Ciarán O'Reilly Reflects on Irish Rep, the Pandemic and Stephen Sondheim

When the COVID pandemic hit, the Irish Repertory Theatre put everything on hold and went into full digital mode, producing several extraordinary online productions. Now the company has emerged from the shutdown pretty much where it entered, with a production of A Touch of the Poet, Eugene O'Neill's tragic drama of immigrants in America, but this time it's live on stage.

A Touch of the Poet, which had been well into production when the shutdown hit and received an excellent digital showing, has arrived where it always should have been—on the company's mainstage, starring Robert Cuccioli, Belle Aykroyd and Kate Forbes, through April 17. The show has returned with three new actors joining the cast: James Russell, David Beck and Rex Young.

Producing director Ciarán O'Reilly, who talked to Newsweek about the effects of the pandemic and its aftermath on the company, said, "We were a few days away from going into the theater. The set had not been loaded in yet, but it was built. We were almost four weeks in the rehearsal room. The costumes had been thrown on a rack. The lighting plan had been designed. The sound had been designed, or was in the process of for the most part. It was we were ready to go, and then we were told to go away for a few days."

Those days turned out to be not quite as biblical as the daily headlines, but they were not 24-hour days. There were two years' worth of them, and they were filled with some doubt about if and when normalcy would return. The company did, however, do several excellent digital productions, including one of the Touch of the Poet. "We hoped we could do it one day," O'Reilly said about a live production of the play, "and then we hoped it was going to be the right show to come back with. You never quite know. We just felt like it had not been fully realized [when it was done digitally]. Even though we had done a film version, there was nothing that would match the live experience for everyone."

cast Touch of the Poet Irish Rep
Irish Repertory's Ciarán O'Relly talked to Newsweek about the how the company got through and came out of the pandemic shutdown. From left, Belle Aykroyd, Robert Cuccioli, David Beck, David Sitler and Rex Young in Irish Rep's 2022 mainstage production of "A Touch of the Poet." Carol Rosegg

Aside from the shutdown, the George Floyd murder and ensuing protests touched Irish Rep, and the company has been attempting to be more inclusive. To that end, it has entered into an agreement with Fishamble, an Irish theater company, to commission an evening of plays by Black Irish playwrights.

O'Reilly told Newsweek, "In collaboration with the Fishamble theater company—they were actually founded in 1988, the same year as us, and have been around for quite some time—we wanted to try to create some content that has an Irish connection to it, because that's what we are. We also are very interested in moving the needle as much as possible as regards to diversity—and to try to do it properly.

"We wanted to be doing the work but also part of our own vision. So, we decided that if we can't, if it's not out there right now—and we were having a tough time finding material we thought would fit in with us—that we need to create some material. And so to be able to create stuff that maybe reflects Ireland of today, we decided let's go with a company in Ireland and talk to them.

"They said that they had gone down that road a little bit themselves, inviting people of color to come and write some things. So, we thought, Well let's make it official: If they can identify up to four playwrights in Ireland, then we will give them a commission for each of them to write a play 20 minutes long and those four plays will become an evening of theater. We didn't put any real boundaries on them as to what they needed to write about. They could write about anything they want. But just to give them something to start with, we decided that the idea would be 'four seasons.' Each of them could write about a season and each of them could write whatever they liked about it.

"And then we wanted a connection from here. They were all Black, brown people living in Ireland, growing up Irish basically. It's not as if there were a lot of immigrants to Ireland. They were actually Irish people living over there. So to have a connection from over here, we asked Dael Orlandersmith, whose most famous play is probably Yellowman, to be a mentor for these playwrights because they're all pretty young. They're all south of 30. We asked her to come on board, and we're currently in the midst of the project with them. They're on the creative task at the moment. We hope to have a draft by the end of the year, enough to do a reading workshop both in Dublin and New York."

Orlandersmith actually has a connection to Ireland. "It was Lynn Nottage who actually put us in touch with her. I knew Dael, myself. I'd met her before but hadn't quite realized that she had such a connection to Ireland. She had lived over there and had several productions of her own work in and around Ireland—in Dublin, Galway and around the country. So that was pretty cool."

Other big news that came up recently was that Irish Rep had been named in the will of Stephen Sondheim who died on November 26, 2021. O'Reilly said that he had no idea this was coming, nor did he know, as of publication time, how much that would be. "We figured we've already won, just to be included. It's a bit like just to get nominated [for an ward] was enough.

"Sondheim was a good friend of [artistic director] Charlotte Moore's. Charlotte was the connection. She had also worked with [Sondheim's longtime collaborator and friend] Hal Prince, and Hal worked with us on his play Grandchild of Kings."

Moore had had a famously bad audition for Prince and Sondheim's A Little Night Music in which she attempted to sing the bench song—"If I Loved You"—from Carousel, but, O'Reilly said, "nothing came out." Moore burst into tears, after which Sondheim comforted her. She was invited back, but eventually declined to audition again. But they remained friends. He would show up unannounced at plays, obviously a fan of Irish Rep's work. And the mention in Sondheim's will has burnished the company's reputation as much as it will its coffers.

Irish Rep does many things well, but it does three things especially well: Musicals, which are usually pared down to fit the company's space; modern Irish plays, like those of Conor McPherson; and classical Irish plays, like those from the Abbey. The company will tick off two from that list very soon. Coming up next at Irish Rep will be Belfast Girls, a new play by Jaki McCarrick. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, though the Female Orphan Emigration Scheme, over 4,000 girls aged 14 to 18 voluntarily boarded ships to Australia, where men out-numbered women. Belfast Girls is a fictional account of a five of those women.

And opening downstairs on April 24, the company is presenting Two by Synge: "In the Shadow of the Glen" and "The Tinker's Wedding," two plays by John Millington Synge that depict the tough life of poor Irish at the turn of the last century.

Finally, thinking back on the experience of the past two years, O'Reilly said that while the pandemic was hard creatively, there was a couple of upsides for Irish Rep. Presenting shows online allowed a lot more people to sample the company's work and "even though we offered the digital shows for free with suggested donations, we got a lot of suggested donations. We kept our whole company employed. We didn't do any furloughs, and we were able to pay all the actors and pay their pension, and all of those things. All that happened because of those digital shows. So in that respect it was a roaring success. Rather than just going away and waiting for this reopening, we're on to our fourth or fifth show now. If we had stopped it would have been hard to get back up."

For more information on the current and upcoming offerings at Irish Rep, go to IrishRep.org.

Robert Cicolli in Touch of the Poet
Digital productions such as A Touch of the Poet helped Irish Rep get through the pandemic. Above, Robert Cuccioli stars as Con Melody in "A Touch of the Poet," which streamed last fall. Irish Repertory Theatre