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.
Such a great reminder to not be bound by rules and traditional forms. Play with it. Beyond Godard, modern cinema has so many great examples of it – like Memento by Christopher Nolan, Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino or Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa – and contemporary television shows like True Detective and Westworld thrive on non-linear storylines.
One more from my sketchbooks at the turn of the millennium. This may have been an idea I was toying with as a fake ad campaign for our arty, satirical website artlick.com, or perhaps it was just a little gag for my own amusement. Either way, something about the simplicity and silliness of it still really appeals to me. In this day and age of craft beers, it almost feels like something that could happen.
Another one from my sketchbooks around the year 2001 or 2002. This one was drawn during a pretty politically charged and sensitive time in America, and I had just lived through the September 11th terrorist attacks, so was undoubtedly influenced by that. But at the same time it feels kind of jokey and irreverent, which also seems to fit. I remember having a notion of doing a series of these with different body parts and culminating in a full lifesize outline of a person.
I went through a phase of sketching and drawing quite a lot from around 2000 to 2003. Painting and drawing were never a creative pursuit I considered myself particularly adept at, which actually meant it felt very freeing to simply doodle and paint without any consideration of an audience or indeed expectation. I have very fond memories of this time and the drawing above feels representative of some of the earliest stuff I was drawing.
Hate writing, love rewriting.
One great creative way to stimulate ideas and spark new writing is this classic technique of cutting out different words and phrases from newspapers and magazines. Then arranging them, and glueing them, into fresh sentences on the page. For whatever reason, they always seem to get to the heart of things and tap into my mind in a really unique way. They end up becoming these really beautiful, random pieces of art too.
The Dublin based artist Vicky Knysh recently released this short film about creativity, where she interviewed different creatives from varying disciplines here in Ireland. A lovely little snapshot of the creative process and what makes artists tick. I also recommend checking out her website Minushka, which features some of her gorgeous illustrations and artwork.
So much of the creative process is about crafting a good story that resonates and reverberates with your audience. The art of storytelling is something we have been raised with since we were kids – almost every one of us had someone who read to us at night before we went to sleep – and when it is done well, there is nothing quite as spellbinding. And that sits deep within us.
The quote above is from Ira Glass, host of the highly regarded podcast and National Public Radio show This American Life, which chronicles stories large and small from all walks of life. Of the many radio shows and podcasts out there, This American Life is perhaps among the greatest at weaving a tale that draws you in. Ira’s quote really sticks with me, because the simplicity of what he is saying is also absolutely true.
And I think it applies not just to writing, but can equally be applied to other creative forms where the narrative is placed at the heart of it, and draws the audience in, and takes them on that train.
The quote actually comes from a longer extended interview with Ira Glass ,where he goes deeper on the art of good storytelling, and I strongly recommend listening to it below. It’s full of nuggets on storytelling and the creative process.
As I mentioned before, back in the late 90s when I lived in New York, myself and my dear friends Dave, Jenn and I were intrigued by the burgeoning playground of the Internet. We were creative and wanted to do something online with that energy, so we built a site called artlick.com (no longer active alas) and it became home to our many creative flights of fancy and whimsy. I recently came across the content again and I was so happy to see how inventive some of it was, and equally how naive other stuff was.
I wonder if Facebook and Twitter had existed the way they do now, if the site would have garnered a following of some sort. Instead it became an online portfolio of jokes, animations, artwork and whimsy, that now resides only in the Internet Archive online.
This particular project is a personal favourite that stemmed from our obsession with the classic action film Point Break, where we imagined a series of increasingly ludicrous sequels to the Keanu Reeves & Patrick Swayze classic movie (leaning heavily on our theory that all faltering sequel series ultimately have to end in space!).
Dave’s creative graphic design skills and zeal conjured up these gorgeous posters, billboards, internet ads and soundtrack album covers that are really fun, but still hold a certain reverence for the source material. From what I recall we sought out several open source photos from NASA and government websites. Back then, the internet was a little bit harder to navigate, but I remember the joy of finding these beautiful images and knowing that we could use them as we wished.
The more I stare at these images, I really wish these sequels had been made rather than the recent shoddy remake. And in some parallel universe, perhaps they have been.
At one point I even think myself and Dave started writing a spec script for a Point Break sequel that began 10 years after the conclusion of the original movie. The idea was something to do with Keanu Reeves’ character Johnny Utah going to a skydiving school in Utah. And Swayze showed up there in some guise, very much alive.
But now that Swayze is no longer with us, that movie will never materialise alas. Also, the fact that we never wrote more than the first 12 minutes of the movie, will also make it difficult for the film to ever be made.
I still reckon the original Point Break is a stone cold classic, and I have a lot of fondness for it. For that reason these creations feel both nostalgic and silly at the same time. Let me now what you think of them.
“Surfing’s the source, can change your life!”