Citysong, Dylan Coburn Gray’s Verity Bargate award-winning play, is coming to Soho Theatre. Natasha Tripney talks to the playwright about his inspirations, from Dylan Thomas to Kate Tempest, being ‘sickeningly well behaved at school’ and the need for compassion in telling other people’s stories
Irish playwright Dylan Coburn Gray, whose Verity Bargate award-winning play Citysong opens at Soho Theatre tonight, describes his approach to his work as one of “nerdy compassion”.
Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, as well as more contemporary work like Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients, Citysong is a “play for voices” exploring three generations of a Dublin family on a single day while embracing 50 years of social change.
It time-travels from a period in which the city has just been electrified and is starting to build social housing to “the last generation to be upwardly mobile in the way our parents’ expected”.
It is a play that tries to capture “big thoughts in small moments and locate the mythic in the banal,” he says. There’s a cliché of Irish writers not being very good at plot – or “very eloquently doing nothing” in Coburn Grey’s words – but he believes this interest in minutiae stems from “a post-colonial mindset that most of our problems are chronic and not fixable in three hours and you can only bear witness to them as they are”.
His work tends to be intricate – the Guardian’s Helen Meaney described it as “linguistically playful” – mining the line between poetry and drama both in structure and in form. “Poetry is stillness, whereas drama is rupture,” he says.
Citysong took the form that it did because “voices endure,” Coburn Grey says. Solid as buildings seem to be, he continues, they come and they go. “Your favourite pub, the coffee shop you write your essays in, suddenly, gone. Though voices are ephemeral, we repeat ourselves across time. We inherent idioms. We inadvertently parrot people from 100 years ago.”
Coburn Gray said he was “a swot in school” and “a sickeningly well-behaved teenager”. Though he studied music at Trinity, graduating in 2014, he always enjoyed writing. “Other writers like having written things, rather than the act of sitting at the computer, but I like the challenge of joining the dots.”
Having written for the Dublin Youth Theatre, with whom he’s since worked, he decided to write a play for the Dublin Fringe. This came after reading Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus; O’Rowe being “one of those devastatingly influential Irish writers for a generation of young men, some of whom don’t get over it”. His play Boys and Girls premiered in 2013 and won him theatre company Fishamble’s new writing award, before playing New York as part of the First Irish Festival.
Citysong began life at the Lingo Spoken Word Festival. Coburn Gray came at spoken word sideways, in part out of economic necessity. Richness of language is an effective way creating a sense of sensuality and spectacle in small-scale theatre. “Words are free in the way that lighting designers aren’t,” he says.
What was your first job?
On Brokentalkers’ The Blue Boy.
What is your next job?
Writing a short play based on my work with young people in Dublin 15. It’s called If I Were A Cat I’d Be A Dog.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
No one pays their rent with their art, so don’t feel ashamed if you can’t. (If it looks like they do they’re cheating somehow.)
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Joining Dublin Youth Theatre. Plugged me into a world I’ve never escaped and don’t want to.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
A music teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Stupid thematic gifts on opening night. Got given a head of broccoli for Citysong, which made me laugh a lot for reasons the show makes clear…
Naturalism didn’t feel like an option at the time, because “paradoxically naturalism requires this huge cushion of money”. It wasn’t about rejecting the ways of the past, it was more “we literally can’t afford the ways of the past”.
He works regularly with Irish theatre collective Malaprop and has created a number of devised shows with the company, including fringe hit BlackCatfishMusketeer, which he wrote. A play about the internet’s impact on the way people communicate, though like so much of the company’s work, it’s about many other things beside.
Citysong won the Verity Bargate Award, Soho Theatre’s prize for new writing, in 2017. The prize has proved useful in more ways than one – “Everyone likes feeling they’re hot shit” – but the really pleasing thing about it, apart from the international attention was the opportunity to have conversations about future projects.
That year, he was already working on six plays. He had the realisation that “even if I had been commissioned to write them all, I would still have made below standard industrial wage, a way of living that was in no way sustainable, or rather, it would have been sustainable for about three years, but then I’d die, which was not the goal.”
Since then Malaprop brought two more shows to the Edinburgh Fringe: Everything Not Saved, a meditation on memory, and Jericho, as much a performative essay as a play, that juxtaposed post-truth journalism with pro-wrestling.
How does the creative process of working with a group – there are seven members of Malaprop – compare with writing his own plays? He uses Jericho as an example of their working methods. The themes originally came together because fellow company member Breffni Holahan is a wrestling fan, and Coburn Gray, being “the cliché of an intense arts boy,” mentioned that Roland Barthes had written an essay on wrestling (this eventually became a joke in the show).
“If you put seven people in a room, someone will know something that acts as an interestingly oblique prompt that sends your brain spinning off in a direction. It tends to roll like that, quite naturally,” the writer says. The company now has two international tours on the cards.
What comes across again and again when talking about his work is his level of care and self-scrutiny in regards to the ownership of stories. One of the things he’s most mindful of, is that he’s a man in his 20s writing other people’s experiences. Malaprop is a company of five women and two men, so when he’s creating work for them “generally speaking, I’m writing for people who are quite unlike me in several major senses”.
He’s interested in the lives of Irish women, and as his biological grandfather was Chinese and his mother was adopted, “I have a real familial stake in stories about diaspora and liminal identities, though I feel I have very little right to tell them”.
Because the play features jokes in working class Dublin accents, he put a note in the text that said: “It would be really lovely if this could be staged in a way that the accent wasn’t the joke.” It’s important to be explicit, he says, because “if you rest on your good intentions people will laugh for the wrong reasons. I mean they’ll always laugh for the wrong reasons, but you have to do your due diligence”.
When telling other people’s stories, the stakes are high as they need to be honoured. While he finds the word research chilly, it’s also a big part of the process. But there needs to be more to it than that, “there needs to be compassion and, the big one, is love”.
Date and place of birth: Dublin, 1991
Training: BMus from Trinity College Dublin with a major in musicology
Boys and Girls, Dublin Fringe (2013)
BlackCatfishMusketeer, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2017)
Citysong, Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2019
Awards: Fishamble New Writing Prize, 2013
Verity Bargate Award, 2017
Agent: Jasmine Daines-Pilgrem at the Lisa Richards Agency
Citysong is at Soho Theatre from June 12- July 6