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Kennedy Center Award Goes to GRS Student’s Belfast Drama

Second MFA playwright also gets nod


Amid the violence of Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, two off-duty British soldiers down a few pints in a bar outside Belfast. Dave staggers off to bed, but his younger friend Barry stays behind with some girls. By the next morning, Barry has been killed, and Dave realizes that the girls were an Irish Republican Army honey trap.

Three decades later, still tormented by guilt and anger, Dave meets a young American researcher working on an inside story of the Troubles. When he sees what she has collected, his response opens old wounds in what’s supposed to be a more peaceful city.

That’s the premise of Leo McGann’s In the Moment, which won the National Partners of the American Theatre Playwriting Award at the 48th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The play is “about how people hold onto their grief and the damage that was done, and how that kind of sits alongside people trying to move on,” says McGann (GRS’17), a student in BU’s MFA Playwriting Program.

McGann, who is attending the festival in Washington this week, has also been selected for one of this year’s weeklong residencies at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn. He’s one of two MFA playwriting students to get a nod from the Kennedy Center this year. Samantha Noble (GRS’17) was one of six from around the country chosen for a Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights’ Workshop in July. BU nominated her for her play Franklin, about Sir John Franklin’s expedition in search of the Northwest Passage.

McGann’s play has seen several rewrites over his two years at BU, and he’s still working on it in preparation for a scheduled February 2017 production at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (BPT), wrestling with the balance between thriller-esque plot twists and a deep exploration of Dave’s character and choices.

“He’s the real thing,” says BPT artistic director Kate Snodgrass (GRS’90), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of playwriting. “He’s got a good sense of drama and a wonderful ear for dialogue, and he’s always writing about something important and universal.”

McGann’s parents were Queens University Belfast faculty members. “My mother is a Byzantinist and my father is a classicist,” he says. “I grew up with a lot of classical myths.”

Even though his family lived in relative comfort in one of the quieter parts of Belfast, the Troubles were never far away. “It was in the news constantly,” he says. “It felt like a much more tense place when I was a child than it is now, fortunately. Lots of graffiti, and soldiers were just kind of an everyday part of Belfast street life. You’d see troop patrols and just didn’t really think very much about it.”

McGann earned a BA in modern history from Oxford University in 2008, with an undergraduate thesis on 1972, the worst year of the Troubles. “The honey trap wasn’t something that happened very often, but it was obviously a much-remembered part of the conflict, because people were lured away,” he says. “They thought one thing was going to happen and something else would.”

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brokered peace between the political parties in Northern Ireland and between the Irish and British governments when McGann was 10, so much has changed in Belfast since then. The play’s later action takes place in a hip coffee house that wouldn’t be out of place on Commonwealth Avenue. But like any veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, Dave has a hard time letting go of the past. How others react to his questions is the crux of the drama.

“I wanted for it to be suspenseful,” McGann says, “and for the audience to not really know what’s going to happen, and to be rethinking these characters as it goes along.”

He says the play is not based on the controversy surrounding the Boston College Belfast Project, which ran into trouble when police in Northern Ireland subpoenaed interviews BC researchers had conducted with IRA fighters. BC offered to return the tapes to the interview subjects to avoid further fallout. But the events, says McGann, did suggest a way to bring Dave’s ordeal into the present.

One of the playwriting program faculty who’s been working with McGann, offering advice and guidance, is another Irish playwright who has written about his homeland while at BU: Ronan Noone (GRS’01), an adjunct assistant professor. Among Noone’s plays are The Baile Trilogy, The Atheist, and The Second Girl, which was produced last season by the Huntington Theatre Company.

The first play McGann came to class with was about a young man trying to make it in London, “and I encouraged him to write a play from where he was from,” Noone says. “I wanted something about Belfast, home, to bring the heart of that into a play.” When McGann set In The Moment aside to work on another play, Noone encouraged him to return to it (“There was some arm-twisting involved,” he says cheerfully) and to submit it to the Kennedy Center.

“You have to find a way that your voice stands out from everybody else’s,” says Noone. “And the first thing you have to do is return from whence you came and mine that world and bring that world alive. In many ways, what happens when you return home is, you have to face up to the truth, even the stuff that you’re denying. I think he’s on the road to doing that.”

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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