Stories of Irish emigration get told in cliches. Our emigrants are exiles, driven by poverty, a lack of hope, or fleeing the tyrannical hand of the oppressor. But how many people leave because they were doing way too well?
When Irish theatre director Wayne Jordan went to live in Prague, he was hot in demand. In a 2017 interview, Cathy Desmond in the Examiner was describing him as "a darling of the Dublin theatre, lauded for his fresh approach". Elsewhere, he was being called "a forceful figure", as he juggled shows at the Abbey and the Gate, and directed everything from classical to experimental theatre, opera to panto and dance.
But things weren’t quite what they seemed. “I didn’t feel like an artist anymore,” says Jordan. “I felt more like an interior designer – not that interior designers aren’t great, but I felt like I was using other people’s material, doing it up...”
His new work is very much a departure. In the description for Leaving, Dublin was trying to “buck him off like a bull at a rodeo, a beast gone wild, shoving and kicking and biting...”
Leaving premieres at Thisispopbaby’s Where We Live season at Project. Part of the St Patrick’s Festival, it aims to take a fresh look at how, and why, we are who we are – with the added belief that it might also help chart the way to a better future. Jordan’s own leaving was less about the poetic myth of the emigrant than another, equally potent story: that of leaving to find oneself.
During the performance, there will be music by acclaimed composer and sound designer Alma Kelliher, and Jordan will be joined on stage by others – including his brother, and his mum. "Dear Mum," he wrote in a letter to home, "I wanted to make a piece about being a man. So I'm going to dance."
His mother replied with a much longer letter. She gently describes the feelings of pregnancy and birth, of a time when fathers weren't allowed in, and of love and naming. "Your Dad loved John Wayne and he wanted to call you this name. I had picked out the girl name which was Leona as my baby was going to be a Leo..."
Through her words, some of which she will read on stage, we find beloved toys, siblings and birthday parties with Rice Krispie buns; and we’re brought back to that place where we all start from, if we’re lucky: of unconditional love and boundless possibility.
So what happens next? Life happens, and with it the drives, dreams, achievements and disappointments that scar, shape, chip at and mould us. For Jordan, some of that shaping was through his success.
“I had been making a lot of work,” he says, when I speak to him via Skype – me in my kitchen, he in a lofty rehearsal room with white painted pillars and tall windows, somewhere in the city of Prague. “And even though some of it was my best work, I began to feel as if the theatre was a mask.”
The work he's referring to includes Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (2014), described in this paper as "whip smart" and "brilliantly imaginative". There was also Alice in Funderland for Thisispopbaby in 2012; and his own script for Sophocles's Greek tragedy Oedipus in 2015 – all at the Abbey.
I had a great time in the theatre. With wonderful people. But it's a false economy. There's not enough money to do it
He has been, by his own admission, a workaholic. He studied drama at Trinity, and hung out with contemporaries including Róise Goan, with whom he founded a theatre company (Randolf SD|The Company), Aaron Monaghan, Ruth Negga, Matt Torney and Lian Bell. And, despite the extremes of self-exploitation that people in the creative and cultural sector in Ireland put themselves through to make sure the show goes on, things were good.
“I had a great time in the theatre,” he agrees. “With wonderful people. But it’s a false economy. There’s not enough money to do it. Not just in terms of the wages, but what it costs to put it on. You’re really stretched.”
He has continued to work in Ireland, while living abroad, and is currently programming the Cork Opera House Proms for the Midsummer Festival.
But it wasn’t simply burnout that led him to want to make a change. Often the success we are taught to pursue leads us to living someone else’s idea of a good life, being someone else’s idea of a valid person. “For so long, my life was a conquest of being charming,” Jordan says. “Clever and charming. This would be out, in front of my body, in front of my existence, all the time. And I would be a director on the outside, judging, criticising, praising, commenting, manipulating. I don’t think I was a particularly Machiavellian director, but these are the tools.”
I ask him if he thinks he was a particularly tough director, and he pauses, looks up, pauses some more. “I think I was disciplined. Sometimes, maybe. But I think I was kind also. And things fall differently on different people, depending on where they are in their lives.”
In Prague, he has found himself on the other side, as a performer, and also learning to work with objects and puppets. Prague is culturally famous for puppetry, and yet, in context of our conversation, the Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich comes to mind. In that film puppeteer Craig Schwartz, played by John Cusack, finds a secret door into John Malkovich's head. Directing is, of course, puppetry of a sort, and so maybe Jordan's move simply cuts out an actor-middleman?
Instead, he says, working with “things” brought him to a quieter space, and a greater acceptance of himself, that eventually led him to a, for him, healthier and more comfortable way of being with people.
“I had the feeling,” he says, “that I was like a 12- or 13-year-old boy or girl, that I had to leave the village, go into the forest, and come back with, like, a wolf’s head, and stand in the middle of the square and say, ‘look at what I dragged back from the pit by myself.’ Instead, what I did was went into the forest, and realised I could live happily with the wolves.”
Prague came about by chance. “At one point in 2016, I realised that while I was figuring out what to do, it would be cheaper to travel around central Europe than it would be to live in Dublin.”
My experiences in Prague have been about expanding my experience of home
And so he did. In the Czech capital, he found a city that celebrates its cultural heritage, and supports it too. “Art is absolutely at the centre of their understanding of municipality, what’s of value, what makes them civilised, what makes them Czech. We say that here,” he says, referring to Ireland, “but not at all. We throw artists out on to the street, let them fight amongst themselves. Then the ones that win [...] they get the prize.”
Despite the truth of this, he has that emigre dislocation of self, of both living in a present and a past.
“My experiences in Prague have been about expanding my experience of home rather than creating a competing version of home. I have learned new ways to look at and admire and enjoy the life I knew before I left, and to see how it led me to where I am.”
I ask him about other, cultural differences. “One of the things I find difficult [in Ireland] is the emphasis on story above all other things. And yet I also think that’s the great power of Dublin and where we live. This insistence on imagining, and engaging the imagination.”
This is also something that Thisispopbaby's Jenny Jennings picks up on when I speak to her. "We take that for absolute granted," she says. "It's how we connect to the rest of the word, it's what we celebrate nationally – our way of saying hello to each other is to say 'what's the story'."
For Jordan, directing has been about exploring, to get to the essence of ideas, often on our National stage at the Abbey. This new work takes it onto a different register, into moments and feelings, though always still exploring, in order to get to the heart of that central question: how to live. Leaving will feature music, stories, dance, participation. “I really hope I can offer something, some space from my life that provides reflection and salt. Home, and body, how to be together...”
Leaving is at the Project Arts Centre on March 15th at 6pm and 9pm. Tickets €16.00. Where We Live runs from March 11th to 21st at Project Arts Centre and is part of the St Patrick's Festival.
What to catch at Where We Live
Where We Live takes over Project Arts Centre with 24 events to intrigue, provoke, persuade and amuse.
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Mrs Macushla, a new play in development from TKB, is part elegy, part love letter to the Macushla ballroom and bingo hall, once at the heart of Dublin's north inner city.
Looking for America follows the true stories of Fede Julián González as he returns to El Salvador with his mother to try to find an ex-guerilla fighter, who just happens to be called America.
The Last Adult Children of the Good Old Stock sees Veronica Dyas working with a group of women from the heart of Dublin to reveal the soon-to-be-lost mysteries of Cheeky Charlies, the Tuggers and the Corporation Buildings. It's not history: it's all still there – just.