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Community Highlights: Meet Laura Irish of The Barden Party

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laura Irish.

Hi Laura, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I was an actor and improviser living in an apartment in Soulard across from the brewery when I graduated from Greenville University in Greenville, Illinois, in 2005/2006. I’d had a few auditions with the St. Louis Shakespeare Company, particularly one for their production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. I didn’t know myself then. And to be a good actor, you must know yourself to become someone else.

I was also involved with a weekly improv performance troupe at the time, playing with them at Union Station, and I was a nanny for a few children in St. Louis. After a bad break-up and some soul-searching, I decided to take a risk and go overseas, thinking it would be a short trip. I started teaching English in South Korea for almost two years and explored Japan, China, and the Philippines. Then I spent 7 months in Manchester, England, and a few months in France before making a one-way trip to New Zealand, where I have been based for the past 14 years. I did one stint back in the United States to study Shakespeare at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York in 2013. Other than that, I have been based in New Zealand, where I have been a performing artist and arts manager, obtaining a Master of Arts Management from AUT in Auckland in 2012.

For the past 14 years, I have been a champion for creating performing arts start-ups in New Zealand: being one of the founding members of Body in Space Theatre Company, Nelson Summer Shakespeare, Nelson Fringe Arts Charitable Trust, The New Zealand Improv Trust, and The Deep End. I founded, created, and was the artistic director of Ghost Light Theatre and The People’s Republic of Improv. And for 4 years, I was the Artistic Director of The Nelson Fringe Festival. Since being in New Zealand, I have several acting and writing awards, such as Best Actress (nominated 4 consecutive years, won twice) for the HP 48 Hour NZ Film Festival. And nominated for Best Theatre in the Dunedin Fringe Festival Awards 2016 for my solo show, Medea, and for Outstanding Visiting Production for that same show at the 2016 Dunedin Theatre Awards. I eventually got cast in Metamorphoses, playing Myrrah, at the 2011 Nelson Arts Festival. I was asked to reprise the role in 2015, the exact role I auditioned for in St. Louis in 2006. During my time in New Zealand, some roles of note include Lady Macbeth (and other characters) in Macbeth, Viola in Twelfth Night, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bonnie Parker in Hot Chocolate and the Trail’s End (the story of Bonnie and Clyde), Jeanie in Freeload, Kathleen Scott in Terra Nova and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors for a sold-out season.

My newest venture is The Barden Party. Due to all the cancelations, venue closures, and disappointments in the arts over the past few years due to COVID-19. Several actors, including myself, had just been cast in a 25th Anniversary RENT production by Jonathan Larson in 2021. I was cast as Maureen, but before we began rehearsals, the show was canceled. The day canceled it and announced that Nelson Summer Shakespeare would not go ahead. It was too risky. There were so many restrictions on venues that it was unfeasible for them to be open. Performers and producers couldn’t afford to play to houses of reduced sizes and still pay venue fees. We were living in such fluctuation, trying to navigate contracts and paid work or lack thereof. So, that same day, I was standing on the back deck that I had just built with another actor friend, and I told him, “This deck is bigger than most stages we’ve performed on.” Later that evening, I asked my husband, “What if I performed a show in the backyard?” And he was like, “That’s a great idea.” And then I said, “Wait, what if we performed shows in EVERYONE’S backyards!” So I gathered several actors cast in RENT, most of which had previous Shakespeare experience and were all musical. One of my fellow Shakespearean actor friends and I started a traveling comedic Shakespeare company that performs a raucous, musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream primarily in private backyards and gardens. The Bard + Garden Party = The Barden Party. The show was so popular that we performed 50 shows over the summer months across the country and won the Dunedin Fringe Excellence Award for 2022 due to the success of the show. We have also been invited to perform several public shows, including sold-out shows at Larnach Castle in Dunedin and Nelson’s Historic Theatre Royal, where we performed last week (June 11) to a sold-out crowd of 350 people, complete with an epic standing ovation. We’ve also performed at luxury resorts and wineries.

And now, after 14 years, I am returning to the USA and St. Louis. I am bringing my family and this cast of New Zealand actors to come and perform The Barden Party’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream across gardens, backyards, and venues across the USA. And our stop from July 12 – 16 is the wider St. Louis area!

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been fairly smooth?
Not at all. The arts is never a smooth road. It is an industry I’m passionate about and good for the community, but it is also often seen as a “nice to have” instead of a necessity. But when Covid hit, where did people turn? They turned to TV, film, video games, books, music, etc. They wrote poetry and songs and picked up the guitar again after 20 years.

Also, moving away from the states when I was young was fun but challenging. I had a surprise pregnancy while in South Korea, which gave me my wonderful 14-year-old son. That is how I ended up in New Zealand with a family I didn’t know. But that’s a whole other story.

The performing arts industry is also full of battles that people in “normal” jobs don’t often have to face, which is true for most arts practitioners and organizations. I have been determined to create new things for communities to connect with and to witness classic, fringe, improvised and original theatre. Stella Adler said, “The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means ‘the seeing place.’ It is where people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. I believe this wholeheartedly. And through lack of funding, not being seen as essential, struggling to make a living, and being perceived as “doing it for the love of it” gets pretty exhausting. Not to mention the constant identity crisis and rejection you face by being an actor. This is why I created The Barden Party. I wanted to be someone who gave jobs to actors, including myself (I play Puck in the show). And I wanted the show to be something to bring joy to the actors playing in it and also to the communities we bring it to. Stella Adler also said, “growth as an actor and human being are synonymous.” And this is also what The Barden Party is about. It gives actors and place to be safe, grow, learn skills and express themselves through music, comedy, and acting. The group is very tight-knit. We have been together for 6 months and have performed 51 shows in 40 different locations. We built an audience and a following from nothing. And that is a massive accomplishment in this industry.

But personally, some other struggles I’ve faced over the past 14 years is the feeling that time is moving away from me. Maybe I missed my shot, personally. I’m an actor living in a small city in a small country worldwide. The opportunities here are, not always, but often, self-created, and while it has been a great learning experience and I’ve gained so many skills that I wouldn’t have had, I just followed the original path I wanted of just being an actor. I’m now a writer, director, producer, teacher, and manager, all in addition to being an actor and improviser. I am now moving back to the states to focus on pursuing an acting/directing path after the initial Barden Party tour.

In addition to that, I also have a family now. My family is incredible. My two kids (Elijah, 14, and Ivie, 7) are amazing human beings in their own right. And my husband is a wonderful, supportive champion of every adventure I want to have, in addition to pursuing his dreams. But it’s not easy being an actor, creating arts businesses that come with a high element of risk and raising a family.

We’ve been impressed with The Barden Party, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
The Barden Party is a rambunctious, raucous, rockin’ professional Shakespearean comedy performed in your backyard! The Barden Party puts a modern twist on a vintage theatre experience. It’s Shakespeare as you’ve never seen – all brought directly to you in backyards, public spaces, and vineyards everywhere. Let’s set the scene, a small troupe of traveling actors turn up at your home and perform an award-winning musical version of Shakespeare’s most laugh-out-loud comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for you while you drink wine at home with your closest friends.

“It’s like our entire house and garden was transformed into this magic fairy wonderland, and it was hilarious!” – Steve Hussey, host.

It could be for a celebration or an event, or you could just be looking to share a pocket of joy with those you care about. One thing is guaranteed – The Barden Party will be unlike anything you and your guests have ever experienced. In NZ, we booked 50 shows from November 2021 – April 2022, and now we’re coming to America in July 2022! As a traveling troupe from New Zealand, we carry all our props, sets, and instruments with us to adapt our performance to suit any space.

This family-friendly jukebox extravaganza makes Shakespeare accessible to audiences of ALL ages and experience levels. We transform backyards, gardens, barns, and public venues into a world of fairy magic with lively musical outbursts featuring music by artists such as Billie Eilish, George Michael, Hall & Oates (Musical Direction by London’s West End actor and musician Jake Byrom). Laugh-out-loud moments weaved throughout, this lighthearted comedy is the perfect entertainment for even the uninitiated.

It created The Barden Party after COVID-19 led to a constant stream of cancellations in the performing arts industry for these talented actors over the past two years. American-Kiwi actor/director Laura Irish got fed up and decided to take theatre back to its roots through a style of touring that couldn’t be canceled—taking theatre directly to the people in the form of a low-cost show, focussing on high-quality acting, comedy, and music.

Being outdoors and with people that know each other was a safer way to continue presenting theatre during these difficult times. The model has proved a hit! We have performed over 50 times throughout New Zealand.
After touring New Zealand and packing out gardens across the country, we are now bringing The Barden Party to the United States!

So far, we are going to:
July 5 – Honolulu, Hawaii
– Chicago, Illinois
– Central Illinois
– St. Louis, Missouri
– Massachusetts
– New York City
– Los Angeles, California
(but we’re open to other places and surrounding areas)

We create a bespoke invite for you to send to your friends, family, and neighbors, you pay your deposit, and then it’s a done deal! Host it in your yard, a friend’s garden, or a garden like a public reserve near you. Dates are available from July 5 – August 1, 2022.
How it works:
1 You find a date that works for you
2 Make sure that The Barden Party will be in your area
3 Book via our online form
4 We contact you to confirm the details and organize a deposit
4 We send you an official invitation to send to your guests
5 You organize a space for the show in your garden or a public space
6 The Barden Party turns up an hour before the performance and puts on an amazing show!

The kiwi cast performing in the USA is:
Mackenzie Gardner
Molly Wilkin
Scott Sumby
Aimée Borlase
Sam McIlroy
Matthew Edgar
Jake Byrom
Wiremu Tuhiwai
Laura Irish

We are truly a little pocket of joy wanting to bring some kiwi sunshine and humor to the backyards of the USA. What we’ve found in New Zealand has been so interesting. The response to the show from ALL ages has been overwhelming. Children chasing after Puck and helping her create mischief in their gardens, musical, laughter, love, and belly laughs filling up outdoor spaces. And people have organized their parties in all different ways sometimes a host will book us and pay for our fee themselves as a gift to their family and friends and will cater food. Other people invite their friends, family, and neighbors and ask everyone to bring a little “ticket price,” and that’s how they pay to have us there, and some people do a combo. And we see in the states that some people are organizing their little public shows for their areas, like my mom, who is organizing some shows in the Granite City, Illinois, Pontoon Beach area.

What was you like growing up?
I loved theatre, singing, and comedy and played the violin. I watched many classic movies like Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and White Christmas. But I also watched a lot of SNL and comedy because my dad and I loved John Candy, Chris Farley, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin. I was friends with everyone and anyone, and I loved being on the stage and making people laugh. From day one, I wanted to be an actor and writer though my parents thought I should be a lawyer due to my debating skills. I also loved pulling pranks. Still do. I grew up in central Illinois before moving to Greenville, Illinois, to complete my Bachelor’s degree in Communication: Theatre and English. And then I lived in St. Louis in Soulard. My mom still lives in Granite City; St. Louis is what I consider home. I love it so much. and have missed it.

Pricing:

  • Prices for a private or corporate Barden Party can be found on our website.
  • Public show prices vary.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
All photos taken by Steve Hussey

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