An Irish playwright in New York: Lines remain unlearned, curtains unraised, seats unfilled

I’ll write to make the actors cry again – laugh, too. We’ll need a laugh after this

Michael Fitzpatrick, a playwright and journalist from Lucan, Co Dublin, lives in New York with his wife, Mei, a nurse practitioner at a Manhattan hospital, and their three children, 11-year-old Liam, eight-year-old Emmett and five-year-old Fiona

I'd made her cry. Her husband too. My words, their tears. His voice trembled first, then that shortness of breath, and a hand to his brow, squeezing his eyes shut. A grown man, acting like a child who'd wandered off on his mammy at the supermarket.

Her tears were different, the result of a more complex emotional recipe. Anger and hatred mixed with despair and heartbreak. A catastrophic array of ill feeling, all down to me. My words.

Then my turn. To somehow respond to this numbing assault. I froze, and stared at them both, awestruck. Not only at their emotion and energy but also at their talent, Grainne and John Duddy as actors.

"Michael". My name was called. Again. "Michael". Louder this time, but somewhat merrily. It was Brona Crehan, our director, almost clicking her fingers, so lost in the moment, their moment, was I.

My character’s lines were up in Counting Apples, the first play I’d ever written. I’d been watching John and Grainne, a real-life husband and wife from Co Derry, play Samantha and Brian, a blissfully married couple whose lives had been shattered by the actions of their pal Terry, whom I was playing.

I’d written the piece somewhat hesitantly, at Brona’s suggestion, and was to enter it in a short-play festival at Manhattan Repertory Theatre, in New York. There we’d compete against more than 30 other productions for a grand prize.

Some of the plays had been written, directed and performed in by individuals with TV, film and Broadway credits. There were astonishing costumes – gorgeous princesses, a 1940s cab driver, a jilted cheerleader and a guy dressed, extravagantly, elegantly and somewhat erotically, as a swan. I was way out of my depth.

My companions, however, were not. John had featured in Hands of Stone, a boxing film, where he'd worked alongside Robert De Niro and John Turturro. He'd also just finished shooting Emerald City, a film about Irish construction workers in New York, written and directed by another US-based Irishman, Colin Broderick, from Co Tyrone.

I’d been blown away, too, by Grainne’s powerhouse performance in Brona’s one-woman play Moonlight Sonata, at An Beal Bocht, an Irish venue in the Bronx. So I sent all three Counting Apples, fully expecting them to turn it down for something from a more experienced writer. They didn’t, and we were on our way.

In my two decades in New York City I'd worked the holy triumvirate of careers for an Irish immigrant. I'd pulled pints, demolished walls and moved furniture. Writing plays, naturally, was the next step.

In between, of course, I’d written. Thousands, probably millions, of words. Some for reputable newspapers, many for barely read publications.

I'd interviewed Noel Gallagher, Shane MacGowan, Brian Dennehy, Tommy Tiernan, Ed Burns, Colm Meaney, Maeve Binchy, Brendan Gleeson, Dolores O'Riordan and many others. I'd covered sports and reviewed concerts, spent many hours researching and even solving missing-person cases, but I'd never written a play, and remained uncomfortable calling myself a writer.

Hemingway was a writer, as were Hunter S Thompson, Colum McCann, Albert Camus, John McGahern, John Banville, Edna O'Brien, Stephen King, Marian Keyes. Was I? My pals said yes, but the voice in my head said: "Would you go away out of that, you spoofer."

Still, I walked Manhattan’s streets, muttering lines I’d written, ignored by passers-by, many of whom mumbled their own angry or sorrowful words, just not lines from plays.

For weeks we rehearsed in apartments, parks and coffee shops. Then, showtime.

The support was extraordinary. Every performance sold out. The New York Irish and more, scores of them. All out to see one, or rather four, of their own.

After a dozen performances the audiences voted – and we won best play, beating the taxi driver, the princess, the cheerleader and the 6ft 2in swan, whose hand, rather than wing, I shook afterwards. We made the local papers back home. Our mammies were happy, and that was that.

We moved on to other projects. Brona continued writing; I worked with Grainne again in another play I'd written, called Bowery Birds, for the long-running First Irish drama festival. Again, she excelled, this time alongside her fellow Ulster girl Siobhan McBride, as a pair of homeless women on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her husband, meanwhile, took the lead in A Bend in the River, Colin Broderick's second feature film.

In February 2020 I met with the Irish actor and director Mick Mellamphy, who suggested we get my latest play, The Tambourine Boy, off the ground.

We talked ideas and assembled a cast: the Duddys again, as well as the young actor Meg Hennessy and the veteran star Robert Langdon-Lloyd, for a reading at my pal Noel Donovan's Manhattan bar, Bloom's Tavern (renowned for its annual Bloomsday celebrations, run by the First Irish theatre group).

The reading was extraordinary. What could have been an emotionally draining evening was an incredibly positive experience.

Afterwards we talked about where we’d go with it and what was going on in the world. Sports, the upcoming US presidential election and the weird virus that people were talking about.

Weeks later, people we knew had got sick and the city that never slept went for a lie down from which it has yet to fully awaken. The Tambourine Boy wasn’t important any more.

In New York’s Irish arts circles, lines remain unlearned, curtains unraised, seats unfilled, and, somewhere, a full-length swan costume in a guy’s closet is just waiting for another chance to shine. And shine it will: we’re getting there.

When we do return, I’ll write to make the actors cry again – laugh, too. We’ll need a laugh after this. See, that’s what writers do. They write. Don’t we?

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