James McAnespy’s debut play, Sitting Up For Michael, a bittersweet comedy about bereavement, unemployment and secrets set at a wake, is currently touring Northern Ireland theatres.
The itinerary includes the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, Strule Arts Centre in Omagh and the Alley Theatre in Strabane – a tour that would please an experienced playwright never mind a 26-year-old first-timer. Omagh-born McAnespy, however, insists that he is an actor first and foremost.
‘I’ve been writing for a while. Sitting Up For Michael is just the first to make it off the computer,’ he explains with a laugh. ‘I figured if I wrote the stuff myself, I could make sure I got the meatiest roles.’
That was also the thinking behind King’s Fool, McAnespy’s new theatre company. This DIY approach isn’t necessarily a route McAnespy would recommend to all aspiring actors, but it works for him.
‘You would go to auditions and there would always be the usual suspects there,’ he recalls of his days auditioning for parts. ‘The same 20 or so people. You depended on the next phone call. King’s Fool lets me shortcut that process.’
Sitting Up For Michael is the first play produced by King’s Fool, and McAnespy hopes it will not be the last. He has plans for productions on both stage and screen over the next three years. Originally the plan was for him to write all the scripts, but ‘other members of my core crew have ambitions in that direction too’.
The idea for Sitting Up For Michael came to McAnespy in 2010, when his grandmother passed away. ‘I sat up for the wake, and although it was sad there was a lot of humour as well. I remember thinking that it would be a great setting for a play.’
It is also a setting that McAnespy fears may not quite resonate with younger generations. The pressures of modern life and the increasing geographic spread of families make it more and more difficult to bring everyone together at the wake house.
McAnespy believes that generational disconnects are a shame, since an Irish wake is such a unique blend of grief, celebration and memory. That separation between family members is something that he tried to convey in Sitting Up For Michael.
Although none of the events of the real-life wake made it into the play, McAnespy asserts that the play does capture the experience of living in a small community and how family members come together to mourn.
‘That was important to me,’ he says. ‘There are some really subtle moments of really great Tyrone humour in the play. It has been fantastic to see the actors conveying that on stage.’
McAnespy plays Rory, a character whose attempt to pay his respects puts him at the centre of the drama. Other actors include Brian Kennedy and Naomi Rocke, who make their professional stage debuts as Brian and the spiteful Carla. Benjamin Gould, Marianne March, Michael O’Sullivan and Cathy Brennan-Bradley also star.
Although this tour is the first time the play has enjoyed a full production, it was staged in 2011 as part of Accidental Theatre’s Rehearsed Reading series. McAnespy first made contact with Accidental Theatre as an actor, appearing in a variety of plays including one stint as Hitler in a play by William Patterson.
‘They are the older sibling of Northern Ireland theatre,’ McAnespy says enthusiastically about his work with Accidental Theatre. ‘They are a great company for a new writer to work with. Emily DeDakis, the dramaturg there, helped develop Sitting Up For Michael from its first draft to something that’s ready to be staged.’
To find out where to see Sitting Up for Michael check out the CultureNorthernIreland What's On guide