A few weeks ago, my friend Gary Dunne, who curates an incredible artistic slate for the London Irish Centre asked me to contribute a poem to their online season. Gary and the staff of the LIC do incredible work for the Irish community in London and they have been very good to me down the years – they hosted the London premiere of Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About, and I have also showcased sketches with The Brownbread Players there too. It’s always a warm, giving audience that finds a connection through a shared tribe in a generous welcoming environment. So I was honoured to be asked, and frankly, I was happy to have a creative project to focus on in the rare moments I had to myself during this uncertain time.
The theme was HOPE which really spoke to me, and the image of a paper cup delicately dancing on a wave is one that has been with me for decades, but never found a proper home in a piece of writing. As soon as I sat down to write the poem I knew that this was where it had been drifting towards all along. It came together relatively quickly (thank goodness because time is a rare commodity these days) and it allowed me to marry it to a piece of music I wrote many moons ago that had also never found a creative home (unsurprisingly, the music was also written around the same time the image of the cup first washed into my brain). I also knew that the focus should be on the words but have a strong simple visual to guide it, so I went down to the sea by my home to film the waves but they just weren’t right. I resigned myself to using what I had and then serendipitously my friend Jim posted a short video that day on Facebook of the Irish Sea, that connects this island of Ireland to the UK, and I simply knew that it was the perfect accompaniment. Jim graciously allowed me to use it, and I lent my rudimentary video editing skills to piece it together. The end result feels ever so slightly imperfect but absolutely right, and I am immensely proud of it.
I hope it resonates with all of you, and I would be grateful if you shared it onwards with anyone in need of a message of hope right now.
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.