Not long ago, the Fishamble director Jim Culleton was confronted by a playwright who wanted to be given a break.
“Do you still do plays with intervals?” the playwright asked. The implication was not meant entirely seriously – the writer missed his gin and tonic – but the question dislodged a deeper consideration for the scope of new dramas. “I’d say it’s well over a decade since we’ve had a show with an interval in it,” Culleton says today. The implication was larger than the lost bar revenue. If new plays are getting smaller to suit demands, barely eating into the course of an evening and rarely written for more than three characters, do they still have space for big ideas?
Something like this consideration is the reason Fishamble initiated A Play for Ireland, a two-year project timed to coincide with the company's 30th anniversary, in 2018. A company solely committed to producing new drama, it sought "one big ambitious play", tackling a subject "about which the playwright feels passionate". Requiring at least four performers, and enough substance to last longer than 90 minutes, the call seemed like an unabashed appeal for a new state of the nation drama, tinged with the frustration that writers were not being encouraged to be ambitious.
At the time of the economic crash, Culleton explains, the company approached a few established and emerging playwrights, to address the crisis and what society might emerge from it, only to find some reticence. “Nobody quite went for it in the way that we were suggesting,” he says. Instead, Fishamble broke the predicament into smaller pieces. In 2012, Tiny Plays for Ireland solicited the general public – professional writers and novices alike – for three-minute works for the stage; eventually choosing 50, rationed out in two instalments, from 1,700 submissions.
"A patchwork quilt," as Culleton describes it, "that would hopefully form something coherent". It certainly cohered, later touring New York and Russia, and finding in Colin Murphy's Guaranteed Irish a satirical sketch to develop into the docudrama Guaranteed. It also began an association that would yield several more fleet-footed plays for the company, the most recent of which, Haughey/Gregory, returns to tour next month.
"But in the back of our minds we were thinking, we never got the big play," says Culleton.
As though to illustrate the challenges of adjusting our imaginations to much larger scale, the room where Culleton and Fishamble's literary manager Gavin Kostick meet to discuss the final stretch of A Play for Ireland is almost comically gargantuan. "The Blue Room" as it is known, a grand space adjoining the company's office in a Georgian building on Great Denmark Street, has been a fittingly expansive incubator for the project's six shortlisted plays. On entering, your eyes drift upwards until you eventually discover the ceiling.
Here the plays winnowed down from a longlist of 30 (themselves selected from more than 370 submissions) each received a professional read through and workshop as part of a thorough development process. Along the way, they received input from several mentors; beyond Fishamble's core team they have received the assistance of dramaturg Ruth Little, directors Lynne Parker and Oonagh Murphy, and designers Saileóg O'Halloran and Maree Kearns. Venues across Ireland have also proven eager to assist, with the Pavilion, Draíocht, the Everyman, the Lime Tree Theatre, the Town Hall Theatre and the Lyric Theatre all serving as partners.
The title of the project also serves as a defined end-point: when we speak Culleton and Kostick are both excited and apprehensive about selecting a final play, which Fishamble will premiere at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival then tour to the partner venues: one play to rule them all. "It's either Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games," Kostick says of my interpretation. But is it right to see the project as an elaborate kind of competition, parading a number of hopeful contestants, before settling on a winner?
"We've always avoided competitions," says Kostick, for a few reasons: their funder, the Arts Council, forbids it; they would understandably prefer not to trivialise an artistic process; and also because competitions require rules. "Then it stops being the free expression of the artist. With a rules-based system, you end up getting what the rules dictate."
“First and foremost it’s been an artist development programme,” says Culleton. Like much of Fishamble’s activities, such as the Fishamble New Writing Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival, its playwriting courses and the New Play Clinic, there is real stealth to this scheme, forging relationships that may lead to more significant engagements down the line. Eva O’Connor, for instance, won the Fringe Award in 2015 for her play Overshadowed, and premiered her two-hander Maz and Bricks with the company in 2017, later touring at home and abroad.
A week after reading it, what play is still in your head?
Playwriting may be a competitive undertaking anyway. With the closure of Theatre Upstairs last month, a busy hub for new small-scale work, the outlets for new plays have diminished once again, at a time when the main houses and companies prefer revivals and adaptations, the Abbey has shifted its focus from a literary department to “New Works”, and premieres increasingly resemble box office liabilities. (With Druid currently touring Sonya Kelly’s Furniture, there are a few encouraging exceptions.)
That has had some consequences for Fishamble, which trades as “The New Play Company”, and receives about 250 unsolicited scripts a year.
“What we’re doing with the Play for Ireland is actually trying to save a lot of people a lot of bother,” says Kostick. “New playwrights invest a lot of time and work into writing new plays, 99 per cent of which don’t get produced. By doing A Play for Ireland, one of things we’re saying to playwrights is, look, this is what we’re looking for.”
Vast and personal
Can you legislate for a state of the nation drama worth a damn? If you bill it, will they come? Kostick is enthusiastic that the six plays have risen to the challenge, and Culleton reassured that they have done so in a range of different ways, both vast and personal. The notion, Kostick says, is to get away from the vexed idea of “the best play”. “Whereas, if you say you want a diverse range of plays, dealing with subjects of urgency, from different voices, then you might actually get somewhere.”
So it has transpired, with traditional approaches from established and emerging writers Mike Finn and Caitríona Daly, respectively, who both touch on salient social issues: a record store owner resisting the advance of property developers in Finn's Wreckquiem and a play centred on the friend of the accused in a rape case in Daly's Duck, Duck, Goose. Co-writers Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney have delivered a counter-factual satire, The Alternative, which imagines an Ireland in which the Home Rule Bill was passed, today facing an In/Out referendum on remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Jody O’Neill’s Ballybaile explores a more thematic, poetic course through several encounters in 17 different government departments. John Doran’s play In Passing takes the shape of a therapy session for addiction in a community hall. While Marina Ní Dhubháin’s A Line of Work, a more fragmentary, formally ambitious piece, charts 70 years in the history of women in the Irish workforce.
A few days away from their final decision, Culleton and Kostick both admitted to having favourites, but they were sincere when they said they had no idea which play would be selected. The treatment of the writers, likewise, had been scrupulously fair, paying costs, nominal fees to the 30 longlisted writers, a more significant amount to the six shortlisted to option their plays, but allowing any plays not selected for production to find other producing partners. “So we would hope that a lot of them will go on to have other lives,” says Culleton. “We’re not the National Theatre,” Culleton and Kostick frequently say on the subject of an independent company’s limitations. But if this project bears more fruit, it would make them a close rival.
A Play for Ireland, however, is ultimately a play for Fishamble: it is the company that decides what, in this case, is in the national interest. Culleton and Kostick are alive enough to biases, social or gender, to have examined them, referring to criteria and weightings towards the final decision. “After all that, though, it’s what do we feel passionate about?” says Culleton. “What play is troubling us, or exciting us? A week after reading it, what play is still in your head? And you have to hope that your own view is something the audiences will share.”
About a week later they had their answer. Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney’s The Alternative, which imagines Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, hovering over a decision to leave or remain while strange things are going on in the background, is A Play for Ireland, the fruit of Fishamble’s provocation to playwrights to dream bigger. The production will premiere at Dublin Theatre Festival. Ireland had better be ready for it.
After its Dublin Theatre Festival premiere The Alternative will go on a nationwide tour, in association with Draíocht, Everyman, Lime Tree Theatre & Belltable, Lyric Theatre, Pavilion Theatre and Town Hall Theatre, in September and October 2019