For a decade Corrib Theatre had brought contemporary Irish theater to the Portland stage under the leadership of founding artistic director Gemma Whelan. This year, Whelan stepped down and left her considerable Portland legacy in the hands of a newcomer to the Rose City, Holly Griffith. Griffith’s only been at the helm for five months, but she’s already hosted a buzz-worthy staged reading, The Frederick Douglass Project, and has opened her Portland directorial debut, Hannah Khalil’s achingly poignant sci-fi drama Metaverse, which continues through Dec. 18.
But who is Corrib’s new artistic director, the second in its history, and how did she come to be in this position?
Holly Griffith grew up an Irish-American Catholic girl from the Rust Belt city of Dayton, Ohio. Early on, she caught “the bug” and did a lot of theater as a kid, not knowing, for a while, that it would become her life’s work. She went to Emerson College in Boston to study English, and then to the University of Arizona to pursue getting her PhD and becoming a professor–a path that, in her own words, “was sucking the soul right out of my body.” Throughout everything, however, there had been one constant. “Theater,” she says, “followed me everywhere I went.”
Seeking what seemed at the time to be only “a creative outlet,” Griffith started volunteering at the Rogue Theatre in Tucson. She eventually auditioned for them, “and they cast me in a tiny role in one of their plays and then I just kind of hung around them a lot, and they couldn’t get rid of me,” she says, laughing. Not only did they not get rid of her, over the next seven or eight years she became a resident actor. “The Rogue does a lot of classical theater. They do Shakespeare every year and some of those big-name writers. I feel like that’s where I got my education as an actor.”
Then a new theater, the Scoundrel and Scamp, opened up and provided Griffith an opportunity she hadn’t had before: to direct. “They were super-generous and trusted me to direct even though I had never done it before. The first play I ever directed was an Irish play called Lovers, by Brian Friel. I’ve always loved Irish writers. I had such a good time with it that I wanted to do more. That was in 2018.” And then, a familiar refrain. “When the pandemic hit,” says Griffith, “the theaters I was working at had to close.” That wasn’t all she lost. “I was working part time as an adjunct instructor at the University of Arizona. I lost that job.”
Finding herself suddenly without work or prospects, Griffith pondered what to do with her life. A tantalizing thought came to her. Ireland. “I’ve always felt a real affinity for the culture and literature and music and everything,” she says, “I had visited many times. I looked at the MFA directing program at The Lir Academy, which is the drama conservatory at Trinity in Dublin. They were still accepting applications. It was a huge risk and it was in the middle of the pandemic, so I had no idea if the program was even gonna go, but I applied and got in and a couple of months later moved to Ireland.”
It was a small program. There were only two other directing MFA students besides Griffith, both women, one from Germany and the other from Greece. The three became fast friends. After receiving her MFA from Lir, Griffith did some work in Ireland, including a mentorship with artist/activist Lian Bell, the leader of a movement called Waking the Feminist, which fought for gender parity in Irish theater. “It was extremely rare to see women represented in the director or playwright positions on Irish stages,” says Griffith, “and so [Lian Bell] led this movement to change that.”
Through The Lir Academy, there were other benefits. “Theater communities everywhere are small,” says Griffith, “but Ireland is a small country and Dublin is a small city,” which, to Griffith’s mind, was a perk. “I feel like I have some pretty good connections to the Irish theater world. I met a lot of people and worked with a lot of folks.” That included a bucket-list opportunity to assistant-direct a show at the Abbey, Ireland’s national theater, Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows. Walls and Windows was the first time that Irish Travellers were featured on the Abbey Stage. “Irish Travellers,” explains Griffith, “are a group of nomadic, indigenous people in Ireland that are still very marginalized.” (Interestingly enough, even before the Abbey had made this unprecedented move, Corrib Theatre had already commissioned a play from McDonagh, 2021’s Pretty Proud Boy.) On Walls and Windows, Griffith made friends with such artistic luminaries as Irish Traveller actor, activist and documentary filmmaker John Connors.
There were other advantages, as well. “There’s so much more funding available for artists at all levels,” says Griffith, “from the Abbey Theatre all the way down to individual artists who are just starting out. Just this year, they’re piloting a system to give artists a basic income. It’ll have problems, because how do you define an artist, how do you prove you’re an artist, all that stuff. Those are big questions, but the fact that I’m seeing some people I know who are artists, who this is their life and career, now have a basic income from the government, that’s amazing.”
On the other hand, Griffith found Irish theater at times insular, even reactionary. “There was a little bit of resistance to work made by non-Irish artists. There’s a real sense of national pride there, and there should be. They’ve only been independent from Britain for a hundred years now and have had an incredibly impoverished history. But I find that the theater over there is still deeply, deeply Irish, and it’s more resistant to international and immigrant voices.”
Still, Griffith’s time in Europe was so rewarding that it would take something special to bring her back stateside. “After Covid and not being employed at all for a few months, and then doing school,” she says, “there was a big part of me that was like, ‘I would really like to have some stability.’ But at the same time I really liked being in Europe. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll stay here unless there’s a job in the states that feels like it really fits a lot of my interests.’ A colleague of mine sent me the job description at Corrib, and it sounded like me.”
What drew Griffith to the Corrib position was pretty clear right from the outset. “Corrib has always had a strong commitment to newer writers,” says Griffith, “up and coming voices, marginalized voices, diverse voices, that I’ve seen no other Irish theater do, even in Ireland (I don’t think). Gemma [Whelan] made a commitment to that. It meant I wouldn’t have to be breaking new ground with Corrib’s audience. That was really exciting to me.”
Naturally, being a new, first-time artistic director has its challenges. Griffith has a staff of two: herself and managing director Karl Hanover. That means both of them wear a lot of hats. “Learning new systems has been hard,” says Griffith. “I’ve only consistently worked at two theaters, and even between them they had very different ways of doing things. Coming into a theater that is already on its feet, and figuring out the ways that our predecessors did things, and deciding what works for me and for us and if things don’t, then figuring out, well, what are the ways we do want to do things. Those are big questions and I think they take some time to figure out.”
Likewise, of course, is money. “Fundraising,” says Griffith, “is something I’ve never been super-responsible for (laughs) in the past, and now I’m very responsible for it, and that’s a lot of pressure. And talking to the very generous people in Portland who are supporting the arts and making sure that I’m hearing what their values are and balancing those with the values of Corrib Theatre and the values of our artists. That’s all a really interesting tightrope walk for me.”
But with the challenges have come some successes. “The most exciting thing that’s happened so far was Frederick Douglass,” she says, a staged reading that I directed, and which was how I got to know Griffith. “Especially at Alberta House, there was such a buzz at that performance. I loved hearing the discussion that came from the artists and Mr. Bobby [Fouther], about staging Black trauma and where we are with that. It’s a complicated thing, and it was really cool to hear all those different perspectives and for our audience to hear those different perspectives, and it was a great performance. It doesn’t get better than that, I don’t think. That was a real highlight.”
Another highlight has been Griffith herself making her Portland directorial debut with Hannah Khalil’s Metaverse. “I found Metaverse when I was researching as part of my interview process for Corrib,” she says. “They asked me to put together what would a season of four plays look like for me. I started looking around at more contemporary Irish voices and I found Hannah Khalil, who was Irish and Palestinian, and I read Metaverse. Metaverse is such a rare play in a lot of ways. Irish theater, and I think theater in general, tends to look back, and Metaverse looks towards the future. The play is eerily relevant. It was written before the pandemic but speaks to experiences we had during the pandemic, like, specifically, communicating in virtual spaces as the norm. But, that being said, it doesn’t call for virtual media and projections. It’s a play that has to be done in person. That is really important to me as a director. It’s one of the questions I ask: ‘Why are we doing this in person instead of on screen? What is it about this piece that has to be done in front of people live?’”
Griffith also feels that you can see how Khalil’s Irish-Palestinian cultural heritage manifests itself in her dramaturgy. “Both of those identities have a lot to do with borders,” she says. “And she extends the definition of border to not necessarily be a geopolitical one that you can draw on the map, but what are the borders in our society, what are the borders that corporations and government entities put up for us, who or what are we not able to access and why? That’s a really big and interesting issue these days.”
This is what audiences can expect from Corrib in the future: a sustaining of Gemma Whelan’s vision, but also an evolution. “I want to maintain this legacy that Gemma has laid the foundation for, of bringing to the fore Irish voices that represent Ireland today, not Ireland a hundred years ago,” says Griffith. “I would really like to grow our audience and get the word out that Irish theater can be for lots of people. When I was in Ireland there was theater happening everywhere. Pubs are huge venues for entertainment and storytelling and song, and it happens casually, out of thin air. There’s no planning, there’s no rehearsal. There’s a real knack for interpersonal experiences and storytelling. It’s a direction and a quality of Irish culture that I really want to lean into going forward, that the value is in the story and the in-person experience.”