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On a recent Tuesday morning, John Farrell answers the phone in a husky voice with a New York twang. He’s been up since about five, and he’s ready to talk about his new play.
He was “one of those babies from the ’50s”, he says. He was born in Ireland, but didn’t know that for most of his life. It’s something he only learned after his adopted mother died eight years ago in New York, where he was raised in Brooklyn.
“Most people would know me best as Gerry Ryan’s sidekick,” he says. For 19 years, he was a regular fixture on Ryan’s RTÉ radio show.
Now after a lifetime as an actor, with stints in radio, TV, and journalism, he’s performing in the upcoming International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, which runs from 7 to 20 May, in 3 Lies About Brooklyn, a show he wrote about his life – up to the age of 25 at least.
He’s a little nervous about the show, he admits, laughing. “It’s 7,000 words, and it runs for about an hour.” He has shared parts of the story in smaller readings, but this is the first time he’s performing this version.
“I kind of felt uncomfortable talking about any of it,” he says, “but a couple of years ago I kind of said, ‘Fuck it.’”
Farrell was raped at a very early age, before he was adopted. “I developed an attitude about sex that was purely transactional. I thought I had it all figured out,” he says. “But that changed when I found love.”
Farrell’s first real love, Russell, was murdered in 1979, when the play ends. “Sad and disillusioned”, he moved to Dublin with the eminent Irish actress, Geraldine Fitzgerald, who was coming here to put on Noel Pearson’s Mass Appeal, before later taking it to Broadway.
He stayed for 20 years, not knowing that he had been born here. But the show doesn’t really go into that, he says. This is about his early life, in the New York of the 1960s and ’70s.
An Irish “Bastard”
The Sisters of Mercy moved Farrell to Brooklyn, where he lived briefly in an orphanage, and was adopted at three years old, “and we all know what kind of racket they had going”, he says.
By his early teens, he was sneaking into Broadway theatres, making friends with actors. “They let you get away with murder when you’re young,” he says.
“The summer I turned 14, I joined the Everyman Company in New York,” he says, which was run by Fitzgerald. “She kind of became like a mother to me, and was very kind and supportive.”
“I don’t think of myself as a victim,” he says, although he reckons his experiences made him hard and cynical.
“I had some anger about how I was treated around being a bastard”, and boys who might be queer in orphanages are targets, he says, “and when you get sexually assaulted, it’s almost like you wanted it”. But, thankfully, he says, those attitudes are changing.
Everyone has deep, dark secrets, and it’s like a dam bursting when you decide to talk about them. “Often, they’re fundamental to your character,” Farrell says.
The play is, in a way, one result of his catharsis, and he reflects on his “cultivated identity” as a child, “but it was fraudulent; a disguise, and made my interpersonal relationships difficult.”
The show’s subtitle is An Irish Bastard Comes of Age, and Farrell says he’s come to see the word “bastard” as “a badge of honour”; he’s re-appropriating it a bit.
“I am a bastard. You feel that you don’t belong, like a changeling,” he says, and he enjoys the ambivalence of the word. Most people think of it as a negative, “but it’s kind of cool not to have a heritage, or a bloodline”. Orphan is a euphemism, in his mind.
“I don’t need other people’s validation. People who meet in orphanages have a special bond.”
“The ambition of the piece is that it looks like I’m up there just bullshitting for an hour, I hope that will ease the audience into it,” says Farrell.
He wants to make the audience self-reflect, to show “the importance of risking love, and being in love”. It’s a story with a lot of tragedy, but he hopes there’s enough humour to help people deal with it.
“I hope that they’re able to re-evaluate their own values, the degree of humanity of their own values, and to be reflective of their own lives. We have all suffered, but we have all also been cruel,” he says.
“My ambition is to collect stories that couldn’t be told. What are the things that you’re never able to talk about?”
The International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival is not just there to put on plays about “fabulous gay lives, but real stories”, says Brian Merriman, the founder of the festival, and a playwright and actor himself.
Not many people write from perspectives like Farrell’s, he says. It’s a play that tackles issues Ireland needs to address, those like child trafficking, he says. “We have selective memories.”
“There are people who refer to being gay as just a sexual act. We have a culture, and an emotional response to people of our own gender,” he says.
Merriman’s sentiments seem to echo Farrell’s. “The best way to change hearts and minds is to show people who you are,” he says.
3 Lies About Brooklyn runs from 7 to 12 May at the Momentum Acting Studio.