Playwright Bryan Delaney and director Derek Campbell sat with me in the theater and talked to me about the play, the magic of the theater, the beauty of the English language, and about themselves. The stage was bare, and the lighting fixtures sat on the floor. In just a few weeks, designers would transform the naked theater into the island of Innisbollock.

Alt: Tell me how it is that this play is being produced in Buffalo, of all places.

Bryan: This is a cross-cultural collaboration... a play written by a Dublin man and directed by a Belfast man in an Irish theater in Buffalo in upstate New York with American actors.

Derek: It has a regional dynamism and an international flavor.

Alt: Bryan, how did you come to write this play, and, Derek, how did you come to direct it?

Bryan: I wrote the play when I was in France. I was doing a master’s in French literature. I sent it off to a bunch of theaters in Ireland, and I got a letter in the mail, saying that it had been selected as the winner of the International Playwriting Competition, organized by the Warehouse Theatre in London. The prize for that was that the play would get a staged reading at the Warehouse Theatre. That led to staged readings at the Old Vic, the SoHo Theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

I used each reading as an opportunity to polish and refine the script. I was living in New York for three to five months, and, while I was there, I decided that I would send the play out to theaters that did Irish work. I phoned the Irish Classical Theatre in Buffalo, and I spoke to Vincent O’Neill, the director. We had a chat about the play and I asked if he would mind if I would send it up. He phoned me back a week later, and he said, “We love the play, and we’d love to do it.” I said, “Great, I’m delighted,” and that’s how it all came about, really.

The play is set on an island, and I would say that it’s a grotesque tragic-comedy with a strong mythic element. It’s quite rich in language. I suppose that it’s really a fable, with Brechtian elements.

Derek: Vincent called me up, and he said, “Derek, we’ve just found this wonderful play by an exciting new author in the grand tradition of Irish playwrights. We’d like to do it. You should direct it.” After all of that buildup, I was a little bit wary, but, as we say in Belfast, I was gob smacked when I finished reading because it was indeed a very original work, a passionate and complex world.

In its own way, it’s a complete world that he’s managed to create here. What strikes you is the marvelous, rich, multi-layered language. There is a poetic creativity at work here. It’s a wonderful language-based play. The other thing that strikes you immediately is the characterization. Even in a few pages, he manages to create an instant definition for a series of often quite grotesque characters. He’s really drawn to the grotesque and enjoys creating some fascinating and bizarre people. He wraps all of this in a very interesting way. He creates an almost convention type of mystery or thriller.

We’re dealing with conventional issues of motive and identity that’s at the heart of the play. Who is the cobbler? Why has he come here? What is his impact on the island? How are other people’s lives affected by the arrival of this strange, haunted, and haunting figure? At the other end of the scale is this very rich myth that’s also being explored. Finding ways of pulling these two very disparate worlds together has been the creative journey for the actors and me, working as a collaboration with the playwright because we have him as a resource, working by our shoulder, day by day. We can sit down, when we run into a brick wall, and talk to him. What’s going on here? How do we get ourselves out of this one? It’s been a cutting-edge, moment by moment chiseling out of the work. It’s a very rich and interesting experience.

Bryan: This is the first thing that I’ve ever written. It’s my first play… my first piece of writing.

Derek: I’ve got to jump in here. This is why I was gob smacked. I could not believe that this was his first play. And I also couldn’t believe that he’d never written poetry before. That’s amazing to me because this language is so poetically charged. It’s an enormously rich, textured language.

Bryan: I suppose how I got started, when I was doing my master’s in French literature in the south of France… I suppose that, unconsciously, it was a staving off of taking the plunge to writing myself and creatively. I finished my master’s and planned to do a Ph.D. in French literature. I suppose that I was repelled by the aridness of the academic approach there. You had to take a scalpel to all of these wonderful plays and somehow manage to choke all of the life out of it. I realized that the academic route wasn’t for me. If I were really to engage in drama, which I’ve always loved since I was a child at any kind of significant level, I should try to write a play myself. So I wrote “The Cobbler” when I was over in France. Since then, I’ve been commissioned to write two other plays. At the moment, I’ve submitted two first drafts of plays. That’s the extent of my canon.

Alt: How long did it take you to write this play?

Bryan: It’s a difficult question to answer. I was doing my master’s and writing my thesis at the same time as I was lecturing at the university. I might get a week to work on the play and then I wouldn’t be able to get to it for three months. It was very piecemeal, which was extremely frustrating. In real time, if I could put all of the days together, it took approximately three to four months of writing. I did the writing over a year and a half.

Alt: What you say about the academic world is interesting. Everything is overanalyzed until all of the life is sucked out of it.

Bryan: Indeed, and you engage so much with dramatic structure and with the theatrical form by having a crack at it yourself. If I come into a difficulty with exposition, for example, I read Ibsen and I see how masterfully he handles it. If I were reading Ibsen without the experience of coming across these problems myself, I would be less appreciative of his mastery. But, since I have come across these problems myself, I can see how master playwrights have solved those problems. It gives you a much greater appreciation of the art.

Alt: What ideas for future writing projects do you have?

Bryan: I have written short stories and would like to write a picaresque comic novel, with a kind of Rabelaisian kick to it. At the first time, my first love is the theater. I feel like such a baby at this. I’m learning so much from this whole process as well. If I were able to make a living at writing plays, I would do that. It is so difficult to get a play put on, which is one of the reasons that I’m thrilled to be here. Derek is an extremely gifted director and some of the actors have said that he is the best director that they’ve ever worked with. We have a wonderful cast, and production values are so high here. The set design, costume design, all of them, are really done to a very high level. I see my magical world becoming incarnate on stage, which is, in itself, trippy and magical.

Derek: It’s a wonderful theater and a great experience for Bryan. He is never going to experience it quite like this again.

Bryan: It’s magical.

Alt: What types of literature appeals most to you?

Bryan: I’m very attracted to dark literature, although I’m not a dark person. I suppose, in a respect, even though I don’t consciously base characters on anyone I know… they are purely creatures of my imagination. I suppose they are aspects of myself, which is very frightening. I suppose one’s world view does inform the work, in some sense.

There is a grace and virtue in writing quickly and naturally and playfully. You’re telling yourself a story. Too much analysis about where the work is coming from inside oneself is probably detrimental to the process. One of the truly strange and trippy and delightful things is that it kind of reflects you back to you.

Derek: One of the many elements that drew me to the project is that there is a very strong condemnation of unfettered capitalism. There is a hopeful, trenchant analysis of the price that the artist pay… the price of artistic intent… in the artist trying to pursue his vision. I’m not sure that Bryan is conscious of it as he’s writing it. As a director, looking at the work, it’s one of the things that drew me to it.

Alt: Tell me more about what attracts you to the play and, as a director, how has this experience been for you?

Derek: One of the reasons why I have enjoyed my work at the Irish Classical Theatre is because of the mission and philosophy, where a combination of Irish material with strong classical branding… in other words, a theater that, to a large extent, is grounded in language. I love plays that have that flowery, rich component… and, of course, I’m deeply drawn to plays with a strong personal, political consciousness. The combination of these is what kept me working here and what drew me to Bryan’s play.

Alt: How has this process of watching the actors been for you?

Bryan: It’s extremely stimulating. I insisted, as many playwrights don’t, on attending all rehearsals. At this stage of my writing, I have so much to learn. You can’t really grow as a playwright until you have a very keen and well-developed consciousness. I’m hungry to know more about the actors’ process, how a director functions, how a play is brought together. It’s relentlessly fascinating to watch the choices the actors make, to watch how they explore their parts, and to watch how Derek sculpts all of this is really quite fascinating. His ear and his eye are acutely honed and his instincts are razor sharp. I love that kind of relentless vigor and imaginative energy.

This is not work for me. It’s absolute pleasure.

Alt: So it’s sort of like seeing your own vision becoming a world on the stage.

Bryan: From the playwright’s point of view, that is truly magical. What you’ve conjured in ether and put down on the page actually becomes alive in the form of men and women on the set, in costume, interacting with each other, physically moving around… a drop of life… in the same way you might watch two people sitting at a café table, having an argument… then, of course, have a collective consciousness… engage with that as an entity. That world will percolate into their consciousness… elements of the play into their own life’s experiences… that world will disappear at the end of the evening. It’s one of the truly unfathomable and extraordinary of experiences.

Alt: So tell me more about you. You said that playwriting is really pretty new to you. What things have you done before you got into playwriting?

Bryan: Well, I suppose I started off my life working as a salesman for a financial software company, to banks in French-speaking Africa. I was at the languages department in college. I did a lot of jobs to keep me going until I got the time and space to write… this is the first year that I’m able to make my living as a writer. I suppose that it has been a sort of windy road… from a career in business, which I loathed absolutely to my fingertips… I hated it… but you have to pay the bills in some way… I moved into teaching languages, French and English… I love teaching… but I am so happy to have the opportunity, however long it may last, to pursue the writing full time.

Alt: You are still teaching.

Bryan: No, I’m not at the moment.

Alt: You’re teaching workshops.

Bryan: My residency is that I am sort of a resource… so playwrights can come to meet me, show me drafts of their work… I’ll provide feedback on how they can overcome problems… I go into these little schools in the middle of the mountains in Ireland, maybe nineteen pupils, and I do playwriting workshops. It’s really wonderful, you know. You might find one child out of all of the people that you meet that it sets a spark in.

Alt: How does it feel for you when you see that one kid getting excited?

Bryan: I love it. Quite often, what you find is that it’s not always the most academic children who respond to this. It’s lovely to show to them that there are aspects of themselves. They are probably getting beaten over the head by their teachers and their parents for their poor results. If they come to your class and you can show them that they have an imagination, that they shouldn’t feel embarrassed. You just see them blossom…

Alt: So tell me more. Tell me about Africa. What do you like to read?

Bryan: Yes, I’ve had a relatively hedonistic decade, which was quite pleasant. Now, in my early thirties, I’ve discovered a work ethic.

Alt: So you’re trying to be grown up.

Bryan: Something like that. I love reading. I read very widely and very voraciously. In theater… I love European theater very much… I love the Russians… I love Gogol… Swiss playwrights… Brecht… Beckett… I love reading poetry… I love novels, Dostoyevsky being my favorite. So I’ve always read very widely and had a love of the word and the music to the ear of that, which is so completely and unutterably beautiful. And, in a sense, I’m blessed to be Irish because we’ve hammered English out on the anvil of the Irish language… very strange syntactical structure, and I relish all of that.

Alt: I love listening to all of that.

Bryan: Thank you.

Alt: So, tell me, Derek, about you. How did you become the director around here, and what motivates you as a director?

Derek: I suppose for me, from a fairly early age, I have felt the theater to be a calling. There is something sacred about what we do at its finest. I’m not saying that always happens but there is a sacred component in this. I believe that, as long as there will be civilization and man continues to ask questions about his relationship to his God, relationship to his fellow man, and his relationship to himself, there will always be a theater. Theater is at the cutting edge of the whole philosophical question, and the relevance of that dialogue, whether it’s personal dialogue or whether it’s political dialogue or public dialogue, goes to the heart of what we do. And very often, we become, almost by default, the voice of social and personal conscience in the public room. I really believe that’s our mission. I’ve always been drawn to it, feeling that deep… I love passion in the theater; I just adore it. That’s one of the things that comes across so strongly in this play… swirling, passionate energy. Those are the things that drive me and that nurture and feed me. It’s one of the reasons that, in a sense, is why I’ve ended up here. Many of the passions that I feel go back to the Irish-English conflict, in some ways.

Alt: Could you expand on that?

Derek: Well, I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to the lower middle class, somewhat bleak, mean streets of Belfast. My earliest social recollection at four years of age was being aware of where the Catholic families were in the neighborhood. We had a few, but only a few… and understanding that there was something inherently suspicious… I couldn’t cultivate the same kind of friendship with Catholic kids that I could enjoy with Protestant kids.

Alt: That’s really sad.

Derek: At four years of age. It goes on relentlessly.

Alt: You were so little.

Derek: Yes, yes, exactly. You imbibe it; it’s in the water. You reach a stage in a culture like that where you can actually look at somebody and tell whether they’re Catholic or Protestant. You look at the face. You get the sense of something, almost in the genes, that tells you whether they’re Catholic or Protestant. So you grow up in this… almost vicious society, indoctrinated, through the family, through the churches, with this deep-seated sense of consciousness of who you are and who the other is.

One of the reasons that I love the theater so much is because it was in the theater that I learned for the first time to see Catholics as real, charming, creative, delightful, entirely engaging human beings. It was in a theater company in Belfast that my first real identity crisis came out of that encounter. Then, of course, once you start questioning, your world starts to crumble. I lost my familial root. I lost my social identity, my religious affiliation… all within the space of three to four years as the result of encountering, in a theatrical frame, the people who had been represented as monsters. Of course, once that starts happening, your life changes forever. The theater was the instrument for that to come about, for better or for worse.

Alt: That would be a great play.

Derek: Well, it’s the story of my life.

Alt: So this has been a lifelong process for you.

Derek: Lifelong, yes. I’ve been at this for nearly fifty years now. Keep the light alive.

Bryan: And you’ll be around in another fifty!

Derek: The theater has been my life’s blood.

Alt: Have you always been a director or were you an actor as well?

Derek: I have been an actor, teacher, director. I’ve cycled through all of them.

Alt: I figured that you must have been an actor.

Derek: I still do that occasionally.

Bryan: That’s what makes him such a wonderful director, with a profound knowledge of the actor’s process, and the actors have said to me that one of the reasons they love working with Derek is that he allows them to create because he knows the process so intimately… actors are empowered to really go on a creative journey and are really pushed and challenged.

Bryan: We are the future of Ireland... the Orangeman and the Paddy. The Oranges and the Greens: Bryan Delaney’s play, The Cobbler, is scheduled to be presented at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, 625 Main Street, near the Market Arcade in downtown Buffalo, from March 4 through April 5, 2005. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinee at 3:00 p.m., and Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m. For reservations, call the box office at (716) 853-ICTC. For more information, check the ICTC’s website at http://www.irishclassicaltheatre.com/curtain_times.php

A Conversation with Playwright Bryan Delaney and Director Derek Campbell at Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company.

by Alice E. Gerard

On one of those rare sunny winter days, I went to the Irish Classical Theatre Company to talk to a playwright and a director about a new play that is to have its world premiere performance in Buffalo, New York.

Playwright Bryan Delaney and director Derek Campbell sat with me in the theater and talked to me about the play, the magic of the theater, the beauty of the English language, and about themselves. The stage was bare, and the lighting fixtures sat on the floor. In just a few weeks, designers would transform the naked theater into the island of Innisbollock.