Wednesday 26th August 2015: “My Limerick is about friends and family”, Myles Breen tells me during a break from rehearsals for his upcoming revival of his one-man play Language Unbecoming a Lady.
Publish Date: Wednesday 26th August 2015
Written by Nigel Dugdale on behalf of Limerick 2020
“My Limerick is about friends and family”, Myles Breen tells me during a break from rehearsals for his upcoming revival of his one-man play Language Unbecoming a Lady.
“Limerick is a small city with a bit heart", he says. "I love its intimacy. I love walking down the street and always bumping into somebody who you know and who knows you. Some might find that claustrophobic but that’s I love about home. It means you are part of the city. It means you are part of a community that knows you and cares about you".
Myles Breen blames his mother Bridie for setting him down the road he has taken in life. Bridie Breen, now in her mid-nineties has been a life-long lover of music, opera and theatre. “Bridie would drag my brother John and I to every cultural cockfight in town when we were kids”, Myles remembers.
“We would attend all of the Cecilian Musical Society shows. I also very distinctly remember regularly seeing the Vienna Boys Choir down in the old Savoy Theatre”.
Myles clearly tells his early memories of touring productions coming to Limerick including those from the Abbey Theatre. It was these experiences that instilled in him a life-long love of the theatre.
“We were kids but it felt so grown up to go to the theatre”, he sasy. “It was a special treat. We saw everything and were really introduced to all styles of performing arts. Mum would warn us to be on our very best behaviour on those occasions but there was never a fear. We were always captivated”.
A beaming Myles Breen in the centre of it all during his days at Miss Penny's Irish Dancing School
Myles’ first experiences of actually performing were when he first started taking speech and drama classes with Barbara Ni Chaoimh. Barbara is now well known in theatre circles but at the time had just finished training to be a teacher at Mary Immaculate College and was working in Limerick.
“I spent two years studying with Barbara every Saturday morning down at the Augustinian Hall. I simply loved it”, Myles says.
Out of that he was given the opportunity to work with the well-known theatre group Buion Phadraig who were looking for a young boy to take part in an Irish language play. This experience took Myles around the country to all the drama festivals.
“The whole concept of going into many venues across the country was incredible. I ended up doing two plays with them much to my father’s chagrin. They would pick me up from home and naturally I was coming home quite late. I was on thirteen at the time”.
Many would not realise that he studied a Bachelor of Commerce degree in UCC. The concept of Drama Schools was not heard of at the time. It was the early 1980’s and of course there was the expectation that one was expected to do a ‘proper degree’. Myles acknowledges that it was probably his father’s influence that resulted in his choice of commerce as a degree.
A still of a young Myles Breen in Clash of the Ash
“There were so many societies available to join in college but I knew the one that I wanted”, he says. “I immediately signed up to the dramatic society at UCC. I was really fortunate to have been cast after my first audition for the drama society Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I had a tiny part but it was just the start. I ended up performing in many, many productions and had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people, some of whom went on to work professionally in theatre”.
During his time as a member of UCC Drama Society Myles had particular theatrical rival in form of a young man named Graham Walker.
“We both started at UCC in 1981 and were both performing in As You Like It. Of course Graham got the lead as Orlando and I was left to make do with a cough and spit, bit part called William! Graham and I went on to perform together on a number of occasions. The most memorable of those was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which was a really brilliant production. I played the role of Boy and Graham once again usurped the bigger role of Lucky. Graham Walker eventually went on to become more well known as Graham Norton so I have learned to forgive him!”
Myles consider that production of Waiting for Godot as his first ever ‘professional’ production. What had started out as a college production ended up getting rave reviews. The cast were asked to perform the piece at the Hibernian Theatre in Cork city and ended up producing the piece successfully for a number of weeks.
Myles in his early acting days in a production of Philadelphia Here I Come
After graduating Myles returned to Limerick and announced to his parents that he was going to pursue a career in acting. “I had made so many contacts during my college years and I simply was bitten by the theatre bug”, he remembers.
“It didn’t go down too well with my father but my mind was made up. I was really to almost immediately be cast in a major Irish movie called Clash of the Ash”.
Myles’ fondest memories of Limerick are his years growing up on what was then called called the Back Road. Most Limerick people would now know it as the South Circular Road.
“It is where we lived happily and was a road full of families. You had the Furlings, the Carthys, the O’Mahonys and the Keyes families. We were all much of the same age. As kids there was a huge gang of us and we literally ran riot around the area. We had big back gardens between the Back Road and O’Connell Avenue that we called ‘the backs’ which were wilderness at the time. We had forts, we had huts and we had ‘make believe’ there. We would scale the walls and skin the Nun’s orchards. I have many fond memories of growing up in that part of town. It was our stomping ground”.
Myles and Liam O'Brien in the first production of Mike Finn's Pigtown with Island Theatre Company
The Limerick of Myles’ youth was pretty grim time in Limerick. After returning home in 1989 to work with Island Theatre Company Myles remembers it feeling like a city where more things were happening.
“The establishment of the University of Limerick after what had been NIHE, the expansion of the art college and other things all worked to make Limerick feel that it had something to offer. During the Celtic Tiger I certainly noticed that confidence in Limerick was starting to emerge. The biggest changes that I have noticed down through the years are the sense that it has become a city. During my youth it always felt like a small town. It has now emerged as a true city. What I love is that it has retained its intimacy. It is a place where everybody seems to know everyone else. My parents were always well known through their various businesses. We could get away with nothing because every barman and waitress in the city knew who we were”.
Myles Breen’s years with Limerick’s Island Theatre Company were hugely rewarding and formative for him as an actor. He would have known many of the founding members of Island from his days in UCC. Both Monica Spencer and Louise Favier were friends from college.
“Monica was from Cork and Louise was from Kerry but both ended up playing an important part in the formation of Island”, he says. “The first time I auditioned with Island I didn’t get the role. I was gutted. I eventually got cast with Island thanks to the wonderful Terry Devlin. It was this experience that almost reacquainted me with my home town. I realised I loved home, I realised how much I wanted to play a part in the arts scene in Limerick. Up to that point there had never really been any opportunities to earn a living but Island changed all that. I ended up performing in over 20 shows with Island Theatre Company, most of which I am incredibly proud of”.
Myles finds it difficult to single out specific roles or productions but credits Island for so much.
“The work I created with Island must go down as the work I am most proud of. I particularly remember the production of Hamlet that we produced in St Mary’s Cathedral. I played the role of Claudius. The setting was magical and the cast were just stunning. “Pigtown, written by Mike Finn, was one of those shows that everyone involved in the project believed in from the outset. When we ended up performing in front of local audiences the response was overwhelming”.
A young cast in Biloxi Blues - featuring Myles, his brother John, John Murphy and Mike Finn
It is working with Bottom Dog Theatre Company, of which he is a founding member, came the most rewarding project Myles has worked on to date.
“Language Unbecoming a Lady was actually my first every attempt at playwriting”, he says. “The process was actually a very challenging and, at times, scary experience. It is a very personal play, it is a one-man show. The fact that you have both written and are performing in this extremely intimate piece of theatre has the potential to leave you exposed in so many ways. In one sense the story of the play has its roots in my story of growing up. Other aspects of the play have come from the experience of friends I knew growing up. Because it was so personal I just wanted audiences to ‘get it’. The response when I first performed the piece a number of years ago was so positive”.
The return of the play this year comes at a very interesting time. When Myles first wrote the piece part of the story touched on issues such as civil partnership and marriage equality, neither of which existed at the time. The play tells the story of Robert who is a gay man who grew up in Limerick. The play is Robert’s account as an older man looking back at his life as a man who was closeted and finding it hard to cope with his own situation. The play shows his life and his story but also shows how far Ireland has come a country.
“When I wrote it in 2009 we were only starting to discuss the issues around civil partnership versus marriage equality”, Myles remembers. “In hindsight it allows us to see how fundamentally our society has shifted in such a short space of time”.
Myles describes his experience growing up in Limerick as a gay man as challenging. “I remember in the late 1970’s being called ‘sissy’ or ‘nancy’ at school”, he recalls.
“As a child it didn’t really bother me but it was when I hit my teenage years that it was tough. There really were no role models out there. In the play I make reference to Larry Grayson or Mr Humphries. They were who you were compared to if you were a gay man in Ireland at the time. On some levels gay people in Ireland actually didn’t know what we were. As I became a little bit older and started to come to terms with who I was suddenly there was the whole AIDS crisis. This was incredibly terrifying for young gay men. The reports at the time were frightening. So little was known about it and, for many, being gay meant you were going to end up dead. In Limerick I wasn’t aware of any gay scene. I simply didn’t know how to look at it. It is remarkable now to see how open life has become for gay people here. You have the gay bar and clubs, you have a Pride Festival which continues to grow year on year. There is a community. There are many so role models, gay people now represent the spectrum of humanity. You have a sense that no one cares who you are any more”.
Myles' one-man play Language Unbecoming a Lady is his proudest to date
Myles is no stranger to Limerick audiences. In some senses he is considered part of the furniture across Limerick’s cultural community.
“I have been working in Limerick for so many years and I have developed a relationship with audiences here”, he says with his typical Myles Breen beam.
“They have been so supportive to me down through the years. I particularly love doing Panto. I did a lot of it in Cork and then in Dublin and over recent years got a great opportunity to do Panto in my home town. I love it here because I know the crowd and they know me! They know my mother and my father, my brothers and my sisters. There is a sense that you are performing to your family when you are back home."
Myles loves what he does and it comes across. Be it serious roles or comedy roles you can see that Myles Breen just love entertaining people. His years of dedication to his trade are now being rewarded as Bottom Dog prepare to hit New York with a production of Language Unbecoming a Lady which will be performed at the First Irish Theatre Festival in New York next month. This will be Myles’ first ever visit to the city.
“We have been in conversations about bringing Language Unbecoming a Lady to New York for a number of years but, to be honest, I never felt it was ever going to happen”, Myles says.
“This year it seems the stars have aligned. This play is so personal to me and to be able to have been given the opportunity to tell my story to such an audience is such a rewarding experience. Even just to have the opportunity to go to New York, a city I have dreamed about, is amazing. I have brothers and friends over there. In fact Louise Favier, one of the founders of Island is over there and someone I have not seen in so long. I am honoured to be also able to represent Limerick and the culture of Limerick on the International stage. I have been fortunate to have worked with so many wonderful people here in Limerick so whatever I now bring to the table I can safely say that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their help, their support and most importantly their talent”.
Language Unbecoming a Lady will have a Gala performance at the Lime Tree Theatre in advance of its New York premiere
Myles acknowledges the role Limerick City of Culture 2014 played in proving to everyone in Limerick that we could do something on that scale. “So many projects took place led by so many cultural practitioners”, he says.
“I think 2014 presented the opportunity to so many who were sceptical about culture to experience something new and to become converted. There really was something for everyone and so many homegrown pieces of work that showed Limerick as a tremendously cultural and dynamic city.
“As we move towards our bid for Limerick European Capital of Culture 2020 I think we have now proved that we are capable. I think we have shown there is an appetite. People are talking to each other more and are sharing their ideas. Minds are focussed on what we can and need to do. In order to be successful in our bid I think we need to put cynicism to the side and to each acknowledge how we all can play our part in making sure Limerick succeeds in this huge cultural mission. Limerick City of Culture 2014 proved that when we work together we can achieve great things”.
The woman Myles blames for it all and the love of his life - Bridie Breen