By Heather O’Donovan
Nestled unassumingly on a Chelsea side street sits New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre, or, as most call it, Irish Rep. It’s an inconspicuous space: no Broadway-style marquees, only a suitably green banner poking out from the facade alerting in-the-know theatre-goers to its presence. It was in the basement blackbox studio of this snug and storied enclave — temporarily set up saloon-style for the company’s production of “thriller in rhyme” The Smuggler — where I met Irish Rep’s co-founder and artistic director Charlotte Moore and director of audience and play development Nicola Murphy Dubey one recent Thursday afternoon to discuss the company’s Transatlantic Commissions Program over a cup of tea.
Moore and her co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly founded Irish Rep in 1988, at a time of upheaval and violence in the North of Ireland. “We took hold of a movement,” Moore explains, to represent Irish life to an American audience. That mission remains the core of Irish Rep’s programming endeavors today and has, most recently, served as the foundation for the company’s latest experiment. “Ireland in the last twenty-five years has moved from a monocultural to a multicultural, international society,” Murphy explains. “We were eager to work on plays that bridged the gap between gender and diversity, so we decided to commission new works that would better represent Ireland today.”
In collaboration with Fishamble, a Dublin theatre company specializing in new works, Irish Rep commissioned four Black Irish artists and writers, including two female-identifying theatre-makers — poet-performer-playwright FELISPEAKS and actor-writer Jade Jordan — to create new, short works to be presented in Spring 2023 in a series of readings.
Over the last twelve months, under the auspices of the Transatlantic Commissions Program, the writers have been receiving mentorship via Zoom from playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith. Not Irish herself, Orlandersmith nevertheless feels a strong connection to the history and present-day culture of Ireland having performed and spent time in the country. “There’s really not someone quite like Dael in Ireland just yet,” explains Murphy, “so it’s been great to be able to provide these writers with this level of support and make this a truly Transatlantic collaboration.”
There are training opportunities, both independent and through universities, to be sure, but in Orlandersmith’s view these programs don’t quite offer the same value as a mentorship: “In my career as a female Black writer, I’ve often been outside the outside; to a certain degree, Jade and FELISPEAKS, also Black female writers, are outside the outside, as well. Because of our identities, we’re often expected to write about gender and race in a certain way, but I want to offer Jade and FELISPEAKS information that allows them to find their individual voices. They’re not here to be a reflection of me. That’s a healthy sense of boundary that you find in a mentorship.”
Throughout our conversations, Moore spoke of finding both friendship and mentorship in her fellow theatre-makers, including Irish playwright Marina Carr, who helped Moore see just how deeply ingrained masculinity is in the Irish canon; Murphy spoke of the mentorship she has benefitted from through her relationship with Moore; and Orlandersmith spoke of the guidance — both helpful and less so — that she received while on the job during her early career. But for none of these artists was there a program akin to that which Jade Jordan and FELISPEAKS have experienced this past year.
For these budding writers, too, this sort of mentorship was a fresh and exciting opportunity. FELISPEAKS, inspired by their own experience connecting with their Nigerian roots in recent years and by conversations with Orlandersmith, devoted the year to developing a compelling story of a Black Irish girl who is trying to find balance within herself. Jordan’s work shares the story of Black Irish activist Christine Buckley, who spoke out against the rampant abuse in the Irish Industrial Schools system, a story she’s been wanting to write for years. (Coincidentally, Orlandersmith herself had once hoped to write a similar work about Buckley, which, Jordan says warmly, “just felt like the most perfect sign!”) For both, the path to these new works has not been devoid of doubts. “What I lack in training,” FELISPEAKS offered, “I make up for in bravery.” So in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it year they were given to write their works, Orlandersmith’s mentorship proved crucial: “To have a creative mind like Dael look at our work with us — without trying to take it over — was so important.”
Jordan’s work shares the story of Black Irish activist Christine Buckley, who spoke out against the rampant abuse in the Irish Industrial Schools system.
The experience of this transatlantic scheme has sparked all parties involved to consider avenues for similar opportunities in the future. Moore and Murphy, though they couldn’t share whether the program would be replicated in the immediate future, admitted to “having ideas.” They also expressed their excitement at the new relationships they’ve forged with the program’s four writers.
Over the phone, Orlandersmith gushed about how her mentees have been so “willing to sing” and, though occupied with her own new projects, expressed joy at having participated in the program. As for Jordan and FELISPEAKS, they’re eager for similar opportunities, bolstered by what has turned out to be a transformative year in their careers.
“What I lack in training,” FELISPEAKS offered, “I make up for in bravery.”
Perhaps the greatest testament to the value of such mentorship opportunities — especially among women — are the conversations that emerge when women gather in a space to share stories, perspectives, and ideas. After all, this is what sparked the premise of FELISPEAKS’ play and how Jordan refined her vision for Buckley’s story. Indeed, meeting with Jordan and FELISPEAKS via Zoom, the three of us spoke for far longer than the time we’d allotted for our interview. Yet we continued talking, our conversation ambling freely and fruitfully, a beautiful new connection forged across an ocean.
Heather O’Donovan is a multi-hyphenate storyteller-artist whose writings on classical music have appeared with WQXR, DACAMERA Houston, the Princeton University Department of Music, Maestra Music, and OperaWire. She has also written program notes and supplements that have appeared at Carnegie Hall. From time to time Heather dabbles outside of the classical music field, with other work appearing in publications from Fast Company to Authority Magazine to BuzzFeed.
Currently up at Irish Repertory Theatre ENDGAME by Samuel Beckett with Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson and Patrice Johnson Chevannes through April 16, 2023