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
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