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A conversation with Sheila Daniels and Jerry Manning

Jerry Manning and Sheila Daniels during Dancing at Lughnasa rehearsal.

Near the beginning of the Dancing at Lughnasa rehearsal process, Associate Artistic Director Braden Abraham sat down with Artistic Director Jerry Manning and Director Sheila Daniels to talk about the play. We were curious what drew both of them to the work initially, and what their thoughts were about revisiting of the play (the Rep last produced Lughnasa in 1995). They spoke about the world of Lughanasa and its parallels with Sheila’s family heritage.

Braden: When did you first encounter Brian Friel’s work?

Sheila: My college instructor is an expert Irish scholar, and she knew I was of Irish decent. So right when Dancing at Lughnasa came out—I think she actually got an illicit script—I read it. And about ten years ago I was in a production of it where I played Chris. But I've had a love affair with Brian Friel's work for a long time. I think I read Translations when I was in high school. Translations was the play that really made me curious about my Irish heritage. Because the thought of a language that you love being taken away from you—that you're no longer allowed to speak—I just couldn’t even fathom it. So that was when I started reading Irish history and really delving into all of that.

Jerry: That might be my favorite play of his, Translations. It’s so complicated and so rich. I love that play...

Sheila: Next to the loss of life, the most horrible thing that conquerors do is they take away people’s culture. I just saw the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley again, and the brutality of: you may not speak your language, you may not sing your music, you may not do your dances. It was just devastating. We're going to watch that movie in rehearsal because I think there's something so accurate about its depiction of the ferocity and the pride of being Irish, not to mention the sacrifices they made and the suffering they endured to win their independence from the British. And at the time of Dancing at Lughnasa, the Irish have only had independence for fourteen years...One of the things I love about this play is these little drops of history that surface in the characters. Kate was involved in the war of independence; you can imagine the kind of danger she put herself in. This woman actually had a really full life, until her parents died and she had to become the caretaker for this family. And I imagine that when Father Jack gets back from Africa, Kate felt that he would take the responsibility of being the authority off of her shoulders—she doesn’t want to be the person that lays down the law. That’s not actually who she is, it’s who she has had to become. And when it becomes clear that Jack will not take on that responsibility, it means for her that she is stuck being someone she doesn’t want to be.

Jerry: That’s very well observed. Going back to and stealing, robbing or expunging a culture; it’s often the case that religion is the instrument of choice. But in Dancing at Lughnasa it’s a very different thing because Catholicism is there, but so is the pagan festival.

Sheila: You know, about five years ago my mom gave me this book about Sheelanagigs. Do you know about Sheelanigigs?

Jerry: No.

Sheila: It’s a pagan carving that is basically a fertility goddess. It’s funny how these things find you when you are a director. My parents got me this book on Sheelanagigs because it’s my name, and they thought it was interesting and kind of fun. But one of the things I learned in the book is that early Catholicism was a lot more tolerant and able to incorporate other pagan practices. For example, in those early years of Catholicism, Irish Priests married, and polygamy was common. So, in the play, Father Jack’s descriptions of his Ugandan experience are not all that dissimilar to what was going on in Ireland a thousand years ago. I love that Jack leaves twenty-five years before to be a Catholic missionary and he returns a missionary for the Ugandan religion and says "Here's a way to celebrate religion that’s still based in prayer, but it’s also rooted in joy." He gives benedictions in that household. When he tells Chris that Michael is a lovechild, that’s a blessing, it’s a benediction, it’s a forgiveness.

Jerry: For me it's one of the great things about the play. Friel is not hammering it home, but it’s omnipresent, and the comfort with which Catholicism and paganism seem to bump up against one another—I kind of love that, as an undertone throughout. Father Jack aside, who is obvious, the fact that Lughnasa is a pagan festival that they are celebrating, and we see that a lot of those rituals remain in the culture. It’s one of my favorite undercurrents of the play.

Braden: You mentioned Brian Friel’s influence in piquing your curiosity about your Irish heritage. What have his plays taught you about your family, or what have you discovered through looking at your family history that then relates to exploring Friel's plays? Also, what is inherently Irish about the play, beyond the setting, that may not be obvious to people?

Sheila: First of all, I would say darkness and light live right up against each other. I’ve said this a lot to the designers—this play is tectonic to me. The tectonic plates shift. Sometimes they shift very violently—what I call the Banshee dance feels like the earth is separating and they are teetering on the precipice, almost falling into the pit—and then sometimes the shifts are very subtle. But everything lives right up against everything else. Grief turns into absurd laughter. Love turns into hatred. There are all these wonderful moments where one sister is attacking another sister and then literary three lines later she is protecting her from somebody else. And at the same time there are things that you do not talk about. This love of laughter and music and nature and God and dancing lives side by side with alcoholism and madness. Joy and sorrow. You have to accept both of those things. You can’t separate them.

Jerry: It’s tectonic too because of the moment in history. One of the most beautiful devices in the play is the radio. Is it heralding modernity? This family is going to be dragged into the twentieth century. What will be left of it? There’s also the subtle encroachment of industrialization. You had the Spanish civil war present, and we know what’s right around the corner in Europe. And yet, you know what’s so great about the play? It’s the beautifully drawn relationship among the family. All the context aside—

Sheila: That’s all just the soil. That’s not how you walk around—it affects how you walk around—

Jerry: But the way, when those five women interact with Michael and Father Jack; it’s as rich a family portrait as you would find anywhere in the cannon.

Sheila: And that very much tied back to my family. My mom had two sisters and two brothers. Those three women had a huge influence on my life. I can hear their laughter together. My dad was always saying, "Oh god, stop cackling."

Braden: Are they coming to the show?

Sheila: Yeah. My mom and dad are coming opening night...and my aunts are coming later in the run...So that’s my mom’s side of the family, but interestingly enough my grandfather on my dad's side of the family was also Irish. He was a dark, dark human being, but he met my grandmother because he was a ballroom dancer touring around, and they eloped.

Jerry: Oh, really?!

Sheila: Oh, yeah! Yeah! Which is funny because of the similarity to Gerry [in Dancing at Lughnasa]. One of my mom’s favorite memories of him was of them being in the living room together—and my grandfather was a hypochondriac and often not well—but swing music came on the radio, and he all of a sudden grabbed my mom and threw her around the room, danced her around the room. She said it was remarkable.