Tuesday 26 March 2019

'It's insulting to be labelled a female playwright' - Cristín Kehoe

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

Playwright Cristin Kehoe. Photo: Mark Condren
Playwright Cristin Kehoe. Photo: Mark Condren
Playwright Cristin Kehoe. Photo: Mark Condren

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 is the Day 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 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

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