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Irish cutting edge in the Apple

C.S. Farrelly is pictured at an Origin event a few years ago with Brendan Coyle, AKA the valet Mr. Bates in “Downton Abbey,” and Charles Arrowsmith, on the left. Her involvement with Origin after some time studying in Dublin helped her reacclimatize to the New York arts scene. Origin's 10th Annual 1st Irish Festival is currently taking place. For more information about the shows, visit here.

By C.S. Farrelly

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In 2004, I moved back to New York City after a few years in Dublin and experienced culture shock. Not in the way you might assume – Dublin in the early 2000s felt more like New York than even New York at times. Sleek restaurants and bars lined every block. The streets and shops were filled with people from all around the world speaking numerous languages. Construction cranes dotted the sky. It felt uncannily like the gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen.

My particular culture shock had more to do with the vibrant and arts-centered version of Ireland I encountered living there – its authors, its artists and its audiences – and what I returned to in the United States. This is not a criticism of the arts scene in New York City or of the many theaters there that support Irish artists. But as a graduate student who studied contemporary Irish theater and film, returning to New York where there was less Irish theater than I’d become accustomed to in Dublin, and much of it less contemporary, meant I had to adjust.

In Dublin, I was stone’s throw away from numerous respected theater companies of varying size and focus: Pan Pan produced dance-centric theater pieces while the Gate premiered a new work by Brian Friel. Some of the playwrights’ names were familiar to me, as their work had made it to Broadway. Just as impressive was the fact others weren’t known to me. For their work to be valued, they did not need Broadway pedigrees. On any given night acquaintances from varied backgrounds – teachers, software engineers, priests, Intel workers – flocked to the theater. Tickets were affordable and while just a few streets over, a multiplex cinema had opened at the Parnell Center, you were just as likely to see entire families at the theater as at a movie. While work remains to be done on gender diversity in Irish theater, as evidenced by controversy over the Abbey’s 2016 commemoration program and recent harassment accusations against the Gate’s former director, Michael Colgan, Ireland seemed to be getting it largely right.

This was a stark contrast from the New York I’d returned to in 2004. Several years after 9/11 and the economic woes it caused, the arts in New York were still trying to regain their footing. While the astronomical ticket prices and celebrity stunt casting that has since come to characterize Broadway wasn’t yet as widespread, it was already rapidly changing its model. Off- and Off-Off Broadway theater companies struggled to keep up as they competed for audience market-share and funding. The version of Irish theater that thrived in New York at that time – productions that had moved to New York from award-winning turns on London’s West End or by authors like Friel and Conor MacPherson who’d won Tony awards – was narrower than what I’d enjoyed in Dublin.

Origin Theater Company, however, stood out. I went to my first Origin show, “Misterman” by Enda Walsh, because I’d seen Walsh’s work in Ireland, but never seen it produced over here. That experience led me to volunteer for several years with Origin and, during some of them, to serve on its board. I had the pleasure of being part of 1st Irish from the start, when George Heslin called one sunny afternoon a decade ago to share his idea with me.

As with many interactions between artists and those who support them, I had the usual reservations. Did we have enough time to pull it together? How could we make sure there were enough projects? Would we be able to bring shows over from Ireland? Throughout it all, George relied on his strong knowledge of producing international theater and vital help from Origin’s supporters and the theater companies who joined us that first year like 59E59, the Players Theatre, Glucksman Ireland House and Solas Nua in Washington DC, among others.

When September 2008 rolled around, Origin had not only pulled it together, but also succeeded in launching something truly special: a festival presenting work by 13 Irish playwrights, including five new works specifically commissioned for the festival. In subsequent years, Origin was honored when the Irish Repertory Theater, the Mint Theatre, the Irish Arts Center and others joined the Festival to help keep moving this ambitious project forward. Shows launched at 1st Irish like “Silent” by Pat Kinevane went on to tour the U.S. and 1st Irish has become a vital feeder to other companies with several projects, like “Jimmy Titanic” by Bernard McMullen, transferring to the Irish Repertory Theatre.

This, to me, best captures why 1st Irish was--and remains--such a unique and important program in the competitive landscape of NYC theatre. New York City will always attract outstanding theatrical talent. We’re lucky that it does. But what I also learned from my time in both Ireland and New York is that unless you have a champion fighting to share new work like 1st Irish does, it won’t happen. And we the audience, whether in New York City or elsewhere, will be the poorer for it.

America’s relationship with Ireland is richer when we continue to trade culture as much as economic investment. The kind of artistic collaboration between our nations that 1st Irish promotes doesn’t just produce entertainment; it plays a strong role in supporting trade and sharing the experiences of those living in both nations. It helps to keep valuable connections and conversations going. At a time when the U.S. is greatly polarized, keeping these connections and conversations alive is critically important.

In the 10 years since Origin launched 1st Irish, it has presented work by 165 Irish playwrights to an estimated audience of 15,000. That’s a lot of experiences and ideas to exchange and I’m grateful for the hard work of so many in helping this special program to thrive.

Congratulations to George Heslin and Origin Theatre on 10 years of something truly remarkable. Here’s to many more years of 1st Irish.

C.S. Farrelly studied at Trinity College Dublin as a Senator George J. Mitchell Scholar and is a member of the inaugural Presidential Leadership Scholars program co-sponsored by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Clinton Foundation, the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. Her debut novel, “The Shepherd's Calculus,” was published in October 2017.