Monday, September 27, 2010

From Theatre Virgin to Grumbling Veteran, Irish Times 4 Sept 2010

From theatre virgin to grumbling veteran

by Manchán Magan, The Irish Times - Saturday, September 4, 2010

. . . and in only a year. Until last year’s fringe, Manchán Magan knew nothing about acting, selling tickets, awards or envy. But he learned fast

MY WHOLE LIFE changed at 5am on May 15th last year, with the bing of an e-mail to my rented house in Tucson, Arizona. I’d been accepted to put on a production for the 2009 Dublin fringe festival.

This must be some mistake, I thought: I don’t have a production, just the vaguest kernel of an idea I suggested the festival might consider for future years. I ignored the e-mail for two days; it’s implications were too vast. If I accepted I would be propelled into the world of theatre, populated, I suspected, by egocentric actors, pretentious directors and grant-dependent lackeys.

I earn my living in the cut-throat world of television, where payment is based on ability to rack up ratings in as stylish, informative and entertaining a way as possible, rather than inflicting self-indulgent, airy-fairy notions on tiny theatre audiences. If I accepted I would have to find a director, lighting designer, set designer and costume designer – and, presumably, pay for them all myself. It was lunacy, and yet . . .

I took a plane home, went to meet Róise Goan, director of the fringe, and came clean about my complete lack of theatrical experience. She seemed to relish the news, and took me step by step through the fundamentals of theatre: the hourly rate of lighting designers, the cost of public liability insurance, how to negotiate with a production manager, how to run a marketing campaign, how to estimate ticket yield, and more.

Most of it went over my head, but one thing stuck: if I was to have any chance of not bankrupting myself I needed a sell-out show. The fringe would pay for the venue and Foras na Gaeilge offered some funding; I needed to pay for everything else. Attracting a crowd requires publicity, and the only way I knew of guaranteeing that is exposure – and by exposure I mean self-humiliation. Hence the photograph (right).

There was no going back: I would be writing, producing and performing my first play. So far what I had was more a linguistic conundrum than a script: could a play be presented in one language that was understandable in another?

It would be set in an Irish lesson that goes badly wrong, in which the teacher reveals too much through the words he teaches. I hoped the audience would learn enough Irish in the course of the show to understand the narrative.

I’d play the teacher, as I couldn’t afford a real actor, but I needed someone to play the student. A young dancer named Eva O’Connor, who was revising for her Leaving Cert, obliged, replying to my text with: “Yeah, yeah, yeah! Oh god yeah!”

Next step was a director. After sending a panicked letter to anyone I even vaguely know in the arts, Gerry Stembridge and Olwen Fouéré sent wonderfully encouraging replies within a day, mentioning people to contact and sharing other invaluable advice.

There followed two months of frenzy, during which the most promising director of his generation, Tom Creed, miraculously agreed to offer his services, embarking on six weeks of intense script editing, wrestling a story from my ramblings. He brought with him a set and a costume designer and a lighting designer.

Suddenly it was mid-September. The show, Broken Croí/ Heart Briste , opened to full houses, good reviews and two award nominations. I was swallowed whole into the theatre world, with offers of support and encouragement from every side. Project Arts Centre agreed to restage the show and commission a new work. Fishamble Theatre Company offered me a place on a writing course and any other support I might need.

I immediately regretted my previous misgivings about the theatre, and became smitten for a full six months – until the play got nominated for two Irish Times theatre awards, one for best new play, another for best supporting actress. Then things turned frosty: our nominations provoking envy in certain quarters. The judges were accused of pandering to immature upstarts in favour of more polished, serious work.

Two months later, at the awards ceremony, the atmosphere was so fevered I was relieved when we didn’t win. The level of inebriation reminded me of cross-channel ferry trips in the 1980s. At one point, after wine was thrown at a distinguished artistic administrator, I worried for the safety of my teenage co-actor. Passions were fuelled as much by the recent Arts Council cuts to subsidies as by alcohol or the awards themselves, but it made for a grave night.

A few weeks later I was able to share in the frustration of my thespian brethren when my first Arts Council grant application was turned down. Considering how I’d always scorned artistic scroungers going cap in hand to fund their personal indulgences, it was hypocritical to have applied in the first place, but at least the refusal marked me out as a true artist, and I joined the rest of my cohort bitching about the narrow-minded, soulless automatons in the Arts Council who had no appreciation for artistic innovation.

Then three weeks later I was invited to be on an Arts Council funding assessment panel. I was spellbound by the integrity, idealism and selfless commitment of the organisation. I’ve since been told the department I dealt with, youth arts, was the shining star of the Arts Council, but if other departments have even a fraction of their integrity, this is the model on which all quangos should be based.

Despite the refusal of my grant, things turned positive again with an offer to bring the play to Cork Midsummer Festival, and an award from the Steward Parker Trust, including an invitation to attend a week’s writing course with a legendary dramaturge. I also got commissions from BBC Ulster and the Abbey Theatre, and spent a week playing a transvestite in Lotus Eaters , a feature film about London’s bright young things by Alexandra McGuinness, who spotted that photo in the newspapers.

All in all it has been a wild year – let it never be said that neophyte playwrights are not encouraged in this country. But what excites me most is the thought that in a week’s time this year’s Dublin fringe festival will have catapulted another inexperienced young individual or company into the spotlight – and they, too, will embark on a similar year of attention and encouragement. Good luck to them all, and thanks for the memories.

Manchán Magan’s first novel, Oddballs: A Novel of Affections , is about to be published by Brandon. See for this year’s Absolut Fringe line-up

Survival tips for fringe newcomers

  • Woo the box-office staff with whatever it takes: charm, frankincense, barbecued swan. They are your sales team; scores of undecided theatre-goers are influenced by their recommendations.
  • Shamelessly gayify your work. A ridiculous proportion of fringe audiences are young, gay men. Play up to them. And learn, as I did to my cost, that they do not like the sight of sandals on men.
  • Over 100 works are on stage: see as many as you can, if only to reassure yourself that you’re not the only one getting half-empty houses. Ask other performers and production crews for their highlights.

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John Waters on the Irish Language, Irish Times 26/06/2006

New Irish may save language

John Waters 26/06/2006

The surely unsurprising news that the standard of spoken Irish is, as one newspaper headline puts it, “in freefall” may represent the most critical moment for generations in the story of the “first official language”.

The news is indeed bad: one in six pupils failed all Irish-speaking tests; a roughly similar proportion could not converse successfully about any of a range of specified subjects; even in Gaeltacht schools, the standard of spoken Irish has declined significantly. One interesting finding of a study by a number of TCD academics under Dr John Harris relates to the disillusionment of teachers, who feel they bear a disproportionate share of society’s responsibility for preserving the language. It appears that even parents who want their children to learn Irish are unwilling to do much that is practical to support this. The reasons include, predictably, the belief that Irish is of little “use” in the modern world and the consequent communication to children of a lukewarm attitude to it.

We have a tendency to see such phenomena as consequences of mere apathy and neglect, but really they are the scheduled outcomes of a systematic programme of suppression. We are not simply indifferent to the language, but have a programmed antipathy to it that expresses itself as much in our elaborate shows of tokenistic esteem for Irish as in our repeated failure to make it part of our active culture. The language is not simply dying - it is the victim of an attempted assassination.

But two developments offer hope. The first is the much-denigrated but rapidly growing Gaelscoil movement. (The Harris survey found that more than 90 per cent of Gaelscoil pupils are reaching high standards in spoken Irish.) The second is the largely unreported fact that there is now in existence an organisation for foreign nationals who wish to become fluent in Irish. This body, iMeasc, already has over 40 members, all of whom have a high degree of fluency. Established last year by Dutch journalist Alex Hijmans and Australian translator Ariel Killick, iMeasc has already established itself as an informal network and lobby group for immigrants with an interest in speaking Irish. The group is currently lobbying for State-funded Irish classes for immigrant children living in Gaeltacht areas or close to Gaelscoileanna, as well as the collation and distribution of trilingual phrasebooks (Polish-Irish-English, etc). The range of activities iMeasc offers includes bellydancing, yoga and African drumming - all through the medium of Irish.

About one-third of the group’s members come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, most having learnt Irish before coming here. Some are able to make their living using a language they learned from scratch without any element of compulsion, patriotism or cultural piety. By its very existence, iMeasc confronts one of the central tenets of our ideology of modernity: that “progress” ineluctably means the standing-down or dilution of native cultural values. Much media comment in recent years has centred on the idea that, in order to be “welcoming” to immigrants, we must put aside elements of the surviving indigenous culture that may create “discrimination” against outsiders. This is an utterly spurious idea, based not on openness towards outsiders but on hatred or ourselves.

Writing to the Minister for Justice last year as part of its campaign against a proposal to exclude immigrants from the Irish-language dimension of the entrance examination to An Garda Síochána, iMeasc stated: “It is an entirely dangerous and short-sighted approach to indicate, from an official level, that it is reasonable for immigrants to completely disregard an important aspect of Irish culture.”

It could result in immigrants being scapecoated for dissipating native culture.

Racism, long before being directed outward, is honed and refined in the processes of self-loathing which have been hardwired into the post-colonial consciousness. Speaking recently with iMeasc members, it struck me how simple would be the rehabilitation of the language if we could first of all convince ourselves that speaking it was not a mark of backwardness or insularity but an emblem of our belonging to the diversity of world cultures. This, if we can state the issue above the babble of post-colonial pseudo-progressivism, could be the defining idea in our attempt to integrate large numbers of people from outside. But we first of all need to see that our attitudes towards Irish are not rational responses to true facts but ancient antagonisms instilled for a political purpose.

Intellectually, we know it already, but the problem has little to do with intellect, being deeply ingrained in the society’s unconscious. And since shame was the main instrument of that process of self-obliteration, it is appropriate now that immigrants have taken to themselves the responsibility for shaming us in the other direction.

© The Irish Times

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Extract on Gaelscoileanna from David McWilliams’ The Pope’s Children

Extract on Gaelscoileanna from David McWilliams’ The Pope’s Children

By David McWilliams

From Irish Times, 13 Dec 2005

We are outside the gates of two Gaelscoileanna on Oakley Road in Ranelagh – the hypotenuse of the D6 elite triangle. Minister for Justice Michael McDowell joins the ranks of other accomplished folk – the HiCos (Hibernian Cosmopolitans) as I call them – dropping their bilingual kids off at Scoil Bhríde and Lios na nÓg.

Scoil Bhríde is the grand old dame of Gaelscoileanna, having been set up in 1917 by Louise Gavan Duffy in St Stephen’s Green. It moved to the grounds of Cullenswood House in Ranelagh in the 1960s and has, for years, been catering to the traditionally modest demand for Irish language education in the area.

Traditionally, children in Gaelscoileanna came from three broad sources. They were the sons and daughters of the Irish-speaking aristocracy – a tiny minority of over-achievers, many of whom, like the Minister for Justice, can trace their roots back to the revolutionary movements of 1916. They are umbilically linked to the language revival movement and have always been conspicuous in the civil service, the law, academia and the arts. These Gaeilgeoirí aristocrats constituted a small, highly educated, cultural elite which emerged after the foundation of the State.

Or they were the children of Gaeltacht people who moved to Dublin.

Or they were the leanaí of fáinne-wearing Gaeilgeoirí zealots, who can be termed the cigire class – the foot soldiers of de Valera’s Ireland

Together, these three groups of people formed the core of the Gaelscoil movement up until the late 1970s.

For most people, Gaelscoileanna were out of bounds, in the same way as reservations were out of bounds for white non-Indian Americans. Rightly or wrongly there was a perception that the Gaelscoileanna were not particularly interested in embracing the gnáth duine nor was the gnáth duine particularly interested in what was going on inside. Over the past 10 years in particular, the demand for Gaelscoileanna broke out of this reasonably narrow core group and extended quite dramatically into the mainstream middle classes.

As well as the general HiCo quest for authenticity, there were other factors that made people aware of and comfortable with their Irish heritage.

Riverdance in 1994, the IRA ceasefire and the hip programming of TG4 combined to make Irish more fashionable. It also allowed the new elite to be comfortable with their Irish cultural heritage.

For many of the sophisticated elite, who are acutely aware of what their peers are doing, there was something different going on in the Gaelscoileanna. The fact that the Irish-speaking secondary schools, which are free, send more pupils to university than many fee-paying schools, indicates that there is something going on in Gaelscoileanna that money just cannot buy.

That something is participation. Parents in Gaelscoileanna get involved; they tend to be agitators rather than passive spectators. They are consulted, they are responsible, they feel ownership. And, it is as close as the HiCo parent can get to teaching without swapping their massive salaries for the modest teacher’s one.

More than anything else, it is that middle-class sense of ownership that drives them into the arms of the Gaelscoileanna. (The same is true in that other HiCo educational growth area, the multi-denominational sector, which places such stress on being parent controlled. In many cases multi-denominational schools are also parent founded.)

The Gaelscoileanna are a risk-free venture for HiCo parents. They can opt into the State sector, with all the psychological upside that has for the socially concerned world view, without jeopardising the educational prospects of their little darlings.

The aim of the HiCos is not to turn themselves into Gaeilgeoirí but to get the best for their family. As with everything they do, Gaelscoileanna allows them to pick the best bit from what the Hibernian menu has to offer and move on. It is an economic free lunch, spiced with the virtue of authenticity.

Gaelscoileanna are hip and much in demand. Gaelscoileanna and the multi-denominationals are the fastest growing sub-sector of schools in the country. From being perceived by many as being too nationalist, too Catholic and too atavistic, as they were years ago, Gaelscoileanna are now the pinnacle of educated sophistication. People who send their children to Gaelscoileanna display great taste. They are erudite, refined and concerned. Twenty-first-century Gaelscoil parents are in a class of their own. They are both cosmopolitan and Hibernian.

The growth has been phenomenal. When the “Pope’s Children” were born there were only 25 Gaelscoileanna in Ireland. There are more than 200 today.

Lios na nÓg, one of the new breed of Gaelscoileanna, opened just when the HiCo spirit was emerging 10 years ago. It is a project school, non-denominational and liberal. In short, its proposition is a perfect HiCo fusion of language, old culture and tolerance – a sort of Countess Markievicz meets Greenpeace offering. What HiCo in his right mind could turn down such an authentic proposal?

Back in 1996, just when the economy was beginning to motor properly, the demand for places at Scoil Bhríde went through the roof, with the result that many parents could not get their children into the school. They decided to set up their own in Cullenswood House itself which was just over the wall from Scoil Bhríde.

Cullenswood House is the cradle of the revolution. This is where Pádraig Pearse set up St Enda’s – one of the first bilingual schools in the country – at the height of the first Gaelic Renaissance.

For the HiCo, Lios na nÓg in Cullenswood House has it all. It is a restored old Georgian building yet it is the birthplace of the Republic; it is a project school, tolerant, cosmopolitan, non-denominational, yet, as everything is taught through Irish, it is pure Hibernian; it is suburban Ranelagh within a stone’s throw of the HiCos’ food emporium, Mortons.

Lios na nÓg opened its doors to its first students in 1997. There were 25 in its first year and now there are 187 children. Lios na nÓg runs intercultural projects and has children from seven different countries. The experience is a world music melody played with a bodhrán and tin whistle. How more HiCo can you get?

This morning, the kids are playing football in the yard, speaking in Irish to each other. The parents are arriving now.

Bizarrely, Irish is not heard. Not one parent speaks a full sentence to their child in Irish at the gate, but there are lots of gratuitous sláns, dia duits and the like. The dia duit sorority is a sight to behold – lots of mummies dia duiting each other in the same way as black teenagers high-five each other in the ghetto.

As soon as their kids are safely in the doras or through the geata, they then break into red-brick Ranelagh’s finest nasal tones. But they are making a statement, and in this society authentic statements are crucial.

The difference between Scoil Bhríde and Lios na nÓg is significant. Scoil Bhríde mummies arrive in Range Rover Freelander jeeps as opposed to bikes and by foot. They have perfectly groomed hair, Riverview memberships and the whole vibe is upper professional.

Scoil Bhríde is senior counsel, partners in law-firms, advertising executives and Mercs territory. You might be forgiven for thinking that the Leaving Cert points benefit of Irish alone is what is driving these parents. If so it is an acceptable, culturally far-sighted form of the Attainometer.

Lios na nÓg is different. Pearse’s direct descendants wear scarves, beads, wristbands, and cycle or drive 96D Mitsubishis.

While Lios na nÓg wears sandals; Scoil Bhríde docksiders. Scoil Bhríde is Minister for Justice territory; Lios na nÓg is non-conformist. Scoil Bhríde is Catholic and comes under the authority of the Archbishop of Dublin. Lios na nÓg isnon-denominational and is run by a patrons’ trust.

Despite their differences, both schools are part of a greater movement: they are both Hibernian and Cosmopolitan.

The Lios na nÓg children all have little sweatshirts with happy suns smiling out from them and they skip into class. The atmosphere is calm. Everything is good taste, far seeing and right on. The school has its own compost heap, all paper is recycled and a fatwa has been declared on Capri-suns and fizzy drinks. The greener lunch guidelines are enforced. Everyone is tolerant and well-educated.

This is where the HiCos send their children to school. It is the breeding ground for the new sophisticated elite.

Tuesday 13th December 2005.

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