BWW Interview: Ciaran O'Reilly of Irish Rep Talks of Holiday Classic THE DEAD, 1904
Being co-founder of the highly acclaimed Irish Repertory Theatre and a resident director at said company, Ciarán O'Reilly is quite the busy man
O'Reilly, currently in rehearsals for The Dead, 1904, took time out of his brimming schedule to discuss the play's return for a third year at the award-winning Irish Repertory Theatre and why it has become a holiday staple.
This is the third year that The Dead, 1904 has played the Irish Rep, what is it about this piece that makes you want to return to it each time?
If there's any one word that describes it, it's tradition. It's an annual event and within the context of the piece itself, every year on the feast of the Epiphany, they all converge on the home of these two old aunties. It makes us want to go back to it again because at the very format of that, it's something that's traditional and seasonal. It's also one of the best pieces of literature in the English language and just by virtue of it being a classic, it gives us room every year to go and explore new things, get deeper and find moments, especially going back to it's original source. It's exciting to find new stuff, it's exciting.
Speaking of the production playing the past three years, how has it been able to grow? What have you learned the past two times that you or the cast have been able to use moving forward?
One of the things we did because we're blessed with having the same cast again, we had the luxury of digging a little deeper. We went and experimented by trying to match almost identically what Joyce actually wrote in terms of movement, feeling, even something has mundane as blocking. We would see exactly how he described it. When all else fails, just try and do what the author wrote. We found so many new insights into it by just doing that. I think it's a richer piece. What an original piece of source material. Every single line in it seems to have some major significance or some major payoff.
Along with the production playing again this year, Melissa Gilbert has returned as well! What's it like working with an actress of her caliber?
Melissa, since she was a little girl, she's be an actress. She's an utter, utter pleasure to work with and she's always so accessible and willing to try anything that we throw before her. With the reexamination of the source material, Melissa was so into that and was finding ways to reexamine, while many another could've been like "Ok, I've done this last year, let's just get it out there." She's really a fine actress. I so love working with her.
This production is nonconventional as the space is very immersive. How did you decide to go with this setting instead of something more traditional?
It was brought to the Irish Rep by Paul Muldoon & Jean Hanff Korelitz who are the adaptors. They had developed the adaption for this particular setting, this is what they had in mind, so it wasn't something I could take credit for in terms of choosing the location. It's another major character in the play, that beautiful home that's there. In terms of the reality of it, it's a much grander than those little aunties from Dublin ever lived in, it was a much more modest setting.
What were the challenges of staging a production in the American Irish Historical Society townhouse?
The challenge is always trying to find the focus. The play is not particularly heavy on plot, it's a thousand little moments that add up. It's Gabriel's journey through the night, all his different faux pas that's he made. It's a very delicate piece so the fact that there's so many different moving parts and the audience is participating at the dinner table, wandering in and out of scenes, then to try and get that story told is always a challenge. To be honest, I don't think everyone that comes gets all of it, unless they're very familiar with the novella and know to look out for things. I get the sense that they do with the final scene, it pulls everything together. I've known people who've left a little confused about what the hell was going on. Some people came one night and said "I thought I was going to see The Night of the Living Dead" so that was a disappointment for them.
That wouldn't have been as festive as this. Going off of that audience reaction, since it is immersive, have there been any funny audience interactions that have occurred?
Yeah, there are people who sit at the actors' table and in theory, as much as they can, the actors all try to stay within the era which it is set. We had an audience member there who had written a book about Jackie Onassis and said to one of the actors in the show "You know, I wrote a book about Jackie Onassis" and they looked at her and said "Is that somebody we should be familiar with?" That was fun. I love it when they try and interact. We've had fun celebrity guests come as well. We had Steve Martin there one night, he's such an interesting guy. He's a musician so he loved all the music and was thrilled and waited afterwards to say hello to everyone. Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker came one night and Justice John Roberts came, it's been really interesting to have people like that, it's like having a party where everyone keeps coming. They just keep showing up!
What is special about working with Irish Repertory Theatre versus other theatre companies?
We do pride ourselves on being a family, a true family. We work with a lot of the same people over and over again. There have been marriages and divorces. (laughter) We're very connected to our whole community of actors, stage management and designers. Charlotte [Moore] and I founded the place 30 years ago and it's been a lot of proverbial water under the bridge with people. I like to think we try and support our artists in every which way we can because God knows we're in nonprofit business and there's not huge wage packets going home so the one thing you can get out of it is artistic fulfillment, I hope. I hope we support that, provide that as much as I can.
Why is this a great show to see during the holiday season?
It's certainly a contained special, special evening. Christmas and the holidays are all about giving something special to your loved ones or at least celebrating. Between the meal and the wines and the whiskeys and this absolutely heartbreaking story. It's one of the more unique ways to celebrate the holidays in the city. I think it's one of the most unique. You could go sit in a traditional seat in a theatre, but then you have dinner plans after that. At The Dead, 1904, you get the whole package!
The Dead, 1904 plays the Irish Repertory Theatre from November 17 until January 13. Learn more about it at https://irishrep.org.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg