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Irish Rep Comes Home

Cofounder and producing director Ciarán O'Reilly reflects on the off-Broadway company's journey to a new theater.

Irish Repertory Theatre founders Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O'Reilly sit in the company's newly renovated space on West 22nd Street.
(© Carol Rosegg)

One day in 2008 we received a letter. It was from the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and it said they thought so highly of Irish Rep and our mission that they were willing to fund a major renovation. There was much rejoicing in our community. The Irish know how to rejoice.

Over the next several years, architects were selected (including the innovative James Garrison), designs were approved, contractors were chosen, and the wheels of bureaucracy churned their way toward the starting date. It came in September 2014.

We moved out of our home where we had strutted our stuff for almost 20 years. Renovations were to begin in earnest. We journeyed east to the home of Daryl Roth in her smaller theater, the DR2. Daryl was a gracious host, and we flew our flag for nine productions over 20 months, but every day we felt we were orphans. We moved our offices to Park Avenue across the hall from the Irish Consulate. We rehearsed our shows at the wonderful ART/NY studios and with our pals at the Atlantic Theatre. We were made welcome with these great people there, but we pined for the home place.

Every morning at 8am during our two years of exile I visited the theater. It was a desolate space. The stage and seats were gone, walls were demolished, steel was exposed and it seems there were only rumors of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Meetings were held in our barren studio theater beneath glaring temporary lighting that contained no pink gels. City officials from the Department of Design and Construction spoke in hushed tones of permits and change orders, LEED certifications, and mobilization.

Every day felt like Groundhog Day. I could hear Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe!"

Matthew Broderick and Billy Carter star in the first production to be staged in the new Irish Repertory Theatre: Conor McPherson's Shining City, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly.
(© Carol Rosegg)

But then things began to take hold and a shape returned. The sizzling light of welding steel lit the walls to the percussive sound of the carpenter's hammer. There was an onward thrust and we began to think of what show we were working toward. What would open our doors?

My partner Charlotte Moore and I began tossing ideas back and forth. It took many tries before we hit on a play that seemed to speak to displacement and the primal desire to find roots.

Conor McPherson's Shining City has four characters — all of them out of their homes and longing for peace. We've had some success with Conor's work in the past (The Weir and Port Authority), and he is considered one of Ireland's greatest scribes. It seemed right and fitting.

We sent a script to the great Matthew Broderick. He read and saw the merit and said yes. There was much rejoicing in our community. Billy Carter, Lisa Dwan, and James Russell jumped into the fray and the play was announced.

We began rehearsals offsite on April 18. There were no seats in the theater, no stage, no carpets on the floors; the box office was a shambles and wires hung from the ceiling.

But here's what happened: We installed a poster outside the theater that said previews begin on May 17. It had a galvanizing effect on the construction crew. They came down with a disease known as "the show must go on syndrome." (It's a common ailment among theater folk.) Carpenters, painters, plumbers, and electricians rose to the moment and the sound of "There's No Business Like Show Business" wafted through the air.

Or maybe not. Maybe what we heard was "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

On May 17, the curtain went up. We are not entirely finished. By September our Studio theater will be complete and the official ribbon will be cut.

Our thanks to the city that never sleeps and all our pals for making it happen.

The set of Shining City and the brand-new interior of Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)