By Orla O’Sullivan
There were no performance previews at the Origin’s 1st Irish launch party, but a Tourism Ireland representative—one of several speakers who underscored the theatre festival’s importance to the Irish economy—proved something of a stand-up comic.
Billy Condon, vice president of marketing, who said, “I’ve been working for Tourism Ireland… well, since they threatened to fire me,” opened, deadpan: “I’d like to thank Thomas Moran for the use of his office.”
The office in question was the penthouse suite of Mutual of America that occupies almost an entire Park Avenue block with floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular city views. Moran, the company chairman, and a major sponsor of the festival, was absent on this occasion, which also lacked vignettes from upcoming plays that have featured at past launch parties.
Not that 1st Irish is on the wane. Far from it, indicated George Heslin, who established the only festival celebrating Irish playwrights in the U.S. back in 2008. It has since produced the work of 122 of them.
“If you had to buy all the advertising the 1st Irish festival gets for the word ‘Ireland,’ it would cost $18 million,” Heslin said, noting that this estimate came from an independent, media-tracking company (Burrelles Luce, Florham Park, N.J.).
Condon said, “No one does a better job of bringing theatre from Ireland to the U.S. than George Heslin,” and cited various surveys indicating Ireland’s growing profile. Among them, Dublin was this year voted the second friendliest city in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler.
“The first was Sydney — because all the Irish went there,” Condon joked. In other surveys, Ashford Castle was rated as the world’s top hotel and Belfast’s Titanic Quarter as one of the world’s top attractions, he noted.
There’s a strong emphasis on Northern Ireland in 1st Irish, 2015, running from Sept. 2 to Oct. 4. Two theatres from Belfast are performing in the festival and there’s a symposium on the cultural impact of the North at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House (3 p.m. on Sept. 12). Belfast’s Tinderbox is at the American Irish Historical Society for one night (Sept. 24) with “Summertime” and Brassneck brings “The Holy, Holy Bus” to the National Arts Club the following night.
Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in North America, a longtime sponsor of the annual September festival, noted that during the Troubles artists in Northern Ireland played a vital role in addressing issues others would not. “In the dark old days the elephant in the room was dealt with by playwrights,” said Houston, who came from D.C. to attend the gathering.
Paul Nugent, an actor who came from Dublin to perform in Brendan Connellan’s “Python” at An Beal Bocht Café in the Bronx, said, “I think the entire Irish theatre community would come to 1st Irish if they could. People in Dublin are always asking me, ‘How do you get a show into 1st Irish?’”
Last to speak was the man best placed to answer them, the festival founder and Limerick native, introduced by Origin board member Aisling Reidy as “George Heslin, the man of making connections.”
At the mike, Heslin gently admonished the crowd of 200 or so. “You’re all very far away from me,” he said. “Come in, come in, come in, it’s an Irish party.”