Aeneas and Proteus

It is not an exaggeration to say that I have seen more theater in the last two months than I had in the year. This is due partly to how reasonably priced theater tickets are here, and partly to the shape of the theater calendar. In Dublin, the first third of the school year happens to coincide with the two major theater festivals: the Dublin Fringe Festival, and the Dublin Theater Festival. While the Dublin Theater Festival is a prestigious, meticulously curated affair, the Fringe is wonderfully egalitarian, featuring dozens of productions which have never before seen the light of day (many of them performed in shoeboxes of theaters where sitting next to somebody means becoming very familiar with what brand of deodorant they use).

Sifting through the mountains of programming on offer during the Fringe can be a daunting process, but, as a playwriting student at the Lir, I had the good fortune to be shepherded around by my MFA-mate, Aoife. A Dublin native who studied theater at Trinity as an undergraduate, Aoife cannot be within ten yards of a theater without being flagged down by several acquaintances or admirers. I have never felt so much like a member of an entourage as I did, leapfrogging from show to show with her. The sense of her being a local celebrity culminated in my getting the chance to see her perform in a Fringe show of her own: a reimagining of the Aeneid, called “The Aeneid,” which she devised with several other performers, and performed at the Smock Alley Theater.

Dublin Fringe Festival

The play follows a group of Roman storytellers whose job it is to retell the story of the Aeneid, taking their cues from one among them who has the power to channel the spirit of Aeneas himself. This storyteller is responsible both for playing Aeneas, and for narrating the story precisely as his spirit directs them. At the start of the play, the storytellers welcome their “new Aeneas,” the granddaughter of a previous, famed storyteller. Over the course of the play—simultaneously a retelling of the Aeneid, and the story of the storytellers—the new Aeneas’ attempt to fill her grandmother’s shoes is complicated by her falling in love with the storyteller assigned to play Dido.

This was the part played by Aoife. At the time of the show, Aoife and Órla (our other MFA-mate) and I had known each other less than a week, but I was already in awe of both of them—stunned by the amount of professional theater making they had been able to engage in as undergraduates, and by the fact that they were both actresses on top of being playwrights. Aoife’s performance confirmed for me what I had suspected of being the case: that she is as gifted in the former capacity as she is in the latter. Her intense engagement with the role initiated a change in my outlook on devised theater that has been ongoing since then. I began this year with a somewhat dubious attitude toward that genre—the selfish attitude of a writer who fears it endangers her relevancy. But watching Aoife in action, a writer-performer acting a role she had helped to create, and drawing on her writer’s understanding of the character to enrich her performance, offered a striking proof of how devised theater can generate more fully realized characters.

In the past, I’ve combatted my anxiety about the inherent insecurity of working in the theater by seeking comfort in the idea of a closed system. My vision of the theater world was an insistently neat one, which placed the writer in one box and the actor in another. But doing my MFA here has chipped away at this schema—encouraged me to envision not hermetically sealed containers of actors and writers, but a vibrant web of protean theater makers. Since “The Aeneid,” I’ve seen countless shows that embody this vision; I am hopeful that, after a year spent in Dublin, I will not only have embraced this web wholeheartedly, but attempted, however clumsily, to take on another role myself.

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