I climb the eight flights of stairs to Fishamble’s offices to stagger into Jim Culleton’s handshake and warm smile. Director of Fishamble: the New Play Company, as well as a myriad of award-winning plays, Jim strikes me as a singularly lovely man. We settle on either side of a table, overlooking the pallet-enforced Occupy settlement that still braves the concrete mass of Central Bank, and Jim waits politely as I catch my breath. You’d never know from his calm demeanor that the revival of his production of Bookworms is opening on the Abbey stage tonight, nor that this is only the most current of the many projects Jim is directing.
So Bookworms opens tonight after a ten month break from the Abbey stage – how did it feel revisiting it?
Yes, I’m looking forward to it! Some of the play – with that kind of comedy – it can be quite mathematical. You have to think, ‘well if I put my glass down here and look at you there, then you can be ready to pour my drink then so I knock it over on the next line…’ but I think we captured the overall sense of the play again very quickly – it was almost like it hadn’t been ten months since our last performance. Because it’s a contemporary play, too, because it’s set now, you can look at how the world has changed in the past year and a half. A lot of things have changed in Ireland, so the playwright Bernard Farrell has changed lines. A year and a half ago one of the characters said ‘Oh, don’t worry about the recession, it’ll be over in no time!’ if you were to do that now it would seem very naïve. Or overly optimistic.
I didn’t know Bernard Farrell updated it…
Well, when we started rehearsing we had to decide whether we were reviving a play that was set in 2010 or are we reviving a play and setting it now? There aren’t huge changes in it but there maybe a half dozen instances where the lines have had to be changed because things have shifted substantially enough. I think Bernard Farrell is very good at finding contemporary moments. In his first play I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell it was set around a group therapy session, and in 2010 it was a book club. He’s good at catching the zeitgeist, he’s got his finger on the pulse.
And how do you feel about being asked back onto the Abbey stage?
Delighted! The Abbey, as the national theatre, looks at a range of work, independent touring companies as well as what they commission themselves, and they do revivals too, of popular shows. There had been rumours that the Bookworms set had been wrapped extra carefully, so we hoped it would be brought back – the bubble wrap had given us an inkling…
You won’t be too long away from the National Theatre after Bookworms – Pat Kinevane’s Silent is coming there in May.
Yes, on the Peacock stage. Pat had come to us in 2006 with the idea for a one man show, which became Forgotten – still going strong since then! It’s toured all over the world, as well as sixty or so venues in Ireland. With Silent, Pat wanted to write a show about homelessness and depression – but with a very outrageous, wicked sense of humour, which he has anyway. I think people are pleasantly surprised to find such dark aspects of the Irish psyche being so hilarious. We developed it for about six months and in 2011 it toured to twenty different Irish venues. It went to Paris too, and was just recently in Bulgaria. Apparently whoever did the subtitles for the show added a slide to say that it was Pat’s birthday, which resulted in the entire audience singing him happy birthday in Bulgarian.
So with Pat Kinevane and Bernard Farrell’s Bookworms, you both have new plays, and with Fishamble that’s obviously what the company is all about. But what makes a play jump at you?
I like to think it’s the quality, the truthfulness, the brilliance of the writing. If it has a passion to it we are taken by that, and then we go on a journey with it. A lot of the work we’ve been touring recently seems to be focused on the underdog, on the people we would rarely see on stage or would cross the street to avoid, like Sebastian Barry’s Pride of Parnell Street, or Pat Kinevane’s plays. There is an element of excitement about what a play can do.
And the next project you have coming up is all about new writing – the Tiny Plays for Ireland.
Yes, in the past with various competitions we’ve gotten about three or four hundred entries – this time we expected slightly more, because we’d announced the call through the Irish Times – and we ended up getting seventeen hundred plays! So we really were astounded. We got plays from every single county in Ireland, from the ages of seven to eighty-one.
A friend of mine works in a pub and she said everyone she served a pint to had written a tiny play. I imagine it was incredibly interesting to read all of them…
We felt like we were tapping into the obsessions of the nation, into people’s views of life, through dialogue and words and writing. We originally intended to stage just one production, with about two dozen tiny plays. But we found getting it down from seventeen hundred to five hundred was hard, but from five hundred to two hundred was difficult… and with that last two hundred we felt like we were saying no to some plays that were superb. When we got down to sixty it was heartbreaking – so we decided to do two productions! So there’s one from the 15th to the 31st of March, and then another production later in the year. It’s still only two percent of the plays that we received… But we are also having a reading of plays written by under-eighteens, because we got such a huge response from teenagers and children.
So how did you get down to that two percent?
Well, even though we were getting some excellent plays and ideas, we still had to think about them in terms of a whole, as an entire production. So we had to think about what they were saying, how they were saying it, because the evening is really to celebrate the variety of writing. We found we had quite a large number of plays dealing with issues like homelessness, suicide, the recession – things that are on people’s minds.
Do you think the idea of the competition just caught people’s imagination? Or is there something in the air at the moment that people leapt at the chance to articulate themselves?
People often talk about Irish people being creative, being writers, valuing words, and I think that’s what really came through. Part of it is people relishing the opportunity of a creative outlet, but there was also a real sense of frustration, of people needing and wanting to have their voices heard. There has actually been an increase in responses to schemes like this, maybe it’s because people are working less or have more time on their hands, or just because they want to say something.
It’s been said that if you want to make your name as a director you shouldn’t direct new plays, you should direct old ones.
That’s not untrue. I started off assistant directing with Jonathan Miller, and he does the classics, opera, Shakespeare. I was told not to do new plays, that everyone would talk about the writing and not your directing. I suppose that’s right, to a point, but it’s the original voices and the new views of the world that new plays give you that excites me most.
I tell Jim that at this stage he has proved this belief wrong. He laughs and says he’s not sure, but thanks me anyway. A lovely man.
Bookworms runs in the Abbey until March 17th, Tiny Plays for Ireland runs in the Project Arts Centre from March 15th-31st and Silent runs on the Peacock stage from May 30th-June 16th.