A revue with a view: three days in New York with ‘Riot’

Una Mullally goes behind the scenes at Thisispopbaby’s globetrotting show

Riot in New York: Panti and friends in Thisispopbaby’s at the NYU Skirball Center theatre. Photograph: Ian Douglas

Riot in New York: Panti and friends in Thisispopbaby’s at the NYU Skirball Center theatre. Photograph: Ian Douglas

 

In 1961, hundreds of musicians and their friends gathered to sing and hang out in Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village in New York, to protest about musicians being denied permits to play in the park.

The NYPD was waiting. Many musicians and artists marched to nearby Judson Memorial Church, the birthplace of postmodern dance, but back in the park, the NYPD attacked others, in a violent incident that became known as the Beatnik Riot. For many, the event lit the fuse for the 1960s. New York is fairly used to riots, which is probably why an Irish one was recently so embraced.

On a warm Thursday afternoon in February on the edge of Washington Square Park, Michael Harding’s voice soundtracked an aerial performance by Ronan Brady inside the NYU Skirball Center theatre. As the piece concluded, the drag artist Panti arrived on stage, speaking at Busta Rhymes speed.

Ladies and gentlemen of . . . New York! . . I forgot where we were there for a second

“Ladies and gentlemen of . . .” she paused, “New York!” Another pause. “I forgot where we were there for a second.”

It’s the dress rehearsal of Riot, the hit Irish variety production preparing for three performances in New York in an 860-seat theatre. There’s a reason Panti was discombobulated. Riot had just come off a six-week tour in Sydney and Melbourne, and the cast and crew were battling jet lag, having flown from Australia to Los Angeles and on to New York, straight into tech rehearsal, and then dress rehearsal. 

Riot was created and is directed by Jennifer Jennings and Philip McMahon, two halves of the company Thisispopbaby.

The show debuted at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016, before a run at Vicar Street, then Australia and New York. In June it will have 18 performances in Toronto as part of the Luminato Festival. On three continents, audiences have cried at spoken word about teenage pregnancy, cheered at a GAA aerialist stripping off his kit, and whipped “Jesus” with foam swimming-pool noodles. Riot is a show featuring lines such as, “It’s the myth of meritocracy,” and someone trying to exit a contortion ring arse-first.

The show lands differently in each jurisdiction, but there is an added edge to its message right here. Emmet Kirwan’s spoken-word piece Heartbreak now occurs in the context of the upcoming abortion referendum. The atmosphere-setting declaration that outside is a wasteland feels very different in the United States. At home you had to imagine that. Here, the week of a mass school shooting in Florida and whatever the latest instalment of the Trumpocalypse was, there’s an added gravity to the words and the message. 

In the green room after the dress rehearsal, crew and cast gathered for notes. “Float down those stairs, yeah?” McMahon said to Philip Connaughton, the dancer and choreographer who was drafted in last minute when one half of Lords of Strut couldn’t make it.

Jennings wanted the word “love” elongated in one of the songs. McMahon reminded Panti and Kirwan that the first two pieces of spoken word they do are about warming up the audience.

“Is it a bit combative?” Kirwan asked.

“Only in that it’s athletic,” McMahon replied.

Panti requested glow tape to guide her off the stage at a point where she was being blinded by a spotlight. The notes are forensic. Jennings wanted a referee whistle that Panti uses at one stage to have a sharper finish, not just peter out. The synchronised bows weren’t tight enough for Jennings, “can you check in with your bowing partner please?” After the cast applauded the crew for their hard work, McMahon had a final message. It didn’t matter that they’ve been on tour for ages, he said, because for this audience it would be the first time they hear and see them, he said, “America really needs that message of hope”.

That idea that the US needed this show stuck with the cast, as they prepared to give it their all.

Riot in New York: building the set for Thisispopbaby’s globetrotting cabaret show
Riot in New York: building the set for Thisispopbaby’s globetrotting cabaret show

With the standing ovations from opening night echoing around downtown streets, the Riot family along with friends who had flown in to see their big New York debut, retreated to the Red Lion pub around the corner, the cast in flying form with green wristbands meaning free drinks, “but not Moët,” came the clarification. If you thought the Abbey Theatre’s “Noble Call” speech that made Panti a “national f***ing treasure” (her own words) was something, then check out the speech at the end of Riot. “I just think that is the best piece of writing,” Jennings said in the Red Lion. 

Friday night, another successful performance in the bag. On Saturday morning, the Riot crew awoke to a positive review by New York Times lead theatre critic Ben Brantley filling nearly a page of the newspaper.

Cast member Megan O’Riordan peaked her head around the door of her dressing room, “Do you want to see it? Because I have 15 copies!” “I love you Megan!” Jennings responded. She handed over a copy and Jennings leafed through it, arriving at the feature. Connaughton walked past, observing the scene, “My god almighty, we’ve made it kiddos!” The weather changed too. Outside it started to snow. 

I said to the ensemble, ‘This is Thisispopbaby’s Riverdance. We’re going to tour the world.’ I guess I believed it, but now it’s happening. It’s a little overwhelming

In the empty auditorium before the show, Jennings digested what the hell was happening.

“We were really ambitious for the vision of it, ballsy, really. We sat in one of the development periods, and I think I said to the ensemble ‘this is Thisispopbaby’s Riverdance. We’re going to tour the world with this show’. I guess I believed it, but now it’s happening. It’s a little overwhelming.”

The strongest roots of Riot are in Werk, a club that began as a series of parties at the Abbey Theatre in 2010, re-emerged to coincide with their production Alice in Funderland in 2012, and then moved on to Imma in 2014. Werkhouse, the club’s latest incarnation, is on St Patrick’s night at the Complex in Smithfield, as part of Thisispopbaby’s latest festival, Where We Live, with the St Patrick’s Festival. One of the key moments (and there were many) at those early Werk parties was when the actor Neil Watkins delivered a lip sync performance of the heartbreakingly powerful and spontaneous declarations of Michael O’Brien from the audience of RTÉ’s Questions and Answers programme in 2009, where he spoke about the impact of sexual abuse at an industrial school and the Ryan commission. It was both a tribute and a transgressive call to action, a bold walk into dark shadows. 

“Werk had a lot to do with it,” Jennings said of Riot, “I thought the energy in the room, the way that people responded to [Werk], the hunger for it, the power of it. It was a very different context, but it was essentially the same intention: that in the middle of craziness and very fun, outrageous performance, you could completely quieten the room with a serious, beautiful, heartbreaking poem or piece of text, and that strengthened everything. I thought there was a real power to that. I had never experienced that before, before the [Werk] clubs. Between the tent at the [Electric] Picnic, between Alice, between this family of amazing freaks that we were picking up along the way from all sorts of different worlds, we had real conviction about this in terms of it working as a piece.” At the same time, “We couldn’t have foreseen the depth of the response to it.”

One of the company’s founding philosophies, Jennings said, is “ferocious inclusivity”. Riot begins with the declaration “We Are Your Friends” borrowed from the band, Justice.

The company is prolific, and Jennings wonders if there’s a perception that just because they are, and because they’re touring, and the tour is successful, that they’re making loads of money (they’re not). Popbaby’s ability to pull together the best party you’ve ever been at with a small budget and stellar blagging power is almost fabled. There’s always the next thing, the next idea, the next festival, the next play, the next party. But Riot represents a step-up internationally that has serious potential.

Our audiences are really tickled by the post- Riverdance, post-Celtic Woman vibe. They’re tickled by the subversive, queer nature of the performance, and then the politics

In a nearby Mexican restaurant, McMahon has changed his order of a frozen margarita to one straight up, “why do I want a frozen margarita? It’s snowing outside”. Tired, excited, and slightly overwhelmed, he said, “It’s amazing how quickly things become your new normal. If you had said at any point over the last 10 years that we would be opening a show in an 800-seater venue in Manhattan, you’d have gone ‘wow, what a thing to aspire to!’ Then of course you’re like, ‘what do you mean there’s only 725 tickets sold? Get the rest of them sold!’”

The Saturday performance sold out. “Why is it landing here? I think people think it’s a rollicking good time. The words ‘New Ireland’ – we’ve been getting emails and Facebook messages saying ‘this is the New Ireland’ – so I think they’re really tickled by that, the post-Riverdance, post-Celtic Woman vibe. They’re tickled by the subversive, queer nature of the performance, and then the politics.”

On Friday night, the show’s special guest, which changes nightly (Irvine Welsh has featured), was the legendary Lady Bunny, “She’s watched the city, clubland, the LGBT+ community change around her,” McMahon said, and he listened to her “amazing rants backstage about the gentrification of New York. It’s that line that Panti says: ‘the underground coming overground and then shrivelling in the light’. There is that sense in New York. Bunny said they used to get dressed up and go to five clubs in the night, now she says there’s not even five clubs to go to.”

Riot in New York: a selfie backstage at Thisispopbaby’s globetrotting cabaret show
Riot in New York: a Sirens selfie backstage at Thisispopbaby’s globetrotting cabaret show

Back in the venue before the final performance, the camaraderie among The Sirens, the vocal group who form the chorus of the show, was infectious. In their dressing room, they did their make-up, and reminisced about the tour with the kind of shorthand that indicates they have each other’s backs. 

While performing one of the ensemble pieces in the show in New York, Las Vegas native Riordan – who formerly played the character Girl in Once: The Musical – had a moment, “I was like ‘I’m singing and dancing in New York and it’s what I always wanted’,” she starts to cry, “oh God. Because, I’ve been on such a journey with leaving America and living in Ireland. My real love right now is Irish work. I love Irish work more than I love American work. I love Irish culture a lot more than I love American culture. I want that to be recognised and respected for how amazing it is. To be a part of something that is doing that here is just . . .” she trails off and checks herself, “and it’s fun!” 

Lords of Strut: famous from talent-show TV

Riot has recognisable faces, most notably the drag artist Panti. Then there’s Kirwan who stars in the film adaptation of his play Dublin Oldschool. There’s Lords of Strut, famous from talent-show TV. But Kate Brennan has filled in for Kirwan, and the dancer and choreographer Connaughton excelled at being one half of Lords of Strut. Adam Matthews, whose incredible vocal performance is one of the highlights of Riot, put it this way: “Knowing that we can do the show in many forms, that the show can evolve and change, and go back to different states, it showed that the show was resilient, and well-rounded.”

That broader insight also gave Matthews a personal one, “Also, I am never letting anyone get this part! They can pry it from my rotting hand!” Someone put Dua Lipa’s New Rules on a speaker, and Nicky Kavanagh and Alma Kelliher discussed how powerful Brennan’s performance of Kirwan’s spoken word piece Heartbreak was when she took over from Kirwan for Australian dates while he was performing Dublin Oldschool in Canada. 

At one point during the tour, someone in the crew was really tired. According to Jennings, Mark Galione, the lighting designer, offered a reality check, “he goes, ‘welcome to Riot, it’s a bloody Broadway show on a Fringe budget’. It is! We’re really punching above our weight in terms of resources. Everybody has worked their b*****ks off.” For all of the joy of the tour, and the massively positive response it received, Jennings said it has also “been a f***ing gruell-er.”

Popbaby is about spectacle, fun, heart. They don’t use the word ‘company’. They use ‘family’

On the final night, Cian Kinsella of Lords of Strut added a sprained wrist from the previous night’s performance to his already strapped knee, “I’ve just been icing it and getting acupuncture. If we had more shows after this I’d be terrified. But one show I can do”. They do the show. It brings the house down.

Like any creative grafters who go above and beyond, there can be a tendency to take that ability for granted.

Popbaby is about spectacle, fun, heart. They don’t use the word “company”. They use “family”. And that family has a beckoning arm that reaches out not just to other artists, but to audiences, and to the diaspora. Integral is an egalitarianism and inclusive spirit, the same leveller that typifies the queer scene and the clubbing scene, where new friends are around every corner and status is not material, but about soundness, fabulousness, creativity.

That family is also incredibly resourceful. At some point, that resourcefulness will have to be met with further resources, if only for the obvious potential in what could be achieved with a few more quid in a production budget.

“We’re overflowing with ideas,” McMahon says, “We’re ready to go. We’re adaptable. We’re nimble. We’re frugal . . .We sit here because the Arts Council believed in the idea at the start. The grant that we got enabled us to get the show on its feet. Without that, the show wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – happened. It’s amazing that two years later, that money is still paying off. The return is massive. To have alternative artists having a big hit in New York is a really good story for the Irish Arts Council. They’ve been really supportive of it. But these things need investment, they just do.”  

After Saturday’s show, finally they can let loose. There’s no show or rehearsal the following day, just a final flight home. Everyone headed to the afterparty, where the New York-based Irish DJ duo King Sized Queen bashed out tunes at Nowhere Bar on East 14th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. Earlier, Jennings attempted to articulate a highlight, “I don’t think you can really beat today. Walking through the streets of New York City, with that three-quarters page beautiful feature review on the show, after hearing the response to it all. And it starts to bloody snow, you know? . . . I mean, that’s magic.”

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