Shaun Dunne made his acting debut at the Abbey aged 11. Now he is returning to the national theatre as a playwright, writes Padraic Killeen
SHAUN DUNNE’S new play at the Abbey Theatre marks the young Dubliner’s arrival at the top table of Irish theatre. But for Dunne himself it’s very much a ‘re-arrival’. It was at the Abbey that the Dubliner first acquired a love of drama, when as a child he participated in the national theatre’s outreach programme, leading to his being cast, aged 11, in the 2001 production of Jim Nolan’s Blackwater Angel.
The experience inspired in Dunne a passion which, in recent years, has seen him become one of the standout young talents in Irish theatre, a writer and performer whose disarming, affecting plays have earned huge plaudits.
“It did all start with the Abbey Children’s Workshop,” says Dunne. “There was a sense that this was a great opportunity. I was going into the Abbey every day on my mid-term break or whatever, and at home we would talk about it like it was a real gift. From then on, whenever there was a part for a kid, the Abbey would call me in to audition. So that made the idea of working in the arts very real for me from a very young age.”
In the years since, Dunne has diligently made that idea a reality. His celebrated shows with Talking Shop Ensemble — I am a Homebird (It’s Very Hard), Death of the Tradesman, and Advocacy — have looked at community issues while blending documentary intimacy with a delicate theatricality.
His growing reputation led to participation on the Abbey’s New Playwrights programme, the result of which, new play The Waste Ground Party, has just kicked off a four-week run at the Peacock Theatre.
The play centres on Gary (Alan Mahon), a college student who is back home and hanging around the estate he hails from. The estate is celebrating the opening of a new playground on the site of an old waste ground, yet at the same time some residents are continuing to dump their black bins there.
“So the play is about these two events happening alongside each other,” says Dunne. “One is about celebration, regeneration and trying to achieve something. And the other is about the bad things that we do to ourselves, and for complex reasons — not just because you want to dump your bin, but because people are struggling, they’re not managing.”
Such themes of community are often the crux of Dunne’s plays. In The Waste Ground Party, he reflects on the way our sense of place affects our self-perception.
“I wanted to look at an estate in Dublin,” says Dunne. “I’d never seen a play that addressed that specific setting. And I was just struck by the way Dublin is very much divided up into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ areas. Glasnevin is a ‘good’ area. Ballymun is a ‘bad’ area. Yet they’re both on the fringes of each other. And there are loads of areas in Dublin like that, so I wanted to explore that sensibility and how the idea of coming from a ‘bad’ area seeps into your head.”
His interest in community grew more focused, he says, because the recession kicked in just as he was hitting his 20s and beginning to write for theatre.
“Within the country at that time there was a huge rupture,” he says. “Everything was rapidly going to shit. People were losing jobs. People were leaving. And I guess that is why I grew interested in these kinds of issues. Because I’m interested in how people are coping and how they hold it all together. Each show I’ve done has focused on an example of Irish community and how that community is dealing with where they’re at today.”
The Waste Ground Party runs until November 22 at the Peacock, Dublin.
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