Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan is finding Chicago much to her liking. Her play, “Moment,” received its critically acclaimed U.S. premiere (directed by Jonathan Berry) at Steep Theatre in 2012, and her latest work, “Spinning,” is making its U.S. bow this month at Irish Theatre of Chicago, directed by Steep ensemble member Joanie Schultz.
Kinahan whose works also include “Halycon Days” and “Wild Sky,” among others, was born in Dublin and grew up in the countryside suburb of Rathfarnham. Her father worked in marketing, her mother worked with homeless children. She studied English and history at University College Dublin, but her first jobs were in the IT sector, as “computers were coming into widespread use in business in the early ’90s.” Theater, however, always tugged at her heartstrings.
‘SPINNING’ When: May 27-Juy 3 Where: Irish Theatre of Chicago, at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Tickets: Info: www.irishtheatreofchicago.org
After traveling Asia Australia and Central America with her then boyfriend (and now husband), Kinahan set up a small independent theater company in Ireland, though “making a living at it was a way’s off,” said the Dublin-based writer/producer in a recent email interview.
“My dad, now 86, still asks me as I walk out the door to New York, Chicago, London or wherever, ‘Are you getting paid for that!’,” Kinahan said. “It was my mother who gave me my passion for the arts. She took me to the theater from the time I was about eight, and I was hooked. I loved the tragedy, the shock of it, the passion, the snot, the laughter and the tears. From Play One in a small pub in Rathfarnham I knew it was all I wanted to do, to be a part of that magic.”
What follows is an edited transcript of the email interview with Kinahan, who was in Ireland at the time of our recent chat.
Q. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer and why?
A. Initially I wanted to be an actress. Indeed that is how I started out, as a teenager and then again when I set up my company Tall Tales in the late ’90s. As an actress I was working with a [group] in Dublin called Ruhama Women’s Project to earn extra money. I was teaching drama and other skills to women who wanted to exit their lives as prostitutes in Dublin. These women used to come see me in plays and became interested in creating a play about their lives. That play was called “Bé Carna” (Women of the Flesh).” It was well-received and invited to the Edinburgh Fringe, and it made me consider a career as a writer.
Q. Who were some of your earliest writing influences, authors or playwrights, and can you give some examples and why/how they influenced you?
A. My mother took me to the theater all the time and I was a voracious. Without realizing it, I suppose I was getting a classic theater education. We went to the Abbey for all the Irish classics, The Gate for all the British celebrated writers, The Focus (a Stanislavski theater) for contemporary American plays, and The Project [Arts Centre] for more experimental Irish stuff. Dublin is poorer now in terms of diversity, which I think is tragic in the extreme, but I was blessed to see great artists doing great plays throughout my formative years.
In terms of Irish playwrights: Tom Murphy, Marina Carr, Brian Friel and Dermot Bolger would have been big favorites of mine. Strong on character and story, complex in their exploration of the daily ritual of life — competing passions, repression and a post-colonial psyche. They were hugely influential on me. I also loved Alan Ayckbourne, Terence Rattigan, Mike Bartlett, Carol Churchill, Harold Pinter, Denis Potter, Peter Shaffer, Bryony Lavery, Alan Bennett, and April De Angelis for their view on contemporary English life — social politics, comedy and secrets. American influences would certainly have been David Mamet, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee. I have always loved John Steinbeck, Hubert Selby Jr., James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oats and more recently Toni Morrison. You [in America] have an amazing literary culture. I love all these writers because they transport me immediately into their world. They are urgent writers — passionate, empathetic and masters of narrative and character. The people they create get under your skin and are unforgettable.
Q. What types of stories/storylines are you attracted to for inspiration?
A. I find people kind of incredible. Their resilience, their passion, their foibles, their denial, their coping mechanisms, their joy, their humor, their tenacious grip on life. I am amazed by how the ordinary can be kind of extraordinary, how people can be tossed into extreme situations and survive them. I’m always interested in how the past shapes us. I’m interested in relationships and how we buoy each other, destroy each other, love each other. I actually write comedy sometimes too! I like to get in under the very soul of people and try understand why they are who they are and why they do what they do.
Q. Your last play stated in Chicago was “Moment,” which was such a huge hit at Steep Theatre. Why do you think the audiences embraced that work so enthusiastically?
A.I think “Moment” is a strangely comforting yet deeply disturbing play because it seems immediately familiar in its form yet it turns and turns like a steam train hurtling toward disaster — you know it’s coming, you are watching it build, but it is still ferocious when it hits the wall. There is something familiar about the family scenario, the truths, the untruths, the banality of the situation but extreme drama of the incident at its core. I think everyone in the audience can find themselves or an element of themselves somewhere in that family and just hop on for the ride.
Q. Your latest play “Spinning” is now being staged in a world premiere by ITC. It centers on the concept of spinning out of control on so many levels. What was the genesis of this story? What led you to these characters and their struggles?
A. There is a new phenomenon in Ireland of parental abduction and in extreme cases infanticide. I have no doubt that this tragedy has always been a factor in society but it seems of have increased in recent years. Ireland has undergone something of a social revolution in that last 30 years since opening up to Europe, and I see it as a very positive embracing of contemporary living. But as a deeply patriarchal/Catholic society there are times when people become lost in the new. Conor [the play’s main character] is an old-fashioned man living in a contemporary Ireland and his life is not quite following the path he believed it would. He can’t cope, he tries to regain control and makes some disastrous decisions. These decisions spin out beyond him and deeply affect others.
I wanted to look at identity — how we build ourselves up as people and how certain factors in our lives, make us who we are, like nationality, sexuality, marital status, parenthood, etc. What happens when these things are taken away from you? When your life spins, how do you react, how do you survive it? This is a play about trying to control life —a useless pursuit we all engage in. Life is fragile, precious and beautiful. This is also therefore a play about love, the ferocity of that emotion and what can happen if love turns from a positive force to a negative force. Susan [another of the play’s main characters] is a contemporary woman raising her daughter on her own, running her own business, but her love and motherhood is equally the center of her existence and her grief is total, brutal, breathtaking. For Conor, the world just spins around him yet Susan is the one who pushes him to the point of possible redemption. I suppose I am also returning to that theme of redemption — do we really forgive as a society? Do we believe in rehabilitation?
Q. In “Spinning” Conor makes some frightening decisions that lead to the surprising outcome of the play. Was that storyline based in reality?
A. This play is very much inspired by a real case of a kidnapping in 2003 where a father kidnapped and held his young daughter for a few months. The police found out where he was but when they called, they weren’t quite sure they had the right man. They decided to return to the police station to check some evidence but as they walked away from the house, two shots rang out and the man had killed himself and his little girl. I suppose in “Spinning,” I am trying to get inside the heads of ordinary people caught up in such a dire situation. Trying to understand how life can spin in that direction because the truth is, violence can take place in any family. The facts of my play are not the same as that case. I re-invented the characters and the scenario bringing two families together and mapping out a different end but my question certainly came from that real-life incident.
Q. Were divorce, parental rights, kidnapping of one’s own children, etc. difficult topics for audiences in Ireland to deal with via a stage production? Did you get any resistance or blow-back to the topics you traverse in the play? Do you think it’s not such a big deal to American audiences?
A. I think I am quite well-known in Ireland for traversing difficult topics, but I write in a very accessible way. I have written about grief, murder, terrorism, prostitution, dysfunction and abandonment. But if you create strong empathetic characters then I believe your audience will travel anywhere with you. That is after all the power of theater — the ability to explore what is very dangerous in society but in a very safe place and if we can build understanding and build empathy through theatre that can only help social cohesion. I love people. I genuinely believe that we are more good than bad but the potential for disaster is in all of us. Nothing is black and white, I certainly write in the grey area.
“Spinning” certainly packed a punch with audiences, particularly those who are in the throes of separation/divorce/custody battles but it doesn’t paint anyone into a corner, it doesn’t judge, it just opens up the pain of the individuals involved in this scenario and asks us to look inside. I think I did get some stick in some quarters for tackling the male psyche but that comes with the territory — so long as I think I’m being true to what I want to write about then I don’t let negative criticism affect me.
Q. ITC is currently celebrating women playwrights. Do you feel that women playwright are as well-championed as their male counterparts, in America, Ireland or England?
A. Don’t start me of the disparity of representation of male/female creative artists. I think it is shocking that in this day and age we still have to fight that battle but the stats still SCREAM inequality. There is a notion in Ireland that women don’t write the “national” play — they are somehow lesser in their approach, they focus on the domestic. This drives me insane because the domestic is the national; the domestic is where we all crawl out from, where we are all formed. And I notice that some of our most famous plays like “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel or “Sive” by John B. Keane — both set in kitchens — never suffer from the same bias. Both brilliant plays by the way!
Naturally what happens in Ireland is simply reflective of the American and British Story. I know there are movements throughout the world trying to address this sad and indisputable fact – women are not adequately represented in artistic practice, full-stop. And this is everyone’s tragedy because we need diversity in art, not only gender diversity. We need to hear everyone’s voice, see through every perspective because that is the only way we can reflect the glorious depth of our world. We must be inclusive. We will wither and die under one, homogenous viewpoint.