Pinning down this busy, internationally renowned, eternally in demand playwright was always going to be a feat. When it became obvious that physical presence was an impossible ask in light of our respective schedules, it was technology to the rescue. With an apologetic grace that we could not meet in person, Mike Finn was more than delighted as we sat down at our own tables with our own cuppas’ for a phone conference update on his hectic schedule.
So, who is Mike Finn? For the uninitiated, Mike is the man behind the script, the mastermind of words. A founding member of Limericks’ theatre company of days gone by, Island Theatre Company, he is now based mostly in Dublin’s’ fair city but frequents Limerick often, as well as wherever the theatre takes him. You might remember his name from the credits of Killinaskully too.
Reflecting on the start of his career in theatre, Mike admits that becoming a playwright was not necessarily part of the plan. “Having founded Island Theatre Company in 1988, I was primarily performing on stage, and I guess like many actors I thought ‘I can do this!’ and I gave it a go.” The process of an idea would evolve into reality when Mike would bounce ideas of Terry Delvin, the artistic director of the company. If an idea seemed to have substance and a quality narrative they would develop it to full fruition. This act of writing and developing scripts captivated Mike from the very beginning, “I just found that I was an actor who started writing, then it came to the point where I was hardly acting anymore… it was a happy accident”.
A very happy accident indeed, as Mike is now accredited with many of Irelands’ most wonderful stage pieces of recent decades, including Charlie Chaplin’s Mother was an Irishman, and adaptations of plays such as Shock and Awe and The Crunch. “I was lucky, I didn’t really have difficulty in getting my plays performed because of my role with Island Theatre Company, I already had a home for it, a place to put on the plays from the get-go.” With a tone of deep understanding and appreciation of his journey into the playwriting world, Mike gives a nod of admiration to those who haven’t had such strong bonds with theatre companies awarding access to directors, actors, technicians, reputation and an audience following. “Not everyone has that access, but persistence and trial and error works too. It was great to have the support and the foundation for new plays I wrote, I know I was lucky.” Humbling as his manner is, Mikes’ success cannot be simply awarded to having the ties he did but many hours of hard grafting, tweaking, altering and re-writing characters, scenes and moments in a play.
With a notable Irish wit, Mike laughs as he recognises his career has not followed a 9-5 or anything similar and declares “my family have been great, they never at any point suggested that I get a ‘real job’!”
With his down to earth manner, it’s often hard to believe we are talking to the same man was has been awarded the Stewart Parker Award in 2000 for Pigtown. This prestigious Irish award is offered to the best Irish debut play and is no basic accomplishment, this fact being easily proven when we consider other awardees include Enda Walsh, Eugene O’Brien and Nancy Harris. In recent years the award has become funded and joined in partnership with The Arts Council and BBC Northern Ireland as it is open to entries in the 32 counties. Pigtown was originally produced with Island Theatre Company and then travelled to Off-Broadway and San Jose.
What made it such a success? “I have a drawer full of ‘unsuccess’, of things that never made to stage, but with Pigtown, I don’t know, everything just seemed to fit together, it all just clicked in such a wonderful way… it really is one of those magic memories that rarely comes around where everything just works out”. Having appeared in over 20 plays with Island Theatre Company, Mike clearly had an abundance of stage experience and learned how characters can develop, move, interact and evoke a reaction: this understanding was paramount to the success of writing a piece as acclaimed and accomplished as Pigtown.
With accolades such as International Writer in residence at University of Iowa and the Burdines Distinguished Visiting Artist at the University of South Florida, Mikes’ skills are recognised near and far. Encompassing many talents, I ask Mike of his experience in directing. Again, his humble nature is touching. Identifying his main skills to be found within acting and writing, he confesses that while he recognises acting notes, directing is not his forte. “I have kind of done some directing by default but I would never call myself a director, I directed a play in Florida in 2001, when I was in residency there. They wanted me to write a new piece and put it on, suggesting I direct it myself. Sure I had said yes before it even registered with me what I was agreeing to! I really enjoyed the experience. I understand how everything is meant to work having acted and written so much over the years, but I wouldn’t consider myself the best theatre director… I’d do a passable job!”
Out of all the plays Mike has performed in, the many he has adapted and scripts he has moulded for screen (least of all his co-written work with Pat Shortt on 36 episodes of the infamous IFTA nominated Killinaskully), could he decide on one highlight? “There are so many. I guess the success of Pigtown back in 1999 when I first wrote it really is unforgettable. We did it in summer of 1999, 2000 and 2002 in Limerick, and it was a hit every time! It became bigger than all of us, it just grew into something greater than I could ever have imagined and then we got to bring it to America.” Reflecting again on how the popularity of Pigtown shaped his future Mike continues, “It’s success really helped me drive my career and I had the great opportunity of working with an amazing team – actors and production crew. I got a lot of work out of it, including that residency in Florida, where I wrote and directed, which was a new experience for me at the time. It was life changing, I still think of it with great fondness.”
Mike sounds like he is reliving the wonderment of Pigtown as we chat, electric and vivid in his mind. I ask him, as he still seems be astounded with joy from the production of Pigtown, has he been involved with anything as special recently? “Pigtown will always have a special place in my heart, but right alongside it, I know The Unlucky Cabin Boy has something magical about it too. These shows only come along every ten to fifteen years if you’re lucky. I knew from it’s inception that there was something unique about The Unlucky Cabin Boy.” This musical production was produced in conjunction with Gúna Nua Theatre Company, originally from Limerick and now based in Dublin, and The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra, also of Limerick origin. Based on a true story, the Blake brothers and sister (David, James and Ann) wanted to bring to life for Limerick City of Culture 2014. It wowed many in the Lime Tree Theatre last year, and the story is about to continue, Mike tells me with glee.
When we first made contact, Mike was in the middle of a block week preparing for the upcoming show, again eager to share his story he tells me how it all came about. “We all met up and they shared the idea over a coffee and from then it just rocketed off, the BPLO drafted me in essentially. I recognised the story, I had read a version of it in the old Limerick journal in the 80s, and it had been something I wanted to develop but never got around to, it was in my virtual memory!” How does such a large-scale piece with such an unusual story come to fruition? “The members involved in the production live very different lives, we did two blocks of rehearsals the first time around and it worked well so that’s what we are doing before the nationwide tour in November. We devised it together before, a rare opportunity, which really strengthened the end product.” Evidently a successful method, the performers garnered the opportunity to improvise a suggested take on the tale by Mike, which he would then develop into a more concrete adaptation. Woefully, Mike admits that this is a rare opportunity due to difficulty in attaining funding.
How does Mike approach a revision of a play, does he decide to scrap half of it and rebuild it? Would he just leave it untouched? He admits that it is also a rare occurrence to be awarded a second chance at putting on a production. “Nothing is ever completely finished, it can be a tricky one, you don’t want to make it worse by over-thinking. You can destroy something by over-thinking. In the past I have revised plays, made them worse, and had to re-edit to the original draft. With Pigtown, we messed with it and had to undo it again – tinkering isn’t always good! Editing is what we are doing now, I shaved a little bit off it, but the audience won’t really notice, the pacing is better now though.”
Paying reverence once again to his fortunes, Mike notes the appreciation of the entire cast and crew to have the opportunity to bring The Unlucky Cabin Boy around to again, and to new audiences. “It got such tremendous feedback the last time, we want to hold and even improve that standard.”
With the recent humane, cultural and political disasters suffered by millions of people due to the mass immigration of Syria, the story of The Unlucky Cabin Boy has a new resonance with audiences that it did not have when first staged in 2014. The story is about the underdog, the little man, the one with no voice and no power. Mike identified these similarities and openly discusses how the musical really reflects what is happening today with the refugee crisis. “I think everyone will relate to it, thinking of Syria, Hurricane Katrina some years back; the vicitimisation of children in Ireland that has come to light in recent years…” The Unlucky Cabin Boy ignites questions within its audience which Mike and the Blakes made a conscious decision to highlight, “We really want to explore, ‘why does it happen?’ The people in our musical are in an awful situation, dealing with the politics and morality, the boy is suspicious he lost the lottery, it brings light to the theme that life is weighted against the people at the bottom, they get exploited all the time. Whatever crisis happens, it is always the poorest left in the worst situation, at the bottom. Society fails poor children.” Noting the fifteen pantomime scripts Mike penned for Centrestage, a Limerick stage school, and the book and lyrics of the musical Soul Garden for the same, it is clear that a pure honesty lies within his caring words towards the refugees, and particularly the victimised children.
If he had a one liner to promote the musical what would it be? (Laughs) “A musical about cannibalism! Who would miss it?! … It shocks non-musical fans, shows that not all musicals are tapping feet, smiles and jazz hands; it has a unique, distinctive storyline without a doubt!”
Life is never as simple as having one project on the drawing board at a time. I was wrong to assume that with Mike being so preoccupied with a project of the wonderfully vast scale of The Unlucky Cabin Boy that any other projects would be small and secondary. Mike has once again teamed up with Paul Meade, the director of The Unlucky Cabin Boy and Artistic Director of the award winning Gúna Nua Theatre Company. Unsurprisingly, their new production is also based on Irish history. Mike, again oozing with positivity declares that working with Paul is a match made in heaven. “Really it is! In this business so much happens accidentally.” Precisely what is this big project in the making? “We’re working on a piece based on Homers Odyssey but with an Irish twist of a young lads’ journey from Dublin to Kerry during the 1916 rising. It’s a work in progress at the minute but will be performed in a manner reflective of Shakespearean style, it will toy with elements of the circus as we travel and tour with Fossetts Circus, in the mix will be music from the early 1900s too. The title may change, but for now we are calling it ‘All the Way Home’.”
The revival and popularity of new-age circus performers and aerial dance performances is rife in recent times with Fidget Feet blossoming before our eyes and No Fit State Circus welcoming multitudes when they visited last year, to name but a few. Bearing this in mind and imagining the boundless possibilities that may result in All the Way Home when infused with the historical memories from only a short 100 years ago, this will be one to watch.
Success in the theatre industry is no simple accomplishment, and with a smooth journey never being a reality, surrounding oneself with the right people who will love, care, guide and encourage you along your way are pertinent to fuel a career as stealthy as Mike’s. Mike verbally hugs those dear to him with these words; “My friends and family have always been supportive, and that means so much. I’ve never been forced down a path but supported along my way.”
I ask if he had any words of advice for upcoming playwrights, or those who have considered but not taken the leap of lifting the pen just yet as they focus on anything else in fear. With a nervous laugh he admits that there is a disadvantage to having another career, that by having a fall back profession, you let yourself fall back; that it can stop you from following what you really want to do. With a warmth in his laughter he announces “At this point, there is no going back for me, this is what I do, it’s what I know.” With an insistent note to his voice he has a simple message: “I would say, just write! Keep writing, don’t take no for an answer! There is no magic formula, you need to find your own style but don’t waste time talking about your idea. I do that but it is such a waste of time and you lose energy, so I try to focus on getting it to paper. It’s not the most exciting process, I prefer to be working with people – writing can be lonely, but it is worth it.”
Words – Rebecca Egan
Photography – Tarmo Tulit