Rough Magic at 40: ‘We started out as left-wing young idealists. That need to react to the world is very strong’

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Theatre company, now more than 100 productions into its creative life, still holds firm to artistic outlook it adopted back in 1984

In the beginning was the Superser.

Lynne Parker, artistic director and cofounder of Rough Magic Theatre Company, is remembering the first year or two of making plays in a draughty building in Temple Bar. “Draughty” as in it would still be some years before the regeneration of this part of Dublin, and it had already been some years since this building, in particular, had all of its windowpanes – or a fully intact roof.

Plays were blocked – actors positioned, scenes configured – around the clattery box of the portable butane heater that brought us the 1980s in Ireland; in this way the Rough Magic Superser helped to shepherd into being productions like Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle; and an adaptation of The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins; as well as the Irish premieres of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls; Harold Pinter’s Betrayal; and Steven Berkoff’s Decadence. New Irish plays, including Digging for Fire and I Can’t Get Started, by Parker’s fellow founder Declan Hughes, would soon follow, and in the mix also in those early years were stagings of Jacobean and Restoration drama. It was from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that the company took its name.

Whether or not Prospero kept his promise, Rough Magic has kept going. The company’s four decades thus far, says Parker, have spanned “quite an interesting part of Irish social history”, which is putting it mildly.


Having started out scrappy, with seven recent college graduates who were looking for a way to keep doing what they had been doing either in Dublin University Players or UCD DramSoc, the company has grown in practice and professionalism to become one of the leading producers of theatre in Ireland.

There have been well over 100 Rough Magic productions since those days in Temple Lane, and what is perhaps more striking than the sheer output is the fact that so much of the initial philosophy has remained intact: that blend of contemporary international drama, inspired adaptation, new swipes at the classics, and original commissions from playwrights and composers.

Parker describes it as having always been a “plural vision” but stresses that one very practical decision, early on, made as big a difference as all of the creativity and youthful energy combined. This was the decision of another founder, Siobhán Bourke, to be the company producer almost from the get-go, leaving her colleagues in the ensemble – Parker and Hughes, along with Anne Byrne, Helene Montague, Arthur Riordan and Stanley Townsend – to devise, adapt, rehearse and create the emerging oeuvre.

“That was essential,” Parker says. “Because so many companies falter on the producing side, with that infrastructure that a producer can supply instead being kind of half-supplied by the artists. But Declan [Hughes] and I were free to make the best work we possibly could, because we knew that somebody else was dealing with the Arts Council and with finding a space to rehearse, and with looking at the overview of the company as to where we could go next, forming a relationship with the old Project [Arts Centre] and all of that.”

Mornings in the Rough Magic offices on Parliament Street begin with a meeting between Parker and her staff – including general manager Gemma Reeves and producer Sara Cregan – to talk out a plan. “What are we doing today?” says Parker. “Why are we doing it? Does what we’re doing chime with what we think we’re doing?”

In the rehearsal room, meanwhile, the director Parker – as opposed to, or perhaps in partnership with, the company director Parker – takes, she says, a “circling” approach to a play. She likes to go back and run the whole script as often as possible, no matter what given scene might be the work of the moment. “So that you see the whole picture, and you see what needs fixing, and you never get stuck on one bit,” she says.

Seeds, Rough Magic’s mentorship programme for emerging theatremakers, came about in 2001 through what sounds like a similar process: looking for the gaps in the overall picture, and finding a way to plug them. Though Parker prefers to use words like “replenish” or “restock” when she talks about opening the company’s spaces and resources to new artists, as has been done again, more recently, through the Compass commissioning and partnership facility, which has given rise to work that includes last year’s The Loved Ones, by Erica Murray, and Hilary Fannin’s upcoming Maxim Gorky adaptation Children of the Sun.

It has been the donation of an individual benefactor, Seán Páircéir, in addition to Arts Council funding, which has made Compass possible, and Parker is frank about the need for philanthropy of this nature to become a more habitual aspect of funding in Ireland.

“It’s lovely to find that somebody just says, ‘No, go off and do what you do,’” she says. “Trust the artists is what I would say, loud and clear, to the Government, the Arts Council and anybody else. And trust the companies. I think the dismantling of so many companies has left an incredible gap, in the sector and in the infrastructure, for employment and creativity and career building. And that’s been a big loss.”

For all the strategic vision, though, there is still a scrappy energy to what Rough Magic does. “We started out as left-wing young idealists,” says Parker. “And if anything, I’ve become more left wing as I’ve got older. That need to react to the world is very strong. In fact, I think it’s stronger, even, than it was at the beginning.”

They will keep turning up the heat.

Rough magicians: Four artists on what makes the company different

Declan Hughes

Cofounder, playwright, director, actor

“Culturally, we were the generation who grew up with the television on. With the culture of England and America making more sense to us than the Irish tradition. And so we did a lot of English and American plays.

“Student drama was a significant thing back then, so, going into it, we probably had ideas above our station that permitted us to believe that we could and should be able to do this. But also Irish theatre at the time was very sort of tradition-bound, and there was none of this thing of getting the young people in. It was more, do the same dozen Irish classic repertory plays over and over, with usually the same actors playing the same parts they had played 20 years beforehand.

“So we were, I think, healthily disrespectful of all of that, and with the usual young person’s attitude of: ‘That’s not how you do it. We’re going to show you how you do it.’

“I mean, we started out at this as gutter snipes, and we’ve ended up as an institution – but for those first few years we were a bit of a cult, you know, in that it was just the core, always having first refusal on parts, nobody from outside. But Lynne and I made a decision: we’re going to open it up, to cast whoever we like.

“One of Lynne’s great skills has always been a sense of what other people are capable of, and of moulding them and pushing them towards that. She has a great eye for who can do a thing. And for whose talent goes in which direction. Because you can’t do it all on your own, you know.”

Zia Bergin-Holly

Set and lighting designer

“I guess Rough Magic were always one of the named companies that everyone knew. But there was also this knowledge that if you invited Lynne to your graduate theatre show when you were in college, that she’d come, that this wasn’t a wild fantasy. That the company was aware that a lot of the industry was coming up through the drama societies.

“Through that I became aware of the Seeds programme. I didn’t get it the first time I applied for it. But I applied again, and I joined it in 2012. In 2011 I’d seen Rough Magic’s production of Peer Gynt [by Ibsen, in a new musical version by Arthur Riordan], and it was unlike a lot of Irish theatre in that it was so large-scale. I was drawn to Seeds partly because I wanted to do big shows, where the design was a big part of the storytelling.

“Seeds introduced you to other artists at your level. It gave you a space in Rough Magic to work out of, so you had a city centre kind of shared workspace. So you had a place to go, and you were meeting and bumping into other theatremakers, and you were part of this collective of people who were all working on productions together. So you could ask people for help, or get ideas, or borrow equipment.

“You had placements, an Irish one and an international one – I did my international placement with English National Opera. And there were research trips to other productions, and you were seeing a lot of work. You were, essentially, under the umbrella of magic. You had the Rough Magic stamp of approval. So people were interested in meeting you, and that was a huge career lift.

Solar Bones [in 2020, based on the Mike McCormack novel] was obviously a very challenging show in that it happened during lockdown. But even the initial zoom meeting with Lynne, and [the actor] Stanley Townsend and [the playwright/adapter] Michael West, was one of those meetings where you could tell, this is going to be big, and this is going to be great. Because it was a project that I knew would have the right timeline of development, and would have space to breathe and grow and change as it needed, and that was really exciting as well.

“Rough Magic is one of the few companies where I’ve had those opportunities of, ‘We’re going to be working on this for six months’ – or for a year or even two years, like we’ve had. We’ve had back-and-forth conversations and plans, and one idea has gone in the bin and then another. And drafts and iterations, and I guess the thing with Rough Magic is, they’re my theatre family, you know? It’s the place where I have been allowed to grow, and fail, and explore, and experiment.”

Ronan Phelan

Director and former associate director

“I think of them arriving on the scene in the early 1980s, Rough Magic, and I imagine them thinking, ‘oh, this is a bit like Blackadder. Let’s do this’. Just arriving and saying, ‘oh, we’re an international theatre company. We see ourselves in the work of artists across the English-speaking theatre world’. And in doing so really recontextualised, I think, how theatre companies envisaged themselves as Irish.

When I was in Seeds I was part of a highly ambitious group who really pushed, and Rough Magic really let us push, ourselves and them, in terms of the scale we wanted to achieve for our showcase production. I did Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, for my showcase. Which … thank God I didn’t know any better, because thinking about it now, I’d say that’s the stupidest idea ever. Do a two-hander really well. But no. A 14-person musical – musical! – upstairs in the Project.

“Because as an artist working at Rough Magic, the thing that you can’t believe is that they trust artists. That’s the main thing that I’m realising now, what a cool gambler Lynne is. Because loads of other people make you feel the risk. That they’re betting on you.

“But Lynne’s story has been one of yield. Of flexibility, of plasticity, of the company’s ability to remain anchored in its inherent sense of itself while at the same time attentive to the ebbs and flows of society as it was happening around them without ever wanting to sacrifice entertainment for worthiness.

“My own work is less ego-driven as a result of my ability to attend the company at work over nearly 10 years. Early in my career, directing felt like a process of exposure. That I was exposing myself to assessments and to evaluation. And that’s a particular way in which, you know, you are in competition, or you are in battle against a future hypothetical individual who is not necessarily hostile but not necessarily well disposed. But that is not the buzz of Rough Magic. So the director who walked into the rehearsal room for [Erica Murray’s] The Loved Ones last year was very aware: it’s not about me. It’s about the work.”

Simone Kirby


“I used to see Rough Magic shows, and I used to see Lynne flying around town on her bike, and I always wanted to work with her. I thought they were quite a grown-up company and that Lynne was quite a serious person. You know. You’d see her on the bike. And you’d think, she’s serious! So I was quite nervous when I first met her, because I wasn’t sure if she’d get me.

“But when I auditioned for The Taming of the Shrew [in 2005], Lynne offered me the part of Bianca [the ingénue younger sister to the “shrew”], and she just gave me free rein. If I could make Lynne laugh with what I was doing with the character in the rehearsal room, it stayed in. Which is how I basically ended up playing Bianca completely pissed by the end of her wedding, a bit of a nightmare, snogging pretty much every guy on the stage. Lynne and I honed in on this line, ‘See how beastly she doth court him!’ and I thought, ‘Beastly’, and we ended up turning her into a bit of an animal.

“It was a big cast, and I think Lynne got a kick out of that too; I think such a big cast was new for her. I just remember laughing all the time. Laughter in the rehearsal room, it encourages creativity. And it means there are no bad decisions. Everyone can throw something in, and try something, and it feels supported and encouraged.

“Then the following year we came back and did Don Carlos [by Friedrich Schiller, in a version by Mike Poulton], and that was a much more serious show, but Lynne still brought back in all of the comedians. That show was a huge success; I think that was kind of a golden time. And I think Lynne would have liked to have created a kind of ensemble like Garry [Hynes] has done at Druid, but that was a really difficult thing to do, because even though it was a time of all these young up-and-coming actors, everyone was going in different directions, and to film and TV as well. But for those couple of years we had this great group of people.

“A lot of people aren’t necessarily open to newcomers when they’ve already established themselves firmly, but Lynne is the opposite. She loves meeting new people and discovering new actors and talent, and she’s very open, and the room is very open, you know. Even as a younger actor coming into the room, you’re not ignored. Your ideas are just as valid as everyone else’s.

“And then years later, when I did Cleft with Rough Magic [in 2019], well, that was my first time back to theatre after my son was born, when I had to take a break from theatre and just do film and television … and I don’t think the experience would have been the same with anyone else. Lynne was directing, and she was constantly trying to draw out the mischief from me, as well as the darkness. So the nervousness of going back to theatre was kind of gone because it was her.”

Rough Magic Theatre Company is marking its 40th anniversary with a series of events on Friday, February 9th, and Saturday, February 10th, including a live edition of the RTÉ Radio 1 arts show Arena, at Project Arts Centre and the Irish Film Institute, in Dublin