Wednesday 13 December 2017

The four-minute smile: it's Maeve's swansong

Back in 2011, theatre director Jim Culleton asked Maeve Binchy if she would write a short mini-play for a project he was working on. In what was quite possibly one of the last things she wrote before her death, Maeve came up with Soul Mates, a play about a man and a woman who are in the optician's waiting room.

They both fancy each other but because they are waiting for glasses, they can't really read the signs. It's a poignant piece to honour the late and much-loved writer.

"It's a very life-affirming play about a lost opportunity between two people, a man and a woman who don't quite seize the opportunity that is there," Jim – artistic director of Fishamble: The New Play Company – tells me.

Maeve's play is one of 25 new 'tiny' plays – each is only 600 words long and lasts for less than four minutes – which are being staged at Dublin's Project Arts Centre next week.

What about the actors? Well let's do the math. There are five actors with about 52 characters between the 25 plays so each actor will play about 10 different characters. No pressure then.

"We were looking for plays that weren't just sketches but that were fully formed plays and that 2-4 minutes was the perfect length of time for the play to say what it had to say," says Jim.

These plays, written by some well known and many first-time playwrights, were chosen from more than 1,700 submitted to Fishamble in 2011.

Following the overwhelming response, this is the second set of 25 tiny plays to be produced and it coincides with Fishamble's own 25th Anniversary.

Since Fishamble was founded it has produced 131 new plays, including 42 standalone plays and 89 short plays as part of longer works. As well as providing a platform for new writers, numerous well known names from Sebastian Barry to Joseph O'Connor have produced plays with the company.

Jim Culleton has been there from the beginning. So what is it that makes him take a chance on a new writer and what is it that makes a play stand out on the page on a first reading?

"It is different to what you've heard before, there is something that seems unique and there is a passion and energy to say something," he says.

Jim recalls reading Mark O'Rowe's first play From both Hips. He didn't know him at all and as he read the play, he found himself laughing out loud and then crying towards the end.

To evoke such emotions, this had to be something special. Fishamble produced this debut play in 1997, O'Rowe's next play was the very successful Howie the Rookie and the writer hasn't looked back since.

"We are taking risks all the time," says Jim. "We are always doing new plays, we never do plays that have been tried and tested, so you are constantly asking audiences to go into the unknown a little."

For the forthcoming '25 tiny plays', Jim was thrilled with the huge response and really felt that the company was taking the pulse of the nation and getting a sense of what people where interested in.

Similar themes emerged in the submissions from homelessness to the economy to plays about people relishing and valuing friendship and love in the middle of difficult circumstances.

Tiny Plays for Ireland II – Fishamble: The New Play Company presents '25 new tiny plays' (each under four minutes). Project Arts Centre, March 12-30, 8pm. Booking:

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals (Sat 1-4pm) and Sunday Matinée (Sun 12-2pm) on RTÉ lyric fm.

Irish Independent

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