After The Debs is Over

If you know me via Social Media, you might have seen a few of the terse updates I was posting this week. ‘Almost time…’, ‘Tech Rehearsal…’ ‘Full Dress…’ ‘Showtime…’ ‘Exhausted…’ that kind of thing. 

An extraordinary week has drawn to a close. My newest play, ‘Deb’s Night’ has had its two nights in The Linenhall Arts Centre here in Castlebar. It played to capacity audiences and the extraordinary cast received spontaneous standing ovations on both nights. I think I can say this because I only wrote it, they fully deserved each one.

So today, after reflecting on things for a day or two, I want to first thank the main players in my wonderful week and then I want to scribble a little bit about the writing of Deb’s Night, partly as an aide-memoire to myself as I get ready to move on to the next one, which is mostly already-written in my head.

So. Thank you.

Thank you to Donna Ruane, who is my friend and who also happens to be a highly talented director and actor. For many years, Donna has run her Acting for Fun classes on Saturdays here in Castlebar. It is one of her many commitments but one that is particularly close to her heart. That title ‘Acting for Fun’ is both slightly misleading and entirely correct. It’s correct because the teens who go there pretty much have the best fun you could imagine. They tend to become tight friends and (from what I know) they look forward to each session with eagerness and anticipation. It’s slightly misleading because the name almost has a casual feel to it, a sort of ‘let’s not take this stuff too seriously’ vibe and that could not be further from the truth. Donna shows her people how to act, really act, and, to her, it is an earnest and important endeavour. This seriousness rubs off on the teen actors. This mix of serious and great  fun produces a special kind of acting student. One who loves to act and have fun but who never-ever take it casually.

Thank you Donna, for seeing something worthwhile in the Deb’s Night script and for taking it on and for shaking quite a brilliant production out of it. 

Then there’s those guys I was just talking about in the last paragraph-but-one. The Cast. Eighteen, yes count them, eighteen amazing guys and gals, every one of whom brought their ‘A-Game’ to this endeavour. The feedback I got suggested that the audiences could not quite believe the quality of what they were seeing. I could believe it though, I’d seen how hard they worked and how much fun they had doing it. (there’s that mix again).

Then there’s The Linenhall Arts Centre. I’ve written about them quite recently so I better not go on too much but, damn, they really know how to look after a creative endeavour and that’s for sure. A vibrant young cast finds itself enveloped in a professional theatre with a professional director and professional lighting and sound design and professional show management and everybody raises their game to come along with what The Linenhall gives. If you’re here in Castlebar and you’re artistically inclined I would suggest you make friends with the place. See the exhibitions, catch the shows, drink some coffee there. Your creativity will blossom just from spending quality time within those hallowed walls. 

A particular word for my friend Oisin Heraty who brought the theatre design up to the highest level. Because I mostly write stuff that doesn't use formal sets, in this case, just a couple of stools (well, eighteen) I tend to want to lean heavily on lighting and sound and music to set scenes and tone. Oisin has never let me down in this regard. Also the pleasure of being allowed to work the sound cues myself while Oisin ran everything else (and most of the sound cues too), the ability to watch the play and the audience as-one while also feeling as if I was a part of the theatrical machine that was running it. It all made me feel a bit important and I’m still cruising on that vibe. So thanks mate. 

For me, it’s kind of the dream come true. To write something as carefully and well as I possibly can, to have twenty plus people working flat out to make it come alive, and for the audiences to come out and enjoy the result. Yes, it’s ‘dream-come-true’ territory all right and I count my blessings that I get to experience all of this. 

And so now the Debs is over. There may be another outing but The Linenhall premiere is now writ in history.

A moment, then, if I may, for me to selfishly set down some thoughts and reminiscences on the actual writing of the play. What drove it and what might have added a pinch of inspiration to it because, as with all my little plays, there were many pinches borrowed from hither and yon.

I had written two other full length plays-for-teens and both had been pretty well received. When the second one ‘Midnight in the Theatre of Blood’ was revived last year at The Linenhall, along with the shorter (and beloved) ‘Fine’ I saw the power and potential of the current young cast that Donna had trained up and I resolved to try to give them a brand new play for this year. Teen casts move along quickly to College and Adult Life and they have to be grabbed while they are still around. This was very much a year to do that.

I knew I wanted to write about Family and, particularly, about Parents and their Children. I was intrigued to give the teens a platform where they could play out some of their parents concerns and, in doing so, to show them what they sometimes look like from the adult point of view.

I also knew I wanted to capture something that I had seen in Donna’s classes. There, in the safety of the group, scenes and sketches would be devised and performed while the other actors sit around and become the audience. I loved how, from this relaxed and fun atmosphere, something dramatic and moving would often suddenly emerge. 

For that reason, I wanted everybody on stage the whole time, watching their fellow actors as they came centre stage and did their pieces. It’s not a new idea. I read ‘Equus’ as a much younger person and had loved how Shaffer had done it there. I had also seen ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Bruiser’s excellent production) in The Linenhall and had loved that Brechtian notion of the ‘Play within a Play’. The wonderful Mickel Murfi had also directed ‘The Far Off Hills’ in The Linenhall a few years ago and I loved the way his actors stayed around and visibly enjoyed it while their peers were doing their thing. 

I wanted a number of little families in the play, each with their own story to tell. I ended up with four. A family without a father, a family without a mother, a family with neither father nor mother and a family with both father and mother around. Several people commented that there were a lot of ‘dead parents’ in this play and they were not wrong.

The stories worked themselves out and evolved from one thing to another. The notion of the characters Debs Night being a part of the play actually came quite late on. At first, this was a play called ‘My Project, My Family’ in which a  school project to look into family histories threw up a series of dramatised stories, the teacher ultimately becoming the central character in the main story. But that didn’t quite play ‘entertaining’ enough. The threat and promise of an impending Debs Night seemed a better reason to have some fun and I think it turned out that way. 

The stories all may have evolved but there was one little kernel of a story there for the longest time. The story of a dad, a recent widower, and his daughter, alone together in the world and one stupid, silly thing he might do to try to keep her safe. This was always the nut at the centre of the play, everything else grew up around that. 

With eighteen actors and eighteen characters in the play, there was another challenge I was keen to address as best I could. I needed each character to have their own little story arc. Without going overboard on the technicalities I simply resolved that each one would have their own object of desire and something standing in their way of getting it. Some were small, Tam wanted to be a tree but the Stage Manager wouldn’t let her. A tiny thing but the audience went with it and many commented on Tam afterward. The most rewarding comment, repeated quite a bit, was how every actor had their part. Audiences don’t generally concern themselves consciously with such things as story arcs and desires and impediments to achieving those desires but they do respond to the tiny stories that emerge when these things are thought about. 

In case you think I’m vanishing up my own arse here, talking about Brecht and Shaffer and such, the play also purloined little nuggets of stuff from many much more street-level sources. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ definitely played a part. If you watch the climactic scene and if you’ve seen my play, I think you’ll know what I mean. ‘Mary Poppins’ featured more heavily in earlier drafts but a tiny little taste still remained in the final product. ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ is clearly in there somewhere, as is ‘Hamilton’, Reeves and Mortimer’s ‘Shooting Stars’ and, of course, Bruce Lee and ‘Enter The Dragon’. An online pal, Darragh Doyle’ once said something on Twitter, years ago, and that has clearly turned up in the play. None of this stuff is stolen, not to my mind anyway. I think it’s a powerful writing tool to try to be open to those myriad little things that give you pause on any given day. These, to my mind, can sometimes become tiny keys to our souls. 

This was the play where I finally learned the value of scene index cards in the writing process. I wrote about that here. I could never make them work for me until David Keating, in a great one day seminar, explained how he used them right at the end of the process instead of at the beginning. This really focused the mind on what was missing in the play, narratively, and also tightened the flow and pacing of the thing. Remember that for next time, Ken. 


Wait. Just one final thought. 

The play has a slightly peculiar structure. It starts out in an element of deliberate chaos as the group try to work out how to do their little devised play. There are mess ups and miscommunications and pratfalls and arguments. In the end too, there is a sort of joyous chaos, a relief that the silly thing is nearly all over.

But in the middle… in the middle some stories emerge, the tomfoolery slips away and some moments of drama and pathos peeps out. 

This is where Tom Waits has yet again inspired me, as he so often has in the past. 

He has a song called ‘Please Wake Me Up’ on his album ‘Frank’s Wild Years’. This little play of mine owes quite a bit to that song. Not on account of the words and not on account of the music but on account of the intangible chaos that exists at the start of the song and the chaotic refrain at the end. Mostly, it's on account of the lovely melody that emerges briefly right there in the middle, in among all that chaos. Have a listen on YouTube, I think you’ll see what I mean. Here's a link.

I’m generally my own toughest critic and I’m rarely entirely pleased with the writing I do but I must confess that I am quite proud of ‘Deb’s Night’. I know I owe much of that to the Actors and the Director and the Designer and the Theatre who made this production go as it did but, hey, I did my bit too.

And that feels pretty good. 

Memory is a Dish Best Served Hot

Yesterday, I thought of a girl from my past and, as soon as I thought of her, I realised that I’ve been thinking of her pretty-much once a week for years and years now. 

As blog post openings go, this may promise to be rather yearning and revealing and such but it’s not. It’s just my old pal Memory throwing one of its curve balls at me again. 

I met this girl for the first time in, oh, it must be thirty years on Monday last. It was at the sad occasion of her Father’s funeral. She was (and still is) a sister of one of my very best friends from my teenage and young adult years. Let’s call her M for that indeed is the initial of her name. 

When I met her again on Monday, I remarked to myself how little the years had changed her and how she still looked like the same M that she had looked like back in the Seventies and the Eighties. I never for one moment remarked that she entered my head roughly about once every week and had done for so many years. I didn’t know it then.

I only knew it yesterday, when I was making dinner. 

Most Saturdays, I make Chilli. I make a big pot that satisfies the appetites of the most voracious of returning students and spice-seeking adults alike. If I say so myself, I make a great Chilli with all the freshest ingredients and the best, most potent spices. There are touches of vinegar and sugar and dark, dark chocolate. There are real fresh juicy chillies that I cut while wearing an old golf glove but still the burn works its way through to my fingers. There is also cumin and peppers and onions and… oh you know the score, it’s a Chilli after all and it’s not rocket science. It’s just that I’m quite proud of my one and I enjoy cutting everything up and preparing it and dishing it up and eating it. 

And, yesterday, as I reached a particular stage of making the Chilli, I thought of M and I suddenly realised that I thought of M every week as I come to this very stage of Chilli-making. 

The thought is a simple one and it’s not a romantic or an aching one, except perhaps in the sense that all memories are, to some extent or another. It’s just… a memory.

Here it is. 

M made me my first Chilli. 

We were at a party in my friends house. Their parents had gone away and we had all gathered there to play records and maybe dance a bit and eat a late night Chilli which I had never had before, my Mum not being adventurous in the culinary respect. To try to date the year in which this party happened, I remember that one of the favoured albums by the girls at the party was by Culture Club – Colour by Numbers so that puts us firmly in 1983. 

There is actually very little detail to the memory. It is primarily to do with kidney beans and it is at the kidney bean draining part of the my own Chilli making that I invariably think of M and that party. 

On that night, the Chilli was served up on large white plates on the compulsory bed of rice. I got my plate and sat down beside S. I inspected my plate. I had never seen a Chilli before and had certainly never set eyes on a kidney bean. 

“What are they?”

“Kidney beans, they’re great,” this last part said in Tony-The Tiger fashion. 

I remember how I carefully ate my way around all of the kidney beans and left them all to the side of my plate. Logic told me that they were called kidney beans on account of their kidney shape and not because they were some kind of little animal kidney, cruelly harvested to ‘meat up’ the stew. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to eat them. No way. 

“’You having those?” S was eyeing up my stash of beans hungrily. S was always hungry.


He ate them. All by themselves. Relishing them. I felt sick.

Today, I would do the same thing. I love how the little beans soak up the Chilli essence. My son would look at me in the exact same way as I looked at S that night. That might be the key to the recurring memory.

So, every Saturday, when I’m making my own Chilli in my own kitchen, and when I’m working on the kidney beans, I think in passing of A’s sister M, of the party and of Culture Club and of Chilli and kidney beans and youth and changing taste and of my sons and of time. 

And I realised all of this, not when I saw her again on Monday but a week later when it was time to cook. 

Cool, eh?


Well, this one niggling thought persists.

Did I?

Did I really think of M and her Chilli every Saturday for years? Or is it perhaps possible that I only thought of her yesterday for the first time in years. The memory having been spurred by the funeral and the visit to my home town and seeing my friend A again and the sad passing of Martin, his Dad, who was a lovely man. 

Maybe my mind has played a trick on me. Throwing me a memory but then going further. Implanting another memory of me recalling this memory all of the time when, in fact, I only ever remembered it once. It happens in dreams all of the time, perhaps it happened to me while waking too. 

I don’t know the answer. I don’t think I’m capable of discerning the answer. We are, to an extent, slaves to our memories and the vivid tricks they can sometimes play on us. They serve us up a rich banquet and we eat our fill and we never really know what is fresh and what has come out of a tin.

Still the food is good and we eat it with some relish. 

Enabling My Writing at The Linenhall

Writing can be viewed as something of a bad habit, by me at least. It takes up a lot of time in the doing and it takes up even more time in the thinking-about and the plotting and general mulling-over. Lawns don’t get mowed, cars don’t get washed, cobwebs remain largely unchallenged and the tangible rewards are singularly meagre, except in the case of a daring and talented few. 

The writer embarks upon a course that, unless he/she is very careful, will result in a dotage spent wandering through a spider-ridden house, with tonnes of paper stacked high in every room and no visible means of support.

That’s why, when I use the word’ Enabling’ in the title, I’m thinking of the slightly negative connotation as well as the positive one. When someone enables you in writing they are encouraging you and providing you with resources and creative shelter. But it’s also like you’re a smoker and they’re holding the door open for you and handing you a box of matches.

Enough whimsy. All I really want to do this week is to acknowledge the part that the Linenhall Arts Centre has played in keeping me thinking of myself as a sort-of-a writer and in making me better in that regard.

The Linenhall has been doing this for me for the last fifteen years or so, pretty much ever since I first came from London to live and settle in Castlebar. Before that, there were other ‘Enablers’ – good folk who quietly provided me with kindling for my writing spark. There was my English teacher in school, Patricia O’Higgins, who quietly slipped me books that were out of my comfort zone and who, when I was getting ready to leave for Dublin at the tender age of sixteen, told me how, ‘it would be good for my writing’. The instillation of the idea that I might have something called ‘writing’ was a key moment in the confirmation of my lifelong passion.

Then there was Independent Radio Drama Productions. Marja Giejgo and Tim Crook gave me my first break in radio and continued from there right up to today in quietly affirming that I could righteously consider myself to be a writer, even though I’ve never quite managed to do that.

Apart from the radio productions with IRDP, Tim and Marja also allowed me to be a script reader for a number of writing competitions. I would receive bundles of radio scripts in the post, thirty at a time, and would pare them down to the best two. It wasn’t hard. The best ones always shone so brightly that anyone could have seen them. The invaluable lesson was not found in perusing the top two but in examining the other twenty eight. Each had to have a little review written and I took some care with those, trying to explain why, to my mind, the script had not made the grade. Seeing things that should not be done being done over and over again taught me something. I’m not sure what, exactly, but it’s in there nestling all the time.

When I arrived in Castlebar, I was a little cast adrift from anything that might anchor me to my writing. Luckily, I’ve always had the drive to be writing, even when there was no logical reason to be doing so. Somehow, I blipped on The Linenhall’s radar and they’ve been subtly looking out for me ever since.

I have come to be a person who likes to share the writing I do. If I did not have a facility to do this, I would still write but it would be a less satisfying, more closeted, sort of writing. What the Linenhall have done, among many, many other things is allow me to avail of their facilities. They have a lovely theatre with all the lights and all the sound and all the space that a person like me could wish for. Through their auspices, I get to avail of all this stuff. If there’s a play, I get to take it in to the theatre space and, with the help of good people, work it up and mould it and make it more ready to be shown. That’s only the start of what they do for me at The Linenhall but much of it is almost too subtle to pin down in a coherent sentence. They… make me feel like a creative person. I think that’s it.

Of course I am a creative person, at least by some definition. I take a blank sheet of paper and, for better or worse, I make a play and then actors come and bring the play to life. So, from nothing there comes something and that, I guess, is what you might call creative. I can drag myself for enough to say that I am creative but I will never think of myself as an ‘artist’ or anything as far reaching as that. I am, at most, a storyteller, a mouthpiece, a bit-of-a-wag.

And the Linenhall give me room to be all that and they do it with a constant smile and a gentle nudge in the right direction, which is unerringly forward.

I feel so lucky to have this.

Sometimes I feel like David Mamet (although I could not tie his shoelaces). Like him, I can grow my play in a small theatre setting, show it, improve it, and send it out into the wide world to see where, if anywhere, it may go. I won’t ever be a world-beater but the little plays conceived and grown in-and-around The Linenhall had gone on to play further afield and to people who don’t know who I am. I like that.

This time next week, we’ll be in the run-in to my newest play at The Linenhall. ‘Deb’s Night’ is directed by my good friend Donna Ruane and features a superb teen cast of eighteen. Yesterday afternoon, I sat and watched the rehearsal. The drive, the intensity of trying to get it right. You couldn’t buy it, not with a million bucks. I hope it plays well to the audiences who will come. There is drama in there and humour and some feeling. Let’s see how we go.

I am a lucky duck to have The Linenhall Arts Centre in my life. I have deliberately refrained from naming everybody in there because you are all my valued friends but I’m not writing about you today. I’m writing about what you collectively become when you do your work for the Artists and for The Community and for the old Writing Wags too.

Something valuable.

Something good.