Last night’s 10th anniversary event for Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About was a really special occasion. It was wonderful to share the stage with Colm Keegan Poet and Writer and Stephen James Smith once again, and reflect on the art we made, as well as the friendship we have forged. All because of poetry. Thanks to everyone who came, and thanks for all of the well wishes from those who couldn’t be there. Art is truly the great connector in this universe.
Even though a storm is literally raging outside the window, and a pandemic continues to keep its grip on the country, our show will be going ahead tonight, and we will be adhering strictly to COVID guidelines. The Axis Ballymun staff will be very thoughtful and mindful of everyone’s experience, and it promises to be a truly special night. It is so rare that we get to reflect publicly on a piece of art or creativity a decade later like this, and we can’t wait to do some readings from the show, premiere our new audio production of the play, as well as launch the 10th anniversary limited edition book. It has all the elements for being a rare night. I look forward to seeing many of you there and sharing in this milestone. Most of all I’m looking forward to being onstage with Stephen and Colm again, and having a few laughs as we meander down memory lane. Admission is FREE, but you must book tickets – there are still a handful left here
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 over a decade I hosted and curated a live monthly variety show called The Brown Bread Mixtape, and it took place upstairs in the legendary Stag’s Head pub here in Dublin. Those eclectic, electric nights in that old Victorian room were some of the most fun and creatively exciting times I’ve had.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently stumbled across a digital treasure trove of recordings from the shows and I put together a handful of mixtapes from the shows that captures some of the best moments. This volume is centred around spoken word poetry, which is a deep passion and love of mine, and the mixtape features some of the finest practitioners of the art form on this little island of Ireland from the past decade. Storytellers, lyricists, polemicists and rhymers, whose wonderful words will wash over you. The featured poets are John Cummins, Erin Fornoff, Colm Keegan, Raven (RIP), Catherina Behan and Stephen James Smith
Many moons ago, when I was gigging more frequently and reciting poems and performing sketches, I was lucky enough to be part of a regular night called the Monthly General Meeting, which was a showcase for the most inventive and willdy wonderful creative minds in Ireland. On one of the particular shows, I was on the bill with soon-to-be global musical phenomenon Hozier, as well as Arthur Mathews, the co-writer of Father Ted (possibly the greatest sitcom ever). I recall the gig itself was in the unusual and interesting surroundings of a newly refurbished Georgian building in Merrion Square (it has since become an office building of some sort) For a while Shane (Diet of Worms) and Nial (delorentos) who ran the night, produced a terrific series of podcasts entitled The Weekly General Meeting focused on creativity, and I featured on the debut episode. Take a listen to the episode and I urge you to listen to the entire back catalogue, every one of them a snapshot of a golden age in Irish creativity, amiably hosted and curated by two great artists.
More oddball New York-era paintings of mine from the start of the millennium that I found in the attic. I think I was trying to say something profound about words (palate) and painted visuals (palette).
This is the truth of being a writer. Writing is rewriting.
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.
Hate writing, love rewriting.
This quote has always resonated deeply with me. As with so many writers, I much prefer rewriting over the act of writing. That first draft of something can be such a tough thing to create, but I love coming back to it and starting to chop away and reshape it into something. Editing is such an artform and if you have trusted friends and fellow artists who you can bounce ideas off in that editing phase, then that is an absolute gift. When it comes to writing, listen carefully to what they say and feel about it. But always keep Neil Gaiman’s words in your mind. If you are hearing regular comments or feedback about a specific section, then clearly there is something going on there that is not connecting with the audience. But only you will have the perfect solution for the thing you are creating. At least that has been my experience.
As a sidenote, many of my friends had been recommending Neil Gaiman to me for ages, and last year I finally took the plunge and read Neverwhere in a few days. I loved his ease with rich details and sharply drawn characters in that quirky fantastical version of London. It was a world I was quickly able to immerse myself in. I found out afterwards it had been written originally as a TV series by Gaiman along with my childhood comedy hero Lenny Henry, so it seemed like the universe was bringing me into a world where many of my heroes congregated in the same corner. I love it when things like that happen.