Six theater companies came together this season to create the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival, which featured eight contemporary plays from the Emerald Isle. Brat Productions is joining the fray with a series of staged readings at Fergie’s Pub and calling the series Brat’s Craic* Fringes The Irish Theatre Festival (this week, May 9 thru May 16, 1214 Sansom Street ). Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority’s Christopher Munden talked to Brat’s artistic co-director Madi Distefano about these bar tales, playwright Conor McPherson, and her company.
Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: Did you see any plays in the Irish Theatre Festival?
Madi Distefano: I saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Did you see that? It was really fun. We have several of the actors from it [in the Craic]. We have the director Matt Pfieffer in Lime Street Bower. The Lime Street Bower was his very first show in Philadelphia. And Brat was the first company to hire him as a director. Now he’s a leading director in Philadelphia.
PPAA: I like the idea of the festival needing a fringe show. It’s like the Live Arts Festival, which wouldn’t be what it is without the Philly Fringe. What inspired you to “fringe the Irish Theatre Festival”?
MD: Lee Ann Etzold and I were asked to be artistic directors of Brat on very short notice after the former artistic director left and we wanted to do something to round out the rest of our season and I thought of doing this at Fergies and sort of reminding people of where we’ve been and what kind of work we’d like to do and it’s something that’s relatively easy. These will be script-in-hand readings. In our 2001 and 2002 McPherson Festivals the plays had a month of rehearsals and a month-long run in repertory. This year’s run is inexpensive and quick to produce. Because it was so last minute we weren’t officially part of the Irish Theatre Festival, but I thought it would be funny to say we were fringing it with our Irish bar tales. It was really just being silly; we obviously haven’t really created a fringe festival around the Irish Theatre Festival, which is just a one-time thing anyway, as I understand it.
PPAA: What do you like about producing works at alternative theater spaces like Fergie’s?
MD: The first thing we produced at Fergie’s was Conor McPherson’s Rum and Vodka with Bill Zilienski. I saw a production in New York and I read it and I thought, “God, this shouldn’t be in a black box theater, it should be in a bar—it’s a bar tale. People should be sitting around with a beer in their hand listening to this story.” So that’s how we produced Rum and Vodka. Even hearing the bar and the laughter and chinking up from downstairs is part of the whole atmosphere. We’re not pretending we’re not in a bar.
PPAA: Have you ever seen McPherson’s The Weir? I always want to be in a bar, I always want to be drinking, when I see that piece.
MD: I saw The Weir at the Arden, I think there was a review of the production that said “Brat had McPherson in Fergie’s Pub and the Arden did The Weir and tried to build Fergie’s Pub on its stage,” or something like that. Ours was cheaper.
I think The Weir, and Shining City, and some of his other plays he has taken his long form monologues and he’s found a way to put them into a play that maybe has a wider appeal. But I like just the stories themselves better than the plays.
PPAA: Some of your plays are reprised from the McPherson Festivals. What attracts to Conor McPherson’s work?
MD: I love his use of language. Conor McPherson has taken the Irish tall tale form and made it resonate with contemporary audiences. The shaggy dog tall tales are full of urban debauchery and the narrators are confessing their innermost thoughts, things that they wouldn’t normally share. I prefer these works to Conor McPherson’s plays where characters talk to each other. I really like how he structured his earlier works in the direct address form.
I have a one-woman show, Popsicle’s Depature, 1989, based on the Conor McPherson tall-tale form and I went to Ireland and worked a dramaturge, who worked with Conor. It won the Stage Magazine award for best solo show at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
PPAA: Congratulations. Did you do that in Philadelphia too?
MD: Yes I did it at the Live Arts Festival with Brat Productions. I’ve done it several times in different cities for different festivals.
PPAA: Tell me about the other play in the series, Howie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe.
MD: Mark O’Rowe has written several things. From the Hips is a play that has done well for him. Howie the Rookie is very violent. Act one is Howie Lee and act two is Rookie Lee. It’s the same story from two different perspectives although the second story finishes the first, but mostly they overlap. It all starts over a mattress with scabies. One bloke suspects another bloke of having slept on the mattress and giving the mat scabies and someone else gets scabies from the mat and gets scabies so they decide to find him and beat him up, but he’s somewhere else. It just becomes this long sort of thing, there’s a lot of beating up and violence. But it’s definitely a tall tale. Everyone has crazy names, there’s Howie Lee and there’s a Lady Boy. And they have these mythic rumors about them. Lady Boy is said to have two rows of teeth and he bites people’s flesh. It’s an over-the-top story.
PPAA: What can we expect next from Brat?
MD: Next up you can expect a new play by me, Madi DiStefano, called Meanwhile . . . , a two-person quick-change comedy based on mid-century pulp fiction and noir, directed by Lee Ann Etzol and produced in the fall.
PPAA: You’re also manager of Quig’s Pub, aren’t you?
MD: I am manager at Quigs. Come in and say hello. And I hope to see you at Fergie’s!
We will, thanks Madi!
[Ed note: Though there is something very boozy sounding about that conversation, I promise you that PPAA interviewers are of the utmost integrity.]