The American Theater 2020 Survival Strategy – Part 4 – The Irish Repertory Theatre

Dan Butler in Irish Rep’s 2020 Virtual Production of THE WEIR

Irish Rep’s Ciarán O’Reilly: “Keep Creative Juices Flowing”

There’s no two ways about it: business across New York have been decimated by the effects of COVID-19. Many shops, restaurants, and other small businesses have not been able to survive. The future of Broadway is uncertain, too, as many productions have shut down permanently. Even theatrical juggernauts like Frozen closed. If the multi-million dollar moneymakers are struggling, is it possible for a smaller, boutique company to stay afloat?

Despite the circumstances, The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Co-Artistic Director, Ciarán O’Reilly, seems to be relatively calm about the prospect of reopening his theater’s doors when the time comes. Like many arts organizations, Irish Rep is turning to a variety of virtual content to keep the home fires burning. Productions slated to debut this summer have been postponed, but not forgotten.

Along with Charlotte Moore, O’Reilly founded The Irish Rep in 1988. Since then, the Chelsea-based company has gone on to produce evocative, award-winning Off-Broadway programming that celebrates Irish and Irish-American culture. Their evocative, award-winning work has established them as a New York institution. Now, against the backdrop of the pandemic, O’Reilly and his company have knuckled down to ensure that The Rep will still be here when the pandemic is over.

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Co-Artistic Director, Ciarán O’Reilly

How has the pandemic affected your theater?

Ciarán O’Reilly: Like much of the rest of the world, COVID-19 closed our doors and turned out our lights. Shows on our stages were cancelled (Incantata by Paul Muldoon and Lady G by Lady Gregory) and productions that were in rehearsals were postponed. Our production and administrative staff retreated to the safety of their homes and turned on their computers and started to work.

What are you doing to keep your sanity?

CO: Within days of the shutdown, the staff of the Irish Rep began to produce digital content. Company member Mick Mellamphy approached us with a concept of The Show Must Go Online – consisting of poems, play segments, songs and stories from our artists. We then instated a biweekly series of interviews called Meet the Makers where we spotlighted behind the scenes artists who make theatre happen. As the dark weeks became months, we began to produce plays on screen and launched a summer season of digital work including Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel, The Gifts You Gave to the Dark by Darren Murphy, Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom by Aedin Moloney and Colum McCann, The Irish and How They Got That Way by Frank McCourt, The Weir by Conor McPherson and Love, Noël by Barry Day.

Have you had to lay off any employees?

CO: The cancellation of our shows necessitated laying off the artists working on the various shows, but we have been fortunate to be able to keep most of our full-time staff employed.

The socio-political environment has become tense. How do you think this will reflect on the theatrical community when things do eventually reopen?

CO: There is a strong call for the community to open up its doors to include all members of society. The confinement brought on by the pandemic married to the painful and tragic acts of racial injustice in Minneapolis and beyond have forced the issue to be dealt with in concrete ways. We would hope that theatrical artists will help lead the way in creating opportunities for those traditionally left behind.

Geraldine Hughes as Molly Sweeney in Irish Rep’s 2020 Virtual Production of MOLLY SWEENEY

Do you plan on marking the country’s cultural shift in some way?

CO: Yes. We are looking to projects that tell stories that paint common historical struggles. We are looking for ways our institution can welcome people of color in all areas including casting, production and board participation.

Any advice for staying creative during this era?

CO: Use the tools available to us. Technology has given us the gift of communication. We can bring our art in a new format to people’s homes and we can do it in an artful way. While it is challenging, it keeps our creative juices flowing.

Is there anything about our industry that you’d like to see change when we’re all able to get back to work?

CO: Perhaps there might be a world where the digital skills we have acquired can continue to be used to reach audiences around the country and world who might not be able to attend our live shows on West 22nd Street.

For more information about Irish Repertory Theatre and their current programming, visit

Steve Ross & KT Sullivan in Irish Rep’s Virtual Production of LOVE, NOËL. Photo courtesy of Irish Rep.

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