This story begins like a lot of stories about local theatre begin: With a trip abroad. In 2012, I was 21 years old. I was traveling abroad in Ireland on the most stereotypical “finding myself” trip possible. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do as a confused writer, go back to where your family was from to see if it point to who the feck you are?
By day, I worked at a content marketing agency with various clients but most of all One Big One That We Couldn’t Tick Off. By night, I was attending screenings at the local movie house and trying to find any Irish friends willing to hang out with an introvert who hated the taste of Guinness.
I was there as an Irish-American, wanting to learn more about the culture my ancestors had brought over into the United States.
I was there to go to Downpatrick. For the uninitiated, Downpatrick is a small town in County Down, Northern Ireland. It’s known for being the final resting place of Saint Patrick, it’s charming bars and being one of the few Irish towns with no sheep (as far as I could tell). This was the town one branch of my family had fled in the early 1700s to escape religious persecution. Or, if they had been Catholic, to avoid the forthcoming drama.
Hiking the town was peaceful enough. The locals were friendly. But they were all still a little loathe to open up to the foreign girl with unnaturally short hair. I was a visiting American keen on learning about the vibe of the place. I would have been creeped out too.
At the last second, I bought a ticket to a traveling production of Melmoth the Wanderer, a play I had never heard of. At this point I was despondent. I had wasted an entire day making small talk in a bar and getting stared at by old ladies. What was there to learn about this region? Who would open up to me?
Melmoth was just the remedy I needed. An experimental take on an ancient story, this production was thoroughly insane and thoroughly Irish. The story of a man cursed (or blessed?) with eternal life, told through a Greek-style chorus with ulterior motives, this production used the little space of a theatre in a small town in Northern Ireland to tell a captivating tale. The performances were outstanding. But beyond that, they felt real. They felt like real people who worked as actors coming together to tell us a story from their hearts. This was it. This was what I had been searching for.
Big Telly, the group directly responsible for the production I saw, makes a direct point of surprising people through theatre. This is a quality I haven’t seen in a lot of local theatre, especially in America. Not to disparage American works—it’s just an aspect of the Northern Irish character that I would have never picked up on had I not seen a theatrical performance. The theatre of this country, under the rule of one country while it’s brother to the south lives independently, is rude and jarring. Art is incredibly important because it provides a path for the future. There is no forgetting it.
Conversely, attending a play in small town Oregon (my hometown) feels vastly different. Taking people to see plays in my non-ancestral home leads to a much different impression. They’re more likely to say, “That main character had a crazy look in his eye” or “I expected this to be a hot play, but everyone seemed really restrained.” It’s true. Watching a play in a former logging town, where chaos reigns when it comes to housing and no one’s sure where they’ll be living next year… some of that’s bound to come through. And nothing in the tourism pamphlets will tell you about it.
I didn’t end up making any Downpatrick friends, unless you count the sultry goth teenager I bonded with at the bus stop (and I do). But I walked away with a sense of the authentic soul of the place. I shouldn’t have expected to find it, but some god of theatre had seen fit to indulge my request. I saw Downpatrick. I saw Northern Ireland. Theatre is shorthand for what’s really going on in any region, and should be a part of any trip. The smaller the town, the more telling the show will be about it. Stage makeup can’t cover enthusiasm to tell a story or a crazy look in your eye.