You could call it the greening of North America, because it seems that you don't have to be Irish to enjoy things Gaelic in the New World. Celtic-flavored successes such as Riverdance and Angela's Ashesprove that, as do lower-profile, hometown successes like Denver's own Irish theater company, Tir Ná nÓg -- formed in 1998 as part of a continent-wide phenomenon of drama troupes concentrating only on works written by Irish playwrights or dealing with themes of Irish life. In what's undoubtedly a cultural coup for the relatively fledgling local troupe, Tir Ná nÓg will now play host to the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival, an annual event held alternately in Canadian and American cities since its inception nearly a decade ago. Among the participants will be Winnipeg's veteran Tara Players, who've been spreading the green since 1973 and were instrumental in conceiving and bringing the festival to life.
"Well, that goes back into the mists of time," says Tara general manager Brendan Carruthers of the group's formation. A side-product of an Irish association with a strong cultural focus that formed in 1972 in Winnipeg, the Tara Players provided a theatrical component to the organization's general arts-oriented aims. "Irish theater companies here developed as a way of celebrating culture," Carruthers notes. "But they're not just presenting this to ghettoized audiences: The really magical aspect is that Irish theater has an appeal that goes far beyond the Irish community. The stories are filled with a great humanity, a real sort of gut-level understanding of people's emotions, so people can relate to them quickly and easily."
Carruthers teasingly suggests that the Tara Players owe their longevity to "drinking whiskey all day," but he adds, more seriously, that the group's fostered an unusually potent continuum of interest among its members. "There's one thing that happens a lot in theater: Some people join for short while, then drop out. But for many of our members, it becomes more than just a hobby -- it almost becomes a way of life."
That kind of tenacity can also be found in Denver, where Tir Ná nÓg bridges a definitive gap. "We always say it was at a corner table at Nallen's Irish Pub -- that's where it was born," says spokeswoman Molly Maginn, weaving a tale of her own. Founders Tony Cohen and Patrick Balai met there, she adds, where "they spun the wheel, picked each other's brains and decided to put together a company of talented people with theater backgrounds and a love of Irish storytelling. It filled a void in Denver: There's an Irish football team, Irish dancers and Irish musicians. But there never was an Irish theater company before. And it was not hard then to get people from the community to come forward -- they're all storytellers, anyway."
Along with groups from such far-flung locations as Toronto and Boca Raton, Tara and Tir Ná nÓg will spread the Celtic word in choice surroundings: The festival takes place in the state-of-the-art Courtyard Theatre at Auraria's King Center. But it's still a grassroots operation, according to Maginn, who says tiny Tir Ná nÓg is coordinating everything, from reserving hotel rooms to providing technical staff. And Carruthers says costs are growing from year to year, right along with the festival.
In the long term, though, Carruthers thinks the fest has a good future. And that owes much to general excellence: "Initially, we were concerned about whether or not people were going to present a high quality of work. But that's been more than borne out by the quality of the work: We've had some incredible performances turned out at past festivals, real knockouts, performances that could stand up on any stage, anywhere."