Between the jigs and reels
Drawing on 18 years of Irish dance, Margaret McAuliffe tells our reporter how she wrote and now tours with her own play
There are many things that mark the experience of the '80s and '90s Irish childhood: homework after Glenroe, Bosco, and being booted out the door after school to do all kinds of extra-curricular hobbies. Most youngsters flirted with Irish dancing for a couple of years, but Margaret McAuliffe was more involved and impassioned than most. She started dancing at the age of five, and eventually retired from competitive Irish dancing at the age of 23.
"I was always a bit of a clumsy kid and my mum always told me that my co-ordination was off," she laughs. "I remember her sending me to Irish dancing and on the very first day, I wouldn't leave after the class. I was staring up at the stage and my mum recalls me saying, 'Mummy, those big girls are on the stage'."
Duly entranced, McAuliffe spent much of her youth at feiseanna and competitions, eventually winning a major title in 2004. The experience inspired her to write her debut play, The Humours Of Bandon, a coming of age tale which focuses on the career of 16-year-old Irish dancer Annie. By turns committed and ambitious, Annie charts the trials and triumphs of competitive dancing, and reveals a reality far from the glamour, glitz and toothy smiles of Riverdance.
Produced by Fishamble's Show In A Bag development initiative, and directed by writer/theatremaker Stefanie Preissner, The Humours Of Bandon premiered at last year's Dublin Fringe Festival to critical acclaim and bagged the Little Gem Award to boot.
A pleasant surprise for all involved, not least McAuliffe who only wrote the play after getting antsy during an 'involuntary hiatus' from her career as an actress in 2015.
"You get creative when you're forced to," she smiles. "I did two big productions after I graduated (from the Gaiety School of Acting) in 2010, and then nothing came up. You think this momentum is happening, and then… nothing. My dad, who is a pilot, emailed me from Istanbul at the time saying, 'I was thinking about you and your career, and I heard about these actresses who make their own work'. At the time, the closing date for Show In A Bag was coming around."
At the same time, McAuliffe was running her own Irish dancing school in Clontarf (she retired from the school in May); something that also likely helped to inform her writing of the play.
"The scene really exploded when I had my school. There were 92 people in my reel (when I was dancing), and in 2016, when we were bringing the kids to competitions and they were doing their reels, they were going up against 1500 people... the spectacle, the trophy and the costume is what attracts the kids."
Of course, a certain Eurovision Song Contest interval piece in 1994 ensured that kids across the country caught a serious strain of Riverdance fever.
"Our first class after the Eurovision, no one shut up about it," McAuliffe laughs. "Up to then, we were limited to parochial halls, velvet dresses, hopping up and down to an accordion player in the corner. When it got the world stage like that, it was a real game changer for us. It became cool."
By her own admission, McAuliffe was always a fan of performing: "I didn't act until I did a part in the opera Candide at the Reilly Theatre in Belvedere College. I remember having the audience's attention and thinking, 'this is it'. I was high off it."
Mindful of having a backup degree, McAuliffe studied multimedia in DCU. However, it wasn't until she arrived at the Gaiety School of Acting in 2008 that her dreams of becoming an actress really took flight; it was there, too, that she met the similarly ambitious Stefanie Preissner.
With The Humours Of Bandon taking shape, McAuliffe asked her classmate - already a rising theatre star in her own right - to direct last year.
Says Preissner: "I went to college with Mags and she was one of the people in my class I really connected with and whose work I respected. I jumped at the chance to help her."
While McAuliffe takes The Humours Of Bandon on a whistle-stop tour of Ireland, Preissner will return to the pressing business of not just writing the second series of RTÉ's Can't Cope, Won't Cope, but a separate play and feature-length movie script, too. McAuliffe has also revealed that a TV production company has been in touch with a view to a stage-to-screen adaptation of her play.
For her part, Preissner, who herself took the Fringe by storm with her own one-woman play, Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend, in 2012, won't rule out a return to the stage herself. "I'll get back there eventually," she says. "As Mags will tell you, there's nothing quite like being on stage. Nothing as terrifying, either."
The Humours Of Bandon tour begins in the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire on February 7. For all dates, see fishamble.com