94 – Unboxing Magic: How to Get Started

How do you box up over thirty years of magic? Bottles with cork stoppers might be more appropriate, but here the only available containers are grey archive boxes. I don’t envy Rough Magic Theatre Company producer Caroline Williams the task.

Caroline was kind enough to let me visit the Rough Magic office this week, where a room full of costumes, random props and financial records is being overtaken by the boxes of production records, neatly shelved by chronological date, that are being prepared for transferring out. They’ll go to the library of Trinity College, where they’ll be available to researchers once formally checked and catalogued. They span over thirty years from the company’s emergence in TCD Players in 1984, to the present day. That output includes no less than 122 productions, including 33 world premieres (Melt at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival will be 34) and 27 Irish premieres. Those numbers don’t include the showcases from SEEDs, their programme for emerging artists.

Even walking through the offices of Rough Magic is a stroll through theatre history. The posters mounted on the stairs include Anne Enright posing for Aunt Dan & Lemon, as well as production shots from Arthur Riordan as Dashiell Hammett in I Can’t Get Started and stunning black and white pictures of actress Eleanor Methven.

Anne Enright in Aunt Dan and Lemon by Wallace Shawn
Project Arts Centre (1986)
Photo: Amelia Stein

Caroline left me alone in the room of production records. For a theatre archive nerd, this is like letting a child loose in a sweet shop. I wondered briefly about the appropriate way an archival researcher would approach this task. Briefly. Then I just acted like a child let loose in a sweet shop.

But I had to put some shape on this blog post, and to try avoid rotting my teeth. So, I’ve decided it will be actually be two posts: the first on the general shape and allure of the archive, and another with more detailed consideration of productions.

As I wandered down South Great Georges Street afterwards, I wondered what separates a professional theatre company with the stature of Rough Magic from all the other ensembles that emerged from TCD Players with youthful faces and high aspirations? And can you see that in the archive?

When I was working with the Druid Theatre archive in Galway, I noted that from the very beginning, the marketing material was meticulously designed and prepared, with every aspect considered. It now strikes me that this might be a signal of how serious a young theatre company is, for Rough Magic’s early materials show the same level of attention to detail. Not a typo, or a detail out of place.

Their artistic mission at the time was:

We hope to present work of the very highest standards, and to establish ourselves as a permanent part of the Irish theatre scene.

Simple and ambitious.

They define Rough Magic in the first programme as:

that experience unique to theatre: that feeling of joy experienced when audience and actors connect. It is an ambitious name, and we will try to be worthy of it.

Rough Magic First Season Programmes


The name was agreed, and the core group had a clear sense of their method of working (a co-op focused on the best writing available), but the first iteration of their professional identity was far from fixed. These early programmes show that the logo changed rapidly from its original idea, a map of eighteenth-century Dublin over a timber stage, to a black and white skyline over the boards.

Programme for Thirst by Flann O’Brien. Made by Lynne Parker.


For the artwork for this poster, Lynne Parker herself put the individual parts down with glue (can you see the makings?) and the original logo was inked in to switch it to the streamlined graphic of the skyline. Some years later, certainly by the mid-1990s, the ubiquitous star made its appearance, and that has stuck. Instead of being rooted in Dublin of the past, Rough Magic realised their ambitions were in a different stratosphere.

The early programmes and posters are a brilliant insight into Dublin of the 1980s, when Guinness would happily sponsor beer for the theatre in TCD’s Front Square, the Student’s Union had a craft shop, and even the list of names in the Acknowledgements is revealing. (A certain Mrs Enright is thanked during the first season; one wonders what contribution the mother of the future Laureate of Irish Fiction was inveigled to make… )

In 1989, the group moved out of the performance space in Front Square to the Tivoli Theatre, and staged Spokesong, just a year after the untimely death of playwright Stewart Parker. General Manager / Producer Siobhan Bourke was behind much of the clever marketing that accompanied the production, like Dunlop Tyres’ sponsorship of Spokesong, and the bright stickers urging people to donate their bikes to the show.


Somebody arranged for the Dublin Corporation to donate street lamps (that’s impressive sweet talking) and Guinness donated their wares again. Core members, such as Helene Montague and Arthur Riordan, were joined by luminaries such as Jane Brennan, and assistant directing Lynne Parker was a woman who has gone on to nurture many decades of theatre makers in UCD: Cathy Leeney.

As I work through the boxes by chronological date, I notice how the materials change form from year to year, as Rough Magic keep pace with marketing trends and the emerging technology. From tapes to CDs to minidiscs; from photo negatives to slides to VHS tapes to media files. TCD Library hopes to make all the formats available for researchers to view, and I can guarantee I’ll be the first in line to watch one particular production. (But more about that in the next instalment.)


There are so many ways for researchers to think through and process this material.

For anyone considering a thesis on the evolution of Fintan O’Toole’s hairstyle along with his theatre criticism and cultural commentary, the newspaper clippings included here will be invaluable!

But also in evidence is the careful attention Rough Magic have given over the years to new playwrights, particularly female writers, such as Morna Regan and Liz Kuti. There are numerous drafts of The Sugar Wife here, under various titles, along with extensive notes and discussions from its development process. There are beautiful photos of the cast of Regan’s Midden, along with the wealth of positive reviews.

What are these great writers doing now, I wondered? In a lovely piece of serendipity, I discovered today that the dramaturg on the Abbey Theatre’s production of Katie Roche, opening this week, is Morna Regan.

Taking all these boxes together, there’s an incredible sense of progress and artistic growth, of constant momentum in every aspect of theatre-making, both creatively and commercially. And yet as you work through the production history, certain things remain constant. 

Almost amusingly, there are many years of newspaper articles showing Dublin critics griping and whining, while the same productions are greeted with acclaim in the pages of papers from Edinburgh and New York.

The company of actors has naturally expanded and shifted, taking in rising stars like Pauline McLynn as well as established ones like Stockard Channing, but the central driving force behind Rough Magic has always been Lynne Parker. Her association with the Company is so strong that it’s fitting one newspaper article writing about the production of Declan Hughes’s I Can’t Get Started in 1990 refers to it as  ‘Lynne Parker’s Get Started’  in the caption.

The Independent 1990


Archives are often most telling in what they omit, and there’s precious little of Lynne Parker, the original designer, co-Artistic Director (with Declan Hughes) and then Artistic Director of Rough Magic, to be found in the archive. Heaps of photos of the casts, letters and correspondence from playwrights and producers; programmes from productions all over the world. But apart from some very early photos and one or two programme notes, Parker has somehow slipped into the shadows. And maybe she would argue that is how it should be: the work stands for itself. There’s no doubt that her impeccable memory is a vital part of the Rough Magic archive that TCD sadly can’t put on their shelves. But there will be the artwork Parker painstakingly made for Flann O’Brien’s Thirst … Budding artistic directors take note: taking such attention over the individual elements of one production poster says a lot about the productive and successful career you will have ahead of you.


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