THEATRE / Family resemblances: Shivaun O'Casey, daughter of the more famous Sean, talks to Caroline Donald about directing her father's work

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The Independent Culture
'I think he would have preferred me to paint,' says Shivaun O'Casey, daughter of the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey. She would find it a difficult profession to pursue at the moment, though - her wrists are covered by plaster casts, owing to an accident in which she fell off the back of a chair while opening a window. Picking up a cup of coffee is effort enough, let alone creating things with a paintbrush and palette.

Although Shivaun trained as a scenic designer at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, she left this field to become first an actress and then a director. Last year, along with the producer Sally de Sousa, she founded the O'Casey Theater Company, which employs actors from Ireland, Britain and the United States.

As the company's title suggests, Shivaun is not reticent about her connection with her father, though she says that she only chose the name because she could not think of another. The opening production was The Shadow of a Gunman, the first of the trio of 'Abbey' plays that made O'Casey's name (the other two were Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars), and led him to give up his job as a labourer to write full-time at the age of 44. This year, the tour is called Three Shouts from a Hill and consists of three one-act plays by O'Casey: The End of the Beginning, A Pound on Demand and Bedtime Story.

'A lot of people only know Sean's work through Juno, Shadow and Plough,' says Shivaun, 'but there are many aspects to his work, including burlesque, farce and also the rather more sophisticated humour of Bedtime Story. He loved comic situations and he believed that it was very important to give people the chance to laugh. It was such a great part of him - his sense of humour and his love of laughter.'

Shivaun has inherited this sense of humour from her father, and her conversation is frequently punctuated by giggles that stem more from a gently jolly personality than from nervousness. A woman in her fifties, she looks considerably younger, and speaks with an unstinting admiration for Sean (she refers to both her parents by their first names - her mother, Eileen, is 90 and lives in London). 'He was a lovely man, and a great man,' she says of Sean, 'and certainly a very good father.'

Being the youngest child, and the only girl, Shivaun was very close to Sean. It was she who started the collection of weird and wonderful hats that became his trademark, by lending him a Swiss one with edelweiss round the brim to keep his bald patch warm. She would bring him hats from around the world and as he got known for wearing them, other people would send them to him as presents. Shivaun still has them all and cannot bear to throw them, or his collection of pipes, away.

As O'Casey was 60 when Shivaun was born, there is a sense when speaking to her that she only came to know about much of his life via secondary sources - she refers to incidents in his life as they were recorded in his autobiography, or from what her brother, Breon, has told her (her other brother, Niall, died of leukaemia when he was 21, the year she left college to tour America with the Dublin Players).

From an early age, she talked about her father's plays with him, discussing the productions that she had seen. The only time she ever acted in one of Sean's plays was with Jackie MacGowran at the Mermaid Theatre, London, in Pound on Demand and The Shadow of a Gunman. 'It was very interesting playing the parts that I was so familiar with, having seen them so often,' she says, though she modestly admits that she brought nothing new to the role of Minnie in Shadow of a Gunman other than the fact that her height rather defied the description of the character: 'I was certainly the biggest Minnie]' she laughs.

It was through a documentary piece about her father, In the Shadow of O'Casey, first produced in Londonderry, that Shivaun came to establish the O'Casey Theater Company. 'In Derry I became interested in the fact that we were working in a small community and that we had some impact on that community. We saw that Field Day (theatre company) had brought something to Derry. It has taken time but now critics come over and people know about Derry, not just in a negative sort of way. Derry has developed tremendously as a city, and I think Field Day has a lot to do with that.'

The Irish folk singer Tommy Sands, who was collaborating with her on the show, persuaded her to have a look at his local arts centre in Newry, and although she had no close connection with the town, she decided that it was ripe for a professional theatre company. 'It was Northern Ireland that I was interested in,' says Shivaun, who has spent most of her life in England and America. 'I wouldn't want to be in Dublin because there is so much theatre going on there and I felt that, although there are good companies in Northern Ireland, there is nothing like our company doing the classics.'

O'Casey's company is full of idealism: 'Our company is very definitely cross- border, cross-community and cross-Atlantic,' says Shivaun. But there is another reason for structuring it like this: money. By including Irish, American and British actors and production crew members, Sally de Sousa has managed to arrange agreements with the three Equity unions involved, so the same actors can play throughout the tour.

The chance to tour America (the company is playing in New York and Philadelphia) means that O'Casey can attract 'big names', as well as young local actors. Last year, Gabriel Byrne was in The Shadow of a Gunman. This year, Gerard McSorley and Pauline Flanagan are among the cast. With heavyweight names (plus, of course, Shivaun's parentage) come the big sponsors: 13 in all, from both sides of the Atlantic. Even the name of the company is spelt 'theater' with the lucrative American market in mind, though Shivaun has some claim to this market since she went to New York in 1982 with a boyfriend and has stayed there ever since. The contacts she made in America have been invaluable in setting up the company and she now plans to divide her year between New York and Newry.

Shivaun does not seem to mind accusations that she is herself living in the shadow of her father. 'After all, I am his daughter]' she says fondly. The company's next big project is O'Casey's controversial work The Silver Tassie, which will be produced in 1994, but she intends to put on plays by other Irish writers: 'We're doing Shaw's John Bull's Other Island next, and I'd love to do some Sheridan.' But O'Casey is her favourite: 'It's the colour and positive side to Sean's work I love most: he says, 'Get up and do something, don't just sit around and wait for Godot.' ' Shivaun is doing just that.

Opens at the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine tonight; then tours to Enniskillen, Waterford, Limerick, London, Glasgow, Belfast and the USA. For details, ring 071-834 4104.

(Photograph omitted)

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