If there is one thing Clare Dunne is fascinated by, it's those stages in a person's life where things are about to change for better or for worse.
“Nearly everything I write about in the end is about people’s turning points, when they realise, ‘Christ I have to change this for myself’ and they find the hero within themselves,” she says. “I am obsessed with that human spirit, that determination.”
A few years ago, Dunne found herself at a similar turning point. After graduating from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2009, she embarked on a successful acting career, landing numerous roles on stage. She struggled, however, to get cast in roles for film and television.
In the absence of any roles coming her way, she felt compelled to write her own material.
“The thing about acting is that it’s dependent on other people giving you a job,” she explains. “I got to a point where I realised I wanted to be more of an innovator and a collaborator as much as an actor so I could make things happen for myself.
When I was walking around New York or London, I'd be going around typing stuff into the Notes on my iPhone
“It wasn’t about wanting to take more control of my career. It was that I literally had creative urges. You have a pent up energy that you’re not getting rid of… to express things, thoughts, feelings, observations on the world or whatever it might be.”
Dunne had never written much before save for a piece written as part of a college assessment, but she started teaching herself to write. Soon she was compiling random notes, observations, rhymes, and quotes.
“When I was walking around New York or London, I’d be going around typing stuff into the Notes on my iPhone,” she recalls. “There are bits of Sure Look It, Fuck It that are from my notes in my phone from when I was living in London and just bored on the tube.”
Sure Look It, Fuck It is the actor’s latest show and marks her first outing as a playwright. The show follows a day in the life of Missy, a returning emigrant, as she attempts to sort her life out. During a mad jaunt across Dublin, she rediscovers new things about both herself and the city.
“It plays on existentialism and why you even exist at all and what you’re doing in your life, but in a very funny way,” says Dunne, who describes it as a “spoken word-comedy-musical”.
The show has been a work in progress for more than two years. In fact, the story of how it came to be is rather unorthodox.
In 2017, Dunne was asked to emcee her uncle's 60th birthday. Her uncle is Joe Dunne, a celebrated painter. Over the years, he has served as an artistic mentor of sorts to his niece. ("It's like he's psychically knows what to say to me sometimes to give me a kick up the arse.")
After Dunne agreed to serve as the compere at her uncle’s birthday, Joe came to her with another request.
“He said, ‘I want to commission you to give me a birthday present.’”
He urged her to make something, anything. He suggested a collaboration with his daughter, Ailbhe Dunne, a musician known for her work with the group Mongoose.
Dunne decided to reprise a character she had created in college named Missy, who Dunne describes as being “a bit of a clown, a bit of a poet, a bit mental”.
She wrote a piece following Missy as she went on a job interview and included music she had previously written with Ailbhe. She also decided to incorporate the phrase ‘sure look it, f**k it’ as a sort of call and response.
“I rhymed two things together: sure look it, f**k it. I was like, that’s probably been done before because it’s so obvious. Newsflash for anyone who is interested in being a writer or an artist: sometimes when you think it’s obvious, it’s just a decent idea and you can’t believe it dropped into your head.”
She performed the piece at her uncle’s birthday party and the crowd went wild.
“Everyone was screaming it back at me,” she recalls. One gentleman in his sixties, fresh from returning home after having lived abroad, approached her to tell her how the piece had struck a chord with him.
I got the peann luaidhe out and started improving what I had
“He was like, ‘You’re after pulling my heartstrings there. I’ve been an emigrant for years. It’s really hard to come back to the homeland sometimes.’”
Unbeknownst to her, the poet Stephen James Smith was at her uncle's party.
“He sat back in his chair and he was like, ‘I didn’t know you did that,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘No, I don’t.’”
A few days later, she was sitting in her flat when she received a phone call from Emmet Kirwan with whom she had previously starred in Major Barbara at The Abbey Theatre.
Kirwan was curating a spoken word event at Body & Soul, and had heard about Dunne’s barnstorming performance at her uncle’s birthday party. He invited her to perform the piece at Body & Soul. Dunne didn’t think twice about accepting his invitation. “I got the peann luaidhe out and started improving what I had,” she said.
When it came to the weekend of Body & Soul, she was nervous. Performing in front of family and friends was one thing. This was quite another.
“Thank God we were on grass. If we were on any higher level, I may have lifted off the planet with the nerves. I was so scared. I felt like I was coming out of some weird closet like, ‘I wrote some weird stuff in my room, here it is.’”
Fortunately, the crowd loved it. Word soon got around about the show and she brought it to Electric Picnic later that summer.
Last year, Philly McMahon of ThisIsPopBaby approached Dunne about the possibility of performing Sure Look It, Fuck It at the company's Where We Live festival."He goes, 'You know how we're doing Where We Live festival? A slot has become available. We have this little bit of money, two days, Tom Creed. The whole thing is there. Do you want to do it as a work in progress thing?'"
Once again, she did not hesitate in saying yes. She worked with director Tom Creed to get the show into shape (“He’s just brilliant”) and staged it in the Complex in Smithfield. For Dunne, a collaboration with ThisIsPopBaby was a natural fit.
“You know things that are explosive and need to be expressed in a generation, in a time? I think ThisIsPopBaby do that.”
The show is now about to embark on a six-night run in Project Arts Centre. For Dunne, it's nothing short of a dream come true.
“I used to sit on my little hole when I was doing promo work or reception work in London going, ‘What am I doing with my life? Is there ever going to be a way where I can just be as zany and mad as I am, but in a positive way?’” recalls Dunne.
“I can’t explain how ridiculously in awe I am going, ‘ThisIsPopBaby are helping me become the artist I never even thought I could be.’”
“I am buzzing because I am going to be in a room in the Project fully supported as an artist and get to be like, ‘Jesus lads, here we are. This thing happened by accident but now you’re all here so let’s have the craic.’”
Outside of Sure Look It, Fuck It, Dunne will soon star in Herself, a feature film set against the backdrop of the housing crisis. The actress co-wrote the script, which is set to be produced by Element Pictures and Merman, the production company founded by Sharon Horgan. A dream team, if ever there was one.
With a hit show and a feature film in the pipeline, one could say that Dunne has found herself at another turning point. Only this time, she’s on the cusp of something monumental.
“Right now I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world,” she says. “I feel like I’m this person who has climbed this mountain and I’m just now at the top, about to sit at the summit with ThisIsPopBaby, Element and Merman.”
Sure Look It, Fuck It is at Project Arts Centre Dublin from March 19th to 23rd