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Keeping it reel

Margaret McAuliffe told David Hennessy about her one woman show The Humours of Bandon which brings Irish dancing to the theatre, something rarely seen before in such a way.

Irish dancing has seldom been depicted in theatre, or other media like films or TV for that matter.

Margaret McAuliffe’s one woman show The Humours of Bandon, which has its London premiere at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith next month, brings Irish dancing to the stage.

Margaret, who has 18 years’ of experience in Irish dancing including dancing competitively and opening her own dance school, certainly knew what she was writing about when she took on the subject in her first ever play.

 But The Humours of Bandon is about more than dancing. It is a coming of age tale and Margaret has found people relating to it because they also know what it is like to grow out of something or leave a hobby that was once everything behind.

Margaret told The Irish World: “The backdrop of the show is certainly the world of Irish dancing but I think for any play to really, really resonate with its audience, the theme has to be universal.

“Whereas the show does have elements of Irish dancing at its core, really what it’s talking about is falling out of love with something that used to be your entire life.

“I’ve had people come to the show and afterwards tell me, ‘Oh, you reminded me of my old swimming teacher, and I’m upset thinking about it’.

“Or I had one dressage competitor.

“So really, it resonates with anyone that used to have this weird niche skill or activity or hobby that they took very, very seriously in school and then for whatever reason, gave up and haven’t revisited since.”

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Like how soccer or GAA can go by the wayside growing up, as you don’t always keep it up….

“No, you don’t and there’s a certain amount of heartbreak I think because you sort of ghost your teacher because just one September class, you don’t turn up.

“You don’t go back to your class or your training and there’s nothing more said about it.

“So what happens to that passion and that love that you had?”

In The Humours of Bandon, we meet 16- year-old Annie on the eve of the Irish open championship- the biggest competition of her life- and she takes us through the various successes and disappointments of her Irish dancing life.

Margaret plays Annie. Although the play is based loosely on her own experiences, it is also far removed.

“It (dancing) was my life, that’s certainly the tagline for the show and I’ve thought about that since and whether it’s still relevant.

“But I think when you’re a teenager: You’re living at home, you’re going to school, and you’re doing your hobby.

“I definitely didn’t have boyfriends when I was 15, 16 so all my focus and all my energy was into Irish dancing, I also did tap and modern dancing.

“I used to like to sing as well so I would just go up to my bedroom and either sing or dance. It was escapism for me.

“My mam has said that she could never ground me because I would be like, ‘Fine, I’ll go up to my room, entertain myself, thanks’.

“So I think it is your life.

“I didn’t take it to a very, very high level that saying ‘it was my life’ might lead people to believe. I didn’t ever win a world championship or an Irish Open Championship myself, and I certainly didn’t ever go travel the world with a show like Riverdance or Lord of the Dance.

“So I didn’t take it very, very, very seriously when I came of age, but I definitely did it as far as I could.

“I did my two years teacher’s diploma, and I opened up an Irish dancing school. And I sadly left that in 2016 when I wrote the play actually.”

The play does something that has never been done before in depicting some of the blood, sweat and tears involved in competitive Irish dancing as Annie wants to win more than anything.

“I think anyone who’s done anything competitively can identify with the crushing blows of losing when you thought you’d win.

“Or indeed trying to keep your countenance when you’re suffering disappointment.

“It definitely taught me lots of life lessons, I learned graciousness in winning, humility in defeat and the discipline that it takes to pursue anything to the level that I did.

“It was loosely based on personal experience.

“I started with a memory.

“I remembered a particular loss that I had in 1999.

“I came seventh in this thing.

“And I remember I was like, ‘I’ll just go back to that feeling and I’ll just sit back into it’.

“I was 17 and I was writing this play when I was 34, 35.

“So it was really going back into the deep recesses of my memory bank and then what came forth was this fictional tale of this character Annie loosely based on my own personal experience, but with certain emphasis on elements that maybe I didn’t have.

“I made her quite cantankerous and judgmental and she would sort of lash out at her mother in a way that I never would have.

“And in doing so I kind of protected myself, Irish dancing or the organisation that I was a part of from scrutiny or from any sort of ridicule.

“This is like a fictional tale loosely based on personal experience, as opposed to an autobiographical story.”

Margaret took part in Show in a Bag in 2016, which enables actors to write shows that they can take with them on the road. Fishamble then became the producer of the show, taking it to Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was a huge hit.

“I heard about a call out for Show in a Bag.

“They started that initiative in 2011 and I heard about it, but I never would have considered myself a writer. I still have a little bit of impostor syndrome in that respect.

“The call out came and I had no work on the horizon for that year thus far, and I was emailing my father and he said, ‘You know, Mags, some Irish actors create their own work…’

“I thought, ‘Okay, this is definitely a sign’.

“So I applied for the Show in a Bag series and I got one of the interviews. There was over 150 applicants that year, and they selected four, and went to the interview.

“I just wrote a one page to give them a taste of my writing and did a little bit of Irish dancing at the end.

“And it’s funny, mostly when you come out of auditions or interviews or anything like that, you don’t know how it’s gone but this one I was like, ‘I think I’ve got it’.

“And I think it was specifically and purely down to the Irish dancing element, because I hadn’t yet seen Irish dancing and the Irish theatre scene kind of merged in this way.

“I thought, ‘I’m definitely best placed on account of the fact that I had 18 years competitive Irish dancing experience myself before I ever studied to become an actor’.

“And I thought, ‘This will be an interesting marriage’.”

Margaret is currently in development with Treasure Entertainment on a feature adaptation of The Humours of Bandon with Screen Ireland.

Having premiered at Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016, The Humours of Bandon has since been performed in the US, Canada, and even Australia.

Initially the show was directed by Stefanie Preissner, the creator of hit comedy-drama series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.

“I was certainly given good advice from my director Stefanie who did a one woman show herself Solpadeine is my Boyfriend.

“She said, ‘You’ll never be the same actor again after you do a one woman show’, and I definitely agree with that. There is no one out there to save you if you dry or forget your line.

“Once you step onto the threshold of the stage, you’re on a freight train to the very, very last moment when you take your bow and there is a unique experience to be had every show that you can’t talk about or thrash about with your co-stars in the dressing room afterwards, so I do feel a loss of that. I do feel a little bit lonely at times.

“But then the upside of doing it all yourself is that you have more control, and I realised that I rather enjoy having all the control when it comes to performance.

“And there’s a gorgeous dialogue that it opens up between me and the audience.

“I can nearly feel people going back into their own memory banks, and particularly the quieter audiences.

“So the ones that take a while to warm up, I don’t get rattled by that anymore in a way that I would have been before.

“I did a one woman show where I would think, ‘Oh, god, they’re not laughing’ or, ‘they’re not enjoying it’.

“I know now that when people aren’t kind of emitting any sort of a sound, they are really, really thinking.

“And by the end then I can nearly feel them coming along with me.

“And afterwards, I get to speak to them and a lot of them are emoting and they say, ‘I was crying and I’m not even really sure why’.

“Which is my favourite response of all time. Because it just means that the show and the themes of the show and the characters in the show have managed to touch their heart.

“And really I don’t see any better outcome for seeing a live show than that.

“I had one opening performance in Washington DC and I don’t know if it was because it was the opening night or whatever but they had a huge reaction to every line.

“They had people in there that were laughing and they weren’t even laughing at funny lines. They were just laughing to enjoy themselves.

“And then the very next night, deadly silence. Absolutely, you could hear a pin drop.

“And I enjoyed both performances.”

The Humours of Bandon won the Little Gem Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival 2016 where Margaret was also nominated for Best Performer.

The show also took Best Theatre Script at the Writers’ Guild of Ireland ZeBBie Awards 2017.

It has also had favourable reviews in publications like The Irish Times, The Stage, The Times, The Scotsman and Broadway World.

“Yeah, I am very, very grateful.

“I won the Bewley’s Little Gem award at the Dublin Fringe Festival and I was very, very surprised to even be nominated.

“I remember my aunt had gone out with me the night before the nominations were announced and I’d had quite a few drinks and she’d stayed over in my apartment.

“The next morning I had a headache and I’d had about two hours sleep and I was like, ‘I got nominated, I don’t think I’m gonna go in’.

“And she was like, ‘Get out of that bed, get into that shower, you’re going in’.

“And I was like, ‘Okay’.

“So I did. And I had won one of the awards and I was nominated for Best Performer.

“And it was the following year really that gave me a laugh because I was nominated for best theatre script at the ZEBBIE Awards, which is the Irish Writers Guild Awards.

“Now as I said to you, I did not consider myself a writer before I wrote The Humours of Bandon.

“And I still to be honest I still struggle with the notion of calling myself a writer Because I’ve written one play, do you know what I mean?

“So I was up against David Ireland and Laurence McKeown’s Blue and Green.

“I was up against those two.

“Steven Rea was in David Ireland’s play.

“I thought I’m the token entrant to this and it’s my first play, and I’m just delighted to be nominated.

“I said, ‘I’m gonna go, I’m gonna get all dressed up and blah blah blah’.

“And before I went for a meal with my mum and my aunt. I told them, ‘I am not going to win. You’re just going to be there, be polite, blah, blah blah’.

“And then it was actually David Norris who announced that I won, and all my family went, ‘Way to look like you didn’t expect to win there’. It was very embarrassing, but also beautiful.

“I did not expect to win. Definitely not.

“And that’s not why I wrote the play.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really think anyone was going to come. I didn’t really want anyone to come.

“I thought the play was really bad. I thought good writing meant using very, very florid language, being really, really articulate and lofty in terms of your literary references.

“Because I wrote this show from the mindset of a 17 year old, my director Stefanie says, ‘Sometimes you’re writing like you’re trying to impress with an English essay. Really take it back to when you were 17, how you used to speak’.

“So as a result, I thought it was quite pedestrian.

“I felt, ‘This doesn’t showcase me as a writer, this doesn’t really do anything, I’m just so embarrassed. It’s so terrible’.

“And she said, ‘You’re not going to start believing in the show until it’s in front of an audience. But until then, we’ve work to do’.

“She wasn’t going to be one of these people to rub my back and tell me everything’s gonna be fine. But she did it in her own way.

“And then when I performed the show, I came offstage and because I dried about five minutes in, I was kind of kicking myself and thinking that I really messed up.

“And the audience just kept clapping, and kept clapping.

“And the next thing Stefanie comes backstage and she said, ‘They’re not going to stop until you get back out there’.

“So I kind of limped on one shoe on, one shoe off and was really blown away by the response.

“And then everything that’s followed since: The awards and Fishamble taking it and touring it three years internationally, going to Australia, New York, Edinburgh Fringe.

“And the show has now been picked up by Screen Ireland and Treasure Entertainment to turn it into a feature film.

“So all of the things that have followed have been I cannot underestimate what a surprise it’s all been for something that I thought was just so terribly dull.”

The Humours of Bandon comes to The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith Saturday 8 July, doors 7.30pm.

For more information or to book, click here.

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