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Northern Ireland man wins prestigious National Partners of American Theatre Playwriting Award

By Claire McNeilly

Published 20/04/2016

Leo Mcgann (CFA'17) is a playwriting MFA student who has just won a prestigious honor from the Kennedy Center - bringing him to a weeklong workshop there. His winning play is about the Irish troubles and how old wounds are dangerously reopened by a project a lot like those BC oral histories. He was photographed at Pavement at 736 Commonwealth Avenue April 6, 2016. Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography
Leo Mcgann (CFA'17) is a playwriting MFA student who has just won a prestigious honor from the Kennedy Center - bringing him to a weeklong workshop there. His winning play is about the Irish troubles and how old wounds are dangerously reopened by a project a lot like those BC oral histories. He was photographed at Pavement at 736 Commonwealth Avenue April 6, 2016. Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography

A man from Northern Ireland has landed the prestigious National Partners of American Theatre Playwriting Award.

Leo McGann, a mature student who is currently studying drama at Boston University, received the honour for his Troubles-themed drama In The Moment, which will open as a full production at the US city’s Playwrights Theatre early next year.

The 27-year-old Belfast native has already tasted success on this side of the pond, having won a Young Writers programme with the Tinderbox Theatre Company in his home city which led to his plays being performed at the Grand Opera House’s Baby Grand Theatre.

The National Partners Award, however, is sure to propel him towards the bright lights of Broadway.

“In The Moment is about how people hold onto their grief and the damage that was done, and how that kind of sits alongside people trying to move on,” said Leo, who picked up his gong at the 48th annual Kennedy Centre American College Theatre Festival in Washinton DC this week.

“Belfast felt like a more tense place when I was a child than it is now. As a youngster, I remember the place as having lots of graffiti, and soldiers were just kind of an everyday part of Belfast street life. You’d see troop patrols and just didn’t really think very much about it.”

Leo’s award-winning drama is set amid the violence of Northern Ireland in the late 1970s.

It begins with two off-duty British soldiers downing a few pints in a bar outside Belfast.

One of them, Dave, staggers off to bed, but his younger colleague Barry stays behind with some girls.

By the next morning, Barry has been killed, and Dave realizes that the girls were an IRA honey trap.

Three decades later, still tormented by guilt and anger over what happened, Dave meets a young American researcher working on an inside story of the Troubles.

When he sees what she has collected, his response opens old wounds in what’s supposed to be a more peaceful, modern-day Belfast.

Leo admitted that In The Moment had several rewrites over his two years at Boston University, and he will continue to hone it prior to its big-stage debut in February.

He said he has been wrestling with the balance between “thriller-esque plot twists and a deep exploration of Dave’s character and choices.”

“I wanted for it to be suspenseful and for the audience to not really know what’s going to happen, and to be rethinking these characters as it goes along,” he added.

Boston Playwrights Theatre artistic director Kate Snodgrass has tipped Leo to go a long way in his chosen profession.

“He’s the real thing,” she said.

“He’s got a good sense of drama and a wonderful ear for dialogue, and he’s always writing about something important and universal.”

McGann’s parents are former Queens University Belfast faculty members.

“My mother is a Byzantinist and my father is a classicist;  I grew up with a lot of classical myths,” he said.

McGann earned a BA in modern history from Oxford University in 2008, with an undergraduate thesis on 1972 -  the bloodiest year of the Troubles.

“The honey trap wasn’t something that happened very often, but it was obviously a much-remembered part of the conflict, because people were lured away,” he said.

“They thought one thing was going to happen and something else would.”

McGann, who was 10 when the the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed says the play is not based on the controversy surrounding the Boston College Belfast Project – the so-called ‘Bostin Tapes’ -  which ran into trouble when the PSNI subpoenaed interviews BC researchers had conducted with IRA volunteers.

But he revealed that the tapes did suggest a way to bring his character Dave’s ordeal into the present.

“Like any veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, Dave has a hard time letting go of the past. How others react to his questions is the crux of the drama,” he said.

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