Here’s a piece of advice they won’t tell you on a creative writing degree course:
“Being a plasterer is a good job if you want to write plays.”
But then, John McManus is not a very conventional playwright. He doesn’t read plays. He’s barely seen any. (Ten, in his life, he thinks.) He hasn’t studied literature. He has no literary background. (“I was good at essays in primary school,” is all he can offer.) He doesn’t know any writers. (Except for “a fellow down in Kerry” he met through a competition.) He doesn’t know much about Irish theatre companies.
He’s never sent a play to the Abbey, for example. “I thought it was so far out of reach – it’s the national theatre – what’s the point, I thought.” (In fact, the Abbey has been encouraging and promoting new writing in the last few years.)
At 31, and completely unknown as a writer, McManus is about to make his professional debut at one of the highest profile events in the Irish theatrical calendar, the Galway Arts Festival. Success there won’t make him a household name overnight, but it will open doors that so far have remained stubbornly closed to the plasterer from Cavan.
McManus’s story may be an unlikely one, but it is refreshing for that. After school, he joined his father as a plasterer, and like the trade. But a hiatus in 2001 saw him out of work and signing on. The dole told him to sign up for a course, and he found one in screenwriting, in Westport. He’d no thoughts of being a writer, but he’d never lived away from home, and thought Westport could be fun.
A year later, McManus was back in Cavan with a few screenplays under his belt, and not much idea of what to do with them. He tired shopping them around, but got nowhere, and took back up his trowel and hawk.
Plastering was good for the imagination, he found: he used drift off into his own world during the day, and would write down his ideas on scraps torn from cement bags.
But the lifestyle wasn’t conducive to writing. “We’d go to the pub on a Friday evening, and stay there all weekend.”
In 2005, his mother heard an ad for RTÉ’s PJ O’Connor radio drama awards, and sent off for the application form. McManus received it just before the deadline, wrote a play in a weekend, and hand delivered it to Dublin. “No Hate Going to Loss,” it was called, a Cavan expression meaning, “it’s a cold day”.
“It was about a tree that fell down,” he says. That may sound remarkably unpromising, but the play won the award (it had “astonishing use of dialect and distinctive expressions,” found the judges). One of the judges, Mick Lally, recommended he get in touch with Druid.
Continuing the comedy of errors that was his career to date, it took McManus three years to write to Druid. When he did, his play, A Lock of Fierce Roars (this one was “about the Euro changeover,” he says, demonstrating a charming lack of concern for the art of the publicist) was chosen for a public reading.
By then, the property crash had caught up with him, and he was on the dole again and had ample time for writing. But his luck, such as it had been, ran dry. He dug deep into his cement bag scraps for ideas, sent the resulting plays around the country, and gradually replaced the cement bag scraps with rejection letters.
Last summer, he was on the verge of giving up writing, when he answered a call for scripts for the new Galway Theatre Festival. He was chosen, received a public reading, and that led to the upcoming full production at the more established Galway Arts Festival.
The play, a dark comedy called The Quare Land, opens with a 90 year old Cavan farmer, played by the wonderful Des Keogh (who is far from a 90 year old), about to take his first bath in four years. But the bath is interrupted by a brash young developer (Frank O’Sullivan), who bursts in looking to buy one of the farmer’s fields in order to expand his golf course.
It’s not a play about the Celtic Tiger, McManus says, but one about land and greed, one which could have been written 100 years ago. (The echoes of John B Keane in both theme and his “outsider” background are striking.)
“I like plays that have characters, a set and a story,” he says. “That get from A to Z as quickly as possible.”
And then he apologies for sounding like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he sounds, instead, like he knows precisely what he’s talking about.
“I’d be happy if I never have to pick up another trowel or hawk,” he says. They served their purpose, though.
What not to miss in the Galway Arts Festival:
Penelope, by the inimitable Enda Walsh, directed by comic wizard Mikel Murfi, produced by the magical Druid. At the Druid Lane Theatre from July 12 to 24.
Freefall by Corn Exchange, winner of best play at last year’s Irish Theatre Awards. At the Black Box Theatre, July 12 to 17.
Long Gone Lonesome, an evening of song and storytelling about the life of neglected Scottish musician Thomas Fraser, by the pioneering National Theatre of Scotland. July 20 to 24, at various venues.
Aftermath, a piece of documentary theatre featuring testimony from Iraqi refugees, by the people who made The Exonerated. At the Town Hall Theatre, July 10 to 25.
Details from www.galwayartsfestival.com or 091 566577.