Saturday 17 March 2018

Stage: Roddy Doyle's unsung commitment to writers

Roddy Doyle
Roddy Doyle

Maggie Armstrong

October is Roddy Doyle's month in theatre and we will hear much high talk of the school-teacher turned author.

The Commitments, in town for the first time, comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. In opera, Doyle's new translation of Don Giovanni for Dublin Theatre Festival takes over the Cork Opera House and Gaiety Theatre. But the Barrytown creator's influence stretches much further than a conventional stage.

I found Fighting Words in behind Croke Park stadium. The building was owned by Mick Wallace when Doyle and Sean Love came looking for a space for a new, volunteer-led creative writing project for children. That was in 2009. Since then, 70,000 budding writers have filled sheets of paper here.

The project has worked mainly with students from socially disadvantaged areas. It has worked in a juvenile detention centre, in children's hospitals, with people with mental health problems and intellectual disabilities, and with the elderly.

I came to meet writers on the playwriting project. Each year eight students are mentored in writing a play, from jotting down their first ideas through to completion, casting and production on the Abbey stage. Now that is cool. The space is bright and quiet, with book-lined walls. Most adults would kill for this chance.

Ruairi Nicholl from Belvedere College, and Luke Shanahan from Colaiste Chilliain, both 16, joined the playwrighting summer school when they were 14. As much as I squirm at the phrase "one to watch" (don't we have to 'watch' clever people enough once they become famous?), do keep at least one of these names on your radar. They had the jumpy enthusiasm of kids with intelligence coursing off in directions way beyond their years.

Both wrote their plays about two brothers. Both "broke the fourth wall". Both ventured far beyond personal experience and tackled topics you might consider dark.

Luke's short play is called That is All I Have to Say About That. He took a classic Irish drama setting - a funeral - and invested it with something fiercely topical - transgender sexuality.

The tragic death of a transgender girl in Ohio in 2014 had caught his attention. He brought the story home to Ireland and dramatised it in the "speech patterns" he knows. It is a beautifully written piece that beats with a desperate suspense.

Ruairi's play, Biscuits and Resilience, explores schizophrenia. "It's always been interesting to me, schizophrenia - even the scientific community don't completely understand it yet. You have two people in a room, one of them is schizophrenic, and they could be experiencing a completely different version of reality to the other. Which one is real?

"The end of my first draft ended up being far too much like the movie Shutter Island," says Ruairi. It took him seven drafts to create the sensitive and witty piece he had dreamt up, a story of brotherly bonding over Hobnob biscuits.

School is no reflection of what these young authors are able for. Luke, with his George Bernard Shaw beard and eyes bright as new pennies, got a D in Junior Cert English. The system is a bit "flawed", he believes.

"Creativity is not something that's so easily taught as how to structure and form an argument in an essay." In an exam, he says, "you've got a very limited amount of time to write everything, and get out all your ideas.

"Whenever I sit down to do an English essay, I spend too much time thinking," says Luke. "But you need that space to think."

And it doesn't matter to these young chaps that a celebrity author is behind their work. They've read Roddy Doyle's children's books and seen bits of The Commitments. The point is that they have found a place near home where they can express their ideas without judgement. With their mentors - including theatre makers Una Kavanagh and Hilary Fannin - they created their first plays. Early on they were sent out on to the street to soak up the aftermath of a match at Croke Park. They listened to strangers' conversations. They wrote at home in their own time. Ruairi types ideas into his phone. Luke writes "in my Moleskin". Both gave up on their plays, both kept going.

In March their work was made public. The eight plays were mounted on the Abbey stage, produced by a professional team and performed by professional actors. How bad?! The writers were nervous as their family and friends took their seats. "I felt like getting sick," says Luke.

For Ruairi, Fighting Words has made writing possible all the time. "Before, the most I'd ever write would be a poem once a year. But now I'd write all sorts. I mean, most of it's terrible. But I have a lot more inspiration and I really enjoy it."

Pursuing writing for theatre as a career has not been ruled out. "It's an idea I've been looking at," says Luke of the D in English. "Because I just feel like, I have it in me now, at this point. And I just want to go ahead and do it."

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