By Hannah Amini
On Sunday, audience members gathered at The Cell Theatre in Chelsea to an intimate stage containing a table, a guitar, and a wedding dress. These were more than enough to tell a heart-wrenching yet hilarious story about marriage equality in Ireland.
The Morning After The Life Before is writer and performer Ann Blake’s personal account of coming out during Ireland’s transitional period of accepting the LGBTQ+ community in both its law and society. An award winner and crowd favorite at the Montreal and London Ontario Fringes, the show (produced by the acclaimed Irish company Gúna Nua) now makes its much-anticipated New York debut as part of Origin Theatre Company’s 16th annual 1st Irish Festival. Blake, who plays herself, is joined by her co-performer Lucia Smyth, who plays everyone in between, including Ann’s family, friends and, most importantly, her partner Jenny. Blake turns the play into a conversation with her audience, interrupted only by reenactments of events with the help of Smyth and the strums of her guitar and song to bring much-needed laughter to heavy moments.
Blake always questioned her sexuality, but she decided to ignore it rather than explore it due to her traditional Catholic upbringing. This all changes when she is asked on a date by Jenny. Blake talks about her experience with internalized homophobia and the struggles of living a life that even she couldn’t validate. She keeps the beginning of her relationship with Jenny extremely private in fear of the reaction she would receive from her family and peers.
After some time, she begins to warm up to the idea of being out, but this certainly didn’t come without its own set of problems. She recounts the judgment she received from staff at the registrar’s office where she and Jenny entered civil partnership, where Smyth thankfully lightens the mood by flipping the table into a reception desk and imitating a staff member who couldn’t help but stare, swiftly retreating into her desk every time Blake looked in her direction.
With the Referendum on Marriage Equality looming, Jenny participates in a tireless campaign, going door to door to hopefully sway citizens away from the homophobic ideology being spread by the other side. The day finally comes on May 22nd, 2015, and the audience cheers as Blake proudly exclaims that 62% of those who showed up voted in favor of love. Two days later, she receives a text from her brother where he asks, “How’s the morning after the life before?” She realizes that she is indeed living a new life, one where she is finally valid in the eyes of her society. We had the pleasure of talking to Blake about her wonderful play and more.
HANNAH AMINI: What was the initial spark that led to writing The Morning After the Life Before?
ANN BLAKE: The spark was the looming referendum on marriage equality in Ireland back in 2015. I knew I wanted to do something for the campaign; I was engaged but unable to get married in my own country. I felt too nervous to knock on doors and go canvassing so I wrote a short play about my own coming out story and the reality of what the referendum meant to me and my partner Jenny.
Often in political debates the human element is forgotten, so I wanted to put it at the forefront. It was a 30-minute piece called “Overnight Minority Report” which my co-performer, Lucia Smyth, was a part of as well. At the end I got down on one knee and “proposed” to the audience, asking them if they’d let me marry Jenny. They even had the option to place their vote on the way out.
After the referendum passed, a lot of people told me that I should develop it into a full-length piece including the referendum and aftermath and that is where this show came from. At the same time that Ireland voted for love and safety for the LGBTQ+ community, The U.K. and the U.S. underwent votes that made their people less safe in their day to day lives. I wanted to remind audiences of the power of the Irish result and how political engagement is so important, especially now.
How did it feel to perform The Morning After the Life Before for the first time?
I was terrified. I had no idea how it would be received. The initial 30-minute show was nerve-wracking because of the uncertain environment of the referendum, but it was welcomed by audiences. The full show, however, would be more harshly judged artistically and I wanted to make sure it was, first and foremost, the best piece of theatre if could be. The stakes were high and I really felt it, especially on opening night.
Audiences around the world have commended you for bringing humor to a heavy topic. Has humor played a role for you in dealing with difficult times in the past?
Absolutely. I’ve often heard artists speaking about the importance of approaching heaviness with lightness. This way audiences can actually process the given topic and access it rather than be bombarded and alienated with a heavy hand.
Humor has always been important to me. As a part of Choke Comedy, an improv troupe in Limerick, I found improv so helpful in my day-to-day approach to life as it is all about saving your energy for what’s important and moving away from inane negativity. During the referendum period in Ireland it was really horrible to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community and watch people debate your life on the streets and on screens. Humor was very important to get us through that.
You have definitely made your mark in all sides of the performing arts industry. What is like to take on all of these different roles? How has it affected the approach you take in each of them?
There is a through-line to how I approach work, I suppose, be it performance, writing, directing or music. My main phrase in a rehearsal or collaboration room is “Let’s play!” Through difficult and frustrating experiences, I have discovered that the best thing you can do is get out of your own head and just start trying something, anything! Otherwise I could sit and overthink myself into inertia. Once you get a word written on a page, a note played, a line spoken, there is an actual thing to react to and something can happen. That is at the core of what I try to do. Connection is very important to me in the work I make, both with the other artists and audience. Being playful really lends itself to fostering a connection and that helps me in all aspects of my work.
What can we expect from you in 2019?
I will be continuing to tour The Morning After The Life Before in the spring. After we finish our New York run, we’ll be heading to the 96 Festival in London, The Kate O’Brien Weekend in my home town of Limerick, and then Bewley’s Cafe Theatre in Dublin. I will be performing in another Gúna Nua production called Bread Not Profits, about an incident in Limerick in 1919 where it declared itself a Soviet and printed its own money. I will also be recording and touring with my band The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra, later in the year. Hopefully I’ll be getting some writing done on my new play called Blood Harmony.
THE MORNING AFTER THE LIFE BEFORE runs through Sunday, January 27, 2019 at The Cell Theatre, 338 West 23rd Street, as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival 2019. Book tickets and learn more at https://www.origintheatre.org/events/the-morning-after-the-life-before/.