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The Effervescence of Myles Breen

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“My Limerick is about friends and family”, Myles Breen tells
me during a break from rehearsals for his upcoming revival of his one-man play
Language Unbecoming a Lady.
“Limerick is a small city with a bit heart. I love its
intimacy. I love walking down the street and always bumping into somebody who
you know and who knows you. Some might find that claustrophobic but that’s I
love about home. It means you are part of the city. It means you are part of a community
that knows you and cares about you”, he says.  
Myles Breen blames his mother Bridie for setting him down
the road he has taken in life. Bridie Breen, now in her mid-nineties has been a
life-long lover of music, opera and theatre. “Bridie would drag my brother John
and I to every cultural cockfight in town when we were kids”, Myles remembers.
“We would attend all of the Cecilian Musical Society shows. I
also very distinctly remember regularly seeing the Vienna Boys Choir down in
the old Savoy Theatre”.
Myles is setting his sights on a New York premiere next months
Myles clearly tells his early memories of touring
productions coming to Limerick including those from the Abbey Theatre. It was
these experiences that instilled in him a life-long love of the theatre.
“We were kids but it felt so grown up to go to the theatre”,
he sasy. “It was a special treat. We saw everything and were really introduced
to all styles of performing arts. Mum would warn us to be on our very best behaviour
on those occasions but there was never a fear. We were always captivated”.
Myles’ first experiences of actually performing were when he
first started taking speech and drama classes with Barbara Ni Chaoimh. Barbara
is now well known in theatre circles but at the time had just finished training
to be a teacher at Mary Immaculate College and was working in Limerick.
“I spent two years studying with Barbara every Saturday
morning down at the Augustinian Hall. I simply loved it”, Myles says.
Out of that I was given the opportunity to work with the
well-known theatre group Buion Phadraig who were looking for a young boy to
take part in an Irish language play. This experience took Myles around the
country to all the drama festivals.
“The whole concept of going into many venues across the
country was incredible. I ended up doing two plays with them much to my father’s
chagrin. They would pick me up from home and naturally I was coming home quite
late. I was on thirteen at the time”.
An early photo of Myles (centre) during his days at Ms Penny’s Irish Dancing school
Many would not realise that he studied a Bachelor of
Commerce degree in UCC. The concept of Drama Schools was not heard of at the
time.  It was the early 1980’s and of
course there was the expectation that one was expected to do a ‘proper degree’.
Myles acknowledges that it was probably his father’s influence that resulted in
his choice of commerce as a degree.
“There were so many societies available to join in college
but I knew the one that I wanted”, he says. “I immediately signed up to the
dramatic society at UCC. I was really fortunate to have been cast after my
first audition for the drama society Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I had a tiny
part but it was just the start. I ended up performing in many, many productions
and had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people, some of whom went on to
work professionally in theatre”.
During his time as a member of UCC Drama Society Myles had
particular theatrical rival in form of a young man named Graham Walker.
“We both started at UCC in 1981 and were both performing in
As You Like It. Of course Graham got the lead as Orlando and I was left to make
do with a cough and spit, bit part called William! Graham and I went on to
perform together on a number of occasions. The most memorable of those was
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which was a really brilliant production. I played
the role of Boy and Graham once again usurped the bigger role of Lucky. Graham
Walker eventually went on to become more well known as Graham Norton so I have
learned to forgive him!”
Myles consider that production of Waiting for Godot as his
first ever ‘professional’ production. What had started out as a college production
ended up getting rave reviews. The cast were asked to perform the piece at the
Hibernian Theatre in Cork city and ended up producing the piece successfully
for a number of weeks.
Myles performing in a UCC Drama Society production of Philadephia Here I Come
After graduating Myles returned to Limerick and announced to
his parents that he was going to pursue a career in acting. “I had made so many
contacts during my college years and I simply was bitten by the theatre bug”,
he remembers.
“It didn’t go down too well with my father but my mind was
made up. I was really to almost immediately be cast in a major Irish movie
called Clash of the Ash”.
Myles’ fondest memories of Limerick are his years growing up
on what was then called called the Back Road. Most Limerick people would now
know it as the South Circular Road.
“It is where we lived happily and was a road full of
families. You had the Furlings, the Carthys, the O’Mahonys and the Keyes
families. We were all much of the same age. As kids there was a huge gang of us
and we literally ran riot around the area. We had big back gardens between the
Back Road and O’Connell Avenue that we called ‘the backs’ which were wilderness
at the time. We had forts, we had huts and we had ‘make believe’ there. We
would scale the walls and skin the Nun’s orchards. I have many fond memories of
growing up in that part of town. It was our stomping ground”.
The Limerick of Myles’ youth was pretty grim time in
Limerick. After returning home in 1989 to work with Island Theatre Company
Myles remembers it feeling like a city where more things were happening.
“The establishment of the University of Limerick after what
had been NIHE, the expansion of the art college and other things all worked to
make Limerick feel that it had something to offer. During the Celtic Tiger I
certainly noticed that confidence in Limerick was starting to emerge. The biggest
changes that I have noticed down through the years are the sense that it has
become a city. During my youth it always felt like a small town. It has now
emerged as a true city. What I love is that it has retained its intimacy. It is
a place where everybody seems to know everyone else. My parents were always well
known through their various businesses. We could get away with nothing because
every barman and waitress in the city knew who we were”.
An early Island production of Biloxi Blues
Myles Breen’s years with Limerick’s Island Theatre Company
were hugely rewarding and formative for him as an actor. He would have known
many of the founding members of Island from his days in UCC. Both Monica
Spencer and Louise Favier were friends from college.
“Monica was from Cork and Louise was from Kerry but both
ended up playing an important part in the formation of Island”, he says. “The first
time I auditioned with Island I didn’t get the role. I was gutted. I eventually
got cast with Island thanks to the wonderful Terry Devlin. It was this
experience that almost reacquainted me with my home town. I realised I loved
home, I realised how much I wanted to play a part in the arts scene in
Limerick. Up to that point there had never really been any opportunities to
earn a living but Island changed all that. I ended up performing in over 20
shows with Island Theatre Company, most of which I am incredibly proud of”.
Myles finds it difficult to single out specific roles or
productions but credits Island for so much.
“The work I created with Island must go down as the work I
am most proud of. I particularly remember the production of Hamlet that we
produced in St Mary’s Cathedral. I played the role of Claudius. The setting was
magical and the cast were just stunning. “Pigtown, written by Mike Finn, was
one of those shows that everyone involved in the project believed in from the
outset. When we ended up performing in front of local audiences the response
was overwhelming”.
It is working with Bottom Dog Theatre Company, of which he
is a founding member, came the most rewarding project Myles has worked on to
date.  
“Language Unbecoming a Lady was actually my first every
attempt at playwriting”, he says. “The process was actually a very challenging
and, at times, scary experience. It is a very personal play, it is a one-man
show. The fact that you have both written and are performing in this extremely intimate
piece of theatre has the potential to leave you exposed in so many ways. In one
sense the story of the play has its roots in my story of growing up. Other
aspects of the play have come from the experience of friends I knew growing up.
Because it was so personal I just wanted audiences to ‘get it’. The response
when I first performed the piece a number of years ago was so positive”.
Myles and Liam O’Brien in Pigtown
The return of the play this year comes at a very interesting
time. When Myles first wrote the piece part of the story touched on issues such
as civil partnership and marriage equality, neither of which existed at the
time. The play tells the story of Robert who is a gay man who grew up in
Limerick. The play is Robert’s account as an older man looking back at his life
as a man who was closeted and finding it hard to cope with his own situation. The
play shows his life and his story but also shows how far Ireland has come a country.
“When I wrote it in 2009 we were only starting to discuss
the issues around civil partnership versus marriage equality”, Myles remembers.
“In hindsight it allows us to see how fundamentally our society has shifted in
such a short space of time”.
Myles describes his experience growing up in Limerick as a
gay man as challenging. “I remember in the late 1970’s being called ‘sissy’ or ‘nancy’
at school”, he recalls.
“As a child it didn’t really bother me but it was when I hit
my teenage years that it was tough. There really were no role models out there.
In the play I make reference to Larry Grayson or Mr Humphries. They were who
you were compared to if you were a gay man in Ireland at the time. On some
levels gay people in Ireland actually didn’t know what we were. 
As I became a
little bit older and started to come to terms with who I was suddenly there was
the whole AIDS crisis. This was incredibly terrifying for young gay men. The reports
at the time were frightening. So little was known about it and, for many, being
gay meant you were going to end up dead. In Limerick I wasn’t aware of any gay
scene. I simply didn’t know how to look at it. 
It is remarkable now to see how
open life has become for gay people here. You have the gay bar and clubs, you
have a Pride Festival which continues to grow year on year. There is a community.
There are many so role models, gay people now represent the spectrum of
humanity. You have a sense that no one cares who you are any more”.
Myles is no stranger to Limerick audiences. In some senses
he is considered part of the furniture across Limerick’s cultural community.
“I have been working in Limerick for so many years and I
have developed a relationship with audiences here”, he says with his typical
Myles Breen beam.
“They have been so supportive to me down through the years.
I particularly love doing Panto.  I did a
lot of it in Cork and then in Dublin and over recent years got a great
opportunity to do Panto in my home town. I love it here because I know the
crowd and they know me! They know my mother and my father, my brothers and my
sisters. There is a sense that you are performing to your family when you are
back home.  
Myles loves what he does and it comes across. Be it serious
roles or comedy roles you can see that Myles Breen just love entertaining
people. His years of dedication to his trade are now being rewarded as Bottom
Dog prepare to hit New York with a production of Language Unbecoming a Lady
which will be performed at the First Irish Theatre Festival in New York next
month. This will be Myles’ first ever visit to the city.
“We have been in conversations about bringing Language
Unbecoming a Lady to New York for a number of years but, to be honest, I never
felt it was ever going to happen”, Myles says.
“This year it seems the stars have aligned. This play is so
personal to me and to be able to have been given the opportunity to tell my
story to such an audience is such a rewarding experience. Even just to have the
opportunity to go to New York, a city I have dreamed about, is amazing. I have
brothers and friends over there. In fact Louise Favier, one of the founders of
Island is over there and someone I have not seen in so long. I am honoured to
be also able to represent Limerick and the culture of Limerick on the
International stage. I have been fortunate to have worked with so many
wonderful people here in Limerick so whatever I now bring to the table I can
safely say that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I wouldn’t be where I
am today without their help, their support and most importantly their talent”.
Myles and his mum Bridie – the woman he blames for it all!
Myles acknowledges the role Limerick City of Culture 2014
played in proving to everyone in Limerick that we could do something on that
scale. “So many projects took place led by so many cultural practitioners”, he
says.
“I think 2014 presented the opportunity to so many who were
sceptical about culture to experience something new and to become converted.
There really was something for everyone and so many homegrown pieces of work that
showed Limerick as a tremendously cultural and dynamic city.
“As we move towards our bid for Limerick European Capital of
Culture 2020 I think we have now proved that we are capable. I think we have
shown there is an appetite. People are talking to each other more and are
sharing their ideas. Minds are focussed on what we can and need to do. In order
to be successful in our bid I think we need to put cynicism to the side and to
each acknowledge how we all can play our part in making sure Limerick succeeds
in this huge cultural mission. Limerick City of Culture 2014 proved that when
we work together we can achieve great things”.
Support the Limerick 2020 bid by logging on to www.limerick2020.ie

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