Last night, “How to Be a Man in West Belfast” kicked off its four-show run this weekend at WestCo Cafe. The play, written by Ben Firke ’12 and directed by Justin Wayne ’12, is – suprisingly – exactly what it sounds like. Refreshingly, Firke’s snappy title isn’t some masturbatory reference to a metaphorical landscape (a “Belfast of the mind,” let’s say, or some other BS) but an incisive description of his story, which revolves around the difficulties of, well, becoming a man in IRA hotspot West Belfast.
Still, this isn’t to say that the play is myopically focused on its setting. Firke originally got the idea for the play from a New York Times article about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but eventually decided to relocate the setting of his incipient human drama to Northern Ireland. Moreover, wittingly or not, the play can barely help but draw resonance from our own recent foreign entanglements and national campaign against terrorism.
Prior to opening night, Firke talked with the Argus about how he originally conceived the idea for “Belfast,” the kinds of questions he hopes it will ask and what it was like putting the play together.
Liz Tung: Why don’t you start out by giving us an idea of what this play is about?
Ben Firke: This play is about a young man named Liam McLoughlin, who lives in the Catholic ghetto of West Belfast, Northern Ireland in the mid-90’s. He struggles to choose between following his older brother Michael into the IRA or heeding the advice of his high school principal and trying to make a career out of his skills as a computer programmer.
LT: What are some of the themes you try to address in the play?
BF: One of the biggest questions the play asks is “what exactly is the measure of a man?” In Northern Ireland, much of the “terrorism” that has been going on for years and years (and has just started again, sadly) isn’t really about fighting for freedom or independence from the UK. It’s more about this sort of Jets v. Sharks/Us v. Them gangland mentality, where bored young men end up getting involved in violent activity because they want to “prove themselves,” whatever that means. My play sort of wonders whether displays of strength or the relationships one leaves behind are the true ways to evaluate a man. It also deals with how a person can escape or move on from a toxic culture that has claimed every member of their family in one way or another.
LT: What motivated you to write this particular story?
BF: I’ve been sort of fascinated with Ireland since I read all of Martin McDonagh’s plays when I was 16 or 17. I’m not Irish, but a good friend of mine spent his summers in Belfast and two of my favorite teachers were Irish, so I’d been exposed to a lot of the culture for a few years. I got the original idea from a photo in the New York Times. It was of a wall in Palestine with the phrase “CNTRL+ALT+DELETE” painted on it in huge letters. I thought that was kind of clever, a nice comment on a conflict that’s gone on for essentially forever entering the digital age. But I thought that I didn’t have the chops as a writer to tackle the Israel/Palestine issue, so I made it about Northern Ireland.
LT: When did you write it?
BF: I wrote the first draft last June while in England and the Republic of Ireland. We were on vacation for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary (they lived in England for a long time) and I had lots of downtime, so I wrote the play to keep myself busy. Then I worked on it when I wasn’t working during the summer. My friend Ellen, who’s writing a book about Irish-Americans, pointed out lots of inaccuracies in the storyline, so I ended up throwing out about 60 pages and starting over. I did an extensive amount of research. At times I felt like I was writing a term paper. I finished it this fall at Wesleyan. I didn’t really work on it continuously; I’d pick it up, write a few scenes, then put it down again. That trick actually worked very well. When you give yourself breaks like that, it makes it easier to spot the parts that are complete crap a lot easier.
LT: What role have you played in putting the production of “Belfast” together?
BF: I put together the preliminary creative team and wrote the Second Stage proposal. [Director] Justin Wayne [‘12] directed my play in the 24 Hour Play Festival, and I was really impressed with his work, so I figured we should work together again. I asked Tess Minter [‘12] to stage-manage immediately after I saw “Songs For A New World,” which she worked on, and she said yes. So I helped to bring the design people together, but it’s just as much Justin and Tess’s show at this point. They’ve been working really hard and have done a fantastic job.
LT: What has been the most rewarding part of this whole process?
BF: Since I’m in my first year at Wes, I knew that my first Second Stage production would be a learning experience. I’ve figured out a lot of nuts-and-bolts stuff. My high school was great for drama but was very hands-on. Here, it’s a DIY mentality, which is great, but you have to teach yourself to be responsible and, well, do it yourself. It’s harder, but in the end it’s more fun. Also, working with Justin and Tess and the cast has been great. They bring a tremendous energy to the work.