Friday 24 May 2019

'I'll probably always be broke but at least I feel alive'

Actor and playwright Amy Conroy tells Andrea Byrne why 'I Heart Alice Heart I' is so important to her

Andrea Byrne

Amy Conroy shakes her head modestly when I put it to her that she is a one-woman operation. As well as writing the critically acclaimed play I Heart Alice Heart I, she also directs and performs in it. And I'm reliably told she is as good an actor as she is a playwright. Last year, she won the Fishamble New Writing Award, and more recently picked up the gong for best actress at the Absolut Fringe Awards.

This year has been an incredible one for the young playwright and actor from Kerry. As well as the above accolades, she was chosen to take part in the prestigious New Playwrights Programme in the Abbey Theatre. She is also involved in Six in the Attic, a resource-sharing initiative run by the Irish Theatre Institute, where, as well as being given a work space, she receives "infinite help and constant mentorship" from heavyweights in the industry.

Then there is the aforementioned I Heart Alice Heart I, which was performed as part of the recent Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, and which everyone from critics to her fellow playwrights to occasional theatre-goers have raved about. A nice man working in the Draiocht Theatre cafe, where Amy and I meet for the interview, loved the play and wants to talk to her about it.

"I knew the story that I wanted to tell and the characters and the style. So then I asked Clare Barrett if she wanted to get involved. She is a wonderful actress and a wonderful friend, so we talked about what we wanted to do, and we developed the characters, and their relationship -- which is what is key. We really worked hard at the intimacy of the relationship. Then I went away and wrote it," Amy smiles, explaining her wonderful piece of documentary theatre that explores the loving relationship between two gay women over six decades. "It's tender, it's moving, it's funny and it's powerful, and I hope it stays with you for a long time after. I am very proud of it, it means a lot to me, as does the journey of these women, because you don't see these women represented. We're in such an ageist society -- you rarely see women of a certain generation represented or spoken about. That's what I want to do."

The play is to tour internationally next year. Is its success validation that she chose the right career? Pausing, she says softly: "There is always the fear that something you do won't resonate with people but I always feel you have to get to a point where you think: 'I am really proud of this, whatever happens, and I really believe in it.' And it is a process to get to that point. I always think once you do something for the right reasons, once you believe in what you're doing and you know why you're doing it, then that's what matters."

Amy, who is warm, friendly and open, grew up in Cahirciveen, where her family owned a shop. Back then, theatre experience was non-existent. There wasn't even a youth drama group for her to dip her toe into. Nonetheless, she knew acting was what she wanted. She moved to Dublin 14 years ago to study drama in Inchicore. 'Why there?' I wonder. "Because I didn't get into Trinity," she laughs.

On finishing college, she worked with various theatre companies, most notably Barabbas, which she credits with changing the way she saw theatre and giving her a high level to which she would always aspire. "I thought in the beginning that I just wanted to act," she says explaining the progression of her career and expansion of her repertoire. "But then as I got older and the longer I was in the industry, I thought: 'Right, I want to write, produce.' I knew I was always angling in that direction."

Amy recently set up her own theatre company, HotforTheatre, in which her role as artistic director allows her to straddle both writing and acting. She does enjoy doing some freelance work, and no, she's not a bit fussy about the roles.

"God, no. You always want to do work of a certain calibre, obviously, but you have to pay your bills also. You have to be practical."

Her long-term ambition is to keep learning and improving and to create a sustainable career doing what she loves, because although it's not financially rewarding, she cannot imagine doing anything else. "I have always been broke and will probably always be broke, but at least I feel alive and I love what I am doing and I am really passionate about what I am doing. The passion for what I am doing far outweighs that [being broke]."

And with that she's off to satisfy fans eager to chat about I Heart Alice Heart I.

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