Knocking down 'a wall of Irish stereotypes'

 

For the past six years, Solas Nua has been bringing contemporary Irish arts to Washington, but it hasn’t always been an easy sell

THE IMMENSE white dome of Washington, DC’s Capitol building gleams in the cloudless cobalt sky behind Linda Murray as she talks about her work as artistic director of Irish arts centre Solas Nua. She relates how some Irish artists say they watch episodes of The West Wingbefore they come, so as to get into the vibe of the US capital. Grinning, she describes local residents who, hearing this, shake their heads: “Like, what boat did you get off?”

The question of perceived identity is crucial to Murray’s mission with Solas Nua. For the past six years, as an organisation dedicated exclusively to contemporary Irish arts, the company has continually expanded its programme every year. Musicians Julie Feeney and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh have recently performed at Flashpoint, Solas Nua’s studio theatre and gallery. Project Brand New is a recurring feature of this year’s programme; both Fishamble and Performance Corporation featured in last year’s. The annual Capital Irish Film Festival showcases Irish work, alongside free screenings (with free popcorn) of up-and-coming Irish movies. Writers such as Mary Morrissey and Colum McCann have read their work there.

Murray, who has a PhD in dance, originally came to Washington to do research, then ended up curating collections at the Library of Congress. But, as a young Irishwoman, she was surprised at the dearth of Irish cultural representation in the city, and by the lack of knowledge its population had about Ireland.

“You come up against a wall of stereotypes about what it is to be Irish and what Irish identity can be,” she explains. “I felt that somebody needed to give the current generation of artists in Ireland a voice over here.”

So Murray put on Disco Pigsin 2005. It was risky, she says. “Who are you going to drag to see a play called Disco Pigsin this imagined Cork dialect by a writer nobody’s ever heard of? It’s a bit of a hard sell.”

The show nevertheless formed part of her first season, together with an Irish film festival showcasing female directors, and “a performance of Ann Hartigan’s La Corbièrein the Georgetown swimming pool at the inaugural fringe festival here in DC”. Based on the positive response, Murray began to plan strategically to demonstrate the breadth of talent in contemporary Ireland.

The work Murray programmes communicates a vision of Ireland that challenges fond cliches of thatched cottages, leprechauns and fiery-haired dancers clad in green. “A lot of it alienates Irish-Americans,” she admits. “The ones who do come to the shows don’t like it and give out to me and go, ‘That’s not what Ireland is’ and walk out disgruntled.”

In presenting contemporary work that probes Ireland’s uneasiness with its developing urban identity, Murray instead taps into the psyche of metropolitan DC. Despite the governmental, diplomatic and legal workforce that fills the streets of Washington during the day, the actual residential population is two-thirds African-American and Hispanic. Like Dublin, Washington has “amazing wealth, but also amazing poverty”, she says. So she programmes gritty, hard-edged theatre by writers such as Mark O’Rowe and Rosemary Jenkinson. “Young black kids love those plays. They feel like that’s their story, just told with a different accent. Like Johnny Meister and the Stitch; we had young African-American men in their 20s buzzing coming out of that show. And the same when we first did Howie the Rookieback in 2006.”

To extend the impact and reach of their work, both Project Brand New and Performance Corporation have come not only to perform but also to engage with the local theatre scene. “If you’re located in a city, you have to acknowledge the local community and the local artists,” says Murray. She reasoned that PBN’s strong point – supporting new and devised work – could come to the aid of the theatre sector in Washington which, despite its 83 professional theatre companies, has few playwrights of which to boast. After an initial visit in November, PBN returns this month to do workshops with local artists.

Performance Corporation also addresses a weak spot in DC’s theatre sector: the paucity of site-specific work. Last year, they presented two productions –­ Kiss USA and GAA! ­– at the White House and Farragut Square. This year Jo Mangan will be creating a new work, Swampoodle, in a derelict building to draw on Washington’s history.

“Bizarrely, there used to be an Irish-American community in Washington, DC, right at the back of Union Station. The area used to be called Swampoodle. Apparently the neighbourhood was a tad rowdy and a little bit out of control with the prostitution and the drinking.”

The residents were evicted and Union Station built on the site. “Nobody lived there for nearly 100 years and the name went out of circulation. And there’s really no documentation or records left of Swampoodle.”

Performance Corporation’s piece, currently in development, will explore Irish identity, and the Irish-American perception of it, through Mangan’s “fantasy reimagining”, Murray explains.

Solas Nua also reaches out to the DC community with Irish Book Day, held every St Patrick’s Day. Last year, with about 100 volunteers planted on street corners and at Metro stations, the company gave away 10,000 Irish books by award-winning Irish writers such as Colum McCann, John Banville and Roddy Doyle. “There’s a sticker on the inside cover of each book that says, ‘This is yours to take away with you for free’,” says Murray. “Then we just put a bookmark inside with our website on the back. The goodwill that is generated by that event is amazing.” This year, Murray hopes to give away 20,000 books.

Nevertheless, it’s not that easy to give somebody something on a street corner in the capital of the free world. “We just assumed everybody would be thrilled to be getting books for free,” Murray recalls. “But it was hard to get people to stop and realise it was a real event. We get e-mails for months afterwards going, ‘I thought it was a scam.’ But now it’s a known event in DC, so people are looking for us. And we also get e-mails with people getting really excited that they’ve discovered a writer they’ve never heard of. It’s one of my favourite events that we do.”

The mix of cutting-edge events and ingenuity combines to present a dynamic image of Ireland in a period of economic uncertainty, when an energetic self-image projected by Irish arts can generate more confidence and goodwill than any number of dusty, cliched speeches by blustering politicians.

“I have to say,” Murray admits, “Irish people are the worst in the world; we play into those stereotypes when it suits us. When it’s to our advantage, we’re the first in line to be rolling out this image of an Ireland that doesn’t exist. And part of my journey running this is that I don’t think there is such a thing as Irish identity. I think it’s something that’s always in flux.

“We’re trying to engage in a real dialogue about where is Ireland at, what is Irish society up to,” Murray says. “It’s the conversation that is the interesting thing. And I don’t think you can get that conversation by reinforcing a set idea that people already have in place.”