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‘So many come to New York with dreams and leave because they can’t make it’



When George Heslin’s father entered him into the famous US green card visa lottery without his knowledge, neither could have imagined that it would open stage doors to New York’s theatre world and beyond.

Despite the fact that none of his close family members were involved in drama, the Limerick native, who is one of five children, wanted to be an actor from an early age. “I was lucky enough to be educated by the Jesuits at Crescent College in Limerick, where I immersed myself in the drama programme.”

Two of Ireland’s legendary entertainers, Richard Harris and Terry Wogan were alumni of this school, so Heslin had big shoes to fill. In the late 1980s, during his last year with the Crescent drama programme, he represented Limerick at the National Youth Theatre in Dublin. Afterwards, he took a directing course at the Abbey Theatre, worked on the RTÉ drama Glenroe and was hired as an assistant stage manager at the Gate Theatre.

After studying drama at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity College, completing his four-year degree course in 1991, Heslin toured with the Abbey in Scotland and worked with theatre companies including the Druid in Galway and the Grand Opera house in Belfast. London soon followed and a production job with Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the King’s Head Theatre and Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End.

‘American way’

Then his dad intervened. “My dad put me in a lottery for a green card, while I was happily living in London. I had no aspirations to be in New York at the time, but I arrived in August 1994 after Ireland famously beat Italy in Giants Stadium during the World Cup.”

A few years of back and forth between Limerick, New York, Dublin and London followed. During this time, Heslin studied with teacher Uta Hagen, the Tony award-winning German actress and practitioner on Broadway for two years. He says, she taught him the “American way and the American language in rehearsal rooms”.

At the turn of the millennium, he committed to living in New York full time. “I moved to the East Village, which back then was still within the financial realms of possibility for actors. It was a great time to be in New York working as an actor there and touring the US.”

On September 11th, 2001, he woke up in his apartment at St Mark’s Place to the sound of a low-flying plane shortly before 8.46am. “It was the loudest noise I’d ever heard. We saw the plane hitting the World Trade Center. It was just so surreal. Oddly, everything went quiet then, before the next plane hit.”

In the months after 9/11, when New York was painfully piecing itself together again, Heslin started producing his own plays and in January 2002, he formed Origin – an off-Broadway theatre company. “Off-Broadway productions are smaller, professional productions that serve as an alternative to commercially-oriented theatres in Broadway. They are generally low budget and less commercially safe.”

Origin has an explicitly pan-European focus and is what Heslin describes as a gateway for playwrights from Europe.

Productions have included Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, the Blowin of Baile Gall by Ronan L Noone and the Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault among others. “Since forming Origin 19 years ago, as founding artistic director I’ve directed over 100 plays, often with new artists and directors, which has been incredibly exciting.”

In 2009, Origin launched its first Irish theatre festival, which is devoted exclusively to the work of Irish playwrights who were born in Ireland. “Since launching, we’ve staged 150 plays, slightly over half of which have been world premieres during the month-long event.”

Community

In 2018, Heslin founded New York’s European month of culture, working in partnership with 28 consulates. “It’s so important to support one another and bring talent together. So many people come to New York with dreams and aspirations and leave again because they can’t make it. You do build a community here, but it’s a hard city to be in.”

In October 2020, Heslin was asked to take over the role as executive director of the New York Irish Center from Paul Finnegan. The centre in Long Island City, Queens, which opened its doors in 2005, offers social services and cultural offerings to members of the Irish community in New York.

“Obviously the pandemic has consumed our lives and experiences in the past year, but despite Covid-19 we can boast New York’s first ever Irish choir, busy seniors lunches, jazz programmes along with tea parties and comedy nights. I look forwarding to furthering our offerings and working with community leaders, diplomats and councillors to ensure this place remains the touchstone of the diaspora here. Lots of people have suffered as a result of the pandemic, especially actors who lost out on minutes on stage, but theatres are filling up again and our events are sold out.”

Heslin says the way Irish people are emigrating has changed since he first arrived in New York. “We’re seeing completely different patterns of immigration into the US. Young Irish people are moving around the world, not just New York. Since the travel ban, it experienced a standstill, but now we will hopefully get a new injection of next generation Irish people.”

“I didn’t think this green card could bring me this far. But it’s great to honour the Irish footprint here in New York.”



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