions.
Wexfour was originally commissioned in 2014 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Wexford Arts Centre. Comprised of four one-act dramas by Wexford authors John Banville, Eoin Colfer, Billy Roche and Colm Tóibín, there could hardly be a more prestigious representation of artistic output from the county. And yet while the acclaimed contributors’ names perhaps presage a literary-heavy content, the plays are lively and passionate.
It was for this reason that the original project also included an accompanying “book of the plays”, brought out by Ireland’s foremost arts and humanities publishing house, Carysfort Press. Popular theatre lore may protest that theatre scripts can’t exist beyond the stage, but the paperback in this case has sold solidly at live performances. Indeed, it was the popularity of the printed book that prompted Elizabeth Whyte of the Wexford Arts Centre to approach me at 451 Editions with the idea that a new, electronic version could be made available in time for the Paris event.
The venue, the Irish Cultural Centre, is no stranger to innovation and change. Originally established as one of Europe’s Irish colleges, post-Flight of the Earls in 1578, it has weathered the French Revolution, two world wars and a term as a Polish seminary. After some serious European and Irish collaboration in the new millennium, it has now been superbly transformed into an historic venue that showcases contemporary Irish culture right in the heart of the City of Light. With its state of the art mediathéque and theatre space, it also provides accommodation for Irish students and travellers in Paris, as well as workspaces for artists, and residency programmes.
The plays’ director, Ben Barnes, former director of the Abbey Theatre and originally from Wexford, introduced the evening, throughout which the somewhat disparate quartet of one-acts held the audience solidly, with sterling interpretations of the works from actors Don Wycherly and Andrea Irvine, and a haunting original score played live by Eleanor McEvoy. While the pieces are each quite distinct in tone, they manage overall to deliver the humour and earthiness that characterise the Wexford psyche, and it is perhaps this rambunctious quality that most distinguishes them.
Banville’s high-pastiche romp, Prince Charming and the Dame, is set in the dressing room of a provincial theatre. Roche’s The Dog and Bone is delivered by a woman at a crossroads in her life, abandoned in digs over a London pub. Colfer’s darkly hilarious monologue, My Real Life, presents a terminally man dictating his own eulogy to an iPhone. The closing piece, Erosion, by Tóibín, is a lyrical study of ageing and rural isolation.
Audience reactions were positive, with many people clearly identifying with the material. “Billy Roche showed us how extremely adept he is at seeing life through a woman’s eyes,” one said. “His character’s expression perfectly embodies a woman of this generation. Their resignation and fear of going it alone.”
“They were all beautifully written and performed,” said another audience member, Pavel Lefevre. “While it was an opportunity for me to hear them live with the Irish intonation and accent, I think the stories could be appreciated by any audience member, regardless of nationality.”
The subject of outreach and broader collaboration of the Irish arts among European countries was explored in the panel discussion that followed, chaired by Whyte with the participation of Banville, Roche, McEvoy, this writer and Barnes, who also edited the WexFour book. The very fact that the event took place that evening was largely due to such collaboration, with the support of the Wexford Arts Centre, the Arts Council of Ireland, the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, Culture Ireland, Wexford Co Council and the Three Sisters 2020 EU Capital of Culture bid. The latter is yet another collaborative arts venture where Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford are bidding to be named European Capital of Culture for 2020.
“It’s one thing to talk to our own,” said Roche, “but sooner or later we have to widen the circle and let others in on the conversation.”
That was the cue for this writer to announce the launch of the new eBook edition of WexFour, since making the title available online provides an opportunity for extending the conversation even further.
Being a writer with a masters degree in publishing might sound like a contradiction in terms, but my original NUIG thesis in 2003 was to publish a real book from scratch using new “Publish On Demand” innovations, cutting edge at the time. Thus, considering subsequent experience with the UN as an editor, webmaster and book designer, it’s hardly surprising that I embraced the “new publishing” area of digitally printed and electronic books. What interested me was not necessarily the phenomenon of eBooks per se, which I don’t in all honesty like very much, but the possibility of keeping worthy books in print through digital methods, and making a book available planet-wide online.
I founded 451 Editions as a new independent publishing venture to provide a forum for authors to bring out new editions of their work or select new work, using both traditional and digital methods. The title, of course, comes from the classic by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, in which the heroes fight to keep books alive by any means necessary, old or new, and to safeguard the survival of the printed tome.
Our first title, published last month, was a new book: Memory and Desire, a selection of the best short fiction from the work of Val Mulkerns (and yes, she is related!), recently reviewed by Anne Enright here. Memory and Desire is printed by Irish printers (SprintPrint) and the books are nationally distributed through Argosy Books to all Irish bookshops, thus making it a new title published in the traditional way.
Publishing the electronic edition of WexFour, however, which is also available as a traditional paperback, is following up on the other end of the new publishing spectrum. An eBook provides a fresh outing of a work in a format that is available online anywhere, so long as the reader has an internet connection and a reading device. So two years on, the launch of WexFour in Kindle and eBook formats will make the plays available to a whole new readership. In this case, since royalties are going directly to the Wexford Arts Centre, it’s also potentially a fund-raising tool for the arts.
“A lot of people access literature electronically these days,” said Barnes, “so the more platforms on which it’s available the better.” Roche joked, “young actors will love the idea of an eBook, as they all have Kindles these days, and it will save them from having to print out the scripts!”