“Like having a perfect conversation,” Rosemary Doyle on Playwriting

Photo of Rosemary Doyle.
Photo of Rosemary Doyle. Photo by Bella Grundy.

Last weekend, I sat down with playwright Rosemary Doyle to learn about her writing process. We were joined at the kitchen table by a vivacious three-year-old who had endless questions for me (who am I, why did I ring the doorbell, why does my skirt have sparkles, can I twirl, can I watch her twirl, too?!). Faced with this hard-hitting preschool journalism, my conversation with Doyle was conducted in quick little snippets, with lots of jumping around between topics. One of those topics was Doyle’s memory play, EEN, which opens on March 3rd at the Tett Centre, and  “follows the journey of a college-age girl to Ireland to meet her maternal grandmother for the first time,” as described by Theatre Kingston. The story jumps between generations as it unravels a family’s secrets. While it was at times distracting, having multiple generations of creative minds at the table made for a fun and fast-paced tea party interview. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You know, you have an auspicious name for writing a memory play—in Hamlet, we get Ophelia with “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” 

Oh, that’s right! Yeah, rosemary is for remembrance. About once a year, I get those “Sniff Rosemary” memes on my Facebook and people walk up and sniff me. 

My recollection of the term “memory play” is that it’s a story narrated in retrospect by a lead character. What drew you to this form of storytelling?

Well, this play is actually a little less conforming to that. I called it a memory play because all the set, every thing that is described in the play, is a real memory. It’s a place I have been that no longer exists. The plot is completely made up. The people are completely made up. The play is told as if the lead character is grown up and talking about that summer, but I never introduce her as that grown-up character. It travels in time between four generations, jumping between little important snippets of memory of the women of this family.

You talked about your Irish heritage in 2018 when the KTA blog interviewed you about your role as Theatre Kingston’s Artistic Director. Without knowing much else about you or about the play, it seems that there are some personal threads that connect you to EEN

One of the main characters of the play is the house, which is really my grandmother’s house. Everything that’s described about that house is true, as far as I’m recalling it. I was quite a young child when I was there, so maybe things stretched with time. But that house is no longer around, it got bulldozed. So it’s only in memory.

I’m curious about the role of personal memory in your work. For myself, I get pretty antsy about maintaining that fiction/reality distinction in my writing. How do you situate yourself publicly in relation to your work when it can easily be interpreted as “This is my story about me?”

Well, I think I’m fairly forthright with my friends, so they will see the play and go, “This is not anything about Rosemary.” I did feel that way when I published my book of poetry. Because my book of poetry, although esoteric and weird, it is all about me. So that was very naked-making, if you know what I mean. Like, you feel very vulnerable and very exposed. With this play, I don’t. 

But it’s interesting. My mother passed away this September. And I had chosen to do this play about the home that she grew up in before she was even sick. She died suddenly of a heart attack. But now when I read it, I cry. And I don’t cry because I’m sad. I cry because it just opens something very tender. But not sad tender. Not hurt tender. Just kind of beautiful tender, you know? 

I think maybe I was a little more immune to it when I wrote it than I am now. It’s a lot of kind of laugh-and-cry-at-the-same-time stuff. So I don’t know how I’m gonna make it through opening night. But I’m gonna try.

I’m interested in the pace of your playwriting. Your bio on the Red Sandcastle site says that you’ve won seven 24-hour playwriting contests, and that your love of instant creation inspired you to create the Thousand Monkeys Playwriting Festival and your Play in a Week Camp. Do you want to talk a little about your love for speedy writing?

It’s incredibly fast. This play, EEN, was originally written in about four days. And then I rewrote it in two days. I’m obviously busy, so basically, you get as much time as you get. 

There’s something beautiful about writing quickly. The thought process of the play doesn’t get interfered with by your life. You get to write a moment in time. Playwriting is kind of like having a perfect conversation. 

I don’t write from the beginning of the play to the end. People are always like, “You mentioned this in the third page, and then it comes back in the 27th page.” Yeah, because I went back and I added in a bit on the third page to make it make sense, because I had a good idea on the 27th page. So you layer in all that stuff. It’s a constant back and forth, like kneading dough. 

Right, and you need time to let it rise. 

Exactly! When I write these 24-hour plays, I often will go for a nap. Or, I remember once I was writing a play and I went for a massage and I thought about the whole play, and then came back and wrote a bunch more. It really calms the body. 

(Three-year-old becomes rowdy.)

This is fun. I have a 25-year-old and a 20-year-old. This is new. And there we go. But this is the reason I wrote 24-hour plays. Because I had my own boys who were so young at the time.

Let’s talk about the title. Where does EEN come from? 

So, “-een” means “little.” It’s the suffix in Irish for little. The lead character’s name is Mary, and her daughter’s name is Maureen. 

I guess it’s appropriate for something that was written in such a little time frame.

I’ve written a lot of plays for children. And this is one of the ones that I’ve written for grownups. And it’s quite interesting. I’ve written a lot of plays for adults, too, don’t get me wrong, but always for festivals and stuff. So this one’s gonna be fun in that it’s done a bunch of times.

Do you feel like there’s something that translates between writing for children and writing for adults? Does one experience inform the other?

I think my plays are easy to memorize. I write in a way that makes sense. It’s organic. For children to be able to understand something, it needs to be clear. This one has huge long monologues. But for some reason, the actresses learned them [without difficulty].

Yeah, it’s not Queen Mab

Yeah, like, I don’t list stuff. I always find that really weird, when people do big lists. You’re sitting there as an actor going, “Okay. The watermelon comes after the grapefruit, which comes after the lemon. But before—ugh! Oh, no.” And I always find it very funny because everyone’s desperately trying to memorize that. And, does it matter? To the audience, does it matter? Not really. So why do they do that? It seems odd.

Well, now I’m thinking I’d better not open my article with a big list.

(laughs) No, you can do that, I don’t care.

I just won’t make anyone recite it. 

Just don’t make ’em recite it. Yeah, you can write what you want. As long as they can read it. 

The conversation trailed off as our young companion grew restless. We wrapped up the interview and concluded the tea party. While ours wasn’t “the perfect conversation”—I mean, really, who has time for an uninterrupted conversation these days?—I appreciated the chance to hear Doyle’s perspective on playwriting. I look forward to seeing what Theatre Kingston does with this production of EEN when it comes to the Tett next week. 

Rosemary Doyle’s ‘EEN’ opens on March 3 at the Tett Centre and more information can be found here.