Growing up is hard to do
Jimmy Fay’s new Bedrock production is about the fate of three twentysomething Manhattan slackers in 1982, living the ‘greed is good’ ethos of the period. Any similarities to Celtic Tiger Ireland are purely incidental, he says
THE REHEARSAL room in Team theatre looks like a squat circa 1980. A mangy mattress, half-heartedly draped in grubby grey sheets, looks forlorn without its bed frame. Records and toys are strewn randomly across the floor. A table is laden with half-empty packets of biscuits, unfinished cups of tea and streams of loose, typed paper that might be a play script; they are dog-eared and dirty and laboriously decorated with cryptic scribbles and question marks. Face unshaven, clothes slightly unkempt, Jimmy Fay looks like he might live here: it is a lunchtime in the latter days of the last week of an intense four-week rehearsal schedule for Bedrock’s new production, so he might as well. In fact, when he was setting up Bedrock Productions 16 years ago, this is exactly the sort of place that Fay lived.
He sniggers at the fact that this latest production is his 60th directing project to date, that he is turning 40 later this year, and that he is standing in this grungy dive, knee-deep in the sort of vinyls that he used to listen to in his own bedsit years ago. This Is Our Youth, the play is called. “Ironic, isn’t it?” Fay chuckles. “I came across it about five years ago, but thought I wasn’t ready to do it then.” Written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan ( You Can Count on Me, Gangs of New York), This Is Our Youthcharts the fate of three early-twentysomething Manhattan slackers; adolescent adults with rich parents and no direction – the progeny of the capitalist system. In its language, its costumes, its character stereotypes and its musical references, the play is firmly set in 1982.
As Fay explains, “it is a critique of that whole generation, when Reaganomics was eroding any of the 1960s liberalism that was still around. This was [a time] when greed was good, and working for the greater good of the community was not the thing to do. These kids are the product of that. Their whole lifestyle is an economy of its own. I mean they’re capitalists working capitalism in their own way. They’re working out their drug deals, talking about investment, asking why you should get anything if you’re not putting anything in.”
We talk briefly, anecdotally, about a whole generation of Celtic Tiger kids, driving cars and living in apartments paid for by mum and dad, cut adrift as their parents’ money dries up, and they find themselves forced to take responsibility for themselves.
But Fay is adamant that the contemporary echoes are incidental. “The theme that I’m really interested in,” he says, “is the transition between being a teenager and being an adult. That’s what’s taking place here: the accepting of responsibility. And you know, that’s always going to be relevant, no matter where or when the play is set. But at the same time the play doesn’t have to be about now,” he insists. “Sometimes being good is enough of a reason to put it on.”
This is Fay’s first production with Bedrock since he finished his year-long tenure as acting literary director at the Abbey Theatre, where contemporary relevance to Irish life is the unspoken barometer against which all the theatre’s work is measured. Reading new scripts five days a week gave Fay a real sense of how the pressures of writing about the changes in Irish society over the last 10 years, as it went from bust to boom and now back to bust again, have come to bear on Irish writers.
“You know, one of the reasons that Bedrock came to be was that it was so rare to see urban angst presented on our stage, and that’s what we were interested in, so we looked to England and America to do that. Ireland’s never been very good at dealing with urban [issues], and at the Abbey I saw scripts that were trying to talk about what happened in this country over the last 10 to 15 years, but the whole thing is so recent, and if you try to pre-empt that you’re going to get it wrong. So if a writer says, ‘This is a Celtic Tiger play’, well, it’s going to fail – and we’re not doing that with This Is Our Youth. I mean, the play was written in 1994, was put on in 1996, but is set in the 1980s, so it was already retrospective: looking back at a period and trying to understand it.
“But we are so insular in this country sometimes: we think everything has to do with us. Sometimes you have to use your imagination, be creative, imagine the world from a different angle. That’s the way to find resonance with now.”
WORKING WITH THE Abbey for the first time in 1997 allowed Fay to imagine the whole art of the theatre from a different angle. “Part of being an independent theatre,” Fay says, “part of the reason for being Bedrock or Rough Magic or whoever, is that you’re not the Abbey. You have your own ethos, your own artistic ideals, and that’s what you’re striving for, but at the same time, when I became staff director at the Abbey, I learned a huge amount. You know, when you’re working on your own, starting your own company, you’re usually just out of college and working with your friends and peers, but at the Abbey I had access to older and hugely experienced actors and designers, and I could bring this back to my own work with Bedrock. That’s how you develop your own practice. You need that for your own work to feel vital.”
So, having worked at the Abbey full-time for a year, what did he learn? “That five weeks rehearsal is an incredible luxury,” he jokes. “But also that with a company the size of the Abbey there are always many more shows to go on, there are always other, often more important things than your show, happening. The Abbey is more than just a theatre, more than an institution. It’s an idea. It’s part of the very fabric of the nation. And actually that being an independent theatre company can be more rewarding, a more visceral thing. You might have access to more money in the Abbey for a production, but there’s less time between having an idea and watching it go on. You can respond to what you want, when you want, and the work gets out there, gets its response more quickly. But the other side to that quick turnover is limiting, because it is difficult to give your work any long-term life. You put on a show, then it’s gone, and what I’d like to do with Bedrock now is to let the work grow. Like This Is Our Youth– do it now, bring it back, tour it – because that’s how you find out whether things are working and how to make them work. Because theatre is not always finished in its first incarnation.”
WHEN FAY BEGAN producing theatre in the early 1990s, Bedrock was seen to represent an emergent, indeed anti-establishment generation, crystallised in their establishment in the Dublin Fringe Festival in 1995. But Fay and Bedrock have since moved from the edges of Irish theatre production to its centre; indeed the very idea of Fringe is now part of the establishment itself, as Fay acknowledges. “Back then fringe was a bad, dirty word, but now even opera festivals have their fringe movement. But when you think about what ‘fringe’ means – a vibrant, youthful kind of thing, an energy, an enthusiasm for testing boundaries – well, we’re still it.”
This Is Our Youth, then, with its self-obsessed baby-boomer brats and their uber-cool 1980s taste in music and films, represents more than mere nostalgia. “We want this to be an intimate experience, so that the audience can almost smell the room. We want them to understand the characters, to see that their selfishness is just a part of the learning curve, that we were all like this once, that this is the world that we are all coming from, that we need to grow from to become adults, fully rounded human beings.”
This Is Our Youthpreviews tonight and opens tomorrow at Project Arts Centre, running until June 27