Jim Nolan explains to Catherine Power the process behind the writing of his new play The Red Iron
Jim Nolan’s eagerly awaited new play The Red Iron opens in Garter Lane on November 10th. This new play has garnered much attention over the last few weeks and I was delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with Jim recently to discuss the process behind the writing of a new play. “Over the last eight or nine years I had written three plays; ‘Brighton’, ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’. When I was writing the first of those, ‘Brighton’ in 2010 I already had an idea for a newspaper play and that play was overtaken by ‘Brighton’.
I was writing ‘Brighton’ for Anna Manahan and I knew I didn’t have a huge amount of time on my side so I decided to put back the newspaper play. I wrote ‘Brighton’ knowing I had the newspaper play in my mind. Before I finished the production of ‘Brighton’ I already had an idea for ‘Dreamland’, so there were three plays knocking around in my head and I did eventually write the newspaper play (Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye)I always knew what the next play would be and after we opened ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ in Easter 2016, the well was dry, there wasn’t another play in my mind.
That wouldn’t be too unusual and it certainly wasn’t bothering me.
I knew I had to have patience. I was doing other work, directing other plays and I had a residency in Garter Lane so there was no immediate problem.”Nolan hadn’t set a play in Waterford for some time and admitted it was something he wished to rectify. “I had missed writing my Waterford plays. I wrote ‘The Black Pool’, ‘The Boathouse’ and the ‘Gods Are Angry Miss Kerr’ over 30 years ago and I hadn’t set a play in Waterford for that long. I resolved that the next play would be set in Waterford.”
A striking newspaper photo of the Red Iron Bridge over the River Suir inspired the setting for Nolan’s new play.“In July of that year I had a real lightbulb moment when I saw the photo of the Red Bridge in the newspaper and I knew immediately the play would be set on the Red Bridge. It is part of the iconography of Waterford. So many hundreds perhaps thousands of Waterford people have spent their summer there. Then it was the summer of love for the hurling team when Waterford reached the All-Ireland final under Derek’s (McGrath) management. I’m not a hurling aficionado and I know absolutely nothing about the game, I never played it but I am a fan and I enjoyed that summer as much as anyone. I began to think that the play might have a connection to the hurling. That feeling was solidified on the night of the homecoming after we lost the final. Down on the Quay that night with 15,000 people I thought this is the night the play will be set. Usually the writing process from an idea to the finished play is about a year but in the case of The Red Iron the whole process took almost two years.”
With the setting and the timing clear in his mind, Nolan turned his attention to character development.
“I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about people who were in their middle ages, who had spent their childhood on that bridge but who hadn’t been back there. That led me into a certain age demographic and after that you’re making it up as you go along. When you find one character it leads to another, then you think what would the story be, basically it’s like putting a jigsaw together.
“The story changes but by the time I write I the first line of dialogue in Act 1, Scene 1, I would know the setting, the characters, their relationship to each other. I’d know their personal history and in this case particularly their history in relation to each other.
“These were people who knocked around together, who were close friends and who had separated and gone their different ways but who were now returning.”Nolan has written some characters with a particular actor in mind and admits it can help with the writing.“If that happens either it’s a desire of mine that the actor ends up on the stage or it’s useful for me to use the persona of a certain type of actor to assist the writing of the play. “Many years ago I wrote a play called Moonshine and there was this wonderful actor called Tom Hickey, (Benji in the Riordans). I saw a lot of his stage work and I was a big admirer of his and I was writing the lead character of McKeever with Tom in mind. I’d never met Tom, he was doing a lot of work in the Abbey at the time and I was a young playwright and Red Kettle was a fledgling company and I had no illusions about landing him. But it was a help to write the play with him in mind. I did send the play to him and Tom went on to play role but I was ‘borrowing’ the persona to help write the play.
In other cases including the Red Iron I wrote some of the parts for particular actors and it was of enormous assistance to have those actors in mind and to have what they do well in mind.
“Some of the actors who have read the play and are interested in doing are fine actors abut they are also from Waterford and I think I’m going to get an extra ten per cent from them because Waterford is in their DNA and that’s going to be a real plus. It’s not necessary but it’s going to be an advantage. From the beginning I was hoping to cast it out of Waterford and I think I can.”
The Red Iron will open on November 10th at Garter Lane and runs for three weeks, a challenge Nolan is looking forward to.
“It is long run, 166 seats a night for three weeks but I’m lucky that over the last 15 to 20 years new plays of mine have done that run and got away with it. I have been able to build up a loyal and trusting relationship with Waterford audiences and I have reason to be hopeful that we can pull them in. I think the combination of the title and the fact that there will be local actors will help.”Nolan is extremely grateful for the enthusiasm and co-operation he has been able to call on and is thrilled with the response to the ‘Fundit’ campaign. “The difference between writing a play and a poem is the word collaboration and that process really only begins when the script is written. The real work begins then and it really is a collaboration that depends on the input of so many different skills and so many different people. I’ve had tremendous help from Michael grant, Padraig O’Griofa and Mary Roche and was stunned when Jamie Beamish produced the brilliant poster for us, out of the blue. We tend to forget that the final stage of the collaboration is with the audience and so we have to make sure we find the audience.
You’d never take for granted that they’re out there for us.
“We’ve being lucky in securing a small grant from Waterford Council and also some private sponsorship but there is a gap and we’ve been able to fill that gap through Fundit. We are delighted with and very grateful for the support of so many people through that campaign.”The next few months promise to be hectic for the Waterford playwright as he puts the finishing touches to the new production. “In the next two months or so I’ll be putting my contribution to the business end of this production to one side. I’ll be finalising the casting in a few weeks’ time. Then I’ll go back to the text. There’s some revisions I want to make to the text and I may try to do a reading with the actors but I’m also directing this production so it’s busy. I’ve tended to avoid directing because ideally I think it’s good to have another voice coming in. The decision not to do so in this case has as much to do with finance as anything else.
“Usually when Jim Nolan the writer is directing a Jim Nolan play, Jim the writer sits quietly in a corner and speaks when he’s spoken to but at least I will have the luxury of having the writer sitting beside me in the rehearsal room and I’m sure it will work!
The ‘Fundit’ campaign in support of The Red Iron continues until July 30th. You can contribute by logging onto https;//fundit.ie/project/the-red-iron-by-jim-nolan.