George heslin scaled

For 1st Irish, shows must go on

Actors Michael Mellamphy and Sarah Street are the co-curators of Origin’s 13th Annual 1st Irish Festival. PHOTO BY JAMES HIGGINS

By Peter McDermott

In a crisis, there can be opportunity. And in the less than ideal circumstances of the global pandemic, some have seen the potential for broader exposure for the world of theatre.

This is certainly the case with the Origin’s 13th Annual 1st Irish Theatre Festival, which begins on next Monday, Jan. 11, and continues through to Jan. 31

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

“Because it’s virtual how we can we get people who maybe had an interest in the festival before to check it out as opposes to the very loyal supporters,” said Sarah Street, co-curator of the 2021 edition.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase theatre in general,” her fellow curator Michael Mellamphy said. “There’s a huge population who don’t think of theatre as an entertainment or [in terms of] going out. I think this is a great chance to showcase what we love.”

He added, “The board of Origin were adamant that the 1st Irish was to keep going.”

Street said, “It’s such an important part of the calendar year for Irish and Irish-American artists in New York and supporters of their work. It champions new playwriting, which we often don’t get to see enough of.”

“When the theaters are open hopefully again [later in 2021], we’re not salvaging it from the wreckage. We’ve had a virtual festival that we can build on,” she said. “And also when we do get people back into the theaters we can maintain that element of the festival for those who can’t make it to the theatre, for whatever reason, whether distance or age or sickness.”

Origin has yet to appoint a successor to George Heslin as artistic director. The founder took up a new position on Oct. 1 as executive director of the New York Irish Center, but he asked actors Street and Mellamphy if they’d steer the 1st Irish festival through what are troubled times for everyone.

“We both have quite a lot of history with the 1st Irish festival,” Mellamphy said, “It has sustained my own acting career at many points. It’s not always easy. So having a festival like this is just wonderful. We can all get together and share some work.”

They found that they worked well together in this joint role.

“It’s a bit of a match made in New York heaven,” added Mellamphy, who has twice won the best actor award at the 1st Irish Festival. “Working with Sarah had been an absolute pleasure and joy.

He was born in Dublin but brought by his parents to Cork and spent two early years in Hollyhill, near to where Street grew up, before his family moved out to suburban Ballincollig. “It’s not just a Cork festival, it’s a north side of Cork festival,” Mellamphy said, referencing a running joke between the curators.

“It’s been great. We’ve worked on it several times as actors. We’re friends from the same part of the world,” said Street, whose own work has been performed at the festival. “We know each other well enough to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It just works out, I think.

George Heslin founded the Origin Theatre Company and its 1st Irish Theatre Festival. PHOTO BY JASON KAUFMAN

“This has been so experimental,” she said. “It’s the first time the festival’s been done this way, where people are in charge other than George and also the fact that it’s a virtual festival.”

Heslin assured them that they would have specialists who would oversee the technical part — virtual and YouTube experts and so on — which freed them to concentrate on the content, although the curators also brought on someone (“a Zoom wizard, we call him,” said Street) to help give the paneled discussions a professional look.

Street, a member of the Barrow Group and a founder of the Pond Theatre Company, said, “We sat down and strategized about what we wanted the festival to look like.”

She added, “I think we found our way through it.”

“It is at its core a theatre festival,” Mellamphy said, “but the theatres are closed.” A starting point, then, was to say “anything is possible.” What emerged was “distilled out of openness.”

He said, by way of example, “Sarah brought up [the documentary] ‘The Burning of Cork.’ It just seemed like a perfect fit to have that kind of element in the festival.

“The ideas we’ve come up with together are reflective of our own interests and personalities,” he said, adding, “We wouldn’t be able to do this without the board and the partners of Origin, and George is extremely helpful. He’s such a professional. We’d had wonderful support really.”

The curators pointed to the lead offered by the Irish Repertory Theatre.

“And as members of the company there, we’ve taken great inspiration from what they’ve done,” Mellamphy said. “They have just continued to work. The throw caution out the door there and say ‘We’re going to keep on doing what we do.’”

Street agreed, “They’ve really blazed a trail during this whole thing. They’ve found a way to continue full seasonal programing all online. It’s totally astounding what they’ve managed to do.”

Now they will apply some of the same principles learned by watching the Rep’s efforts, but over a three-week festival.

“We can have people in Ireland and Northern Ireland tune in and be part of the festival for the first time. In terms of the times, we have slots in every production for 3 p.m. in New York, which means people in Ireland can enjoy them also,” Mellamphy said. “There are little nuggets of opportunity and positives in all of this, and that was one of them.”

Another is providing an outlet for the co-curators and the many others involved. Both Street and Mellamphy had been planning projects that were cancelled when the world turned upside down in March. The recent invitation to curate and produce was a welcome one. Mellamphy invoked the long wait for the proverbial bus, only for two to arrive at the same time: “All of a sudden 20 productions come along at once.”

His co-curator said, “I think we both really enjoyed it and we both learned from it. Obviously, we’re more used to being on the artistic side of things. I think we’d both love to do it again, Mick and I.

“For me anyway, during this difficult time for the arts community, to be in a position,” Street continued, “where we are giving artists a platform and showing their work has felt very important to me and I’m very honored to have that opportunity at this particular time.”

For the festival’s schedule and tickets visit