It has been almost 20 years since playwright Deirdre Kinahan made her theatrical debut. It was 1997, and she had been hovering around the amateur drama scene for a while when she decided to take matters into her own hands. With her good friend Maureen Collender, she set up Tall Tales Theatre Company to stage Peter Schaffer's mad comedy Lettice and Lovage. She gave herself the lead role.
"The ambition was always to be an actress," Kinahan says. "But I didn't get the points for Trinity and in those days Trinity and the Gaiety School were the only ways into professional theatre. There wasn't really much of an independent scene. So Maureen and I opened a bank account, stuck €400 in and made our own company."
Lettice and Lovage opened at the Crypt in Dublin Castle, just behind the tearooms that we are sitting in to discuss Wild Sky, Kinahan's latest play, which premieres at Rossnaree House later this month.
After a string of critical hits, in which Tall Tales went out of their way to source strong roles for women, Kinahan became aware of the dearth of Irish women writers for the stage. She wrote her first play, Bé Carna, in 1999, a community commission born out of her work teaching English and computers to prostitutes with the Ruhama project, and "realised quickly that I got as much of a buzz from writing as performing".
Kinahan's proactive approach to making her own work as an actress is typical of the playwright's gumption. It is something that has certainly stood to her over the years, as she has struggled for critical recognition. Kinahan has written almost 20 plays that span genres and formats since her collaborative debut, and the past five years have been especially productive, securing her a substantial audience at home and abroad. And yet she remains a minor player in the contemporary canon. You will not see her plays at the Abbey, for example, although she is a member of its board of directors.
In the early days of her career, Kinahan was supported by "some brilliant women: Bríd Dukes [at the Civic Theatre], Pat Moylan [at the now-closed Andrew's Lane]. The holy grail was to get funding from the Arts Council, and we eventually did. But for the most part, the deal was you created your own work."
Despite her prolific output and audience profile, Kinahan is still at it. For her latest production, Wild Sky, a commission from Meath County Council Arts Office, the writer arranged the finances, put the production team together and booked the venues.
“Look, I am not complaining,” she says. “It’s what you do to get the work on. What can I say? I’m a hustler.”
Wild Sky is a theatrical reflection on 1916. In the one-act drama, Kinahan eschews the grand Dublin narrative for a rural perspective on events. The writer grew up in Rathfarnham, Dublin, but she lives in Meath and was interested in how engaged the local community might have been in the rebellion and the nationalist ideals that fuelled it. The Rising may have unfolded in the city, Kinahan says, but "it isn't just a Dublin story". The key issue for Kinahan was "why people [joined the revolution]? How were young working-class men and women, just ordinary people, radicalised? Ireland wasn't really a nation then, it was still a dominion, and those ideas and ideals must have had some other basis for people: feminism or socialism or whatever."
Blighted love affair
Kinahan was wary of creating an overtly political drama – "especially when the subject matter is so complex and controversial" – and she decided instead to focus on a blighted love affair between two young people from Meath, whose lives become intertwined as the Rising kicks off. The play begins in 1912, as Josie Dunne realises how political events might give her more personal freedom. It ends in April 1916 as her lover, Tom Farrell, exits the GPO just after the rebels have surrendered. "The big question for me was: why did people do it? Tom did it because he wanted a better life. He did it because he was in love."
Wild Sky was conceived as a site-specific production, and it will tour throughout Dublin and Meath in venues as diverse as Rossnaree House in Slane, and the Pearse Museum at St Enda's Park, as well as traditional theatre spaces. Wild Sky will also tour to New York and Glasgow, just two of the cities where Kinahan's work has proved popular. Kinahan might have struggled at times to get her work produced in Ireland, but from London to Warsaw to Washington DC, she has never wanted for audiences abroad.
She is exercised when she begins to talk about the disregard for her work in Ireland by the large institutions that dominate the funding ecology, and how it points to a larger problem with the way women’s plays are valued in Ireland. “It is just not a case that there are not enough plays – the statistics show that – it is that they are not seen as valid.”
One argument often cited about the gender disparity of the Irish canon, for example, suggests that women’s plays are neglected because they deal with “domestic issues”; “to say that the domestic doesn’t pertain to the national story is just ridiculous”. In the broader scheme of things, she concludes, “it’s a question of branding. We need to get behind and promote and produce women’s work. Women will never sell out the main stages until you put us there.”
Although she is deeply engaged with the issues raised by the Waking the Feminists campaign, Kinahan says that her struggle has always “been a dual one: both of gender and of style. The sort of plays that I write – literary plays in traditional form – are seen as less attractive or less exciting than other types of theatre,” even though, as her track record shows, there is a sizeable audience for them. “But at the end of the day you have to write what is true to your own voice.”
In Wild Sky, that voice sings a lament for the lost opportunities for equality for ordinary men and women in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. It is a timely personal story that reflects a deep political truth.
Wild Sky is at Rossnaree House, Slane, Co Meath, February 19th-20th; then at Bewley's Cafe Theatre, Dublin, February 22nd-March 19th. wildskytheplay.com