The 10th anniversary limited edition publication of Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About is finally here. So excited to share it with you all. It will be on sale tonight at the event (tickets here). And we will soon announce details of how to buy it online (stay tuned!). It is a beautiful hand-set cover on high quality paper, with wonderful content bursting inside the covers, with new forewords from all three of us, a handful of never-before-seen photos, as well as brand new essays by our Director Sarah Brennan and Irish Times journalist Gemma Tipton. And the play itself is laid out in all it’s glory too of course. It’s a wonderful document of a spoken word play that set waves through the scene in Ireland, and had a profound impact on us all both professionally and personally. What a joy it is to bring a decade of art to life in this way. I’m a truly proud creative storyteller today!
For the past two weeks I have had the absolute pleasure and honour of being a judge for the Dublin Fringe Festival awards. Having written and performed two previous award-nominated Fringe shows (which I have spoke about on this website previously) and a longstanding fan of Irish theatre, I was super excited to see the festival from this angle.
The experience of engaging with so much great art (and some less than great art) over a two week period, and to truly immerse yourself in a festival and the curatorial vision, was a genuinely humbling, inspiring and inimitable experience. Also got to see the supportive, thoughtful, engaging team at Fringe Festival itself who really cared deeply about every single show, and saw it as their duty to make the experience as good as possible for audience and artists alike.
It was a really interesting group of 14 judges (including me) from really varied backgrounds like journalism, theatre, architecture, opera and more besides. (You can see the list of judges here) I knew a few of them cursorily beforehand but not well. They were a cool bunch of people across the board, and we all were soon neck-deep in a WhatsApp group firing tips about the best shows, horse trading tickets, and generally sharing what shows were clicking with us (and which ones weren’t)
It was a huge programme of 100+ shows, so I couldnt possibly have gone to everything. The way it worked was that every show required a minimum of 3 Fringe judges to see it , so the festival doled out 3 complimentary tickets to each show. My inner child leapt with joy when I learned that the codename for picking up the judge’s ticket at the box office was Marty McFly.
Over the fortnight of the festival I was lucky enough to see over 20 shows, from the genres of dance, comedy, theatre, acrobatics and others that defy categorisation. What I saw was a really varied, vibrant, eclectic mix of artists – a bit hit and miss at times, but overall I saw new ideas, and creative people trying to do something new. I also saw a few chancers who were trying to wedge their semi-finished show into the Fringe, which happens every year, and thats the luck of the draw.
The festival closed on the Sunday, culminating in the awards ceremony, which we were tasked with defining the nominees and winners for. So we gathered late Saturday afternoon upstairs in Fringe Lab in Temple Bar. And we started the process of sifting through the different categories, and starting to blurt out our nominees and nods for various shows that we had seen. Our chair of the judging panel, Meg, calmly and carefully captured these on slips of paper and affixed them to the mirror on the wall behind her. It soon became a collage of posters, flyers, post-its and papers scrawled with names of shows and actors. We then began to go systematically through each category, as we attemoted whittle down our blurted responses into something approaching longlists for each category. Then into shortlists. Then the final nominees. And a winner. Then on to the next category and through the same cycle again.
It was a fascinating process. Afternoon dragged on into evening. Pizzas arrived, and were consumed. On we debated, shuffled, made impassioned pleas for our favourites. I felt I had to make concessions on some categories like design for example, because I didnt know enough about it, and I actually hadn’t seen enough shows with good design to merit a nominations, so I had to blindly trust the other experts in the room and the shows they had put forward.
Evening dragged into night. A few shows were clearly coming up again and again, and it was clear they were going to be awarded something. The big categories like best show and best performer brought out spirited debate but were actually easier to pick than some of the other ones, as they seemed pretty clear to the majority of the group. It was interesting that for some categories it wasnt up to us, like the Writing award, which was judged by Fishamble – which made sense given that the prize of mentorship was awarded by them. Then there was the quirky, fun, catch-all category of Spirit of The Fringe for shows & events that defied categorisation, and it meant that something super out-there and Fringey could get recognised for the sheer brilliance and gumption of what they were setting out to do. All in all we picked nominees and winners of 12 different awards and I can happily say I would stand over all of them, even the ones I didnt get to see (because I trusted the impassioned and thoughtful cases made for these shows by the other judges). And the judging process made you long for Marty McFly capabilities to bend the space-time continuum to go back and see some of the shows that the others raved about, but you simply didnt have time to catch.
For what it’s worth my two favourite shows were very different, but equally brilliant pieces of writing – Oneday by Dick Walsh & James Moran, and For Saoirse by Colm Keegan. Oneday was a unique, inventive show that saw an actor, a drummer and one of the writers enact (and reenact) several news stories and tales from a single day – March 12 2012. There was hypnotic movement, highly comedic wordplay, breaking the 4th wall, and a whole host of other things too difficult to try to describe – but brought such a clever focus on the disposability of news cycles, and the way in which perception and bias come in such different forms depending on who is telling the story. I thought it was an absolute masterpiece of madness ( I know some of the other judges didnt dig it as much) and was unlike anything else I have ever seen. For Saoirse was a poetic one man show by Colm Keegan that had big mad bursts of magic realism, and swept through masculinity and history ( and what James Connolly’s ghost could do for you if you ever got your motorbike clamped). It was a gorgeous piece delivered simply and brilliantly.
Anyway, back to the actual judging itself. We locked down our official nominations and winners late into Saturday night. The Fringe team posted the nominees up on their website, and we went for a celebratory pint, and readied ourselves to reconvene the following evening to hand out the awards.
The awards ceremony was a rowdy, fun affair as you’d expect from the Fringe. Lots of bodies wedged into the back of a pub, craning their heads to hear if their name was called out as a winner. There were oohs and aahs, and the feeling was festive. For many new artists, the mere act of being nominated can be a huge boost to getting the show restaged (I know this to be true of my own shows) and for others it is a chance to share in a celebratory moment with the theatre community. The full list of winners can be found here
I was honoured to be asked to do it. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I loved the experience from end to end. It even sparked an idea for a show of my own. Maybe I’ll submit it to next year’s Fringe.
In 2011, myself, Colm Keegan and Stephen James Smith had an idea. Let’s write something together. We were all involved in the Dublin spoken word and independent arts scene, with each of us running our own nights The Glór Sessions (Stephen), Nighthawks (Colm) and The Brownbread Mixtape (me). We had become friends, and all had huge admiration for one another’s poetry (as well as being fans of the nights that we respectively ran), so, in retrospect it feels like there was an inevitability that we would join forces in some way. This is my version of the journey we took to create that collaborative piece of writing, that would end up becoming our award-nominated spoken word play Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About.
We chatted at length about possible ways to work together on a show of some kind, and I remember those early conversations were just us considering something simpler like a spoken word event, with each of us performing our poems. Essentially a gig by us, for us. Gradually that evolved into a more sophisticated idea of creating a collaborative piece with intertwining poetic monologues, but we still weren’t even clear what that meant.
So, we started to sketch out some initial ideas about what we wanted to tackle in our writing together. We knew that we wanted there to be some kind of link between them, but equally being able to retain our own voices and identities in the piece. So we met for a cup of tea in the Irish Film Institute and hastily sketched out a map of ideas and thoughts on a piece of paper around themes and paths to follow, as well as pondering the structure of the piece. Gradually it started to take shape and we loosely decided that we would write about the big milestones in our life, and how they had shaped us, in three interlinking poems each.
At some point soon afterwards, I think Stephen suggested we take a leap of faith and submit an application to the legendary Dublin Fringe Festival, in the hope that they would take an interest in our idea. While it seems strange to think it now, but the idea of a narrative-driven long-form spoken word poetry show was a relatively rare theatrical phenomenon on Irish stages at the time, so we felt we were proposing something fresh and interesting to the Fringe audience. And the Fringe festival happily agreed. The initial meeting between us and Roise Goan, Director of the Fringe Festival, was a great meeting of creative minds, and she would become one of our biggest supporters for this show well beyond the Fringe festival.
With the imminent deadline of the Fringe festival a few months away, and our own broad outline in place, we each went our separate ways and started writing different long-form poems about big moments in our respective lives. Then, on a weekly basis, we would convene at one of our homes to read out what we had written. It was a moment to air ideas and challenge each other. I remember those moments very well and very fondly (except for the times Colm’s insanely big dog would accost me), where we really pushed each other to rewrite and rework ideas. So often, one of us would read out an unflinching poem that would cause the others to pause for breath, and realise there was a need to dig even deeper and go even further. Those were huge learning periods for me as a writer, and as a critical reader of someone else’s work. All of us striving to make something excellent together.
Over time the poetic monologues began to form into the script as we now know it, with a relatively solid three part structure to each of our respective pieces. It became clear that much of what we were talking about was the idea of being a man. And fathers were a central spine to all of our stories, both our own fathers, as well as myself & Colm’s experiences as fathers too. The title for the show, which seems almost frivolous for a play that went to such deep and emotional territory, was something I said on a whim in that first meeting over a cup of tea in the IFI. But now it almost felt like a perfect disarming title for what was ultimately very lyrical explorations of tough topics like death, love, masculinity, loss, happiness, home, new beginnings…
With the poetic monologues coming together well, we still felt the piece was slightly incomplete, and knew there needed to be a shared piece of writing that bookended the piece. We were struggling to find the right tone and words, so we headed off for one final writing session in my old family home in Waterford. After a meal and a few cans we hit upon the idea of a series of declarative statements about what it means to be a man (that ultimately became the intro and outro to the show). “A man is proud of putting up a shelf“, “A man is two bad mistakes away from having nothing“. And I have very distinct memories of us being fascinated by a pastel drawing my father had done (fittingly of three figures) that hung above the mantelpiece, which almost certainly inspired my line from that section “A ghost in the family home”.
So, at this stage, we had a final script of sorts and we had secured the upstairs of The International Bar for our venue. It was time to embark on the rehearsals. I think we still naively believed we would be able to direct ourselves, and still saw this as something more like a series of poems to be delivered on a mic, versus it being an actual theatrical production so to speak. I recall us having the entire script laid out on the floor in chunks and reshuffling the sections to make them work more effectively in tandem with one another. We definitely had a few different variations until we settled on the final version, which made complete sense and clicked for us all once we performed it aloud. Nevertheless, despite figuring out the structure, it was clear we needed a directorial independent voice to help us bring it to life for the stage. Enter the mighty Sarah Brennan. Sarah was an established actor and director of many years standing, with a rich family history in the Irish acting world. So, we were absolutely delighted to have her on board, and it seemed fitting to have a singular female vision for this text that was written by three men.
It turned out to be one of the best things to happen to the show. Sarah helped us steer clear of maudlin moments and coaxed terrific performances out of all three of us, with both Stephen and Colm never having formally acted onstage prior to this. And my experience was not too extensive in fairness, limited mostly to the Brownbread Mixtape sketches, and, as a kid, a Tom Stoppard show for the theatre company Red Kettle (bizarrely, directed by Sarah’s uncle Paul Brennan!).
My friend and longtime collaborator in The Brownbread Players sketch troupe, Eva Bartley, also jumped on board to help us put together our set. The play was littered with references to photographs and images, so we gathered up several photos of our families and snaps of ourselves from our youth. Eva then deftly wove them together into these simple hanging mobiles of images, that ended up becoming integral to the show.
I still recall the nerves of opening night, not knowing if we would fill the 70 seats upstairs in the International Bar, or if the audience would respond to our deeply personal and lyrical stories. We needn’t have worried, it was sold out (and remained sold out for the remainder of the run) with incredibly moving standing ovations almost every night. Our initial eagerness to get offstage during those ovations, gave way to the fact that this was a unique thing for us all, and we learned to enjoy those moments that the audience gave us. And the critics responded too, with a stunning 4 star review in the Irish Times, which bowled us over.
The show went on to receive a Fringe Award nomination for the Little Gem category, where the winner would receive a monetary prize to restage the show for a week in the legendary Bewley’s Cafe Theatre. It was such a huge buzz to get nominated for our show, and we even dared to dream for a moment, but in the end we didn’t take home the prize. But it didn’t matter, because we had achieved something really special already.
And then all of a sudden the show was done, but there were still loads of people asking us if we would be staging it again, as they hadn’t been able to catch it in the original sold out run. So, we started to explore if that was a possibility and how one would go about doing that. Remember, none of us really knew anything about the world of theatre in Ireland. We reached out to Roise Goan, Director of the Fringe Festival, for advice. As serendipity would have it, she was just about to get in touch with us about a cool new venture Fringe was doing with the legendary Project Arts Centre called Turnaround.
The idea behind Turnaround was to showcase 5 shows from all previous Fringe Festivals that they believed were deserving of another look, and were worthy of being staged on a professional stage. We were one of those shows! We were bowled over by the request and were happy to dive in headlong into the process. And so in April of 2012, with tremendous support teams, we ran the show for three more sold out nights in the Cube theatre space in the Project. It was a really special experience, and far from being over, Turnaround led us to the next part of the Three Men Talking adventure.
On the back of both successful runs of the show, we were lucky enough to partner up with the brilliant producer Jen Coppinger, who helped us take the show on the road to even more audiences. What followed was almost a year of Irish shows around the country (sometimes with a post-show Q&A), including an emotional return to Garter Lane Theatre in my home town of Waterford. I had worked in that very theatre with both my father and mother, and many of the audience were writers, actors and friends who knew them (and me), so it was a unique moment I’ll treasure.
The tour of the show even took us abroad to wonderful rooms (and more sold out shows) at the Centre Culturel d’Irlandais in Paris, the London Irish Centre in London, and the Arnolfini Centre in Bristol (where we had the first sparks of an idea for LINGO festival – but more on that at a later date). We even printed a limited edition run of the script to sell as merch on tour, and that sold out too!
Audiences responded deeply and strongly to it everywhere we went, with each of our specific stories often ringing a bell very pointedly with people. Because of the confessional nature of our stories, audience members were often keen afterwards to share their own tale of losing a loved one with me, or indeed their stories of family that echoed those of Colm or Stephen. The show really meant something to people and that was deeply gratifying.
I seem to recall we did one “last ever final never-performing-it-again” show a couple of times, but after a poetic journey of almost three years, the show had reached a natural conclusion. Our lives had changed quite a lot since the original writing of it, with relationships altered, new children in our lives, and much more besides – so it was time to move on to new creative projects.
It was an incredible journey all told (I didn’t even cover everything here, including an American theatre company asking to stage it Stateside), and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say it was one of the great artistic experiences of my life. But more significantly I formed two great friendships with Stephen and Colm, and we are all still good friends to this day. That is the most remarkable thing of all really. In a strange way, even through we were acquaintances before it started, we really didn’t know each other that well until we embarked upon the writing of the show. But we were honest and vulnerable, and in sharing those stories of our lives, we created a piece of art that brought us together for a period of time. And as a result we got the chance to share a slice of our lives together travelling & performing with the show.
We’ve talked about doing another show together. We even went so far as to do a writing session together, but nothing major came from that. Maybe we weren’t ready yet. Maybe in a few years when the show is ten years old, we could do a sequel… Three Men Still Talking.