Irish arts group Solas Nua brings ‘The Humours of Bandon’ to D.C.

When the Dublin-based actor and writer Margaret Mc Auliffe began performing “The Humours of Bandon,” her solo show about competitive Irish dancing, she was astonished by theatergoers’ emotional response.

“It really took me by surprise,” says Mc Auliffe, who spells her last name with a space, the Irish way. “I was writing about this very niche world, and thought it was too specific to be universally relatable.”

But the play’s portrait of a teenage wannabe-champion dancer, who navigates a scene rife with frenzied ambition and aching disappointment, turned out to have broad appeal. “If you ever had any activity that was your whole focus when you were younger, and you no longer do it, I think there is something in here for you,” the playwright says.

Inspired by Mc Auliffe’s own 18-year stint as a competitive Irish dancer, and named for a traditional Irish tune, “Humours” debuted at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016, winning awards and going on to tour internationally. It plays May 31 through June 11 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the last stop on a North American tour presented by the D.C.-based contemporary Irish arts organization Solas Nua and Dublin’s Fishamble: The New Play Company.

Speaking by WhatsApp from Cincinnati, Mc Auliffe, 40, discussed the show’s genesis, context and impact.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Tell me how this show came about.

A: There was a call for submissions for a program in Ireland called “Show in a Bag,” which was an initiative run by Irish Theatre Institute, Dublin Fringe Festival and Fishamble: The New Play Company to equip theater makers to create work they could tour easily. I applied and got one of the spots.

Q: Could you describe Irish dancing and the championship scene?

A: Irish dancing is a traditional Irish pastime. All of the dancing takes place really using the bottom half of your body. The upper half of your body is very straight, and your hands are down by your sides. In light shoes, you dance your reel, slip jig, single jig, light jig for the beginners. In heavy shoes, you dance your jig, hornpipe, and all of the different traditional set dances and solo set dances. There are organizations that teach Irish dancing to children for competitions. [“Humours”] is a rich landscape of characters: the encouraging, enthusiastic and driven teacher; the children who excel at something that they have a passion for; the adjudicating process, and how it can seem fair to some children and unfair to others; and the kids that learn humility in defeat and in winning.

[The Irish competitive dancing scene] has changed over the years. People involved today wouldn’t necessarily recognize everything that I talk about in the play. Nowadays, the steps that the champions are doing at 17 years of age are world class. You would be hard-pressed to find something as impressive at the Olympics. It is very competitive. We used to dance in competitions where there would be 20 or 30 people in your reel. Now, there can be over a hundred.

Q: Why the surge in interest?

A: “Riverdance” opened up Irish dancing to the world following the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 [when a dance performed by Michael Flatley, Jean Butler and others wowed viewers and became the seed of the international dance phenomenon]. I remember going to Irish dancing class after I had seen “Riverdance” and my teacher saying, “Things are going to change.” And they did. You had a career in dance [as an option] that you didn’t have before.

From the archives: ‘Riverdance’ and the Eire sensation

Q: What was the biggest challenge about this project for you?

A: I remember sitting at my laptop and remembering my relationship with my teacher for the sections where I am playing her. There were tears running down my cheeks. It was such a cathartic experience for me. [Irish dancing] had been my whole life for years. I learned it when I was 5. I retired when I was 23, and then I opened up an Irish dancing school with a friend. When I became disillusioned, I didn’t have the heart to tell anybody. Writing the play was my way of letting go. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You really brought me back to my old swimming meets,” or “My old piano teacher was just like your Irish dancing teacher.” They were struck with this sense of guilt that they had fallen out of passion with what, at the tender age of 15, was their whole life.

Q: Do you dance in the show?

A: My director [Stefanie Preissner] decided to pepper it through — a flash of it here and there — but not to go full welly [i.e., all in] until the end, to have the audience guessing as to whether or not I could actually dance. The ending is a resolution for both the protagonist and the audience, simultaneously. Stefanie has a keen eye for what makes good theater.

Q: Does the show go over differently here than in Ireland?

A: At home, there’s a sense of guilt people feel when they see the show that they never said goodbye to their former teacher. Over here, we’ve been touring mostly Irish arts centers. The elements of the show that people really identify with are the accents, the phrasing. They get a nostalgic hit. I performed this play in Manhattan. Jean Butler — in Irish dancing circles, a big celebrity — afterwards came up to me and said, “They all think this is a comedy, but I know this isn’t a comedy!” I felt so seen. It’s a humorous play, but to make it funny, I have to remember the disappointments and really get upset.

Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

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