The Olivier Awards turned out to be a stellar night for Irish theatre, with a host of other wins for Irish talent.
Dublin's Fishamble Theatre and actor-writer Pat Kinevane won the Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre award for the play Silent at the Soho Theatre.
Speaking to RTÉ the play's director, Jim Culleton, said the Olivier judges had praised Silent for exuding "warmth and humanity and passion" in its depiction of mental health issues and homelessness.
Hangman, a new play by London-Irish writer Martin McDonagh, won Best New Play and Set Design, while Harry Potter star Imelda Staunton, whose parents emigrated to London from Co Mayo, was named Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre.
President Michael D. Higgins has led tributes to the Irish winners last night.
The Olivier Awards are the most prestigious theatre awards in the United Kingdom and the awards won by Irish nominees are a great recognition and tribute to Irish theatre.
All the Park’s a Stage, and This Proves It
The playwright Paul Walker, left, with the actors Laoisa Sexton and Sean Gormley in the men’s room near the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
Published: March 15, 2008
“Ladies and Gents,” a noir-ish thriller from Ireland with a cast of six, will open on Monday for a two-week engagement in the public bathrooms near the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Yes, that is right. The play is being put on in the bathrooms, the audience standing in a line along the stalls. Go ahead, make the clever scatological joke. Come up with some headlines for bad reviews.
Got that out of the way?
Karl Shiels is the leader of the Dublin theater troupe Semper Fi, a company that has a penchant for site-specific theater. One night in 2002 at a Dublin bar, Mr. Shiels asked the playwright Paul Walker to come up with something.
“He said, ‘Would you write a play for me?’ ” Mr. Walker recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, O.K.’ And he said, ‘To be put on in a public toilet.’ ”
The result was “Ladies and Gents,” a nasty little tale about prostitutes, politicians and other morally questionable types in 1950s Dublin. (And, yes, the action is actually set in a couple of public bathrooms; that’s not just a mean trick.) It consists of two acts, one that takes place in the ladies’ room, and the other in, well, the other room.
The audience splits upon arrival, each half seeing a different act first, and after a brief intermission the halves of the audience switch bathrooms. In the play’s chronology the acts are taking place simultaneously, and each act answers questions raised in its counterpart.
“Yes, it’s a gimmick,” said Mr. Walker, who has made a career writing for theater and television. “The gimmick gets the newspapers. But it only gets you five minutes with the audience.”
The play was first performed in the bathrooms on St. Stephen’s Green, a large public park, as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. The play was later part of the Edinburgh Fringe, where it won the Fringe First Award, and went on a mini-tour of England, playing to sold-out bathrooms in Brighton and Nottingham.
All of this was much talked about in Dublin’s small theater world. Laoisa Sexton, an Irish actress who was splitting her time between Dublin and New York and knew Mr. Shiels, thought the play should come to America. So did Georgeanne Aldrich Heller, a producer who often works with the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street in Manhattan, and saw “Ladies and Gents” in Dublin.
Ms. Sexton told Ms. Heller she would find some public bathrooms in New York and get the needed permission from the Parks Department. Ms. Heller just laughed.
“It takes someone who is naïve and new to the country to tell me they’re going to get the parks,” Ms. Heller, who once worked in the Manhattan borough president’s office, said. “I know what you have to go through.”
The Irish Arts Council paid for Mr. Shiels to go to New York on a bathroom-searching expedition with Ms. Sexton; every day they would set out in the morning, guided by reviews of various city bathrooms (posted at thebathroomdiaries.com — seriously).
The ones in Bryant Park were beautiful but too small; the ones in Washington Square Park were a little too dingy. The bathrooms on the far west end of Christopher Street were perfect, but, she said, a Hudson River Park official told her that putting on a play in them would constitute “inappropriate use” of a public toilet.
But, oh, those sublime loos at the Bethesda Fountain. Large, windowless, old-fashioned, rather spooky. Love at first sight, Ms. Sexton said. Now, for that permission from the Parks Department.
“In Dublin,” she said, “it was just go down to the County Council, put on the kettle, and let’s put on a show.”
Not so easy in New York. Months went by, months of unreturned phone calls, e-mail messages that went nowhere and general bureaucratic thorniness. One parks official estimated that rental costs for the public bathrooms (which are closed between November and March) would run somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000 for a few days, a problem for a show with a total budget under $100,000. But Ms. Sexton, in her naïvete and innocence persisted.
“I was going around asking Irish bar owners I knew did they know anyone in the mayor’s office,” Ms. Sexton said. At one point she just sent a letter to the mayor, describing the project, recounting her travails with the bureaucracy, highlighting the contributions of the Irish to New York and lamenting the city’s gradual loss of character.
After several months the project reached the desk of Rory McAvoy, an official in the parks’ special events and marketing department who just happens to have an Irish background. You might imagine that a request to perform in the Central Park bathrooms would be among the stranger he has heard.
“This definitely didn’t take the cake,” Mr. McAvoy said, mentioning specifically the frequent applications for world-record attempts on city land, including a request that somehow involved the world’s largest ice pop.
“We have tons of this stuff,” he said. I’m pretty jaded with the different types of proposals; the question is what’s for real and what’s not.”
And that was, on his advice, what the production needed to prove. So after eliciting testimonial letters from the lord mayor of Dublin and the Irish consulate cultural attaché in New York, and after reading that pleading letter to the mayor, Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, gave the project the go-ahead and even found a way to reduce the rental costs.
Putting on the play, currently in rehearsals at the Irish Arts Center, still proves a logistical challenge. There is a long list of park rules that the production has to abide by. Generators need to be rented, as well as portable toilets (Audience members are not, of course, allowed to use the facilities as they were intended). But the show is going on.
“New York City’s parks have always hosted great theater — from the venerable Shakespeare in the Park to more avant-garde productions,” Mr. Benepe said in a statement. “But ‘Ladies and Gents’ will give new meaning to our quest” — O.K., Mr. Benepe, just this once — “to provide outlets for creative expression.”
“Ladies and Gents” runs through March 29 at the Bethesda Fountain bathrooms, accessible from either 72nd Street park entrance; (212) 868-4444 or smarttix.com.