A WRITER IS BORN

Theatre was in her blood, with ac­tors for par­ents. Now Dublin play­wright Lisa Tier­ney-Keogh is carv­ing out a ca­reer on Broad­way and also set­ting her sights on TV

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How an East Wall girl with theatre in her blood ended up off Broad­way

AS THE lights came up in the Amer­i­can Globe Theatre at Times Square, a young woman took to the stage as the crowd clapped wildly. Slight and unas­sum­ing, she ac­knowl­edged the au­di­ence’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion with grace. But this was not the star of the show; this was the writer from Dublin’s East Wall who made the play hap­pen.

Lisa Tier­ney-Keogh, daugh­ter of Fair City ac­tor Gar­rett Keogh, was liv­ing a dream that night; her play had made it to Broad­way. Per­for­mance is in her blood, but the stage lights of Man­hat­tan are a far cry from Dublin’s Fringe Fes­ti­val – and Lisa’s talent has made quite an im­pres­sion across the pond.

She didn’t start out as a play­wright, how­ever. Her fa­ther never pres­sured her into the arts, but she did at­tend act­ing school in New York – where she soon changed her mind about be­com­ing an ac­tress.

‘I tried act­ing at the be­gin­ning,’ she says. ‘I went to act­ing school in New York for about 20 min­utes in the pres­ti­gious Lee Stras­berg school. But I found it ter­ri­fy­ing. I couldn’t au­di­tion to save my life and that was clearly ap­par­ent when I came back to Dublin to try and work.

‘But the first thing that I no­ticed was that there just weren’t any good roles for women of my age so I de­cided to write a play for me. In 2001 I wrote a play called Eve and Adam and it

‘My US de­but is a pretty big deal for me’

was a play that I could act in and it did re­ally well but it was the last time that I ever acted. In New York they get the writer up onto the stage for a cur­tain call, which is just won­der­ful and cringy at the same time, but it was the first time I did a cur­tain call since 2001.’

Lisa’s cur­rent play, ti­tled Four Last Things, has se­cured a res­i­dency in the Amer­i­can Globe Theatre on the pres­ti­gious New York City Broad­way strip. The pro­duc­tion has a stel­lar cast in­clud­ing Tony nom­i­nee El­iz­a­beth A. Davis (Once) as Jane, Vic­tor Ver­haeghe ( HBO’s Board­walk Em­pire) as her fa­ther, Brendan, and Justin Ha­gan (Film: Short­bus, Party Monster) as Bob the Dog. And for Lisa, the play would not have seen the light of Times Square with­out a big name cast – a tes­ta­ment to the strength of the script.

‘This is my Amer­i­can de­but and it is in New York and for me it is a pretty big deal,’ she says. ‘The cast are in­cred­i­ble and I don’t know how I got them all to come on board and be­lieve in the play. I just got so lucky when you think that the lead is be­ing played by El­iz­a­beth, who is ridicu­lously tal­ented. She was nom­i­nated for a Tony Award for her role in Once. And it took us four years to cast her, hon­estly the lead in the play is so com­plex we had to get the right per­son and we even­tu­ally found El­iz­a­beth and she is in­cred­i­ble. Then we have Vic­tor from Board-Board­walk Em­pire and Justin, they are just the best cast ever.’

The play fol­lows the for­tunes of Jane, a young woman who is stuck on her fam­ily farm, yearn­ing for a way out. With a fa­ther she can’t talk to, and a dog that can’t talk back, she ques­tions ev­ery­thing she holds so dear. The pro­duc­tion con­cludes with a mo­ment of epic tragedy, and is sourced from a real-life event from Lisa’s past. ‘I’ll ad­mit that a city girl from East Wall in Dublin does not know too much nor­mally about farm life,’ she says. ‘That said, my mother was from North Tip­per­ary and we used to get sent down to the farm dur­ing the sum­mer for our hol­i­days. And you know when you are a child two weeks seems like an eter­nity in a strange en­vi­ron­ment. A great deal of my youth was spent on a farm so I felt that I could com­pe­tently write about life there. The story it­self was in­spired by an ex­tremely sad event. One of my ex­tended fam­ily took her own life and it af­fected me very deeply, es­pe­cially how this ter­ri­ble tragedy fil­tered through to cause pain to so many people.’

It prompted Lisa to tell the story of the girl’s sui­cide through the eyes of a talk­ing dog on stage. And it is a de­vice that has prompted much de­bate amongst the crit­ics.

‘I re­mem­ber sit­ting in the kitchen at the time of the death and look­ing at the fam­ily dog and just re­al­is­ing that he had wit­nessed ev­ery­thing,’ she says. ‘Only he could tell ex­actly what had hap­pened and why it had hap­pened. And that is what in­spired the play. And, yes, there is a talk-

ing dog in the play. It is all done through mono­logue and at the be­gin­ning of the play an ac­tor gets up on stage and in­tro­duces him­self as a dog. And it has worked. Some­times one or two people will strug­gle with it but more of­ten than not it works.

‘That is the beauty of the theatre, that the mo­ment the cur­tain is drawn your imag­i­na­tion takes over and any­thing is pos­si­ble. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween a fa­ther and a daugh­ter who lives on this farm and their dog who wit­nesses their in­abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate. It is about fam­ily who fail to deal with changes in their lives and it has a very tragic end which can be a tough thing for people to take in.

‘It is not a com­edy but it is in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing. I of­ten sneak into the back of the theatre just to watch people’s re­ac­tions and some­times af­ter the show they will come up and talk to me and give me some feed­back. And so far it is very pos­i­tive.’

Lisa co-founded the Eden Theatre Com­pany, which pro­duced two of her stage plays. She won the Ir­ish Times/ESB Theatre Awards Bur­sary in 2002. She was a Writer-In-Res­i­dence through Po­etry Ire­land’s Writ­ers-In-Schools Scheme. She has re­ceived writ­ing bur­saries from the Arts Coun­cil of Ire­land, Dublin City Coun­cil, Screen Train­ing Ire­land and The Peggy Ram­say Foun­da­tion. The play ini­tially pre­miered in 2009 in Dublin as part of the Fringe but her dream was al­ways to take it on the road.

‘Get­ting it to New York was just re­ally hard,’ she says. ‘I just had to knock on doors and make con- tacts and net­work but even­tu­ally the show was picked up and the pro­duc­ers took over and now here we are in this tiny theatre just off Times Square. I think it comes down to get­ting the right cast and space and luck­ily we now have both.’

Lisa moved to New York when she fell in love with her Mad Men-style ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive Char­lie Ver­prek. Be­cause of her deep love for Ire­land, the cou­ple tied the knot in 2010 in Car­ling­ford. They then had a ‘re-nup’ in Brook­lyn on their re­turn for Char­lie’s fam­ily and friends. They have a 17month-old daugh­ter, Molly, and live in an apart­ment in the city, al­though Lisa ad­mits she would much pre­fer to have her daugh­ter in an Ir­ish school.

‘I moved to New York in 2010 and it was part love and part op­por­tu­nity,’ she says. ‘I had met my hus­band in Dublin and he was from New Or­leans and we tried to do the long dis­tance thing. But it just

‘Mov­ing to New York was love and op­por­tu­nity’

made sense to move over to Amer­ica. There just weren’t any op­por­tu­ni­ties for a stage writer like me in Ire­land.

‘Of course, I am des­per­ately home­sick and when I think about my daugh­ter grow­ing up here in­stead of Dublin I could cry. But you know what? She is a city girl now, just like her mother, and she is go­ing to adapt and I have to get on with it. ’

Hav­ing con­quered Broad­way, Lisa’s next move is to try and get into screen­writ­ing for tele­vi­sion. ‘I love writ­ing for theatre be­cause it is in my blood. My par­ents met at the theatre and are both ac­tors so I have been around it all my life. But I have had am­bi­tions to write for the screen ever since I have ar­rived here, I sup­pose I just haven’t felt ready.

‘I watch ev­ery­thing on tele­vi­sion and I can see how things are chang­ing. You only have to look at House Of Cards to un­der­stand why it worked hav­ing theatre writ­ers writ­ing it. There is def­i­nitely a lot more cross­over from theatre to the small screen but it is all from net­work­ing. You just have to net­work, make con­tacts and get your name out there.’

New Yorker: Lisa Tier­neyKeogh, is now based in US

Broad­way suc­cess: Lisa’s Four Last Things

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