Women Who Run the Show: Charlotte Moore of Irish Rep
Third in a Women’s History Month series on female artistic directorsOn various occasions that I’ve gone to the Irish Repertory Theatre, artistic director Charlotte Moore has been behind the box office window or serving as an usher or working the concession stand—I’ve even seen her replenishing the toilet paper in the theater’s bathrooms. And on that occasion, I thought to myself: I’d never seen the male head of a theater doing that.
“You’re probably right,” Moore says when I remind her of her TP duty. But she adds, “My partner would do that.”
That partner—business only—is Ciarán O’Reilly, the producing director of Irish Rep, with whom Moore founded the company in 1988. They had met as actors in a Hudson Guild production of Hugh Leonard’s Summer, directed by Brian Murray, and were both eager to do more Irish theater. So they collaborated on a production of The Plough and the Stars, by Sean O’Casey: Moore directed it; O’Reilly, investing what she says was “his life savings” of about $7,000, produced it. “We really didn’t mean to establish a repertory company, but we did this play and it was very successful so we had enough money to do the next one,” Moore recalls. “That was about 90 plays ago.”
Actually, according to a list in the program, the currently running Aristocrats is No. 105 on Irish Rep’s mainstage. The Brian Friel drama, which has been extended through March 29, is directed by Moore and costars O’Reilly.
Moore says that her and O’Reilly’s steadfast dedication to the theater, and to each other, helps buffer her from the sexism a woman can encounter when dealing with vendors and technicians—and even male artists. “I don’t have to worry about being respected around here. Ciarán O’Reilly and I started together and we’re partners until the end,” she says. “But sometimes merchants and vendors don’t want to talk to me. If you call a lighting company—and you’ve been lighting things for the last 20 years—they don’t think you know what you’re talking about. Irish playwrights are not always happy to talk to me; they want to talk to my partner. That’s okay—it’s going to be a collaboration between Ciarán and me anyway, so it doesn’t matter how it gets to me.”
While Moore says a woman AD’s managerial style is “probably a bit more softhearted” than a man’s, she certainly doesn’t advocate behaving—or conduct herself—like a shrinking violet. “Sometimes I overstep what sweet little Suzy Q from Des Moines would do,” she remarks.
Interesting choice of words, since Moore began life more like Suzy Q from Des Moines. She grew up on a farm in southern Illinois (“I can milk your cow,” she offers), the granddaughter of Irish immigrants from County Wexford. She’s acted on Broadway in Morning’s at Seven, Meet Me in St. Louis and several shows with Hal Prince’s New Phoenix Repertory Company in the early ’70s, including the farce Chemin de Fer, for which she was nominated for a Tony as Best Featured Actress. These days, performing by the onetime New York Shakespeare Festival regular is mostly limited to Project Shaw readings at the Players Club. She acted in Irish Rep’s Major Barbara during the 1997-98 season, but realized being in a show while running the company producing it is not a good idea. “I could not concentrate,” she says. “I wasn’t very good. I just wasn’t focused.”
That production of Major Barbara was directed by design legend Tony Walton, who has directed and designed sets and costumes for a number of Irish Rep shows, including last season’s The Devil’s Disciple and After the Ball a few years earlier. He first came to Irish Rep to direct and design The Importance of Being Earnest in 1996. About a year before Moore decided she wanted to do the Oscar Wilde chestnut, she had read an interview with Walton in New York magazine where he said something like “I would go anywhere to do The Importance of Being Earnest.” She asked Hal Prince for Walton’s phone number and called him, quoting his words back to him. “He was here in 15 minutes and he looked at the stage and said ‘I can do that,’” she remembers happily. “We were a young theater company, [and the production] set us apart from other theater companies because it had a star cast—Eric Stoltz, Nancy Marchand... Things like that set you apart, and they set your standards very high.”
Over the years, Moore has drawn several well-known artists to her 137-seat theater in Chelsea. In the early ’90s, Prince approached Moore about producing a play he wrote about Sean O’Casey, Grandchild of Kings. More recently, James Naughton starred in The Master Builder; Dana Ivey won an Obie for her performance in Mrs. Warren’s Profession; Mickey Rooney brought in his autobiographical piece Let’s Put on a Show!; and musical faves Melissa Errico, Malcolm Gets, Max von Essen and Jonathan Freeman headlined Finian’s Rainbow. Marian Seldes, Brían O’Byrne, Frances Sternhagen and Boyd Gaines are among the other stars who have appeared in Irish Rep productions.
The company does not announce a slate of plays at the beginning of the season, but rather plans productions based on the talent and resources available. “We take plays one at a time, and we take the best people around who are free at the moment,” says Moore. “That’s truly one of our biggest ‘secrets’ to staying alive and doing wonderful work, is picking something up that’s available.”
That was the genesis of the Finian’s Rainbow revival that opened in April 2004, was extended into the summer, made a cast recording and was restaged at Westport Country Playhouse—“one of our biggest successes,” according to Moore, who recalls that one day she had picked up a Finian’s Rainbow score someone left lying around. “I thought, ‘My God, look at the songs in this! How would Melissa sing them?’” Errico had performed at Irish Rep previously and turned out to be available for a few months. The revival was widely lauded, with plenty of praise devoted to the Irish Rep innovations: two pianos as the sole musical accompaniment and Moore’s adaptation of a script that was daring for its stand against racial prejudice when it premiered in 1947 but had become dated.
Audiences and critics enjoy Irish Rep’s scaled-down musical productions, which in the last couple of seasons have included Take Me Along and Meet Me in St. Louis. “We always are successful with musicals,” says Moore, who directed those two shows and at least half of all Irish Rep shows.
Everything on the Irish Rep stage has some “touch of the Irish,” as Moore puts it. Finian’s Rainbow, written by Jews and set in the American South, centers on a leprechaun title character. Last fall’s Master Builder by Ibsen was adapted by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. But most of the times, it’s a more obvious connection: There’s been plenty of Shaw, Beckett, Wilde and O’Neill heard at the theater. “We have done all, or most, of the Irish classics,” says Moore, “all the way back to Sheridan in the 18th century and Boucicault in the 19th century. We’ve done The Plough and the Stars a couple of times; we’ve done Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark three times; we’ve done Playboy of the Western World, Synge, three times, I think. We’ve done Hugh Leonard; we’ve done Brian Friel a lot—Philadelphia, Here I Come! twice.”
Focusing on Irish classics can preclude any representation of women playwrights, but Moore points to newer plays that the company has produced. They include Triptych, written by Edna O’Brien and starring Margaret Colin and Ally Sheedy, and Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed, whose subject—Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, where unwed pregnant girls were forced to work—was later depicted in the acclaimed film The Magdalene Sisters. “We also work with so many women who are not playwrights,” Moore adds. “I often choose people [to hire] because they’re female. You know, I get to do that too.”
She balks, however, at complaints from female playwrights about being slighted by producers in favor of male-written work, an issue that was very publicly brought up by some women writers last year. “Oh, shut up!” Moore says. “If it’s good enough, it’ll get produced—by me or anybody else.” (Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep who was profiled last week in this series and participated in the forum that resulted from the women playwrights’ complaints, said of the gender imbalance: “I think it’s a huge cultural question. It’s bigger than just the theater.”)
Instead of stirring up controversy, Moore recommends staying focused on your work. That, in fact, is her advice for all theater artists, female or male. “Other things could distract you all the time,” she says. “Work hard. Keep your eye upon the doughnut and not the hole. If you get a bad review, for God’s sake, get on with it. Do the best you can. Use your talent in a straightforward, good way.”
Last year Moore was named one of the “50 Most Influential Women” by the Irish Voice newspaper. Her company is often cited for honors as well. As early as 1992, it received a special Drama Desk Award for excellence in presenting Irish drama. In the 2000s, it’s earned Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and Lucille Lortel nominations for the revivals of Finian’s Rainbow, Take Me Along, The Hairy Ape, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Mrs. Warren’s Profession and The Colleen Bawn; Drama Desk nominations for performances in The Field (Orlagh Cassidy), George M. Cohan Tonight! (Jon Peterson), Our Lady of Sligo (Sinéad Cusack) and A Life (Fritz Weaver) and for O’Reilly’s direction of The Hairy Ape; and Drama League noms for Alvin Epstein in Endgame and Catherine Byrne in Eden. Last season’s production of Gaslight garnered a Lucille Lortel nomination for Brian Murray and Drama League noms for revival and David Staller’s performance. Irish Rep won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Body of Work in 2005 and the 2007 Jujamcyn Theaters Award (which came with a $100,000 grant).
Perhaps the company’s biggest hit ever has been Frank McCourt’s The Irish...and How They Got That Way, first produced at Irish Rep in 1997 (before Angela’s Ashes made McCourt famous) and brought back in two subsequent seasons. It originated as a shorter piece McCourt wrote for an Irish Rep benefit, and he later made it a full-length revue of Irish storytelling and music. “We toured it to Chicago, San Francisco, all over the place,” says Moore. “It was up somewhere for a couple of years.”
One of Irish Rep’s greatest achievements was not a theatrical production but a real estate transaction: Two years ago the company purchased the three-story space on W. 22nd St. where it’s been based since 1995. When Moore found the space, it was an abandoned warehouse; she had it reconstructed with the main theater and lobby on ground level, administrative offices and workshops upstairs and a 54-seat studio theater in the basement. A decade later, she decided to buy the space when the building’s upper floors were being converted to condos. Irish Rep raised $5 million of the $6 million pricetag through an ongoing capital campaign.
Now that the company’s paying a mortgage, its nomadic days seem further and further away. “When we started out, we were all over the place,” Moore recalls. “We were on 18th Street, we were on 42nd Street, we were at the Public for a season, we were at the Actors Playhouse. One time we had a play on 42nd Street [its first production of Philadelphia, Here I Come!] that was so well received and reviewed and we had to close it, because something else was coming in. We were devastated, so we said: By George, either we’re going to get a place or we’re going to stop.”
Irish Rep has survived financially because “we are extremely careful,” Moore says. “We do with a small staff, so we all do everything. If we waste a dime, everybody’s upset. But we keep our standards up, and that’s not always easy. That’s where we put our money—into our productions. Nobody around here ever got a bonus, I’ll tell you that.”
On the last Friday of every month, Irish Rep hosts a New Works Reading Series. Sometimes the new material makes it all the way to the mainstage: Defender of the Faith by Stuart Carolan, which the company produced in 2007, had been featured in the reading series the year before. Other new plays the company has produced in recent years include a rock-opera version of Beowulf and the U.S. premieres of Eden and Bedbound.
Moore is going back to the classics for Irish Rep’s next production, though it’s a novel undertaking. The Yeats Project, which will run April 8–May 3, comprises all 26 plays written by William Butler Yeats. Eight will have mainstage productions, four of them directed by Moore and four by O’Reilly. The rest will be presented in concert readings.
Even sooner on Moore’s schedule: She is directing a reading of two J.M. Synge one-acts, Riders to the Sea and In the Shadow of the Glen, on March 23 as part of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ commemoration of the centennial of Synge’s death. Frances Sternhagen is in the cast of the reading.
Photos, from top: Charlotte Moore outside the Irish Rep theater before last Wednesday’s matinee; the 2004 Irish Rep production of After the Ball, Noel Coward’s musical adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, with direction and costume design by Tony Walton; Melissa Errico and Max von Essen (center) headed the cast of Finian’s Rainbow; The Master Builder, performed at Irish Rep earlier this season, with James Naughton and Charlotte Parry; Greg Derelian in 2006’s The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill; the 2005 revival of an Irish Rep fave, Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, with Tessa Klein and Michael FitzGerald; Moore poses near a lobby poster of the heritage her theater celebrates. [Production photos by Carol Rosegg]