Meet… Gemma Kerr

Gemma image
Gemma is the director for ‘To Have To Shoot Irishmen’


Have you ever worked with playwright Lizzie Nunnery before? What brought you to this particular project?

I’ve known Lizzie a good few years and I’ve worked with her through projects with Almanac Arts and short plays with the Everyword Festival at the Liverpool Everyman, but this is the first full-length play we’ve collaborated on. Lizzie brought the play to me about three years ago and asked if I’d be interested in directing it. I don’t think I would ever turn down the opportunity to work with Lizzie, and this play immediately had something very special about it. Frank and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington were a fascinating couple, ahead of their time in many, many ways, and the way in which their story intersects with that of the Easter Rising in Dublin, just opens up all of those questions of ‘what might have been?’ ‘how might history have happened if this moment had played out in a different way?’. It’s a moment in time, a really extraordinary moment of tension and possibility, and this play considers not just that moment, but what happens to those who are left to pick up the pieces. So it resonates very much, even today.

What are the challenges in directing a play based around a real-life event with characters that did exist?

To start with, Lizzie has done an amazing job in honouring the voices of the play. With Frank and Hanna particularly, it’s possible to read a lot of their own words, because of their speeches and writing which were documented. And Frank, or ‘versions’ of Frank, appear in some of James Joyce’s writing because he and Frank were close friends and Joyce based a couple of characters on him. And that’s really interesting because it gives you a kind of sideways perspective on him as a person.

It’s important to hold onto the fact that these are people who existed but they are also characters in a play, and to find the truth in the writing. I hope that the production will satisfy those who know the story of the Sheehy Skeffingtons, but for a huge number of people who come to see it, this will be a new story, one that hasn’t been heard, so I don’t think it’s something that you can let overwhelm the need to engage the audience in a narrative.

The conflict in the play comes from four people who believed very strongly and passionately, that they were on the side of what was right. So I think we’re trying hard not to present a polemic, but to articulate some of the inconsistencies and struggles of human nature that make up the ‘truth’ of this story.

How much research do you do? Where do you draw the line and go back to the script?

I love research, and obviously with a subject like this, there’s a huge amount written and documented, so it really could go on and on. I think with this, it’s been helpful to keep the research really connected to the play and the story, so always using the script as the hand that directs you to research, so you don’t go into a rabbit warren of endless reading. We’ve been lucky to have Professor Gerry Smyth come and talk to us in our rehearsal room, and he distilled, for us, a very vivid picture of Dublin at the time, so that kind of expertise is invaluable.

What are the biggest challenges facing someone starting out as a theatre director today?

Theatre can feel very competitive and there’s a pressure to be fully ‘up’ with everything that’s happening, and inevitably other people’s successes can make you feel that things are passing you by. The vast majority of us are freelance, and that can be really isolating. It’s important to find the people who can be your support network, the people you can talk about your work with, the people you can share your insecurities with, the people who are excited by what you’ve got to say, the people you can fail with. All of that helps you feel connected to something, and strengthens your voice.

What are you most excited with ‘To Have To Shoot Irishmen’?

I’m excited it’s happening after a long journey of bringing it together. I’m excited by the brilliant actors who are bringing it to life in the rehearsal room, it’s wonderful to be working with music and song and movement and creating all of that together. On a personal note, bringing this production to the Everyman, which was my first theatre, has always been my favourite theatre, is particularly thrilling, and I still can’t quite believe my luck.


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