Dear Ireland: The Abbey’s rapid response to a crisis that’s torn us apart

The theatre brought 100 writers and actors together online to make sense of the pandemic

When will we have live theatre again? Sitting in the dark, shoulder-to-shoulder with another human, breathing the same air, simultaneously experiencing different responses to the same live performance.

In the meantime, the nearest we can come is something like this, a mammoth task of instant theatre from a spread of Irish talent, invited by the Abbey, our national theatre, to attend in our own livingrooms. For four nights from Tuesday April 28th, dim the light, pull up the couch and tune into the Abbey’s YouTube channel at 7.30pm. Each night 10-14 pieces will be “staged”.

It’s a mad idea, born of a national shutdown: 100 artists – 50 writers and 50 actors – brought together for a virtual conversation exploring what we’re in the middle of right now. A massive digital and artistic project, the Abbey has commissioned writers from Ireland (also the USA, China and Italy), from Enda Walsh to Sonya Kelly to Stacey Gregg, to write five- to 10-minute monologues. Each script in turn is performed and filmed by 50 actors, often at home. Cathy Belton performs Blindboy’s piece, Marty Rea does Nancy Harris’s, Edna O’Brien is performed by Stanley Townsend; Rory Nolan plays Arthur Riordan’s. Also in the spotlight are Brendan Gleeson, Nicola Coughlan, Owen Roe, Marie Mullen, Seána Kerslake, Siobhán McSweeney.

The weekend the theatre – and the country – shut, the Abbey team looked at how it should respond, and bearing in mind the precarity of artists. They immediately came up with this.

For Abbey dramaturg Louise Stephens, who works with writers on developing scripts for stage, 100 artists was “such an enormous number of people as to be almost impossible. But that’s also what’s great about it.”

Rather than a sole voice representing an experience or story, it is a multitude. “Each piece is beautiful on its own, but when you take them all together, like a choir, all of these different voices create something which you couldn’t get with fewer artists. It’s the breadth of experience and stories coming through which is really exciting, and also the breadth of visual styles and different types of storytelling.”

It's even interesting now to look at how the situation has moved on since we initially commissioned the work

From the starting point of what is it like to be alive right now, Dear Ireland explores our relationships with each other, what we want our society to look like, what Ireland should write on a postcard to itself. Stephens says “there are some fundamental questions underneath. Some pieces talk about that in an abstract or metaphorical way, and some much more naturalistically. Some writers have gone towards what they feel people need at the moment – it’s not necessarily doom and gloom, but a reflection of our common experiences.”

She mentions seeing in some “an acknowledgement of, not a new pain, but a pain we haven’t had to encounter as a society before... I’m sure the Greeks have a word for it, the longing you have for someone, when you know there’s a barrier in the way that there’s nothing you can do about. It’s not necessarily romantic longing. In some pieces, it’s a longing for... not being able to see your parents, or touch your parents. There’s such an honesty and pain to pieces that engage with that. It’s interesting to see it bubble up” in Michael West’s piece, and in a different way in Jody O’Neill’s, where the urge to protect is questioned: she looks at “what it means for someone who is being cocooned, the care that implies, when there are groups of people who haven’t always felt protected or supported, or loved”. Another thread “questions what safety is, who we might assume is safe right now, and who hasn’t been safe”.

“Artists find a microcosm that tells you something, gives you a new perspective on what might feel like universal experiences, and probe it.” She mentions Deirdre Kinahan’s character, who’s encountered someone in emergency provision, and experiences her own safety in a new light.

Humour obviously helps us all process, and there’s plenty of funny writing, she says, “sometimes light, and sometimes coming from a darker place”.

Dear Ireland has involved working at much greater speed than usual. “The freshness of the work is also part of its quality. These are rapid responses. It’s even interesting now to look at how the situation has moved on since we initially commissioned the work,” says Stephens.

Writers were commissioned at the end of March, with a two-week deadline, then work flowed on each, with casting – often suggested by the writers – and staging, recording, happening remotely but collaboratively, just as making a show for the stage is collaborative. It sounds like an enormous act of staying together while being apart.

I hope people will look at it in the future and go, is that what it was like? A document of this time

As well as Stephens, the Abbey’s voice director Andrea Ainsworth, casting director Sarah Jones, associate director Caitríona McLaughlin and producer Jen Coppinger were all involved, led by co-directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, and supported by the communications team and stage management. Visitor services manager Con Doyle, an Abbey veteran of 30-odd years, will introduce the videos , and Lisa Farrelly and James Hickson will moderate brief online chat with the artists in between performances on YouTube. “Every part of the organisation has been supporting this project. It’s lovely to feel we’re all working together from so far apart,” says Stephens.

Dear Ireland is, she says, “something we were able to achieve that not every theatre could. The commonality of the experience we’re all stuck in at the moment is reflected in the huge variety of voices you can have with 50 people. The structure and format of the project reflects, I hope, something of our communal experience. Each has their own flavour, or texture, but they also are all straining towards enlightenment. I hope people will look at it in the future and go, is that what it was like? A document of this time.”

She talks about the mixture of tones in the scripts, then watching how the actors have interpreted them, the “really moving experience of working with people in different, sometimes difficult, situations all over the country and beyond, and their experiences being knitted into the work”. She’s usually “working on one or two things at the same time, instead of 50. This is working at a different speed. But you feel the connection. I feel so privileged to be part of this. It’s such an uncertain and upsetting time. I hope audiences get from this the message that they’re not alone. That belief in connection, the fundamental human urge, is under a lot of the work. Hopefully we’ll be back in a theatre soon, but in the interim...”

Dear Ireland will be live-streamed on the Abbey Theatre’s YouTube channel in four parts, nightly from 7.30pm, Tuesday April 28 to Fri May 1st. Videos will be available for 24 hours, until the next night’s live stream. From May 2, all four videos will be on the Abbey YouTube for six months.

Time capsules of an extraordinary period

"I wanted to write something positive about what we're all experiencing – but I also wanted to write something that couldn't escape the underlying deep sadness of where we are. So I ended up writing about a person walking. Walking is something we are being 'allowed to do' these days. I think we've become aware of the freedom and power within that action. Aware of our living a little more. What was most challenging/rewarding about the process? The answer to both is its brevity."

"A friend mentioned Famine road payments when I told her I'd been asked to be involved in Dear Ireland. And magically, it clicked into place. The place being West Kerry. A place riddled with famine roads going nowhere. It's difficult to respond quickly in the face of something cataclysmic – to respond at all, for it to mean anything. And then to knock any bit of craic out of it. The performer of my piece, Timmy Creed, and I have a shorthand from having worked together on his show Spliced. So, it was very helpful to have someone I knew so well and I knew he'd be game for whatever I'd throw at him and would understand the intention."

"I was interested in everyday stories with the pandemic as a backdrop. We're all sitting in our livingrooms with our real lives happening alongside the international drama of Covid-19. I wanted to tell one small story in one person's house in the knowledge that every livingroom and kitchen across the country has its own story to tell.

“I found writing it really good for the soul. The Abbey reached out in those first weeks which were filled with panic and uncertainty, and this project felt like a friendly port in a storm. They’re to be commended for their rapid response. Dear Ireland acknowledges online is not a replacement for live theatre, but understands that artists and audiences can still be galvanised by continuing to share stories. It’s set to offer a unique and fascinating time capsule of spring 2020.”

"Get the script, read the script, learn the script, do a draft, send it to Phillip [McMahon], get a new script, re-read script, scold myself for having learned it and now realising that I have to unlearn it. which is considerably more difficult, drink water (never enough), press record, begin, press stop, close the window, press record, start again, press stop, much swearing, press record, start again, press stop, deep breath...

“I’m used to doing audition tapes, and they can be maddening. But this was more difficult than I had expected. Firstly, a lot more people are home during the day, like my housemates, both enthusiastic whistlers. Noise was a big challenge. The sinking feeling of managing to get through seven minutes of a 10-minute monologue only then for next door’s Alexa to pipe up (she is unnecessarily loud and needy).

“I was so delighted to be asked. I haven’t worked with Philip in 10 years and I love his writing. I get it. And he gets it. It’s a joy to perform. The reward is the chance to perform. To share.

“I mean, for all the difficulties there was always the feeling that there was a bunch of us in it. Spread all over the place, all talking to ourselves in our rooms. All working towards the same thing. That’s a powerful feeling, that unity. At the end of the day, as with anything... you make it, you put it out and hope that whoever needs it, sees it.”

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