The Poets’ Theatre was invited to Belfast (where we are now) to re-stage our production of “Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure” as an initial cultural offering in the burgeoning Boston-Belfast Sister Cities Agreement. When Marty Walsh was first elected Mayor of Boston, he initiated, along with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (then Lord Mayor of Belfast) an ongoing relationship promoting active interactions between the two cities. The first notable success of this agreement was the introduction of ice hockey, Boston style, to Belfast, where it was virtually unknown as a sport. Established ice hockey leagues now play throughout Ulster, and yearly exchanges of school and college teams from New England are a regular part of the thriving Sister Cities program.
Mayor Walsh’s appointed head of the Boston-Belfast program, John Donovan, has encouraged the Poets’ Theatre to make inroads in a similar vein for theatre, poetry, music and literature. We are here in Belfast – guests of the Belfast Metropolitan Arts Center (the MAC) -- to open such exchanges. The Belfast City Council has assisted this first visit, and endorses our ambitions for future developments. Belfast is unusually rich in theatre artists, poets, screenwriters, novelists, musicians and composers. And we have been graciously and enthusiastically welcomed here.
We brought one of our celebrated past productions, a suite of four short plays Samuel Beckett wrote for women – an evening we called “Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure.” We chose that production in consultation with Simon Magill, Artistic Director of The MAC, who liked the elegance of the production and the connection to one of Ireland’s greatest writers, Samuel Beckett. Beckett was born in Dublin, but had gone to secondary school in Ulster (Northern Ireland), at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen – a particularly happy stage of his life. We all thought it appropriate to bring this particular Poets’ Theatre author (Beckett was directly connected to the Poets’ Theatre, through founder Mary Manning Howe, and through me). Over our many years of existence, Beckett had given the Poets’ Theatre several pieces to premiere in Boston while he was alive, and we have continued doing his work since his death in 1989. For Magill and the Belfast City Council, our production represented a repatriation of Beckett to his native Ireland, and in particular a return to his important roots in the North.
The Poets’ Theatre’s Executive Director and co-refounder, Benjamin Evett, took on the task of managing our tour and fulfilling the duties of production/stage manager for the Belfast production. Our two award-winning designers, David Gammons and Jeff Adelberg, were also brought to Belfast to re-invent our original production in a new space. This required considerable adaptation and problem solving – in some cases a redesign of the staging to take advantage of new options and new limitations imposed by the Belfast theatre. We grew to love the new space, and are now immensely pleased with the inevitable changes we had to make. We have a new “favorite version” of these plays.
Ben and I were also fortunate to be able to re-engage the original cast: Amanda Gann, Sarah Newhouse and Carmel O’Reilly. Sarah and Carmel came with us from Boston, Amanda joined us from London, where she is finishing an MFA in acting at East 15 Acting School, one of England’s great training programs. Belfast provided us with a superb local actor, Chris Robinson, to complete the cast in the silent but demanding role of Zed, as we called him. Somehow, this magical production has seemed indispensable to us all, and now that we are re-united and have re-activated this haunting piece, we do not want to let it go… we are already eager to take it elsewhere, like Dublin, or Paris, or Tokyo, or Vietnam, where our Temple of Literature motif was first conceived…
We have been housed in attractive housekeeping apartments with splendid views of River Lagan and the East Belfast shipyards, dominated by “Samson and Goliath,” the two landmark yellow ship-building cranes of Harland and Wolff. We are about a mile from the MAC, and I will close with a brief description of this remarkable institution. We need such a new project in Boston.
The MAC is a magical facility. Brand new, placed in an architecturally bold corner of the “Cathedral District,” it was conceived as a developmental spur to active urban re-development (vast new dorms for Ulster University are being built next door, much as when Mayor Menino reclaimed our downtown “combat zone” by refurbishing theatres and facilitating college dorms and university expansion). The MAC is architecturally fascinating and functionally most successful. It has already become a thriving community center, with two theatres, two separate art galleries, a restaurant/bar and inviting lobby and terrace spaces that are never unused, all day and late into each night. Families and students and local professionals all make themselves at home here. A development that functions as Boston’s Center for the Arts in the South End was meant to, but the MAC is newer, better, more stunning architecturally (the two theatres are wonderful, inviting spaces) and the whole complex is better integrated into city life.
We are very proud to be here. We wish we could have brought our Boston/Cambridge audience with us just to see all this and share the adventure. Opening night was festive, with speeches of welcome and expressed hopes of future developments. Our VIP audience also reacted well to the plays, and initial reviews are coming in positive indeed. We have ten more days to go with this adventure, and hope to come back to Boston with many new friends and colleagues, and new projects on the horizon.