Young playwrights separated by lockdown come together for Abbey debut

From left to right: Selina Xu, Emily Murray Nelson, Joe Reidy, Louí Montague, Michael Lavery, Aisling Murphy, Éadaoin O’Neill and Ray McHallem outside the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Last week, the young writers from the Fighting Words programme met for the first time when they gathered to see their lockdown collaborations brought to life on the Abbey stage

Eight teenagers meet outside the Abbey Theatre before watching a play that they have created together. They’ve never met in real life before.

“I was just staring… going, ‘I think I know this person,’” says 17-year-old Éadaoin O’Neill.

“I walked by the group three times,” says 18-year-old Selina Xu. “I was going, ‘Is this them?’”

“Today is the first time we’ve seen everyone’s faces bigger than two inches on the screen,” says 17-year-old Louí Montague from Belfast. “It’s like, ‘I’ve known you for a year and a half but I’ve never spoken to you in person.’”

“Everyone looks much older in real life,” says 17-year-old Emily Murray Nelson from Bray.

“I look about 10 on a Zoom call,” admits Louí.

For 10 years, Fighting Words, the inclusive creative writing organisation for children and teenagers, has run a young playwrights’ programme in partnership with the Abbey Theatre. In normal times, eight one-act plays would be produced during the ongoing in-person workshops with the help of two mentors: the novelist, playwright and Irish Times columnist Hilary Fannin, and actor, artist and writer, Una Kavanagh.

This time around, however, everything was done virtually so Fannin and Kavanagh thought it would be better to try creating something more unified. Windows 21, the play we’re about to see, was written by Michael Lavery, Ray McHallem, Louí Montague, Aisling Murphy, Emily Murray Nelson, Éadaoin O’Neill, Joe Reidy and Selina Xu, over the course of over a year of Zoom workshops.

I like to write funny stuff, taking things around me – living in a council estate, going to an all-girls school – there’s plenty of inspiration

All of the eight co-writers were previously involved with other Fighting Words programmes. “I don’t think I was ever not into writing,” says Selina Xu. “I would never stop reading… and I always wanted to write my own novel or even a play.”

“My dad would always read me stories and encourage me to write,” says Éadaoin O’Neill from Cork. “Over the years I used to read so much I would have two or three books on the go at one time. I wrote my own stories from second class. I still have copies at home with stories… realistic stories that quickly turned into horror stories.”

What age was she? She laughs. “I was 8.”

Aisling Murphy (17) from Galway can relate to this. “I used to write about my dreams when I was younger,” she says. “I didn’t know how to finish a story so I used to kill off all the characters every single time. Sometimes they’d fall off a cliff. That was the only way to end a story.”

Has she worked out new ways to finish stories? “I have, yeah.”

“I had a fairly similar start to be honest with you,” says Joe Reidy from Westport, Co Mayo. “I’d write things about sentient vegetables.”

From left to right: Selina Xu, Emily Murray Nelson, Joe Reidy, Louí Montague, Michael Lavery, Aisling Murphy, Éadaoin O’Neill and Ray McHallem outside the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Photograph: Damien Eagers
From left to right: Selina Xu, Emily Murray Nelson, Joe Reidy, Louí Montague, Michael Lavery, Aisling Murphy, Éadaoin O’Neill and Ray McHallem outside the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Fighting Words has offered these young writers ways to channel their creative instincts. Michael Lavery, who is from Belfast, was in a drama group when someone suggested he get involved with Fighting Words. Now he finds he loves “just making these crazy people and putting them into situations that they shouldn’t be in, and seeing what’s going to happen.”

Ray McHallem (13) says his parents work in the arts. “I was always a big storyteller or ‘liar’,” he says, and laughs. “So they thought ‘What’s the more creative way he can do this?’”

“I used to love telling stories,” says Emily. “You make your own conversations and then they turn into characters and it goes from there. I like to write funny stuff, taking things around me – living in a council estate, going to an all-girls school – there’s plenty of inspiration to go around.”

Louí says: “I was just a very talkative child. And they wanted to put that into something positive and I just went along with it.” He generally gets inspiration from what he sees around him too, he says, something that was difficult to do when everyone was locked down. “The other day I heard someone say, ‘You look like you get your haircut by your ma with three spoons’. I love random things like that. Reality is stranger than fiction.”

I always kind of thought being a journalist or being a writer was almost like being an astronaut. It wasn’t really tangible

They all found the outlet of the regular workshops cathartic. “It was really strange,” says Éadaoin. “Joe said earlier that it was kind of isolating… I definitely vented [in the writing] about how I was feeling over Covid.”

“I was doing the Leaving Cert so it was an escape from all the studying and the madness that was online learning,” says Selina.

That all said, it wasn’t always easy. It took some getting used to, says Ray. “If we weren’t on Zoom, we could all be having little separate conversations with each other. [On Zoom] you can’t turn to somebody and say ‘Hey, what’s your idea?’ Instead, it’s like bringing out a megaphone and saying to the room ‘What’s your idea?’ and hoping only the person you want to respond, responds.”

Louí says it was still hugely inspiring. “Hearing all the different accents gives me inspiration for different types of dialogue. Galway, Mayo, Belfast.”

“And Bray!” adds Emily.

Each session gave them a dose of positivity, says Michael. “Every morning you would have Hilary and Una saying, ‘You’re amazing’.”

“I always kind of thought being a journalist or being a writer was almost like being an astronaut,” says Louí. “It wasn’t really tangible. But then having great mentors and meeting people, making connections, I feel I really could be a journalist or a writer of some description.”

Fannin and Kavanagh have been running this project for a decade but they think this has been both the most difficult and also the most moving year of the 10. They’ve also been working on a book together called Making a Scene that explains how they work and pulls together everything they have learned from the process. The ethos, says Fannin, “is that there’s no wrong or right, there are no ideas that are inconvenient… You don’t have to pass any tests. You don’t have to accumulate any points. To do this, all you need to do is to want to do it, and we’ll be there to help you out.”

They really are artists. And watching that growth [of] confidence, the belief, their intention, their voices, it means something… It’s important

Their job is to encourage the work and create an atmosphere of enthusiasm and warmth, she says. “Some don’t have their own computers or are on their mam’s phone. You’re trying all the time to support them, telling them they’re amazing… In school they’re trained to respond in a particular way. There’s a formula. You write your English essay this way. You write your critique this way. We spend the first few weeks really just breaking that apart.”

“We ask ‘What is it you want to say?’” says Kavanagh. “They really are artists. And watching that growth [of] confidence, the belief, their intention, their voices, it means something… It’s important. [Creating art] helps you get up in the morning and be the person you are and walk through the city and through life.”

At the end of the process, they handed the scripts and the young writers into the capable hands of director Jeda de Brí. It’s a difficult moment for the pair. “They’re like kittens in a basket,” says Fannin. “Someone comes in and picks them up and it’s, ‘Oh no they’re taking the kittens.’”

Kavanagh laughs. “Mind the kittens!” she says.

We mask up and go into the theatre to watch the play. It’s directed by de Brí and features the actors Juliette Crosbie, Holly Hannaway, Esther Ayo James, Clinton Liberty, Matthew Malone and Katie McCann, each playing numerous roles. It’s being performed today in front of a small socially distanced crowd of family and friends, but is being filmed to be streamed on July 20th at 7.30pm.

I thought ‘Oh my God, I actually wrote that’

Windows 21 is a series of loosely connected stories about people grappling with loss, isolation, existential anxiety, hope, cosmic absurdity and joy. A cynic and an optimist meet in a pub in the aftermath of lockdown; Two celestial entities chat about the nature of existence; Some people constructively and destructively pass time in the small hours; A young diarist documents the absurdities of the pandemic; A young woman grapples with the aftermath of image-based sexual abuse; A couple communicate in disjointed non sequiturs; An overthinking Deliveroo cyclist philosophises between jobs; A Whats App group of young friends try to wring one glorious night out of a heartless year. It’s humane, wise, sad, funny and very moving. By the time Kavanagh, Fannin and I meet outside afterwards, all of our eyes are red.

“They’re so honest aren’t they?” says Fannin. Fannin and Kavanagh talk about specific lines and keep returning to the qualities of each young writer. Fannin reflects on how powerful it is for them to hear their words coming out of another person’s mouth on that stage. She wants them to know, she says, that “this is their National Theatre.”

It’s deeply personal for them. “A lot of it comes back down to imbibing from a young age that I wasn’t good enough,” says Fannin. “It took me decades and decades and decades before I was able to call myself a writer... For us maybe there’s some healing going on.”

The writers emerge from the dark of the theatre. They look happy, if slightly dazed. “The French probably have a word for this feeling,” says Louí.

Michael is speechless. “Michael has no words and he always has words,” says Fannin.

“You can imagine something being said [on that stage] but it’s not the same as actually hearing it being said,” says Ray.

Selina says she might need to go home and sleep. “I thought ‘Oh my God, I actually wrote that’.”

Windows 21 debuts on the Abbey’s YouTube channel on July 20th at 7.30pm, and runs until July 27th. Information can be found at abbeytheatre.ie