As part of The Women's Voices Theater Festival, The Keegan Theatre is presenting a repertory schedule of plays by two Irish playwrights - Rosemary Jenkinson's The Dealer of Ballynafeigh and Ursula Rani Sarma's The Magic Tree. Writer Hannah Hessel Ratner caught up with Jenkinson to get the inside story of her longdistance - and longterm - relationship with the Keegan team.
The Women’s Voices Theater Festival will leave the Washington area saturated in new work from women from all over the world. We have been especially lucky to hear from local writers who we know will continue to make an impact on the community, while many outside writers have certainly made new fans and built lasting relationships. One of these “outside” writers is an Irish playwright whose work has been a staple at The Keegan Theatre since 2010.
Rosemary Jenkinson describes her relationship with Keegan as long-distance, “which people say rarely works but in our case it does!” Her entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is The Dealer of Ballynafeigh. Situated in south Belfast, Ballynafeigh is what Jenkinson calls “a small Protestant Loyalist enclave.” She visits every summer and the experience of being in that “wild rocket-ride of a place” is that it “fires up [her] imagination.” In addition to the unique language found there, it shows a different side of Ireland: “While the official line is that we have peace in Northern Ireland, the irony is that there are still many small paramilitary groups in existence. The Dealer came out of a desire to put their world on stage.”
Embracing the mission of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Jenkinson hopes that audiences and artists start to see beyond the frequently produced work of Irish men. “You would think only the men in Ireland wrote!,” she says. “You would also think that Martin McDonagh trademarked stage violence because the critics always make it sound like Irish theatre began with him and that us female writers are all imitators of him, which is absolute rubbish.” She is grateful for the opportunity that the Festival provides, not just to premiere a new work but to be “given a platform where we can talk about these issues.” The collective nature of the festival is where Jenkinson sees its greatest power. “Individually, if you were to raise such points, you could be accused of sour grapes,” she says, “but collectively we can push for change.”
Luckily, at The Keegan Theatre new works by women are not just programmed to fill a festival slot. The Dealer is Jenkinson’s fifth play for the company in a relationship that started when the company reached out to her. “They approached me,” Jenkinson points out, “first which shows how keen they are to discover new voices.”
After years of collaborating with Keegan, a profound level of trust has developed. Thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Jenkinson was able to come to Washington for four nights, to see the show (and to have a reading of her short stories with Solas Nua, a company dedicated to representing the Irish arts in the United States). Without regular access to rehearsals, Jenkinson relies on the artists to communicate online with any script-related questions. Seeing the finished product becomes especially exciting. “The actors are American and not Belfast natives,” Jenkinson explains, “and the aesthetic is American, so watching your production is always going to be fascinating and hugely different from one at home.”