Sitting and chatting with Enda Walsh, the prolific Irish playwright whose work we see far less than that of contemporaries like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh in North Texas, it's hard not to be captivated by the way he tells a story. Even in simple answers to interview questions, he finds the round-about way of getting to the point, peppering his conversation with F-bombs and, occasionally, the onomatopoeia of a bomb going off, complete with the gesture of both hands together and then separating, indicating an explosion.
He's been writing for more than two decades, and his works are frequently produced in Ireland, the U.K. and Europe, with occasional productions in New York, such as the one-man play Misterman, which starred his friend, actor Cillian Murphy. In 2012 he became a little more known to Americans as the book writer of the musical Once, which won the Tony for Best Musical and is based on the charming 2006 indie film of the same name, which won an Oscar for the song "Falling Slowly" performed by its stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of the band The Swell Season.
Walsh, 45, was in Dallas in October, as he and Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan were winners of Southern Methodist University's Meadows Prize. They worked with students for two weeks and created a dance/theater/movement piece for them. While here, the duo also held a workshop at Kitchen Dog Theater, and Walsh recorded a voiceover for KDT's production of McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Bill Lengfelder, a KDT company member and SMU faculty member, has worked with Keegan-Dolan before, and was instrumental in getting them here.
Undermain Theatre is the first professional theater in North Texas to take on a Walsh Play, his 2010 award-winning Penelope, a modern take on the suitors of Odysseus' wife. The production, directed by SMU's Stan Wojewodski, Jr., happens on the stage of the Dallas City Performance Hall—meaning the audience is on the stage, too. It features Gregory Lush, Max Hartman, Bruce DuBose and R Bruce Elliot as the suitors, who engage in one-upmanship while in their Speedos at the bottom of a drained swimming pool, cooking up some bangers (sausage).
Walsh's other plays include Disco Pigs, bedbound, Chatroom, The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce. Here's hoping we see more of his work here.
TheaterJones sat down with him when he was in town to talk about Penelope, collaborating with Keegan-Dolan and the tradition of Irish drama.
TheaterJones: You and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan have known each other since you were teenagers in Dublin, but have never worked on a project together as adults. Did you find yourself natural collaborators?
Enda Walsh: No. You never know. We're similar in many ways; we're both Irishmen, we have similar sensibilities to the work. We like to go in there and [makes explosion sound], we allow the work to make itself. We have a shared interest. We're both dark individuals, I've done dark work with some humor. I think we've found a working that's right with these people. It's about responding to who we have in the room.
Tell me about the idea for Penelope and how it progressed as you were writing it.
I was approached by a German theater [Theater Oberhausen], I've worked in Germany a lot. [The producers] were taking on The Odyssey, they asked writers in different towns to look at the work. I loved the story as a kid. I wanted to write something about the suitors in the story. I wanted to write from their point of view. I really like the idea of immobile men, in swimming trunks sitting around a defunct barbecue trying to get it to work, and trying to woo Penelope.
One of them has a prophecy, and they realize Odysseus is going to come back and kill them. If they woo her, Odysseus will not come back, they feel. It's the last hour and 20 minutes of their lives when they realize they have to win this woman, but at the same time, all they've done their whole lives is trample on love.
It's this weird, existential comedy with guys in their swimming trunks. They hate one another and they're competing for each other for this woman's love. But they're terrible men and terrible at wooing.
Is there a larger relevance to today's world?
I look at it now and think what I was writing about was probably the recession in Ireland. All of these incredibly wealthy men who made a shitload of money, and then in a spate of a year, or six months in 2008, they lost everything [explosion sound]. There's echoes of that. And also my mortality as a middle-aged man.
You shared a Tony award for the musical Once, which won Best Musical in 2012. How you get involved in that?
I've known John [Carney, writer and director of the film] for 15 years. We've done workshops together, but never produced work together. He came to me with the idea, and then the producers got on the phone had to convince me to do it, because I was like "I'm not going to waste my time doing this." But then when we started working on it, and it was an adorable thing to do. It was very sweet.
Were you a fan of the movie?
Yes. I really like the movie and I really like Glen Hansard's music. It also seemed like a good holiday for [me]. I'm constantly doing dark stuff, and stuff that's very complicated. There's a part of me that can do light, but I don't do it that often.
The movie was such an intimate story; it seems like an odd concept for a big Broadway stage.
I know, but we sort of knew what we were doing. In fairness, we looked at it and we found an aesthetic first. It's only ever about that, finding the rules and the certain style that are going to work it, and unlock that quickly. We really made it in Boston over four weeks. It happened really, really quickly. We had the support of the producers, they allowed us to steer it. It's tiny [compared to most Broadway musicals], I think that' what people love about it.
How did you become interested in the theater and writing?
Storytelling is all around you in Ireland, people love talking, so there's that. I love live performance. I got into theater as a boy at 16, at a Saturday club, the Dublin Theater, that's where I met Michael [Keegan-Dolan]. Immediately, I thought "this feels fresh and dangerous and you don't need anything, not that much, to make this happen." You could pick up a guitar or whatever, or you can just stand up in front of people and start constructing a story. That was always the ethic behind it. In my 20s it was always about trying to make the work dangerous and alive; in my later 20s I got really fortunate. I spent my early 20s doing terrible work, but it was getting better.
Ireland has such a strong literary tradition. Is there a sense of pride in that Irishness that you feel in keeping up with the tradition?
Yes, I feel that companionship with all these writers. If you come from that tradition, you have a real complete love and respect for it, and at the same time you're part of the development of that. If you're not pushing it forward, it's like fucking dead sharks, to misquote Woody Allen [laughs].
It's looking at it and going, "OK, they did that, and what am I doing?" As a writer, you have to look at form and attack it in a different way. The theater is constantly moving forward. You don't want to just be doing Beckett the way Beckett did it. You want to look at that and say "is there anything [new]?" I'm nowhere in the league close to Beckett, but you look at it and take a bit of the men and other writers and have a conversation with them. I feel that sort of companionship all the time.
I do see myself as an Irish writer first and foremost, instead of just a writer. I live in London, but I'm an Irish man and I think about Ireland.
Is there a kinship with your contemporaries, like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh?
Martin and Conor are friends and colleagues, and I have huge respect for them. But it's completely different work.
You've worked a lot with Cillian Murphy. Do you write with actors in mind?
Yes. You have to listen to them and get a sense of their energy. I've always done that. There's maybe just one play I didn't write with specific people in mind. Cillian and [his brother] Michael Murphy are good friends of mine. Next year , we're going to go into the theater and work on something. We have a great idea and I think it'll work well.
Where do your inspirations come from?
I don't know. When I start writing, I don't know the direction of the play. I don't know where it's going to go. But what happens then, in not knowing, is [that] the moment I'm concentrating on is really charged for the audience, because they don't know as I don't know. The moment builds and you've got history behind you.
For Penelope I had this image of a guy in red Speedos around a barbecue, staring at a sausage on the barbecue, and he takes out this flamethrower and just burns it [explosion sound]. You begin with moments, or sometimes you abstractly go with something, where you get a sense of a play.
I had this friend, [playwright] Sarah Kane, who died years ago, tell me something about that. I'd say "how's that play going for you?" And she say "I haven't written anything but I can hum it." And I thought "that's a brilliant way of looking at things." It sounds like a completely abstract notion, [not] do you have characters or setting? That's the way plays work. When you have a feeling for them, and there's a rhythm, then you throw characters at them.
How well did you know Sarah?
We were part of a gang of writers. She was a hilarious woman. Of our generation, she was the greatest playwright. She was the one who really pushed it. Her and Caryl Churchill, who was an earlier generation—they were the bravest.
Who are some of the contemporary American playwrights you like?
Tarell McCraney, I think he's super talented. The woman who wrote Aliens, Annie Baker. The ones of my generation, Tracy Letts and such, are great.
What are some of the main differences between contemporary American playwriting and British and/or Irish playwriting?
I don't know about American, but I will tell you the difference between British and Irish, and it's always been the same difference. British writing seems to be sociological and about society and what's happening politically, for instance, Look Back in Anger. We don't have that in Ireland; we're much more metaphorical and elliptical. We sort of dance around the world. For us, it's not the job of the play to be journalistic. We live in the world, and are of the world, but there's a way of presenting and telling stories that isn't "televisual."
At the same time, I really enjoy British work. The British do kitchen sink drama brilliantly.
◊ Here's video of Steven Kazee and Cristin Milioti performing "Falling Slowly" in the musical Once on Broadway:
◊ Here is video from that Theater Oberhausen production of Penelope: