‘Be­ing la­belled a fe­male play­wright is in­sult­ing’

Cristín Ke­hoe tells MAG­GIE ARM­STRONG about her new play on home­less­ness, ‘Com­mu­nion cruis­ing’ and why she’s no fan of gen­der quo­tas in arts pro­gram­ming

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA -

Word of a new fe­male play­wright is al­ways go­ing to turn heads, and why not? Re­cent his­tory in the Abbey taught us that many bril­liant fe­males of the species weren’t be­ing hired to write plays, and much good work was gath­er­ing dust on shelves. Now is def­i­nitely a good time to be a fe­male play­wright.

But Cristín Ke­hoe isn’t keen on the “fe­male” part of this de­scrip­tion.

“It’s in­sult­ing to be la­belled as a fe­male play­wright. You’re a play­wright. That’s what you are,” says this bright and clever writer (and English school­teacher), sit­ting in an empty bar above the re­hearsals for her play Shel­ter, which Druid is about to bring to the Gal­way In­ter­na­tional The­atre Fes­ti­val.

Di­rected by Oon­agh Mur­phy, the cast in­cludes Lau­ren Larkin and Rory Nolan; a ‘Druid de­but’ which will be per­formed in reper­tory with Sonya Kelly’s new play, Fur­ni­ture.

If you had ideas about the things fe­males wrote about, the world of Shel­ter would not nec­es­sar­ily fea­ture. The play is set in an aban­doned build­ing oc­cu­pied by a group of home­less peo­ple. Their de­motic is an ex­ple­tive-rid­den Dublin lang. The play is funny — imag­ine Seán O’Casey wrote for Love/Hate.

“Maybe peo­ple find it a bit strange that some­one from a mid­dle-class back­ground is writ­ing about home­less men,” says Cristín. “The voices are rough around the edges. I won­der, if peo­ple didn’t see my name on the script, would they think it was writ­ten by a man?” She thinks they might. Cristín was first in­spired to write plays while study­ing Drama and The­atre Stud­ies at Trin­ity, where play­wright Ma­rina Carr was their tu­tor on Fri­day af­ter­noons.

“She used to tell us how won­der­ful we were. She said we were so beau­ti­ful we should drink cham­pagne and have sex. We thought: my god, we have it all.”

Her par­ents’ farm was near New­town Mount Kennedy in Co Wick­low, and the now 31-year old had “a very happy, ru­ral child­hood. Gadding about in my scruffy clothes”.

She kept po­etry note­books and some­times her mother took her to the Gate. “They were very hard-work­ing par­ents. You learn about hard work and per­se­ver­ance that way.”

When she grad­u­ated and told her mother she wanted to be a writer, she replied: “That’s nice, get a job.”

Ke­hoe teaches English to girls in a school in Chapeli­zod in Dublin, work­ing on her plays on the week­ends and over hol­i­days.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to marry the two some­times, though they also com­ple­ment each other. It’s like hav­ing a so­cial experiment in front of you ev­ery day.”

What would she say her stu­dents think of her? “I’d say they think I’m a bit nuts,” she says. “They wreck my head as much as I wreck their heads. They’re so funny. They give me a lot.”

She en­cour­ages her stu­dents to speak up as they dis­cuss po­lit­i­cal is­sues from the refugee cri­sis and the war in Syria to di­rect pro­vi­sion, the Belfast rape trial and Wak­ing the Fem­i­nists.

“A teacher can make such a dif­fer­ence in a per­son’s life,” she says, remembering how her English teacher Mrs Hen­nessy used to tell them all to go and roam the bog af­ter they read Sea­mus Heaney’s ‘Bog­land’.

Five years ago she took a year off to study an MFA in play­writ­ing at the Lir. One of her class­rooms over­looked Boland’s Mills, which is how she came to set her play in a dis­used flour mill.

Shel­ter is a highly top­i­cal work, writ­ten two years be­fore the ‘Home Sweet Home’ cam­paign in Apollo House in De­cem­ber 2016 but han­dling sim­i­lar is­sues. Our treatment of home­less peo­ple, a per­son’s right to a roof over their head and their un­fet­tered right to joy.

Per­haps this play is needed. Across the arts, it seems there hasn’t been a ma­jor work about home­less­ness since Mark O’Hal­lo­ran’s Adam and Paul nearly 15 years ago, though Philip McMa­hon and Veron­ica Dyas’s plays have in­ter­ro­gated hous­ing, and the Sting­ing Fly lit­er­ary mag­a­zine re­cently pub­lished a vol­ume re­spond­ing to the cri­sis.

That is be­sides Pat Kinevane’s Olivier-win­ning Silent. Cristín saw that play three times. The line that haunted her was that “one in 600 peo­ple will stop” for a per­son on the streets. “I won­dered what it would look like, to see 600 pairs of legs pass you by be­fore any­one would just say, how’s it go­ing?”

She was keen to write some­thing that was nei­ther “is­sue-driven” or “preachy”.

“I just find it very strange that ev­ery day we pass peo­ple on the street, who need help, and we don’t help them. I think that if we saw some­one who was per­haps look­ing lost, or who twisted their an­kle, you’d go over and you’d help them.”

What mes­sage would she like peo­ple to take away from her play?

“I’m try­ing to ask peo­ple, what is your re­la­tion­ship with home­less­ness? And you do have one. The play might make you think about your home, the com­fort you have. That home­less­ness is a con­cern that should bother you.

“Even when I hear my­self now, it sounds preachy,” she adds.

When she wrote her show This is­theDay about a lit­tle girl’s Com­mu­nion — produced with the Play On ini­tia­tive at the Dublin The­atre Fes­ti­val in 2012 — she went ‘Com­mu­nion cruis­ing’, sit­ting in the back of churches watch­ing fam­i­lies, hop­ing for a scoop.

Writ­ing Shel­ter, she picked up the rhythms of speech from walk­ing her Dublin 8 neigh­bour­hood. She is an “eaves­drop­per” who car­ries around a Mole­sk­ine note­book. “I would al­ways be writ­ing things down, on the bus or the Luas or on the street or a cof­fee shop. Which is kind of creepy, but I still do it.”

While she was at Trin­ity she vol­un­teered with the St Vin­cent de Paul, the Ca­puchin Cen­tre and In­ner City Help­ing Home­less. Some of the peo­ple she met on the streets

The voices are rough around the edges. I won­der, if peo­ple didn’t see my name on the script, would they think it was writ­ten by a man?

dur­ing this time found their way into her play. A guy out­side the Cen­tra in Dublin 8 who had his nose cut by a screw­driver — like the ag­grieved Bren in Shel­ter. The cou­ple in fla­grante in­side the gates of the Cus­tom House, who she once dis­trib­uted food to. (The baby in her play is made “in­side the gates of the Cus­tom House”.)

Cristín wrote Shel­ter in the sum­mer of 2014 over 10 fren­zied days as part of her MFA. She wrote it in bed. “It was agony, some of it,” she ad­mits. “Writ­ing is very lonely. I think it must be the best and the worst thing in the world.”

She sub­mit­ted the script to other theatres as well as Druid: The Abbey, the Royal Court, the Na­tional.

“I keep all my re­jec­tion let­ters. I won­der will I wall­pa­per my bath­room with them,” she smiles. Two years ago, Druid wrote say­ing they would like to do a read­ing of it at GIAF.

She breathes a con­tented sigh. “I’ve sat there watch­ing so many plays over the years and thought, my play is bet­ter. Or at least just as good. I’m just so lucky that I found Druid and they found me. I could just as eas­ily be sit­ting at home, look­ing at my play on the com­puter. It makes me won­der, who else is out there?”

She is not a fan of gen­der quo­tas as a so­lu­tion to bal­ance in arts pro­gram­ming. “Your play should be produced be­cause it’s good, not be­cause you’re a woman.”

She is a prac­tis­ing Catholic who can­vassed for Re­peal and for mar­riage equal­ity; she says her faith is “á la carte”. “I find it dif­fi­cult to marry my be­liefs in 2018 with what a lot of men pon­tif­i­cat­ing in Rome are telling us to do. But I find it quite dis­re­spect­ful when peo­ple tar the church with one brush. It is far more dif­fi­cult to have faith than not to have faith.”

And she is now work­ing on her next play, com­mis­sioned by Druid, though to find out more would be to open up the se­crets of Py­ongyang. She will say that since she wrote her last play in bed, she is “ter­ri­fied to move” in case she can’t pull it off again. “There is no bet­ter feel­ing in the world than see­ing your own work on stage. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, and it re­ally does seem to be hap­pen­ing .”

Druid presents the world pre­miere of

Shel­ter as part of a pro­gramme of new Ir­ish writ­ing (July 12-29) at Gal­way In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val 2018. druid.ie

PHOTO: MARK CONDREN

Real-life drama: Ke­hoe says some of the peo­ple she met while vol­un­teer­ing found their way into her play, Shel­ter.

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