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Where do you get your ideas from?

This is a classic question that often gets directed at creative people like you and me. And there really isn’t a satisfying answer for it. At least, not a definitive, simple explanation that the person asking will be happy with. For me, it’s about allowing space for little connections or sparks to happen in my brain. Often a good idea will come to me when I am thinking about nothing at all – sometimes when I’m on a walk, or in the shower, or simply staring into space and daydreaming. One pattern I have noticed with myself is when I am beginning to really zero in on a particular project that excites me (most recently this was a comedy play I am writing). Often I will then spot something in the everyday, or a cool concept/thought enters my consciousness, and I instinctively try to connect it to the work I am currently focused on.

So, what could have been a random idea that simply makes me smile or intrigues me and ordinarily gets jotted down in a notebook and filed away, now instead seeks out connective tissue to the project I am working on. I see possibilities for how it could be woven into that project. In the case of the play, I recently had an idea for a cool way of displaying visuals on a screen on a stage, and I quickly realised that this could be something that might work for the play I’m finishing up.

If I was to step back and analyse this a bit more closely, it starts to become a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. In my subconscious there are things rumbling, and I was possibly inspired to think about theatrical staging because I was working on a play. Or its equally possible that this idea was sparked by something else I observed and I was able to draw a connection to the play, and to then find a way to fit it in creatively to the piece.

More broadly though, I think the more you allow yourself to simply daydream and give a project time to breathe & formulate, the more you find that these flights of fancy come to you and, by extension, are something that you can start attaching to your current project like little lego ideas.

Deadlines can be a great forcing function sometimes, but I personally run into trouble when I am pushing myself to write something very specific and am demanding my brain to cook up inventive ideas that simply aren’t accessible. It can be done of course. And I have done it for many projects. But generally I find that you end up going back to cliches, standard tropes and things you’ve done before. If I have the luxury of time, the more I allow myself to not demand a creative idea, but rather give myself leeway to let it take shape in my head before committing it to a page, the better and more interesting it can be,

Everyone has a different process, and many creative people like prompts to spark new ideas, and others simply let the muse take them. As for me, my ideas come from everywhere, usually where there is space to not overthink.

Vaccination!

Ireland has been through a pretty awful stretch of lockdown and restrictions, with a slow roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine, so I was surprised and thrilled to get my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine today. If you are in a location where it is available, please do the right thing for the community and get vaccinated. The sooner we reach immunity, the sooner we can bring back live arts – an industry where so many have been struggling during this unprecedented time.

Big Night – A tale of culinary creativity

Many moons ago, my dad and I watched a beautiful film called Big Night, which has this remarkable food dish called Timpano as it’s centrepiece. Essentially a massive multi-layered baked pasta drum. We were so taken with it, we tried to make it together one night back then with my friend Jakob, and it was moderately successful. But the experience of making it has stuck with me ever since.

So I had wanted to make it again for decades and this birthday felt like the perfect moment to bring beloved family and friends together to make it , and share in this experience. Myself, Jim, Doug and David spent hours laughing and cooking, as we created exquisite bubbling sauces and ragus, boiled eggs, grilled meats, rolled “polpette” meatballs, sliced salami, made and rolled out huge sheets of pasta dough. We made several feasts that would have fed a large percentage of Ireland. And then we layered all those myriad of feasts into not one, but three Timpanos — one veggie and two meaty.

Into the oven they went, and once baked, there was still an element of doubt that they would come out of the dish in one piece, and when slicing into it, if it retains it’s structural integrity, and comes out in a solid perfect layered slice. As you can see from the photos and videos below, they came out absolutely perfect – a moment of true joy.

Then it was time to taste. I can tell you, they were absolutely delicious. All of them. And on top of that the joy of sharing them with friends old and new over a glass of wine was the real treat.

We then chatted and sang songs till deep in the night. All seated around the gorgeous tables so artfully decorated with care by my brilliant wife, Jessica. She brings people together and draws the best out of them, and today was no different

Inevitably my mind drifted to those who could not be with us and the fire they carried into my life. I thought of my mother who was the same age as I am today when she passed away. She would have loved this , especially the meatball Timpano. I thought of my father who would have been in his element in the kitchen and spinning jazz records on the turntable. He would have loved this, especially the veggie Timpano.

It was a great day. A perfect day. Fun, family, friends. And fabulous food. Most of all, it was an experience I will treasure forever.

Today, I will definitely be eating lots of leftovers and as evening falls, we are going to stick on Big Night and watch it with the kids. They have to carry the fire now and I’m counting on them to make Timpano with me in a couple of years too.

every day I have the blues

It would have been my father’s 77th birthday today. He is gone almost 10 years now. I wrote this piece after BB King passed away and it is as much about my dad as it is about him.


When I was a kid we listened to a lot of music in my house. My dad had a vast record collection and introduced me to countless great artists from the world of jazz and blues. BB King was one of those. I can still picture the yellow gatefold double vinyl with BB King on the cover, caught in the spotlight, sweat on his brow, wearing a full suit, eyes closed in enchantment as he played Lucille, his beloved guitar. I still remember the first time the needle hit the groove on that record. Energy. Emotion. Everything.

“Every day I have the blues”

As the years went by my music tastes broadened, narrowed and changed. I remember the strange joy of hearing BB King appear on an album by my beloved U2. Two favourite worlds colliding in real harmony. My friends shrugging their shoulders at it. Me knowing it was the height of cool.

“As the music played I saw my life turn around 
That was the day before love came to town”

But the reason BB King always sits in my heart is because of what his music meant to my dad. Whenever we had a big gathering or party at our home, you knew how good it was going to be based on the records he picked out to play. For the really special, really rare out-of-this-world parties, he would put on BB King to close the party. That was the sign that everything was really cooking and there was only one way to close out the night. No one follows BB King. No one.

“Oh I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well”

DUBLIN FRINGE FESTIVAL JUDGING

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 Рa 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.