Wednesday 13 December 2017

Stage: Dublin dramatist Dee is Wild about Irish theatre

Playwright Deirdre Kinahan
Playwright Deirdre Kinahan

Maggie Armstrong

Brace yourself for a scoop, dear reader. You are about to hear the words "KPMG" and "playwright" in the same sentence. You might even hear "KPMG" next to "Easter Rising".

Deirdre Kinahan is one of our foremost playwrights but back in 1995 she was a young office clerk working for KPMG. She dreamed of becoming an actress. Someone put a Mac computer on her desk.

"Could you make head or tail of that?" she was asked. Dutifully (she was on good money), she tapped away until she had earned the title Helpdesk Operator. Before long she was installing computer systems and training people in software. She laughs. "Hadn't a clue what I was at, but nobody else did either."

As her new play Wild Sky opens in commemoration of Easter 1916, it is hard not to wonder if such trusting leaps taken in the dark aren't the secret to Deirdre's mounting force as a dramatist.

Growing up in Dublin's Rathfarnham in the 1970s, Deirdre was a Feis Ceoil entrant who "never won" but could make people laugh. She attended the Betty Ann Norton School of Drama where she became "very much a character actress. Huge energy, impossible to stick in any cast". Poetry and singing were "whirling around" her mother's family, the Carrolls.

Deciding that acting was her talent, she "resisted" any urge to write. In 1997, having left KPMG, Deirdre started a theatre company, Tall Tales, with actress Maureen Collender and just £400 in the bank. They sought plays with robust female roles and found them only on the outskirts of society.

She was teaching drama and - using her Big Four accountancy skills - computers at the Ruhama Women's Project that helps prostitutes, when one woman asked Deirdre if she would help them write a play about their lives working on the streets.

"They knew me, they had seen me on stage, they trusted me with their stories," says Deirdre.

She wrote five monologues as "verbatim theatre" and Be Carna, produced at the now shuttered Andrew's Lane Theatre, became Deirdre's writing debut in 1999.

The company dissolved in 2012 due to its loss of funding, but its playwright has survived into this new, lean era in Irish theatre. While her plays have taken a traditional dramatic form, the range of her subject matter is breathtaking.

Wild Sky, a commission from Meath County Council, took her deep into the rural background of 1916, and she wrote a romance about two teenagers from Co Meath who get caught up in the Rising. 'Tom' and 'Josie' are played by Ian Toner (who was such a star in Selina Cartmell's Punk Rock) and Catriona Ennis (likewise, in ANU's The Boys of Foley Street), with music and poetry sung by Mary Murray, costumes by Niamh Lunny.

Deirdre, who sits on the board of the Abbey Theatre, lives in Meath with her husband, a residential childcare worker, and two teenage girls. "Wild Sky is my heartbeat and my passion", she says. "History is a fearful place, because people are so exact about it, and as a creative, I'm not exact. I like to take flight."

From the Rising to the Second World War, she is at work on Lydia Glynn, a play set in Leningrad for the Manhattan Theatre Workshop. Meanwhile, murder and its aftermath preoccupy two contemporary plays about to hit theatres in Chicago (Spinning) and Washington DC (Moment).

This year also sees Rise, a commission from the Old Vic which explores climate change through a cast of 150 community players, a folk band and choir - from a purpose-built theatre made from raw materials, with electricity generated from bicycles. "I'm so out of my depth. It's mad!" she cries with characteristic spirit of adventure.

In person, she is exuberant, straight-talking, salty - instantly more of a Dee than a Deirdre.

She gives the impression of a voracious reader who is not closed to the possibility of a spirit world. "The way I live my life is very much through ghosts and imaginings. I think if you're a writer, your subconscious is open all the time."

Her writing practice is "chaotic"; she writes while her daughters are at school, then carries her computer around under her arm, leaving family sometimes to go to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan.

"Plays knock around in my head for an awful long time before I start writing them," she says. "You write scenes in your head. Walking, swimming, driving, cycling." She claims to have never been blocked when it comes to writing. "What did somebody say? You've just got to show up."

She hasn't forgotten where she came from. As Wild Sky makes its way to the Irish Arts Centre in New York, it stops at none other than KPMG for a reading on March 8, International Women's Day, to commemorate Easter 1916.

Wild Sky premieres February 19 and 20 in Rossnaree House, Slane, Co Meath and moves to Bewley's Café Theatre on February 22 for a month. See

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