Rex Ryan is sporting the lingering traces of a black eye when we meet, the shadowed skin just visible under the peak of a baseball cap. He has jogged up from the basement dressingroom of Glass Mask Theatre, the company he founded with his wife Migle in 2018, with the exclusive ambition of staging new writing.
The company have been in residence at the Bestseller Cafe on Dawson Street for just more than six months, and celebrated the occasion with the premiere of Our Shaman of Dublin 1, a new play by Ryan, in which he stars as an ex-soldier who has a run-in with an inner city pimp (hence the black eye). His character, Darragh, is a paranoid insomniac with a curious penchant for wellness, a philosophy that sees him eschew alcohol and prescription medication in favour of Monster Energy drinks, with the resulting adrenal effects.
“This is a nuts play,” Ryan explains, taking his cap off. “Darragh thinks really fast, talks really fast.” As well as the stage make-up, traces of that manic energy linger as Ryan sits down with a post-show glass of water to discuss Glass Mask’s fortunes and his theatrical ambitions. “To be honest,” he says, taking a sip of his drink, “I’m in that middling zone of being completely high from the show, and also being really tired. But, y’know what, it’s all good!”
Ryan has been performing on Dublin’s fringe theatre scene since his graduation from the Gaiety School of Acting in 2013. On paper, it looks like acting was a second choice of career for the Dubliner, who grew up in Clontarf and was educated at the prestigious private school of St Michael’s College in Ballsbridge; like many of his classmates, he went on to study business in college.
If you walk down any block in New York or Chicago there are like 10 new writing theatres, but it's not like that here. Look, there is no moaning about it. It's just logistics
However, turning to the theatre, Ryan says, was inevitable. “Just like some family’s trade would be medicine or law, it was normal in my family to be in the entertainment industry. We come from a strange lineage – the Burkes – who were costumiers, actors. They ran the Olympia. They used to travel the country throwing up shows, doing everything from Hamlet to vaudeville.”
Ryan’s father – the late broadcaster Gerry Ryan – he remembers, “wasn’t like other parents, who would probably tell you to do something sensible. He was urging me towards acting since I was very small. He didn’t give me a choice!” There were “plays in the kitchen – I was great for the one-man shows. I’d have my box full of costumes, doing outrageous little pieces for the family.”
He wasn’t the only member of his household to find their way into the entertainment industry: his sister Lottie is a presenter on 2FM, while younger siblings Bonnie and Babette are, respectively, a singer and social media influencer.
Originally, Ryan saw himself as a blockbuster film hero. His parents even chose his name, he says, for its movie-star ring. However, as soon as Ryan started training, he realised what an important role theatre had played in the shaping of his actor idols. Indeed, their involvement in the underground theatre movement in New York, Chicago and LA were key touchstones when he began to consider making his own work.
“You are thinking: New York in the 1970s, these venues like La MaMa and Caffe Cino, where on any given night you might see Sam Shepard or Patti Smith doing a monologue or Al Pacino doing a David Rabe play. Or the Project Arts Centre [in Dublin], where you had these romantic and ramshackle punk nights, with theatre and slam poetry, where the building was falling down and you had to walk over the stage to get to the toilet. That’s what we are trying to do here. That’s the energy we are trying to create, the sort of energy I am chasing. It sounded so exciting, and so many great actors and plays came out of it, and I had this yearning to be part of something like that. I wasn’t feeling [that energy] in Dublin so I just decided to do something about it myself.”
Upon graduation Ryan started working with independent fringe companies like Gonzo Theatre and Theatre Upstairs, run by the late actor Karl Shiels, who became an important mentor to him, encouraging him to create his own work. “But I wasn’t ready then. I was just going from gig to gig and couldn’t put aside the time.” However, with the demise of Theatre Upstairs, which had become a vital stage for showcasing the work of young writers, Ryan founded Glass Mask Theatre and decided to give staging new plays a go. Their first venture was a two-play residency at Smock Alley Theatre, but what Ryan really wanted was to open a venue of his own.
The decision to open a theatre, as Ryan explains it, was borne out of necessity not just mythic idealism. “If you walk down any block in New York or Chicago there are like 10 new writing theatres, but it’s not like that here. Look, there is no moaning about it. It’s just logistics. Our National Theatre has two stages; there are hundreds of new plays being written every year. With the bigger theatre companies, there are just not enough slots. It’s not personal. It’s the system. So where do you go to get your plays produced, without being put into this constant never-ending state of ‘development’ [at the bigger venues]? Well if you are as restless as I am, you start your own theatre and get ready to work your arse off.”
Ryan spent 2019 scouting for a suitable venue, when his wife Migle came up with a “magic solution”. She was working as a manager at the Bestseller, when “her boss said he heard we were looking for a space, and would we consider the Bestseller. So I went in to see it and was like ‘no way’, but the next day I was like, ‘yep we’ll take it. We’ll make it work’.” He called up friends – like actor/writer Stephen Jones and Aisling O’Mara – “to write plays to birth the theatre. I called up so many favours from so many people. Got old bits of equipment. Put in a rudimentary rig. It was a real DIY job, like standing on the box when I was eight years old with the bag of props, only on a larger scale. I said to [friends and collaborators] ‘look, this is the warrior phase. We are going to work non-stop, for very little money, but the rewards will be massive if we just commit’.”
Ryan is proud of what the theatre has achieved so far. It is “this weird little lab for playwrights, where we get to try outrageous things. We are like a bunch of pirates, turning things over really fast.” The dual set-up of the venue allows them to offer wine and canapés to audiences enjoying the show, which has had a significant impact on encouraging non-traditional audiences to take a chance on the eclectic programme.
I suppose what we are working towards is a little bit more time between productions, a bit more time to choose the work, and foster new writers and develop new plays
With “no excuses now, as Migle always reminds me”, Ryan finally got around to writing too, an exercise in what he calls “hubris, actorly delusion and the knowledge that you have to risk writing 10 terrible plays before you get a great one”. Emboldened by his debut, Pop Tart Lipstick, in October, the programming of his second play, Our Shaman of Dublin 1, has allowed him to expand and experiment, something he hopes to continue to do into the future.
The morning after we meet, Glass Mask were to launch its third season at the Bestseller with Bloody Yesterday, a new drama by Deirdre Kinahan, the most prolific writer they have hosted yet. Ryan is hopeful that the support of a writer of Kinahan’s stature will help them get institutional recognition from the Arts Council, who have funded Ryan’s writing work last year with an Agility Award.
“I suppose what we are working towards is a little bit more time between productions, a bit more time to choose the work, and foster new writers and develop new plays. Look: The Atlantic, The Public, The Goodman,” he continues, paying tribute to his heroes again. “All those amazing joints; they started off small, before they became big institutions. Steppenwolf started in the basement of a church!”
“Well, theatre is a kind of church for me,” he concludes with the zealous passion of an evangelist. “It’s the ritual, and the accumulation of magic that happens when you perform again and again in a single space.” With that, he puts his cap back on again and heads off into the night.
Our Shaman of Dublin 1 concludes tonight at the Bestseller Cafe. Bloody Yesterday runs from May 2nd-May 28th.