BWW News: New Digital Theater Festival Creates a Platform for Irish Artists in America

In a streaming-only program, D.C.-based Irish arts company Solas Nua asks American audiences to reconsider their relationship to live theatre, and to Ireland.

By: Nov. 12, 2021

BWW News: New Digital Theater Festival Creates a Platform for Irish Artists in America

Solas Nua, like many people worldwide, has spent the pandemic figuring out its digital identity.

After 20 months of exploring different ways to bring live theatre to streaming platforms the Washington, D.C.-based Irish contemporary arts organization will present its first digital theatre festival. The festival, which runs November 18-21, features four new plays from Prime Cut Productions, an independent theatre company based in Belfast, Ireland.

"The pandemic really kicked open the door for who we can work with, and where," Rex Daugherty, Solas Nua's artistic director of theatre, says. "We used to think in terms of plane tickets to bring Irish artists to America. But now it's a Zoom call."

Working with Emma Jordan, artistic director of Prime Cut Productions, Daugherty leveraged these unprecedented pandemic times to create a festival that allows Irish artists to bring intimate stories of Irish life to American audiences.

Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney's "My Left Nut" is the true story of a boy from Belfast, Ireland who, after developing a giant swelling on his testicle, finds himself on a hilarious and poignant journey to discover what it means to be a man. Fintan Brady's "East Belfast Boy" features a performance by dancer Ryan O' Neill, with voiceover by actor Terence Keeley and an updated soundtrack by Phil Kieran, to tell the story of "Davy" and all the things he sees in his streets.

"Father The Father" by first-time playwright Gilly Campbell is based on her personal journey of growing up not knowing who her father was, only beginning her search for him 45 years later. It's a story that, without the Prime Cut Festival, may not have had the same global reach. "The fact that 'Father the Father' was created [for the screen] -- I think that gives it a life outside the auditorium and that's really positive," Campbell says.

Playwright Fionnoala Kennedy spent more than a year interviewing young people in Ireland's foster care to create the award-winning "Removed," a revealing and funny story of life in the care system. She hopes that its U.S. premiere will start new conversations about child welfare. "Sometimes politicians look at children in care with pity, but they're incredibly resilient. They're experts on their own experience," she says.

Kennedy was initially unsure how live theatre would transition to the screen, but Jordan had a vision. For months Jordan watched the theatre ecosystem become inundated with digital and streaming offerings. She knew she wanted what Prime Cut offered online to feel intentional. "COVID demanded that we make very good digital work," Jordan says. "We had to find a way to speak this new language."

Jordan directed each work, three of which were originally intended as stage performances, with the camera in mind. Adapting them for the screen required a new way of thinking about sound and place -- what will the set look like on screen? What is the lighting style? What is the sonic narrative? Each piece retains the intimacy of live theatre. It's a style Daugherty believes will keep the audience's attention in an era where focus is fleeting.

Digital theatre is "a flavor that no one knows what it tastes like yet," Daugherty says. But all of these pieces "tell big human stories we can all relate to. Whether it's fear, or being at odds with your city, with politics -- audiences will be excited to see themselves."

The festival also casts Belfast in a new light.

Prime Cut Productions, established in 1992, was created at a difficult time in Belfast's history. Beginning in the early 20th century, the region has spent decades marred by political tension, sectarian feuding and paramilitary killing. Such conflict has an insularity to it, Jordan says. "The progression of Prime Cut's work and the genesis of the company was a response to that. The openness that marks the Festival is what the company has been doing for 30 years."

During the festival, Belfast-Native Theatre director Matt Torney will moderate a panel discussion on the challenges and possibilities of creating contemporary theatre in Belfast featuring Jordan, Ciaran Bagnall, international designer and associate artist at Prime Cut, and Anne McReynolds, chief executive at The Mac in Belfasta??.

For Daugherty, bringing contemporary Irish art and the stories behind it to American audiences helps reframe how the states think about Irish culture. "We want people to put down that green beer and pick up real Irish culture and literature," Daugherty says. "The arts are one of Ireland's biggest exports, and its best work is happening now."

The box office is open now, featuring a festival pass ($50). or single tickets to each performance ($15). The plays will stream on-demand throughout the festival. The festival is sponsored by The Northern Ireland Bureau.