Interview: Irene Kelleher on Mary & Me

Mary and Me tells the story of Hannah, a 15 year old girl who dies giving birth in a grotto in 1980s Ireland, having faced the prejudices of her watchful village while trying to navigate through pregnancy and school life. Writer and sole performer of the stand-out show Irene Kelleher speaks with Box Five to talk about the inspiration behind her first play, the casting frustrations faced by female performers and the journey Mary and Me faces after its incredibly successful run at the 2017 Brighton Fringe. See what Kelleher had to say below.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your first play, Mary and Me, and what the writing process was like.

The inspiration behind my first play came from a story I heard in English class when I was in secondary school. I first heard of Ann Lovett when I was 15 years old myself when our English teacher told us the tragic story. Ann Lovett was 15 years when she died giving birth at a grotto in Granard, Co. Longford, Ireland in 1984. The story had a lasting effect on me and haunted me ever since. In late 2015 (31 years after her death) I made the decision to write a short play as a response to the story. The more I researched into the topic, the more I felt that Ireland has not changed as much as people may think it has in the last 30 years. I am now convinced it hasn’t changed much at all. Although Mary and Me is set in 1986, it is still hugely relevant to Irish life today. Thirty three years after Ann Lovett’s death, women in Ireland still do not have autonomy over their own bodies. There is still much shaming of women and with details of hidden tragedies still emerging the past is very much present in Irish society and will be for some time in the future.

Although Mary and Me is inspired by this true story I have changed names, places, businesses and the characters mentioned are not based on real people, living or dead. The play follows the life of the young woman, Hannah, in the months before she gives birth, the everyday happenings in her life; her maths tests, art projects and relationships with boys and family. She shares these events in with the statue of Mary and in the company of Mary Magdalene in the local village grotto. The play then is an imagining of a young woman’s search for understanding in conversation with a statue of the virgin Mary. It is an original and unique imagining of the girl at the centre of a tragic event that shocked the nation. Although the subject matter is dark there is also a lot of shade, lightness and colour as we get to know the character and her relationship with the two Marys grows over time.

I began writing the play in late 2015 and I finished the first draft within two months. What took time was re-drafting and editing. The play has been in development since January 2016. The play has been workshopped in the TDC, Cork on three occasions- (February 2016/ June 2016/ November 2016) After each performance (where I showed 30minutes- 50 minutes of the play) there was a Q&A session in which the audience was invited to give feedback. Feedback was considered and incorporated into each stage of development. I found from the three showings of the Work-in-Progress last year that the play particularly resonated with young women, teenagers and the younger generations. They said in the Q&A that they were very much able to relate to the main character. The Cork Rape Crisis centre and Repeal Eight have both helped in the workshop stage and have been very encouraging.

As a writer and a performer, do you find the two crafts influence each other?

I think that being a performer has hugely influenced my writing for theatre. I have always loved writing and studied English alongside of Drama and Theatre in University, but my passion always veered towards performing. It wasn’t until 2012 that I wrote my first ever script (with the exception of smaller ones for theatre college exercises). I wrote a short comic scene with the sole intention of having something comic for my showreel. The scene was about an actress who comes to an audition and decides to do her audition inside a cardboard box to “get across the character’s sense of entrapment’’, much to the frustration and bemusement of the director and casting director. I only intended it to be a small piece for my showreel but the film crew were so happy with it they encouraged me to turn it into a short film. It was extended to 11minutes and I titled it Outside the Box; we submitted it to the Fastnet Short Film Competition where it won Best Irish Short Film. This gave me encouragement but I didn’t think about writing for theatre as I was busy with performances and I found the idea of writing script for theatre very daunting. However, I became so frustrated with the casting briefs coming through each week. The male roles were all well defined by personality traits and detailed elements of their background whereas the female roles were defined by looks and extremely two dimensional and usually defined only in relation to the male role (‘The girlfriend of’…’wife of…’ /daughter of…’ etc.)

Nearly all of the smaller roles for large scale TV shows required the actress being comfortable with full or at least partial nudity and most of these scenes involved playing a victim of abuse. I was tired of it and angry with the industry and felt like I was losing control over what I had wanted to do with my career, which was to play interesting and well-defined characters. That was what made me decide to write a play myself, a way of taking some of that control back and creating a female character that is not solely defined by her relationship to men or ‘a perfect victim’, but a fully realised, flawed and most of all, truthful character. My performance skills are also helpful when writing the play as I could hear the words and always said things aloud when writing them down. The play has gone through about 12/13 drafts at this stage and probably will go through some more in the next year.

How has your experience been performing with the Brighton Fringe?

I love the Brighton Fringe. I was lucky enough to bring another show that I was producing, Mrs Shakespeare by Ian Wild to the Brighton Fringe in 2015. The play was really well received and it helped us to tour the play for over a year after Brighton. I had no hesitation in bringing my first play Mary and Me to the Fringe. It is an extremely well-run festival and we were made feel very welcome and well looked after where we performed in Studio 2 at the Warren. It was great to get to meet so many other performers and writers in Brighton and see their work. I was extremely nervous as it was the very first time performing the play (we just had one preview at home in Ireland to a small invited audience). I had no idea how the play would be received. I worried that it might be too ‘Irish’ and that the Catholic/Irish references would be lost. I began to panic when I was flyering for the play over there as SIX people stopped me to ask “What is a grotto?” Ireland is covered with these! I was sure that someone was going to stand up in the middle of a performance and say “You’re not a writer!!” and leave! I had filled my head with all sorts of horrible scenarios. To my surprise and utter delight, the play was really well received. We got an instant standing ovation each night and the play got two five star reviews and was nominated for a Bobby Award. It turned out that as I had hoped, people found the central themes of loneliness and the inability to talk about problems universal and relatable. I only wish we did more than three nights! We are bringing the production to the Edinburgh Fringe and performing for the full run of the festival (three weeks) and the great reviews from Brighton will hopefully go onto help the sell of the show in Edinburgh and beyond.

Finally, if you have any, tell us about any future projects you might have coming.

The plan is to tour with Mary and Me after the Edinburgh Fringe so hopefully I will be busy with that for a while. However I do have two ideas for new projects. The first is a full length comedy two-hander male and female set in the 1950s about an unusual and perhaps deadly romance! The second, and this is something I have long wanted to do, is an adaption of Jane Eyre for five performers. These are in the pipeline hopefully, but I get inspiration from all different places so it may be something entirely different!

Mary and Me will be at Edinburgh Fringe from the 5th to the 27th of August, 2017.

You can read the original 5-star Broadway Baby review of Mary and Me here.

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