Monday 20 January 2020

Can hope, will hope: Stefanie Preissner on trying to tell the truth about Ireland in 2018


Stefanie Preissner wears: Dress, MSGM, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll
Stefanie Preissner wears: Dress, MSGM, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll
Stefanie wears: Dress, Alice + Olivia, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll

I wrote Season One of Can't Cope, Won't Cope in a different country. It was 2014/2015. People were marching on the streets about water charges and then heading home to fill buckets with ice and pour them over each other in the name of charity; the Ice Bucket Challenge was causing the back gardens of Ireland to go viral. Martin Callinan and Alan Shatter were still in situ, and no-one had heard of Pokemon Go. I had great ideas for Season Two at the time; clever ways I could expand and adapt stories, but when the time came to write them in the middle of 2017, they were as useful as a micro USB charger to an iPhone user.

In 2017, when it came to writing Season Two, I found myself in a new country. It had all the pomp and ceremony of having said goodbye to the recession. When my local coffee shop stopped doing 'large' Americanos because it 'messed with the flavour profile' and started to spend 15 minutes playing Da Vinci with my cappuccino froth, I knew it was safe to start checking my online banking again.

But something felt a little off. Like when you get an email saying you've won millions in a lottery you didn't enter, and you're happy - of course - because now you're a millionaire… but you just have this weird, intuitive discomfort as you send your bank details to the deposed King of the Congo, who has your money ready for you.

It's not all cappuccino froth and memberships of instagrammable gyms in new Ireland. I wanted to represent a realistic cross-section of the society as I see it, so I made it my aim to confront the discomfort of duality. It's hard to accept that you can live in a great country that has terrible progress to make in certain areas. I wanted to represent the fresh tarmac as well as the potholes; the non-binary nature of being, for example, the first country to legalise gay marriage by public vote, while also being a place that forces its women to travel abroad for access to safe medical care.

Stefanie wears: Dress, Alice + Olivia, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll
Stefanie wears: Dress, Alice + Olivia, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll

How do you represent all that change in a TV show? Where do I even start? Well, why don't I start over here in Portobello, Dublin 8, which is not, incidentally, named after the mushrooms which proliferate through the carpet in the one-bedroom basement apartment where you can share a bunk-bed with a cacophonously flatulent travel blogger for only €800 per month.

Beyond the Pale

Or how about I start over here, in Phibsborough, Dublin 7, where an artisan barber shop has named itself God and serves craft beer. This access to a sacramental shave completely justifies the €1,800 rent for a terraced refrigerator that was built when beheading was still commonplace.

My Cork roots are acutely aware of never seeming too Dublin-centric, so maybe I should start beyond the Pale, in rural Ireland, where house prices rise slightly slower than the speed of broadband. There are hints at unification between rural and urban Ireland now however, I have seen it with my own eyes. In Dungarvan, Co Waterford, there is a Starbucks.

This country has a housing crisis, and it was something that I had to tackle in Season Two. Not because I felt some moral obligation to, but because Aisling's best friend and roommate, Danielle (played by Nika McGuigan), moved out at the end of Season One, and it would be unrealistic to portray Aisling (played by Seana Kerslake) as being able to cover both rents in Dublin on her wage. So I had to keep it real. I am interested in the truth. We now live in an age where it is incredibly easy to be fake.

In fact, it's endorsed. Filters are free, and fake news is ubiquitous. I see an honesty-poverty in the world, and I try to combat it with rigorous truth and transparency. It's not useful to anyone for me to amplify only the best parts of my life, or the fictional lives of my characters. It's not useful, fair or productive to make it seem like I, or my characters, have no bad days or false starts.

The prevalence of social media has made the world more comparative, and I feel that if people are going to compare themselves to anything I put into the world, I have a responsibility to give them the most honest version of it.

Once I'd put Aisling through the battle royale that is house-hunting in 2018, I looked, through her eyes, at what else was new in this post-recession paradigm. And there it was, shiny and new on her Dublin doorstep. The Luas. Our national serpent, the snake St Patrick forgot, a cunning boa constrictor wrapping itself tightly around the handlebars and bumpers of city commuters. At one end, Bride's Glen is nestled in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains, and at the other, Broombridge is nestled at the foothills of the An Post Sorting Office for the greater Dublin 7 area. Majestic creature though it may be, the Luas has been causing some trouble.

When Can't Cope, Won't Cope Season One was commissioned, I didn't account for what would happen when it sold to BBC and Netflix, and how I might have to write subtitles for the Cork accent. It seems I'm not alone in my lack of foresight, or belief in possible success. Whoever planned the Luas route seems to have been caught off guard at the idea that people from either side of the Liffey might one day like to cross the river on this convenient tram.

I worked as hard as the construction guys in College Green to try to make the connections between Season One and Two as strong, believable and convincing as possible.

As I write this in Sprout & Co on Dawson Street, the 46a bus is in a stand-off with the Green Line Luas. There isn't room for both to go around the corner, but each has a green traffic light of encouragement. A taxi is pinned up against the kerb, Deliveroo drivers are losing tips by the second, and the spinach lover next to me is googling whether the Luas can reverse.

Avocados had indeed been invented when I was writing Season One. But I hadn't met one yet. We're so far into the salad trend now, it's an indictment of your character to eat a bag of chips. In Can't Cope Season Two, Danielle is swimming in a sea of political correctness in Vancouver. People are choosing pronouns and attaching adjectives to the taste of beer, and she struggles with the loss of the irony and cynicism that Aisling provided to her. Like me, she didn't notice the slow tide of what is acceptable turning around her, and now she can't tell if her friends are into quinoa or ketamine. In Vancouver, her art and her peers are challenging her. They all have a cause, a project, a mission to affect change with their art, and all she wants to do is draw.

I wonder about artists, writers, creators of any kind, and whether there is a tacit obligation on them to be socially conscious and aware whenever they create. Is it expecting too much? Are they tone deaf and offensive if their work ignores the context in which it is being created? Danielle's new classmates ask her, "Don't you have a Brexit or something?" in a suggestion that her work should be more political in response to the chaos of the world.

Is there space or permission to be quiet or ambivalent to the contentious issues we are faced with in Ireland today? I worry and wonder about this, so I tried to tease it out with the character of Danielle. Brexit and Trump are not the only forces putting pressure on our heroes in Season Two. The show is largely set in Ireland in 2018, and you can't avoid the big conversations that are happening on these shores.

We have had, historically, an objective disrespect for women here. Like the smell of must in your grandparents' house, it has woven its way into our fabric, and it's going to take more than airing to get rid of.

"But what about the comedy?" I hear you ask.

I understand the scepticism about writing a comedy set in such turbulent and uncertain times for Ireland. But if I know anything about Irish people, it's that we have an incredibly resilient sense of humour.

Maybe it's true what they say, that Irish people are funnier because they've developed humour as a coping mechanism for the terrible abuse, colonisation and objective tragedy buried in our bogs and in our history.

If humour is borne out of the necessity to cope in the face of adversity, then Irish women must be some of the world's funniest people.

We laugh in the face of economic downturns and the danger of imminently returning tigers. It's a laugh of companionship and of camaraderie. We are all in it together, and we know it. We are all sad and frightened; we recognise a piece of ourselves in the comedy and drama that we see on screen. We identify with the chain of events or the feelings, the sentences, the nightclubs or even the spice bags. It's the laughter of relief. It's the laughter of knowing we are not alone in the chamber of horrors.

Can't Cope, Won't Cope Season Two starts airing tomorrow night, and I hope it feels relevant and fresh. A referendum is going to happen in the middle of the run, and I wish I had a spoiler for you on how that plotline plays out, but I don't. And I can't promise you everything will end up rosy for our characters either. All I can say is can hope, will hope.

Photography by Kip Carroll

Season Two of 'Can't Cope, Won't Cope' starts tomorrow night, Monday April 23, on RTE 2 at 9.30pm

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