New York’s Ir­ish Arts Cen­ter is forg­ing its new fu­ture

The Ir­ish Arts Cen­ter in New York City

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS BY GEMMA TIPTON

In a Greek restau­rant on the Up­per East Side of Man­hat­tan, a group are dis­cussing their Ir­ish­ness. DNA test­ing kits are big in the United States, promi­nently dis­played in the vast phar­ma­cies that Amer­i­cans seem to ei­ther love or re­quire. At this multi-eth­nic­ity ta­ble, hav­ing traces of emer­ald green in your genome ap­pears to be a mat­ter of pride. Know­ing about your roots makes sense in a coun­try founded on im­mi­gra­tion, but paus­ing over my pitta bread, I won­der what it is about Ir­ish­ness that ex­erts such a ro­man­tic pull.

One rea­son is the strong at­trac­tion to the nar­ra­tive of hav­ing risen de­fi­antly over cen­turies of op­pres­sion, and of a coun­try that wasn’t part of the colo­nial projects that rav­aged con­ti­nents (al­though Ir­ish peo­ple cer­tainly par­tic­i­pated in num­bers). In some com­mu­ni­ties, Ire­land’s over­ar­ch­ing English-speak­ing white­ness helps, but be­hind it all is the coun­try’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily strong tra­di­tion of gen­er­ous hos­pi­tal­ity, and ex­cep­tional cul­tural rep­u­ta­tion.

That evening, at the Ir­ish Arts Cen­ter (IAC), housed in a tiny ten­e­ment build­ing in Hell’s Kitchen, jazz mu­si­cian Cas­san­dra Wil­son takes the stage. She per­forms a breath­tak­ing ver­sion of Ntozake Shange’s poem, Peo­ple of Watts , to a gen­tle gui­tar ac­com­pa­ni­ment, then tells the crowd how she is 12 per cent Ir­ish, again with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing aura of pride.

Wil­son is ap­pear­ing as part of Mul­doon’s Pic­nic, an oc­ca­sional se­ries of eclec­tic gath­er­ings, hosted by Paul Mul­doon, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning Ir­ish poet who has lived in the US since 1987. Dur­ing the course of the evening, the crowd will en­joy com­edy, po­etry and mu­sic. Singing torch songs is Pud­dles the Clown (aka Mike Geier), whose ex­quis­ite pathos is un­der­mined by the fact that he’s more than two me­tres tall, and dressed as a pier­rot.

If I had imag­ined the IAC to be a spot for lonely em­i­grants, yearn­ing for a lit­tle fadó fadó, and a chance to slap bodhráns to­gether, I was wrong. Yes, they hold Ir­ish danc­ing, tin whis­tle, and lan­guage classes; but the 99-seater theatre pro­grammes a mix of mu­sic, spo­ken word, film and drama, and au­di­ences come from a wide range of eth­nic and cul­tural back­grounds and af­fil­i­a­tions.

Sonya Kelly’s How to Keep an Alien played here, as did Deirdre Ki­na­han’s These Hal­cyon

Days, and Mikel Murfi’s I Hear You and Re­joice. Off-site projects in­clude bring­ing This Is Pop Baby’s Riot to the Skir­ball at NYU, a 900-seater theatre. How much of a risk was it, bring­ing a show that in­volves for­mer GAA star Ro­nan Brady, semi-naked, spray­ing the au­di­ence with Tayto while per­form­ing aerial dance, to au­di­ences once more-used to the Ir­ish­ness of The Quiet Man?

“The Ir­ish Arts Cen­ter has been work­ing hard to up­date the face of Ir­ish arts,” says Philly McMa­hon of This Is Pop Baby . “Once a great

New York Times re­view dropped, the au­di­ences were ev­ery­body and any­body.” The IAC also hosts col­lab­o­ra­tive res­i­den­cies, such as one which paired Liam Ó Maon­laí with Cas­san­dra Wil­son, and cul­mi­nated in a tour tak­ing the duo to venues in Los An­ge­les and Chicago. Those con­nec­tions are what at­tracts fid­dle player Martin Hayes.

“If this was a so­cial club, I would never have got in­volved. I was quite scep­ti­cal in the first place,” says Hayes. “For Ir­ish artists to suc­ceed in Amer­ica, they have to reach out­side the di­as­pora and have a rel­e­vance beyond. You don’t want to ig­nore that au­di­ence, but you don’t want to be ghet­toised. When I was putting The Gloam­ing to­gether,” he adds, “I said to Iarla [Ó Lionáird] and Thomas [Bartlett] ‘let’s meet at the IAC, there’s a pi­ano over there…’. It’s still my hub for fa­cil­i­tat­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions, I en­joy it a lot.”

The strat­egy clearly works. The IAC have suc­cess­fully raised more than $60mil­lion, and bro­ken ground on a new venue, which will in­clude a theatre, as well as a li­brary, stu­dios and bar/cafe area. The orig­i­nal build­ing will also be ren­o­vated and in­cluded in the new cen­tre. All of this raises the ques­tion of what an Ir­ish arts cen­tre, any­where in the world, might ac­tu­ally be for, and why it might mat­ter in to­day’s hy­per-con­nected world. The idea of a com­mu­nity space for first-gen­er­a­tion ar­rivals, lonely off the boat is, to­day, as ar­chaic as the idea of ar­riv­ing by boat at all. Cul­tural ed­u­ca­tor

When Brian Heron es­tab­lished the IAC back in 1972, in its orig­i­nal base on the Lower East Side, he de­scribed his purpose to the New York

Times as be­ing a cul­tural ed­u­ca­tor. “There are very few real Ir­ish peo­ple in the United States,” he said. “They know lit­tle about au­then­tic Ir­ish cul­ture, and care less […]. We have to go back to the be­gin­ning, to learn again what it means to be Ir­ish.” Gore Vi­dal, Arlo Guthrie and Liam Clancy were named on the first board of ad­vis­ers.

A grand­son of James Con­nolly, Heron, who died in 2011, had a back­ground in the trade union move­ment, and had founded the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Ir­ish Jus­tice, which or­gan­ised Ber­nadette Devlin’s US fundrais­ing tour in 1969. If re-ed­u­ca­tion was go­ing on, it had a def­i­nite slant. The Ir­ish Rebel The­ater was the in-house com­pany.

That older cul­tural purpose has shifted. Af­ter Heron came Jim Sheri­dan. Now, Ai­dan Con­nolly, the IAC’s cur­rent ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, de­scribes how “the no­tion of a ho­moge­nous Ir­ish Amer­ica doesn’t ex­ist, or not so much that it’s an or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple. In­stead, we are po­si­tion­ing what we do to the vo­ra­cious New York cul­tural con­sumer, but all the time bathing the whole men­tal­ity in Ir­ish hos­pi­tal­ity, which cre­ates com­mu­nity.”

Looked at through that lens, is it pos­si­ble to de­scribe such a thing as Ir­ish cul­ture? A par­tic­u­larly Ir­ish sen­si­bil­ity? In 1971, New York-based Ir­ish artist and writer Brian O’Do­herty de­scribed Ir­ish art’s “at­mo­spheric mode” and “rest­less fix on the unim­por­tant,” but a great deal has changed in the decades since. The IAC’s vis­ual arts pro­gram­ming has al­ways been its weak­est link, though Con­nolly sug­gests the greater space in the new build­ing will lead to greater am­bi­tion.

‘‘ For Ir­ish artists to suc­ceed in Amer­ica, they have to reach out­side the di­as­pora and have a rel­e­vance beyond. You don’t want to ig­nore that au­di­ence, but you don’t want to be ghet­toised

In lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic and theatre, how­ever, the punch­ing-above-its-own-weight in­flu­ence of Ir­ish cul­ture is thanks to a net­work of con­nec­tions, some de­lib­er­ate, some pure serendip­ity. Susan Feld­man, founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor of St Anne’s Ware­house, has been seek­ing out Ir­ish pro­duc­tions for the past decade. Af­ter we speak, she is due to fly to Dublin, to catch Land­mark and the Every­man’s pro­duc­tion of Louise O’Neill’s Ask­ing for It. Enda Walsh’s adap­ta­tion of Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing

with Feathers will play at St Ann’s in April 2019. What brings an ac­claimed New York artis­tic di­rec­tor thou­sands of miles to Ire­land to check out new drama? Feld­man’s first Ir­ish con­nec­tions came even fur­ther from home, when she met the di­rec­tor of the Gal­way In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val , Paul Fahy, at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val in South Aus­tralia, and hit it off im­me­di­ately. Ir­ish theatre, says Feld­man, “has a way of be­ing able to throw your emo­tions from heart­break, to fear, to hi­lar­ity in one place”.

An­other key am­bas­sador has been Druid theatre’s Garry Hynes, who was the first woman to win a Tony Award for di­rec­tion, for Martin McMcDon­agh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1998. “I have never seen such wild sto­ry­telling,” says Feld­man of McDon­agh’s work. “It freaked me out.”

A sweetspot

“His­tor­i­cally, New York has al­ways had a sweet spot for the Ir­ish com­mu­nity,” says Karen Brooks Hop­kins. A for­mer pres­i­dent of Brook­lyn Academy of Mu­sic (BAM), Brooks Hop­kins is now se­nior ad­vi­sor at the Onas­sis Foun­da­tion. She de­scribes the IAC as a “melt­ing pot, very pub­licly ori­ented, rather than be­ing there to serve a sin­gle eth­nic com­mu­nity”. “Cer­tain cul­tures,” she con­tin­ues, “lend them­selves to a very pow­er­ful artis­tic out­put.” She speaks of the “Ir­ish point of view” and “an Ir­ish sen­si­bil­ity,” so I ask her what she thinks that might look like. “In the­atri­cal terms, it’s very fam­ily-ori­ented,” she says. “But it’s of­ten a very dys­func­tional fam­ily,” she laughs. “But it runs deep, and it’s not some­thing that can be cast off lightly.”

“Peo­ple some­times ask us how work that seems so spe­cific to Ire­land con­nects with au­di­ences in New York,” says Fisham­ble’s Jim Cul­leton, who has worked with the IAC on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions and is plan­ning a co-pro­duc­tion for the first sea­son in the cen­tre’s new home. “In fact, au­di­ences love the fact that they don’t get all the ref­er­ences, but know they are part of some­thing au­then­tic.”

Sup­port is also prac­ti­cal. Con­nolly es­ti­mates that be­tween $30,000 and $40,000 per year is spent on fa­cil­i­tat­ing visas for Ir­ish artists. They also bring crit­ics in to see the shows. “It was be­cause of my work in the IAC, and be­ing a Critic’s Pick in the New York Times that I won an agent there,” says play­wright Deirdre Ki­na­han, who is also quick to ac­knowl­edge Cul­ture Ire­land’s role in the mix.

Camille O’Sullivan, an­other IAC res­i­dent, echoes the strong af­fec­tion that em­anates from those who work with the cen­tre. “Artists live quite a no­madic gypsy life,” she says. “And there are cer­tain lov­ing moth­er­ships that ex­ist in the world. You go there and they put their arms around you. It’s my most ter­ri­fy­ing and favourite venue of all time, be­cause it’s so in­ti­mate.”

With the new build­ing due to open in 2020, fundrais­ing con­tin­ues, led by Con­nolly and Pauline Tur­ley, vice-chair of the cen­ter, with phi­lan­thropist Loretta Bren­nan Glucks­man. The ask is get­ting harder, says Glucks­man, a pre­vi­ous chair of the Amer­i­can Ire­land Fund. Liam Lynch, pub­lisher of Ir­ish Cen­tral, agrees. “What’s the big rea­son to care about Ire­land just now? That’s the ques­tion for Ir­ish Amer­ica, for the di­as­pora, for Ir­ish phi­lan­thropy.” If the down­side is not hav­ing such plau­si­ble rea­sons to plead poverty, the up­side is a thriv­ing and grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion around the world. “It’s a priv­i­lege to have seen the meta­mor­pho­sis,” says Glucks­man. “In the past Ir­ish peo­ple knew their own value, but they had been told they didn’t have it.” While I’m in New York, Druid’s Wait­ing for

Godot has sold out at the Lin­coln Cen­ter, as has Conor McPher­son’s The Girl from the North

Coun­try, one of the hottest tick­ets in town, at The Pub­lic The­ater. McPher­son’s play weaves Bob Dy­lan songs through­out its Min­nesota De­pres­sion-era nar­ra­tive, and the au­di­ence in the packed theatre is spell­bound. There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly Ir­ish about it, and yet I’m re­minded of some­thing Karen Hop­kins said about Ir­ish drama, and our shared hu­man­ity: how it “shows how we’re all dif­fer­ent, and yet the same. That’s what art does.”

Camille O’Sullivan, on­stage at the Ir­ish Arts Cen­ter: “It’s my most ter­ri­fy­ing and favourite venue of all time, be­cause it’s so in­ti­mate.” Be­low: Liam Ó Maon­laí with Cas­san­dra Wil­son

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.