Jane Coyle: Hannah and I have a shared love of Paris ... she can really imagine the places I've written about
Holywood playwright Jane Coyle tells Lee Henry why its important to remain professional despite the fact her actor daughter is starring in one of her plays, Me Here, Now and Before Before, at the Duncairn Centre in Belfast tonight and Downpatrick tomorrow.
As careers in the arts go, few will be as varied and interesting as that enjoyed by Jane Coyle. A former editorial assistant at the prestigious Faber & Faber publishing house in London, an arts journalist and broadcaster, a script supervisor for an independent production company and, now, in her latest creative sidestep as a playwright, she seems to have done it all.
Her latest professional role, though, is that of proud parent, as her current play, an intriguing dual monologue entitled Me Here, Now and Before Before, stars her actress daughter Hannah. Inspired by the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, the play tours Northern Ireland venues this month after its Belfast premiere, which took place in May this year.
"Hannah lives in Paris and studies at the Cours Florent School of Theatre," says Jane. "As a mother I am naturally delighted that Hannah is featuring. Our working relationship is entirely professional and independent. We don't bring the rehearsal room into our personal lives. I think it has to be that way.
"What Hannah brings to the role is a shared love and intimate knowledge of Paris. It's great to hear the word pictures I have tried to create being spoken in her voice. She can really imagine the images and places I've written about, which helps bring it to life.
"Because as a family we all work in overlapping fields, we naturally talk a lot about what we are doing. That can be very useful for getting good ideas as well as being told pretty quickly if something you have in mind is just plain silly."
The plays were partly influenced by Jane's own time spent living in Paris while studying for a diploma in French civilisation at the famed Sorbonne University. She was 17 at the time and it was "a big adventure for me and a big worry for my parents".
"Not long after I arrived, the student riots of 1968 kicked off and my parents had the anxiety of watching the news every night and seeing the chaos and violence that was erupting in the streets," she recalls. "But by then I had fallen for Paris in a big way.
"It was a heady experience for a teenage girl, walking the streets of the Latin Quarter, having my first puff of a Gauloise, getting my long hair cut off. I still love it as much today as I did then. When my daughter went to live there in 2008, as part of her studies at Queen's University, I realised how brave my parents had been in allowing me to be there in those crazy days of 1968."
Born in South Wales - "in the countryside of the Vale of Glamorgan, 15 miles along the coast from Cardiff. Although I have lived away from there for so many years, I am Welsh to the core" - Jane inherited a love of words from parents John and Joyce.
"They were teachers, youth workers, great champions of young people," she says.
"They instilled in me a love of books and words and travel, and they taught me never to be afraid of a new challenge. My mother was a great ballet fan. She is 91 now and still loves to go to the theatre. I owe my love of the performing arts to her.
"English was my best subject at primary school and I wrote endless stories and poems, though I preferred to keep them to myself. My grandmother on my dad's side wrote plays, which were performed by the pensioners in the Evergreen Hall, Wales - I still have them, written by hand in blue exercise books - and one of them was about the day the Beatles came to town and she got to dance with John Lennon."
At grammar school, Jane discovered a love of languages and, thanks to a particularly involved teacher, soon developed a fascination with French history, arts and culture. Aged 12, she enjoyed her first experience of European living when she travelled across France with her family in her father's quaint pale blue Morris 1000. Further holidays were spent in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare country, where her mother's aunt ran the Shakespeare Hotel.
Jane adds: "She was involved with the Royal Shakespeare Society and took me off to the theatre from a very early age - Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Hamlet, Macbeth. It didn't matter if the play was suitable for children or not, whatever was on, we went."
She enjoyed "some of the best times of my life" while studying English and French at the University of Leicester, and was determined to pursue a career as a writer. She was stumped, however, as to how to go about it.
"At various careers events, this seemingly ridiculous idea was kind of dismissed. Advisers would politely hear me out, then start directing me towards medical research or the diplomatic corps, because I could speak a few languages. I felt as though I was banging my head against a brick wall."
After graduating, Jane's father suggested that she take a bilingual secretarial course, which she did. Today, when interviewing subjects for various publications, she still scribbles down their quotes in shorthand with pencil. This first sidestep ultimately led to the esteemed offices of Faber & Faber.
"Working with the very best writers and editors was the best possible learning experience. It was there that I met Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and WH Auden. I worked for Alan Pringle, one of the most exacting and highly regarded editors in London, and when he lost his eyesight through terminal leukaemia, with a heavy heart, I became his eyes.
"Heaney once talked about a special F-word that he associated with Faber: family. Once you have been received into the fold, you are there for life. It gave me lasting friendships, unprecedented experience and a very annoying tendency to spot a spelling or grammatical error from several miles away. It is a skill that I have passed to my children with varying degrees of success."
After leaving Faber & Faber and relocating to Cardiff, Jane began writing travel features and broadcasting with BBC Wales, and subsequently moved to Northern Ireland after marrying Padraig Coyle, himself a busy sports journalist.
"It was never in the stars that I would write a play," she says. "I worked for many years in independent television production for Brian Waddell, who was a mentor and dear friend. In that time I wrote scripts for all kinds of programmes, but when Brian asked me to set up a film and drama development unit for the company, I started dabbling with scripts for television drama and films. We developed a slate of feature film projects, mainly for young people and family audiences, and I wrote two more full-length screenplays."
Despite her extensive experience, and much to the frustration of her husband, Jane admits to having always doubted her own writing abilities. She was initially uncertain, but was then commissioned to write a radio drama for RTE 1. The piece was not aired due to contractual reasons, but she continued to work on it and, in September 2016, The Lantern Man toured Northern Ireland.
"It was a big beast of a play set during the First World War with a cast of seven actors," says Jane. "I was knocked out by the response of audiences up and down the country, and in the meantime I had written The Suitcase, a play inspired by a visit to the Jewish Museum in Vienna and my friendship with the dancer Helen Lewis, who survived Auschwitz."
These days Jane writes original plays, while her husband writes historical plays in a shared office space in their Holywood home.
Though they write in each other's company, neither knows much about their spouses' work until sitting in the audience on opening night. "Over the years, Padraig has been my biggest supporter and most honest critic. We make a good team," says Jane.
While Hannah will be on stage this month, acting out her mother's carefully crafted words, her other children, Matthew and Patrick, will also be in attendance, either in body or in spirit. The entire Coyle clan share an enduring passion for the arts.
"Our children have inherited my dislike of anything to do with maths or science," she laughs.
"They all work in the creative industries. Matthew is a qualified solicitor who gave up private practice to become a writer and Patrick is a graphic designer with Mammoth Brand Consultants in Belfast. He is also a great traveller."
The Coyles, reveals their multi-talented, multi-faceted matriarch, are "all committed Europeans and united in our despair over Brexit".
They spend as much time as they can together in their "little holiday home" in Brittany, which they bought when the franc was weak against the pound. "It is our bolt hole and hideaway and we try to get there as often as we can," says Jane. "Combining our trips with visits to Hannah in her tiny apartment in Paris."
As for the future, she is laidback. "Who knows?" she says, open and optimistic about all possibilities.
There are no concrete plans, and that is the way she likes it. "After writing about other people's plays for so long as a journalist and critic, it still feels very strange to be writing my own. It's exciting to be on this new journey at this stage in my career."
Me Here, Now and Before Before will be staged at Duncairn Centre, Belfast tonight at 7.30pm, tickets £10; Down Country Museum, Downpatrick tomorrow, at 7.30pm, tickets £5, and the John O'Connor Writing School & Literary Arts Festival, Armagh on November 4, at 7pm, tickets £7. Contact each venue to purchase tickets