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PLAYWRIGHTS ON PLAYWRITING

Irishman Enda Walsh doesn't let words get in the way

His 'Walworth Farce' opens Wednesday at UCLA Live, and 'New Electric Ballroom' comes to Westwood in December.

November 08, 2009|James C. Taylor

NEW YORK — For a writer, Enda Walsh has surprisingly little faith in words.

The 42-year old Irish dramatist's plays "The Walworth Farce" and "The New Electric Ballroom" have earned rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. But he insists that "words sort of get in the way sometimes."

When challenged on this issue, Walsh points to an experience he had in Italy: "I had a play called 'Bedbound' that I directed in Italian before I directed it in English." Walsh adds that he doesn't speak Italian -- nor did the cast speak any English.

"I had a translator for three days, but then I got rid of her because I didn't need her," he says, "I knew the play, they knew the play, and it was about finding the rhythm of it. We all knew the scenes, and I knew emotionally what they were trying to get at. It was a very funny experience."

"The Walworth Farce" opens Wednesday at UCLA Live, and "The New Electric Ballroom" comes to Westwood in December. The Dublin-born playwright -- called "the most explosively brilliant of modern Irish stage poets" by the Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh last year -- spoke about his work near New York's Union Square, where he is staying during the U.S. premiere of "The New Electric Ballroom" at St. Ann's Warehouse,

It is clear that Walsh isn't diminishing the importance of words, but rather making a point: that theater can be much more than just people talking. "In these two plays," Walsh says, "the lines are only about 25 to 30% of the piece." The remaining 75%, he feels, is what the actors and director bring out of the material on stage.

This speaks to Walsh's belief that theater is written onstage, not just in a writer's head -- a belief that emerged during his years in Cork, Ireland. Walsh wound up there at age 23 after finding the Dublin theater scene small and insular. He heard of a new theater company in Cork, named Corcadorca, and went there, quickly joining it. .

"We were living on Guinness and crisps. We were in poverty, but that was the whole deal. We just really wanted to make theater, so we used to make new theater every week," Walsh recalls. "There was a core group of eight or 10 of us. I was the designated writer on the basis that I liked spending time by myself more than the others."

Walsh looks back fondly at this time -- but admits that most of the theater they created was awful: "I used to get in front of the audience at the end of our performances and go, 'OK, that was a terrible, terrible piece of theater you just had to watch. But why was it terrible?' I was very up-front and brave about it. I figured, I don't know anything about theater, and I need to actually learn about it -- and what better way to learn about it than asking the audience why it's not working for them."

This process eventually led to the creation of a play titled "Disco Pigs," a bleak two-hander about the fragile bonds of teenage friendship, which became a hit in Edinburgh and toured Europe. (It didn't travel to the States, though a 2001 film version staring Cillian Murphy -- who was in the original stage production -- is available on DVD). After "Disco Pigs," his collaboration with Corcadorca had run its course. Walsh then moved to London and got married to magazine editor Jo Ellison.

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Immigrant play

It was at this time that Walsh was mulling ideas that would become "The Walworth Farce," a dark play about an Irish father who brings his sons to London and forces them to perform the family's history as a play each day in the living room of their tiny flat. Part of the inspiration for "The Walworth Farce" was Walsh's reaction to one popular genre of Irish theater: the immigrant play. "They're so many of these plays, and they're all set in pubs, with Irish builders in England and they're all sitting around getting drunk and thinking about home and stuff like that. Dreadful, mawkish, sort of romantic mythologizing things," Walsh rants, "It's like Martin McDonough without the . . . gags."

Another element in the creation of "The Walworth Farce" was more personal: "When 'Disco Pigs' was in the West End. . . . I was getting the beginnings of obsessive compulsive disorder." Walsh found that he started organizing his schedule so that everything would happen each day at the same time.

"I would leave my flat and walk down the road at exactly 9:15 and each day I would look into a house and see this father and mother and a son always standing in the same position," Walsh says.

"I could see there was Irish stuff on the wall, that they were an Irish family. But I was fascinated that they were always there. . . . They were always doing the same thing, I was doing the same thing, and the world continued and had seconds in it and minutes and hours, and everything had some sort of pattern to it. That moment -- seeing them -- really, really influenced 'The Walworth Farce' in terms of characters who need to exist in a very structured way."

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