The Irish Repertory Theater:
A Class Act
Showcasing the Irish and Irish-American experience on stage for 23 years.
Let us now praise the Irish Repertory Theater, New York, and congratulate founders Charlotte Moore, Artistic Director, and Ciarán O’Reilly, Producing Director, as they receive the 2011 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish American Writers and Artists. The award is given annually to “an Irish American writer or artist who has created a body of work that places them among the great artists and entertainers of all time.” Charlotte and Ciarán join two previous honorees, acclaimed author William Kennedy and iconic actor Brian Dennehy.
Since September 1988, when the Irish Rep opened with The Plough and the Stars, so many of the company’s 150 productions have been singled out for notable awards and nominations that merely listing them all would take up the rest of this article. Theirs is a record of, to quote a Drama Desk Award, “Excellence in Presenting Distinguished Irish Drama.” Rave reviews in the New York Times and The New Yorker confirm this. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout wrote that the Irish Repertory Theater is “one of the finest theater companies in America,” and went on to say that “the quality of the company’s work is enhanced by the deep cultural authenticity in its productions. In the broadest possible sense the Irish Rep gets the accents right.”
They get it right. The stated mission of the theater is “to bring works by Irish and Irish American masters and contemporary playwrights to American audiences,” and to do this “with a native understanding.” Their success in this mission has led playwright Brian Friel to say of the Rep, “Because the best theater involves an experience of the spirit, the ground they occupy has now been made sacred by them. They have made the space hallowed.”
Since 1988, in production after production, Charlotte and Ciarán have gathered audiences around the hearth at 132 West 22nd Street to hear the seanachie entone Fádo and enter the sacred space of connection.
Through all the years of oppression and exile we Irish refused to relinquish our songs and stories. The Irish Rep honors that patrimony and its founders embody it. Charlotte Moore’s Kennedy ancestors left Wexford in the mid-19th century. “Poor as snakes,” Charlotte says. “They mined coal and homesteaded in Southern Illinois until my grandfather somehow managed to put together enough money to buy a mine and then World War II happened and we became well-off.”
Charlotte inherited the storytelling instinct. Her acting ability impressed college teacher Nelson McGill who urged her to go to New York. She was chosen by legendary actor/director Ellis Rabb to become a member of his Association of Producing Artists which included such acting greats as Nancy Marchand, Paul Sparer and Rosemary Harris. Almost 30 years later Marchand would star as Lady Bracknell in the Rep’s 1996 production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Tony Walton, the Tony award-winning set and costume designer, making his directorial debut.
Bringing life-long friends who also happen to be theater greats into the Irish Rep family is a speciality of Charlotte’s. When she read for Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and was cast in A Little Night Music, “I didn’t even know who they were,” Charlotte says. But even when her fear of singing in front of an audience made playing a role in the musical impossible, Prince remembered her and a year later invited Charlotte to be a member of the repertory company he was forming. “For three or four years I played leads in classic plays directed by Hal Prince. The first time I stepped on the Broadway stage he was directing. Amazing. I was so lucky.”
Prince would become a consistent supporter of the Irish Rep, and in 1992 adapted a section of Sean O’Casey’s autobiography into The Grandchild of Kings, a towering theater piece which he also directed. The two dozen members of the Irish Repertory Theater Company were “the best ensemble I ever worked with,” he said.
A Theater is Born
It was when Charlotte met County Cavan native Ciarán O’Reilly that the dream of telling the story of the Irish and Irish-American experience through theater was born. “In 1980 we were appearing together in Hugh Leonard’s Summer directed by Brian Murray who is a very important member of our company now,” Ciarán says.
“I had just come to the U.S. from Dublin where I’d spent a year at the Abbey Theatre, playing for some reason, characters who spoke in Irish. I’d also been acting at the Focus Theater there. I began getting roles in New York at the Irish Arts Center and other theaters when Brian cast me,” he recalls. “Charlotte and I talked about doing Irish plays, but it wasn’t until 1988 that I produced The Plough and the Stars with Charlotte directing.” It would be their first production of many.
So Charlotte and Ciarán had the dream, the understanding, the commitment, but how did they manage to make it all come true? “When you work very, very hard and do your best, things happen,” Charlotte says.
And things did happen. One was a late-night phone call Ciarán received. “My home phone number was the Rep’s number – still is – and it rang in my bedroom one night at 2 AM. Someone working late, intending to leave a message at the box office got me. How could she donate to the Rep? the woman asked. Donate? I said. ‘You are a non-profit aren’t you?’ she said. And I answered, ‘Yes, of course.’ And that’s how we became one.”
Performances were initially held in a rented theater on West 18th Street, until the Irish Rep secured its current home in 1995, in a renovated warehouse just a few blocks away. Ellen McCourt, President of the Board of Directors of the Irish Repertory Theater, heads the capital campaign aimed at retiring the mortgage held on that sacred space on 22nd Street. She says that the Rep’s secret fund-raising weapon is that “everyone loves Charlotte and Ciarán. The Board loves them and fully supports them in everything they do.”
Ellen got to know the Rep soon after she met husband-to-be, Frank McCourt. “He was playing a teacher in Philadelphia, Here I Come! with Ciarán and Patrick Fitzgerald as Gar public and private, and Charlotte directing.” The New Yorker called the production by the one-year-old company “better than flawless” and Ellen found herself part of a new family. “Wonderful gatherings and everyone doing their party piece – Pauline Flanagan, Terry Donnelly and Ciarán Sheehan all became close friends.” Terry Donnelly and Ciarán Sheehan would join Rusty McGee, Malachy McCourt and Frank and Ciarán in what was meant to be a one night’s presentation of Frank’s take on The Irish…and How They Got That Way.
“Frank had a shoebox full of notes on Irish-American history that he thought could become a theater piece,” Ellen says. “Charlotte shaped it. They added songs and did the show as a one-night-only fundraiser for the Rep.”
Audience response convinced Charlotte and Ciarán to expand this show, and now the Rep has presented four productions of The Irish…and How They Got That Way as well as licensing it to theaters across the country and presenting it on Public Television.
The warmth Ellen expresses toward Charlotte and Ciarán is echoed and amplified by the members of the Irish Repertory Company and indeed the entire theater and theater-going community. The Rep’s annual fundraising galas have become occasions for expressing this high regard.
From the first of these evenings, when Katharine Hepburn took center stage to read from Yeats, through concert performances of classic musicals such as Brigadoon, some of Broadway’s and Hollywood’s greatest stars have lent their talents in tribute to the Rep. In this year’s Camelot in Concert Jeremy Irons starred as King Arthur with an outstanding cast drawn from the Irish Rep Company, while a 100 voice chorus and an orchestra of theater’s best musicians – all volunteers – filled the stage. Ciarán narrated a Camelot honed to its essence which Charlotte had adapted and directed during just four days of rehearsal.
The result: a standing ovation from the 1,000-plus audience at the Schubert Theater.
Broadway star Melissa Errico, who played Guenevere that night, has worked with Charlotte and Ciarán for almost 15 years. “I cannot find the words to say how much my career and my spirit have felt nurtured and supported. They work from a point of view of joy and optimism, they make everything seem possible, so you end up reaching for the stars.”
Josh Grisetti, who portrayed the villainous Mordred, couldn’t “think of enough wonderful things to say about Ciarán and Charlotte.” He said it wasn’t only their “impressive body of work or unrelenting devotion to stage craft” but “the sense of warmth and familiarity that they bring to an otherwise chilly industry.”
The evening of Monday, October 17, when they receive the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, will be filled with many such tributes. The acclaimed Irish actor Gabriel Byrne will be the Master of Ceremonies, and the award will be presented in The Manhattan Club, just a short distance away from Eugene O’Neill’s birthplace in Times Square.
O’Neill himself might have remarked on the similarities between his Provincetown Players and the Rep. He certainly would have appreciated their “native understanding.” Over and over again he complained that critics missed the essence of who he was as an artist. “I’m Irish,” he said. “Anyone who delves into O’Neill’s plays knows they come from the mind and soul of an Irish person,” Charlotte says. When the Rep follows its searing production of O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night with that lighthearted Take Me Along based on O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness, they’re expressing something about O’Neill’s Irish soul and ours – sunshine and shadow, George M. Cohan and Samuel Beckett.
At the dinner after Camelot in Concert I listened as Tony-award-winner Brian Murray, who played Lord Pellinore, spoke to Jacob Clemente, the star of Billy Elliot who portrayed the young page Thomas of Warwick, who is entrusted with the story of Camelot. He talked about his own days as a child actor who left South Africa at 13 for the London theater. “I knew I was happier on the stage than anywhere else,” Brian said. Jacob nodded. And I thought that the Rep itself is a kind of Camelot – a place of happily ever aftering.
So go see for yourself. Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa opens October 19th at 132 West 22nd Street. Charlotte and Ciarán will be there to greet you and show you to your place at the fire.