Emily Oulton, a Manchester based theatre director and writer got in touch with me to tell me about her new project Èrainne, a new Irish Musical which is being workshoped in Belfast this week from 22nd-29th August.
I was intrigued and thought I would sit down and discuss the project more with Emily and Belfast composer and musical director Matthew Quinn.
- Tell us about the production and why you felt it needed to be produced in NI?
Matthew: ÉRAINNE follows the story of displaced twin brother and sister Sean and Erainne and their divergent journeys through the Irish War of Independence in a country on the brink of partition in 1921. The story is based on an old family story of mine about two of my uncles that had to escape Ireland in the early 20th Century. The story has been passed through the family for generations! My granny would tell my sister and I the story as young kids and I was always struck by their incredible journey and the hardship they endured to survive and create a new life for themselves. I asked Emily to write the book and to develop the story with me (all good stories deserve a bit of embellishment!) around two years ago and it’s grown from strength to strength since. The score fuses Irish folk music with classical and musical theatre influences. It’s been really exciting trying to create a sound world for this piece as I think this sort of crossover is something that hasn’t really been done yet. It’s orchestrated by the brilliant Charlie Perry, who is a composer and conductor who lives in Manchester. In terms of why we felt we needed to do it in NI first with a Northern Irish cast – I feel that history is still very much alive in Northern Ireland. Our past still stirs a lot of emotion and feeling amongst the people here, and everyone has their own story to tell. I wanted to work with people from across the community and the island of Ireland and investigate our responses to this period in order to create something that is honest and representative of people’s actual lived experience.
Emily: This workshop is our first opportunity to work in-person with professional actors and musicians to really work on and hone the script, lyrics and music. We are also really excited about working with a cross-community youth group from JH Academy, which is where the workshop is being hosted. Matthew’s from and lives in Belfast so it made sense for us to work with brilliant actors and musicians that he knows there already. Secondly, it is really important to us that it feels rooted in its setting and workshopped with actual Irish creatives in order for it to feel truthful.The show is a memory play, told from the perspective of a Passenger on the bow of a ship in 1971 and it explores the themes of love, loss and sacrifice in a tragic tale about how far one will go for one’s family. We’ve had some really exciting developments with it so far, including two great readings; one with the brilliant Leicester Curve West Side Story cast in January and recently, we worked with Grey Area Theatre and The GradFest in a series of remote musical script readings on Zoom. Throughout lockdown, we released remotely recorded demos on social media and YouTube.
- Workshopping in the time of COVID is a health and safety nightmare but it has to become our new normal! What safety measures have you put in place and did you feel the need to be in the room?
Emily: It really is a new normal – we’ll have to get used to it! There has been a lot to think about that would have never crossed my mind six months ago. We’re fortunate to be workshopping the piece at JH Academy which means we’ve got two large rooms at our disposal so we can carry out sufficient social distancing for the cast and band. We’ve also had to create quite a detailed schedule which is quite uncommon for a workshop to ensure actors are only called when they’re needed. Then there’s all the small but important things like hand sanitizer stations, regular cleaning, masks, gloves, screens for the wind instruments and daily temperature checks. We’re just so grateful to be workshopping in person in a time like this after months of Zooming. There has been a lot to think about logistically and it’s important that we get it right if we want the arts to be taken seriously as something that must reopen.We will be able to get a feel for it all in the room and work out what the parameters are in what we can artistically and creatively do. My instinct is that not very much staging will be able to happen due to social distancing, although the musical is about being apart from your loved ones so maybe it’ll be quite poetic!This particular workshop is about really tying together the music and scenes after so much time creating this musical remotely, even before COVID, because Matthew lives in Belfast and I live in Manchester. So maybe it’ll give us the chance to really listen to the music and the words without the distraction of visuals yet.
Matthew: Yes it has certainly thrown up a lot of logistical challenges! We’ve had to be very careful and stick to the Arts Council NI guidelines on safely running this workshop – but it’s absolutely necessary and we have to make sure we minimise any risks. Singing has probably posed one of the biggest problems in terms of how to run safely, but as I say we’ve just had to be very strict about following the guidelines on this with correct ventilation, social distancing, and screens to separate the band and singers etc. I definitely feel it will all have been worth it when we get in there – collaboration inspires us as performers and I think in order to see what the potential of this show could be we have to see it on its feet!
- The production is working with a cross-community cast and professionals from Northern Ireland. How do you feel this will impact the feel of the show and make it not another troubles play?
Matthew: I think it will bring a lot of rawness and authenticity to the show. It’s so important when dealing with such a controversial period in our history to talk about and share our experiences to bring that depth and honesty to the show. Growing up I felt Irish history was often trivialised in the media and I’ve seen numerous plays and shows referencing the period that feel very insincere and lack depth. A lot of these things miss the nuance in the response from local people to the conflict and present it in a very simplified way. In that sense I think Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls is one of the best things to have been written about the conflict – it captures the blend of dark humour and grit in the face of shocking violence with the underplayed manner I think characterises a lot of Northern Irish people. It’s important to mention though that this show is set long before the Troubles in Northern Ireland of the latter 20th Century. It’s actually set in its origins – around the Irish War of Independence and the Partition of Ireland in 1921 (particularly timely with next year being the 100th anniversary). I also want to stress that it doesn’t engage in partisanship, and although it encourages us to interrogate a controversial historical moment, its purpose as a show is not to pass judgement on people’s experiences or points of view. It’s simply telling a human story in the middle of all this context. Things we can all relate to – hope, love, loss and family. To shift the focus more towards the lives of ordinary people that were so irrevocably changed by the events around them.
Emily: For me as an English person writing a show about a complex and sensitive part of Irish history, I think the key thing here that I’m striving for is truthfulness. It’s the closest thing to what Matt has – which is authenticity – that I can get as a writer. It’s always felt really important to make the show feel truthful and this comes with research, listening and sensitivity. A huge part of our motivation for this show was to open up a whole part of Irish and British history that has been completely closed off to English people by our lack of education on colonial history. I went from a position of knowing absolutely nothing about the last 100 years in Ireland – especially about the Troubles – to when I was first with my partner who is from Omagh – hearing stories and learning histories from him and his family. I was completely baffled by the enormity of the events going on just across the sea and the complete ignorance that is shared by most people over here in England. The research has entailed reading books, articles, finding historical documents online, watching films and going to relevant historical landmarks in Dublin and Belfast. A really memorable experience for me was going to the General Post Office in Dublin and with my finger being able to trace the bullet holes that still scar the stone pillars at the front of the building.When Matthew approached me with the idea for the show, I felt really passionate about bringing the story over to England to show them a whole moment in history that has been written out of the curriculum. Now feels like a great time to do that with the incredible way the Black Lives Matter movement ha done so well to foreground conversations about the British Empire and its chequered colonial history. It’s also set in 1921 – long before the Troubles, but it is told from the perspective of someone in 1971 and we hope it will reach full production in 2021. So it really does attempt to examine the relationship of England and Ireland over the last 100 years even though it’s set in a very specific time.
- Where do you see the production going next?
Emily: Mostly for the exact reasons I’ve said, we want to take it over to England next. We’re hoping to have another workshop in London and work with a couple of community organisations. As a project we want it to have an educational and social engagement strand because we hope it will spark meaningful conversations about this particular point in history. We also hope to work with a designer and movement director in that workshop which will bring us closer to what a production of ERAINNE might look and feel like.Because of the centenary of the partition in 2021 and the setting of the musical, we want to continue to further these conversations by staging a full production sometime in 2021. This may be ambitious considering the state of the arts right now but we really want to make it happen – if there are any keen producers reading this then hit us up!
Matthew: That’s a really exciting question! As Emily says, we’re looking at an English workshop next which i think will be fantastic and add another layer of depth to the development of the show. We also are in talks about potentially putting it on in Dublin which both Emily and I would be very keen on! We still feel like there are a lot of things to get done yet before we have our finished article – for me personally writing music on this scale has been a huge challenge and the size of the task can feel quite insurmountable! But you just have to keep working at it and for me writing music is an enjoyable and really rewarding way of spending time.
- You have almost reached your Kickstarter goal. Why should we invest in this piece?
Matthew: Both Emily and I are so passionate about this project. We feel like this show taps in to something that hasn’t really been done before – we feel like it’s a really unique Irish musical. A lot of the feedback and engagement with this piece so far has been incredibly positive and we feel it has the potential to go really far, but unfortunately you also need a considerable amount of money behind it to make the dream a reality! It’s also such a crucial time for the public to show support for the arts in what has been an incredibly difficult time for artists everywhere. New work is the bedrock of the industry and for it to continue to flourish it needs support. We would massively appreciate any help.
Emily: We’ve been working on ÉRAINNE for two years and we are so passionate about making it happen. To talk a bit more about what Matt has said, it’s really important to support the arts at the moment if we want to maintain our thriving culture. Everyone consumes arts and culture in some form, whether that’s theatre or Netflix, podcasts or opera, museums or music videos. Every penny that goes towards the arts contributes to this cultural ecology which is really suffering at the moment due to closures, cancellations and a lack of governmental support during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s still largely unclear how much support freelance creatives who operate outside of theatre institutions will be receiving from the government. As the arts open up, a really positive way to get theatre back on its feet is to support individual grassroots projects like this. A group of four fellow director friends and I launched a survey on Twitter recently to ask other early-career directors about the support they’d received during this time. We reached about 90 other early-career directors and one piece of data stuck out to me massively: 75% of respondents said that they were considering leaving the arts. That’s a devastating indictment of the position we’re all in at the moment. So many of us have fallen through the gaps of furlough, SEISS and support schemes. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t considered leaving too. The projects that are able to go ahead at the moment are the smaller ones where social distancing is possible, so getting those going and supporting people so they don’t have to leave the industry are key to ensure that the theatre world can thrive again at some point in the future. We all need entertainment and culture in some way and it’s all linked.
Find out more about Erainne Musical here:
Facebook: Érainne: A New Musical
Lockdown demos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrmp80lFMR-Gc2g3NS8tVJA?view_as=subscriber