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Gate Theatre director Róisín McBrinn: ‘A big part of what I’m trying to do is ensure as many voices as possible are given space and power’

After the success of Fun Home, the head of the Dublin venue is staging the Irish premiere of Circle Mirror Transformation

Twenty-two years ago there was an intriguing event at the Gate Theatre. Amid the Dublin venue’s familiar programme of revived classics, literary adaptations and premieres by Irish playwrights, there was an opportunity to see a buzzy new play by an exciting voice from New York.

Neil LaBute had a reputation for darkly comic, extreme dramas, and his latest play, The Shape of Things, was receiving an Irish production just a year after its world premiere. It starred a young Cillian Murphy as an insecure college student who is exploited by an artist who makes him the subject of her work. One of the things that stands out in people’s minds is the fresh image of the Gate stage resembling a bold, stylish art gallery populated by young Americans.

“I remember there was a big, white box of a set, and being inspired by the provocation of it,” says Róisín McBrinn, the venue’s artistic director, who saw that 2002 production.

In this second year of her leadership, she seems to be bringing the theatre around to a similar format. Back then it staged two of LaBute’s dramas in as many years. Now, after bringing Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s magnificent musical Fun Home to the Gate, McBrinn is preparing the Irish premiere of Circle Mirror Transformation, the breakout play by the Pulitzer-winning dramatist Annie Baker.


Much of McBrinn’s work has looked in the opposite direction, over the Irish Sea towards Britain, where she lived for nearly 20 years. The striking Before the Rain, produced by the Sherman Theatre, in Wales, was a stark depiction of neglect in working-class Cardiff. Experiences within the English prison system featured in admirable works such as Typical Girls, Favour, and Dixon and Daughter, produced by the ground-breaking London company Clean Break, where McBrinn worked for eight years.

Before all that she seemed to have the United States on her mind. On a college exchange to California studying Latin-American theatre, she came across José Rivera, whose plays are swirling and dreamlike: Giants Have Us in Their Books sends Caribbean fairy tales roaming through modern-day New York; the drama References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot shows a couple’s marital difficulties melt into an absurd fantasy featuring lusty desert animals. McBrinn staged both of them early in her career. “There was a magic realism at the heart of a lot of his work,” she says. “I remember being interested formally in what that meant.”

Her first production after moving to London was the American drama Gompers, Adam Rapp’s depiction of a struggling, postindustrial town. I point out that while she was trying to find an audience for a new play, the Gate Theatre was reviving The Price, Arthur Miller’s instant classic from 1968. She refuses to be drawn into judging which of them is the nobler or riskier venture. “I don’t necessarily see ‘contemporary’ and ‘established’ as a foil to each other. Here, I’m really interested in what is the contemporary take on Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer or on Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape? Where does that live, and what does that mean? Why are we doing it now, and what are the interpretations that explode these brilliant plays?”

It had been important, for example, for her to bring The Price back last year, and for audiences to have a chance to see it before Fun Home opened. “There’s room for a lot of different voices here, and a big part of what I’m trying to do is ensure that as many as possible are given that space and, ultimately, that power, whether it’s about more female protagonists or a lesbian lead or a formal experiment with music. But, also, it’s about honouring where a lot of this has come from, whether it’s about the Greeks or Miller, to really try to move the thing forward. That’s what they were trying to do, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir,” she says.

Edwards and MacLiammóir, as a circular once put it of the Gate’s founders, wanted to introduce people to “new and progressive plays”. McBrinn is wary of audiences being made to sound regressive or in need of modernisation. “I don’t think that’s it. It’s the challenge of us asking how are we international, and what does that mean?”

Few might have expected the Gate to stage the Irish premiere of Fun Home, a musical adaptation of the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel in which the lesbian cartoonist chronicles her childhood and searches for the best way to remember a withholding, closeted father in 1970s small-town America. When had the Gate ever told a story like that?

Working with an immaculately selected cast, McBrinn managed to give the sweet-sounding musical an appropriate ire, as if railing against a wider society of shame. “At the heart of that show,” she says, “was the offer of something so sincere in terms of theatre – when it’s so intentionally trying to reach out and increase empathy while also entertain. I was really proud of it.”

She was particularly happy with the moment when Bechdel revisits a car ride with her father, on the final night she saw him alive. The sight of them seated beside each other, him too steeped in the shame of forbidden love to see the common ground that their queerness might provide, prompted tears in the audience.

While some would have been familiar with Bechdel because of her graphic novels (which inspired the pop-cultural metric of the “Bechdel test”), Baker has a lower profile in Ireland. Not that the theatre community hasn’t done its part in spreading the word – McBrinn says that in meetings with artists, the playwright’s name kept coming up.

After Circle Mirror Transformation premiered, in 2009, Baker’s precisely intimate approach to playwriting could have been pushed to the margins by louder offerings from peers such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Young Jean Lee. Instead, Helen Shaw, who is now the New Yorker’s theatre critic, put it, “She has rescued realism from the trash heap of the uncool”.

In the play, which is set in New England, a group of five people attend a weekly “creative drama” class in a community centre. They’re taught by an optimistic, impulsive woman (played by Niamh Cusack) whose overly agreeable husband (Risteárd Cooper) is taking the class. The others include an actor who has retreated from disappointment of working in New York (Imogen Doel), a divorcee struggling with his emotions (Marty Rea) and a teenager seeking escape from an unhappy household (Hazel Doupe) – “Are we going to be doing any real acting?” she asks at one point.

Anyone who’s done a speech-and-drama class will nod knowingly as the characters play “explosion tag” or the “circle mirror transformation” game. The extraordinary achievement of Baker’s drama is that as the participants tell the stories of their lives, their small-scale interpretations feel uncannily epic, revealing cracks in relationships or affirming new bonds, and potentially changing people’s lives. “The economy is amazing,” says McBrinn.

The director was attracted to the play because it articulates drama’s unique opportunity for us to process who we are. “It’s definitely only theatre that does it,” she says. To magnify Baker’s profound attention to detail, McBrinn is staging her production in a new, traverse configuration, with audiences seated nearer to the action.

She doesn’t underestimate the bravery of Baker’s characters in making a trip in hope. “Opening yourself up to others and risk is part of what she’s celebrating. In this environment they’re all strangers, they’re all different ages. The courage to turn up is big.” Which also sounds like something bigger when it comes from a director finding audiences for a play they’re unacquainted with: take a chance; maybe it could transform your life.

Circle Mirror Transformation is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, from Wednesday May 29th to Sunday June 30th, with previews from Friday May 24th