For anyone new to my website, I just wanted to holler about the recent publication of our award-nominated spoken word play, Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About. A decade ago we staged this show at the Dublin Fringe and subsequently toured it around Europe to huge critical acclaim. It was one of the most fulfilling and important artistic experiences of my life, and you can read more about the genesis and creation of the show here.
As for the book itself, we put incredible thought and care into creating something that was a unique work of art in-and-of-itself, with a cover produced on a letterpress printing press, on high quality handmade paper, which gives it a really unique look and feel. Inside the pages we have lots of gold too, with new forewords from myself and the other authors, archival photos, and essays from our Director, Sarah Brennan, as well as Irish Times journalist Gemma Tipton.
After many years of honing my craft as a sketch writer and performer at The Brownbread Mixtape, I pieced together the body of work into a full-length play. After an initial sold out run at the 2016 Dublin Fringe festival, we reassembled as a cast and did a weeklong run at the legendary Project Arts Centre in 2017. The show was a parody of those “week in review” type shows where the host looks back at the best bits on the radio station from that week, which gave us a lovely framing device to switch between sketches and have a central through line with the self-absorbed host Sneachta Ni Mhurchu. Eva Bartley did a masterful job in the lead role with her dizzy, brilliant characterisation. Myself, Gus McDonagh and Sean McDonagh played all of the other parts (upwards of 80 characters) in the original run, and then when we moved to the Project Theatre unfortunately Sean had to drop out due to issues with his vocal cords, so Gus and I rejigged it slightly and took on all of the additional roles. It was such a delight to switch and flit between the weird and wonderful variety of characters, from lofty pompous Government figureheads (The Minister for Mackerel and Knitwear) to acclaimed film director Werner Herzog, with many more besides. In between we sprinkled ridiculous fake commercials for ludicrous products like Guinness Sport and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s BBQ sauce. Accompanying the entire endeavour were world class musicians Orla McDonagh (piano) and Ailbhe McDonagh (cello) who provided original jingles, ambient soundtracks and so much more. Our good friend John Morton (critically acclaimed writer of the Dead Still tv series) offered thoughtful and vital direction to the piece. Overall, it was one of the most enjoyable and funniest things I have ever worked on, and the audience responded in kind with a sold out performance every single night. I will post up the recording at some point, although it doesn’t do true justice to the show. For now, I’ll let you savour the brilliant sets of posters and promotional images designed by Lorenzo Tonti and photographed by my wife Jessica at the RTE Radio studios.
In 2013 I was asked by commissioning editor Dave Lordan to write a piece for a publication entitled New Planet Cabaret which was a cool, interesting anthology book published by New Island Press. Here’s how they described it on the book jacket:
In December 2012, New Island and RTÉ Radio One’s Arena launched the first on-air creative writing course. The course took place on the first week of each month until June 2013. Writer and creative writing teacher Dave Lordan led the course, each month offering a new writing prompt to listeners who would submit material based using that prompt as inspiration. This book contains the best of those submissions. To accompany them, Arena specially commissioned pieces by a host of emerging Irish writing talent producing a completely novel and enjoyable anthology that presents the best of up-and-coming Irish writing talent.
My piece was a cross between a surrealist story and stageplay, featuring two recurring characters (Freddie and Jam-Jam) from my writings down the years. They had begun as Friedrich Nietzsche and James Joyce as children on a quest in a mythological Icelandic world, and gradually evolved into these oddball variations of that idea.
In the end I think this piece was quite successful, and I do like the playful feel of it, and the way it jumps in and out of traditional forms, as well as how it comments on the written form itself. For the launch of the book, RTE Radio (our national broadcaster) did a live show from the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin and I performed an excerpt of the piece live on air with my friend Brian, which was really fun and very warmly received. I think this is one of those pieces that definitely pops more when read aloud, and I have very fond memories of the performance (far more than the lengthy process of writing it)
Freddie and Jam-Jam head to Outguard
A short, wooden gangway extends out onto a lake. Freddie and Jam-Jam sit at the end, feet dangling, staring into the middle distance. A rowing boat, tied to a pole beside them, thuds rhythmically against the gangway.
FREDDIE: Right, I’m about to push off. JAM-JAM: Where? FREDDIE: Outguard. JAM-JAM: What’s the story with it? FREDDIE: It’s that giant new cabaret place. JAM-JAM: Oh deadly. We should probably get a load of cans! FREDDIE: No. It’s not that kind of place. JAM-JAM: Well what kind of place is it so? FREDDIE: I believe it is being described as a new narrative arena. JAM-JAM: Sounds like bollocks, let’s definitely get cans. FREDDIE: We are not bringing cans. JAM-JAM: Alright man. Whatever. Let’s push off.
The boat slices swiftly across the surface of the lake. Freddie and Jam-Jam are seated facing each other. A plastic bag full of cans sits between them. The moonlight gently illuminates their faces as they speak.
JAM-JAM: I was wondering if I could switch to another story? FREDDIE: What? JAM-JAM: This story is kinda pretentious. I was wondering if you’d mind if I went to a different one? JAM-JAM: This story is kinda pretentious. I was wondering if you’d mind if I went to a different one? FREDDIE: You mean leave the story we are in right now? JAM-JAM: Yeah. It’s a bit shit. FREDDIE: What? That’s not fair. It’s half yours. JAM-JAM: I suppose, but I’m not mad about it. FREDDIE: Why? JAM-JAM: To be honest, I’m not really sure what it’s trying to say. FREDDIE: So what! And even if you could go, where would you go? JAM-JAM: I’d say a Hemingway novel would be good craic. All that bravado and bulls. And balls! FREDDIE: But those novels are already written JAM-JAM: So? FREDDIE: So, you can’t go there, there is no room for you in the story. JAM-JAM: Says who? FREDDIE: Says Hemingway. JAM-JAM: Fine. I’ll head off to a nice warm foreign book. Maybe something Middle Eastern. FREDDIE: What about Outguard? I thought you wanted to come. JAM-JAM: Yeah, I was thinking a bit more about that. Can you maybe jump ahead a few pages and see what it’s like, then let me know? FREDDIE: Really? JAM-JAM: Yeah. Just have a sneaky little peek and see if I should bother my hole. FREDDIE: (sighs) Very well. JAM-JAM: Savage. I’ll be here, just text me or whatever. FREDDIE: Wait a minute. This is stupid. I don’t even know what you want me to find out for you. JAM-JAM: Ah sure, the usual. See if there are any good-looking women, bit of intrigue, sparse dialogue, hint of danger. That kind of thing. FREDDIE: (wearily) I see. Alright. See you in a moment then. JAM-JAM: (engrossed in his phone) Ok dude
Freddie steps out of the boat onto the shore. The coarse, damp sand crunches beneath his feet. He walks into the forest. In an instant, maybe longer, he reappears. He motions at Jam-Jam to come with him.
JAM-JAM: What’s this, man? FREDDIE: This is Outguard. JAM-JAM: Ah here, this is bullshit; you’re after tricking me. FREDDIE: What do you mean? JAM-JAM: This is just the same old story. FREDDIE: Maybe so, but can you not just enjoy it for what it is? JAM-JAM: No chance! I’m actually pissed off. You have me doing this heavy-handed dialogue now. This party’s definitely over. I’m heading back FREDDIE: Go. You won’t find what you want. JAM-JAM: How would you know man? We’re not even on the same page!
A breeze blows stiffly across the lake. Freddie and Jam-Jam sit at the end of the wooden gangway in silence.
JAM-JAM: Here, I’m sorry about earlier on, you know, over there. FREDDIE: Forget about it. No harm done. JAM-JAM: It was out of order all the same. C’mere though, what was the story with your man at the cabaret? FREDDIE: Some character wasn’t he? JAM-JAM: Definitely.
The wind picks up and waves start to splash against the base of the gangway. The boat begins to thud loudly as it strikes the gangway with force. Freddie and Jam-Jam pull their coats tighter around their frames.
FREDDIE: What do you think? JAM-JAM: About what? FREDDIE: Stories. JAM-JAM: I dunno man. FREDDIE: I always feel like I am missing something. JAM-JAM: Story of my life. FREDDIE: Yeah.
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.