Rosemary Jenkinson

Heather Richardson meets the playwright unafraid to address Loyalism in NI

Rosemary Jenkinson was born in Belfast in 1967. Her first collection of short stories, Contemporary Problems Nos 53 & 54 was published by Lagan Press in 2004. Her play The Bonefire will premiere at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival.

Your play The Bonefire has been called a 'comedy of manners amongst the sectarian classes'. Can you summarise what it's about?

It's about the bonfire on July 11 in Belfast, and deals with a brother and sister who have an unconventional relationship. Their little isolated world is turned upside down with the arrival of two outsiders.

Where did the idea for it come from?

The Bonefire was inspired by walking past the Annandale Embankment in June and seeing the 'boney' boys and girls sitting out on the hill and hearing their laughter. It looked like they were having fun and I decided then to write about the bonfire, so one night I went up with a few beers and joined them.

Rosemary JenkinsonThe Bonefire is being produced by Rough Magic. How did you make the connection with them?

Originally I wrote a play called Chocolate Madonna in 2002 for Tinderbox Theatre Company's New Writing Hothouse. From then I sent it round theatre companies and got the usual rejection slips. I was disappointed, because after you've been writing for quite a few years you tend to know when you've written something good.

At that point I seriously would never have written another play again if Rough Magic hadn't shown interest. Through Chocolate Madonna I gained a place on their Seeds II New Writing Project and was commissioned to write The Bonefire.

You've had input from Rough Magic as the play has developed. How does that experience compare with the isolation and/or independence of short story writing?

It's been great. Working with Rough Magic was the first time I've ever worked with anyone on a project. I was lucky that my mentor was the playwright and novelist Declan Hughes, and it gave me a lot of confidence to have his experience behind me.

I wrote three drafts with him before having a rehearsed reading in Dublin last October. Since then I've done another six drafts with Rough Magic's literary manager, Christine Madden, who has also given me excellent support.

I'm not saying it's an easy process - it can be really hard to adapt to someone else's vision of your play, but as long as you trust who you're working with, and you really feel you have the right creative match, the other person's opinion is invaluable.

I enjoy having full creative control of short stories, but I could still do with someone around who could give me advice and help me to edit and cut out my pretentious bits.

What have you gained from seeing your work interpreted by professional actors?

I've been in workshops with some superb NI actors like Andrea Irvine, Peter Ballance, Dan Gordon and Cathy White. The best is when they deliver lines with more flair than you ever imagined. Seeing actors stumble over your lines is a pretty good indication that you've gone over-literary.

It's great to feel that actors are energised by your lines, that they're getting a real buzz from saying them. The more you get to know the actors personally, the less you want to let them down with your writing.

You realise that in fiction it's no problem to have minor characters, but in drama it's better to use your actors to maximum effect, so you have to give them strong, complex characters to get their teeth into.

You explore characters from a Protestant/Loyalist subculture in your drama and in some of your short stories. Why do feel drawn to writing about these kinds of characters?

I prefer things that aren't mainstream. Alienation within society is a definite theme of mine. As for the Protestant/Loyalist theme, well, right now it's very interesting to me because of this deep division that exists.

You have your wealthy Protestants who are repulsed by the whole Twelfth and tend to flee the country every July, and the ghetto Loyalists who embrace Protestant traditions even more strongly. In my stories I write about Republicans too.

A lot of NI writers say nobody wants to hear about Northern Ireland, but I find this country fascinating and I want to hear about it. It's a unique place - it's just come out of conflict. All that deserves to be written about.

It seems ironic that a Belfast play is getting its first production in Dublin. Do you think it will come to NI?

I'd love to see it produced in Belfast, but I think there's a certain amount of caution about drama that deals with Loyalism.

That's understandable, when you consider Gary Mitchell's recent experience. Another factor is that the theatre in NI is under funded, reducing the opportunity for new work to be produced.

What's next for you as a writer?

I'd like to publish another collection of short stories in a couple of years. In the meantime though, I'm going to forge ahead with plays and try to write a good follow-up to The Bonefire.

The Bonefire will run from Sept 30 - Oct 14 (previews Sept 28-29) at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin.