What do Nancy Aronie, Joann Green Breuer, Molly Conole, Nicole Galland, Boaz Kirschenbaum, MJ Bruder Munafo, and Gerry Yukevich have in common? Playwright, actress, and singer Shelagh Hackett, that’s who.
In a theatrical version of “It takes a village,” Hackett recently related the serendipitous path she took in creating “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” her new solo show premiering this Friday and Saturday at the M.V. Playhouse as part of its Spring Solo Shows.
I first saw — and admired — Hackett acting in a show at the playhouse directed by Joann Green Breuer, whose work I also admire, in the early 2000s. “As expressive in speech as she is in song,” Green reflects, “Shelagh’s a natural, graced with gentle humor and nuanced embrace of each character she inhabits.”
Hackett, an experienced actress who trained at the NYU Stella Adler Studio, and spent 15 years working in theater and cabaret in New York City, has written her first play, in which she also stars. Hackett grins and says, “It’s an hour and 15 minutes if people laugh, shorter if they don’t.”
Along with her time in NYC, and a yearlong “misguided adventure” to Portland, Ore., Hackett’s been a wash-ashore since 1995, having been a summer kid growing up. She is married to piano technician and tuner Boaz Kirschenbaum, and the couple’s combined family includes Hackett’s 16-year-old daughter Fiona and 11-year-old son Finn, plus Kirschenbaum’s son Cassidy, also 11. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my husband’s support,” Hackett said. That support, sure. But don’t forget having the inclination, energy, discipline, and time to devote to this kind of project, now that she’s retired from the Oak Bluffs School as an educational support professional.
Enter Nancy Aronie and her Chilmark Writing Workshop, which Hackett attended last year. “During Aronie’s workshop,” Hackett says, “I began thinking writing was as interesting as listening. I was fascinated by other people’s stories, and thought maybe I’d write mine down.” Aronie, who knows of what she speaks, was impressed with Hackett’s efforts in class: “Every time Shelagh finished reading, I saw her onstage. Plus, the room would break out in a rousing spontaneous applause. The woman is a great writer, a wonderful performer, and has the most important element for memoir — in my opinion, which is always right (I’m just kidding, but not really) — she’s courageous enough to be vulnerable. She is willing to say, ‘This is who I am.’”
Next we have Gerry Yukevich, the longtime M.V. Playhouse board member, actor, and doctor in his spare time. Yukevich, after hearing some of Hackett’s writing at Aronie’s workshop, told Hackett she should write a bunch of monologues and string them together as a show. This made sense to Hackett. She sat down and wrote 24 monologues in 21 days.
Sounds like divine intervention, and many artists talk about work pouring out quickly onto the paper, or piano, or what have you. But there’s technique involved too, and a lifetime of artistic exploration. In this play, Hackett is sharing her specific story, after years as an artist, partner in marriage, teacher, and mom, cogitating on what stays with you from age 23 to 55, and what morphs into something new.
Now Nicole Galland comes into the picture. She’s a novelist and co-director, along with Chelsea McCarthy, of the playhouse’s popular Shakespeare for the Masses, who attended an informal reading Hackett organized to share her new script. Galland, who lives in a world of the written word and theater, encouraged Hackett to continue. Early on, Galland worked with Hackett as an ad hoc dramaturg, exploring what was working and what might need revision.
Molly Conole, who had her own show in the Solo Shows series, is our next character in the Hackett writing adventure. After attending Hackett’s reading, Conole was impressed, and suggested to Hackett, who was unaware of the Solo Show series, that she submit the work to Munafo, M.V. Playhouse’s artistic and executive director, for consideration for the series.
Continuing Hackett’s journey, Munafo, who conceived and curated the Solo Shows series, and directed Molly Conole’s show, which took place last week, says, “I’ve known Shelagh for a very long time, and helping her shape and develop her solo show was a great chance to reconnect in a deeply personal and meaningful way. She is a terrific performer, with so much humor and heart. And she can write and tell stories and sing! It’s been my privilege to work with both Molly and Shelagh on their first-ever solo shows, and I’ve loved every minute.”
Conole and Hackett have essentially started at the same point — autobiographical one-woman shows. Conole’s version was conceived from the beginning as a musical. Hackett’s wasn’t, although she’s is an experienced singer, who studied with Barbra Streisand’s voice teacher Elizabeth Howell, and has an extensive background as a professional singer.
As Hackett was putting “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” on its feet, she thought adding some songs might work. Hackett relates, “In my early drafts of ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish,’ there was not much music, and I didn’t sing at all,” Hackett says, “But after working with MJ, I realized my story couldn’t be told without music or song. I added pieces of tunes that are milestones in my life and pivotal to my story.”
Hackett, even though she’s a first-time playwright, has a mature approach to the process, and has welcomed input from the “village” of colleagues. She believes if there’s a mutual trust, considering advice from other professionals is helpful, and found Munafo’s input as director inspirational. That said, the work is Hackett’s own, her own story, in her own voice.
“Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” written and performed by Shelagh Hackett, directed by MJ Bruder Munafo. Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, May 17 and 18, 7:30 pm. All tickets $30. 508-696-6300. mvplayhouse.org.