Features NYC Features Published 9 February 2015

New Islands

Nicole Serratore on Inis Nua, the theatre company from Philadelphia who are making a home for Irish and British work in America.
Nicole Serratore

David Leddy’s play, Long Live the Little Knife, which was originally staged in Edinburgh in 2013, has its American premiere this month at Philadelphia’s award-winning Inis Nua theater company – the name is translated from the Irish, meaning New Island. Founded in 2004 by artistic director Tom Reing, the company concentrates exclusively on bringing innovative, contemporary British and Irish theater to the American stage.

After being impressed with the theater Reing saw in Dublin and Belfast, as a freelance director, he tried to pitch those shows to artistic directors in Philadelphia but met with resistance.  “So I decided to just do it on my own,” says Reing. “I was going to do just one show a year in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  But we got a following and we got critical acclaim and donor support so now we do a three show season,” he explains.

In ten years Inis Nua has been the home of nine American premieres including Blink by Phil Porter, Dublin by Lamplight by Michael West, Early Bird by Leo Butler, My Romantic History by D.C. Jackson, and Ciphers by Dawn King.  Reing says, “[Irish and UK] literary agents are getting to know us over there and realizing that we are a good fit for their playwrights.”

With many companies focused on foreign classics and revivals, Reing’s focus on staging cutting-edge foreign work feels unique.  “I want to focus on the contemporary, the now. Some of the issues that come up in Irish or UK plays we’re dealing with in America.  So you’re seeing an issue filtered through another culture but still being able to relate to it,” he notes.  Reing has developed a supportive audience open to this kind of work, but it’s never easy.  As he recounts, “I have to say ‘Hey come see a play that you’ve never heard of, from a playwright you’ve never heard of.  They talk funny.  You should come.’”  But despite these challenges the audiences have shown up.  “When we surveyed our audience early on it was the innovative storytelling that they were interested in,” Reing says.

Philadelphia is only a couple hours from New York City but it has a vibrant arts scene of its own.  “It still feels like we’re the best kept cultural secret in America,” muses Reing.  There is an extraordinary amount of theater to choose from there: from the major Walnut Street Theatre with over 55,000 subscribers to robust regional theaters like the Arden, Wilma, and Philadelphia Theatre Company, to theaters focused on specific mandates.  Reing explains, “It’s a very diverse theater scene. So much so that I can carve out my own unique audience and people will come and that’s kind of exciting.  We have something like 70 theaters of various sizes and budgets and more constantly starting.”

The Inis Nua production of Phil Porter's Blink.

The Inis Nua production of Phil Porter’s Blink.

In 2014, Inis Nua received the June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company from the Barrymore Awards, which are Philadelphia’s professional theater awards.  The Wolfson award happily validates the years of work Reing has put into building this reputable company.  “It still feels like a dream,” he says.  The award recognizes both the growth of the company behind the scenes and its artistic merit.  That award combined with winning four artistic achievement awards for Inis Nua’s recent production of David Grieg’s Midsummer [a play with songs] has made them a serious company to be reckoned with.  But Reing does not intend to stop there.  He would like to expand the reach of Inis Nua.  He describes his ambition for the future,  “What I am thinking right now is teaming up with either a playwright or a theater in Scotland or England or Wales or Ireland and having Irish or UK actors and American actors from our company develop a play that will premiere here and then over there as well.”

Reing has chosen an exciting season for 2014-2015.  He directed Ciphers this past fall, followed by Long Live the Little Knife, and the season closes with Penelope by Enda Walsh. When asked about the theme of the season, he says “In re-reading them and during design meetings I realized this season is all about identity and who you reveal to others.  So that worked out nicely.”

Long Live the Little Knife concerns two con artists who make a plan to become art forgers.  With layered storytelling and constantly shifting ideas of truth and artifice the play offers a fascinating look at how we value authenticity, how we toy with reality, and how theater can be both very true and totally fake at the same time. Additionally, in a city filled with major museums and art institutions, Long Live the Little Knife’s sordid tale of the art underworld might appeal to local Philadelphia audiences.  Reing runs an audience engagement program called Set the Scene.  It usually involves a casual conversation built around a theme in the work with an expert in a field.  Reing explains, “For this one we are having the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts come in and talk about art and forgery.  Interestingly enough I had a relationship with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I reached out to them and they said they have a policy of not engaging in anything that condones art forgery.”  Reing promises there will not be lessons in forgery but it is a show that plays with the idea of “what is real.”

David Leddy, who has been on hand in Philadelphia to advise on the production, has found that he and Reing were often in agreement and the process has been “very smooth.”  Upon entering the Inis Nua theater space and seeing the set that was eerily reminiscent of his own production of the play, he quipped “It’s almost as if someone has rebuilt my house.” Each audience member is handed a small painting, dubbed “a David Leddy original,” when they arrive. But whether the painting is real, authentic, or original is part of the mystery.

Main Image: The Inis Nua production of Midsummer. Photos: Katie Reing

Long Live the Little Knife plays until 22nd February 2015 at Inis Nua, Philadelphia

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Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for The Village Voice, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, TDF Stages, and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She blogs at Mildly Bitter's Musings.

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