Irish in WNY / Vincent O’Neill
It started on a Dublin stage
Photo by kc kratt
“Whenever anything changes in our life, it has something to do with Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot,” says Vincent O’Neill, cofounder and artistic director of Irish Classical Theatre Company (ICTC). He might be on to something. Back in 1985, Vincent and his late brother, Chris, appeared in an iconic production of Beckett’s allegorical tragicomedy at the Focus Theatre in Dublin, directed by Peter Sheridan. They wanted to take the show on the road, so Peter called his brother, Jim, who was running the Irish Arts Center in New York City at the time.
As O’Neill recalls, “Jim said, ‘Yeah, sure, bring it on, man.’ Chris applied for rights and was refused because a producer bought up the rights trying to get a Broadway deal.” (That production eventually starred Robin Williams and Steve Martin at Lincoln Center.)
Sheridan then hooked them up with Rochester businessman John Everett, who, O’Neill recalls, was fascinated by all things Irish and all things theatrical. “John said, ‘I’m not putting you up [in a hotel]. You can stay at my house. Bring your sleeping bags because you’re sleeping on the floor. I’ll wine you and I’ll dine you, but I’m not going to pay you, and the condition is, you perform wherever I say.’ We agreed because at this stage, we wanted to go to America.”
Following a successful production of Waiting for Godot at Nazareth College, “John had us go to high schools. Pretty rough ones if I recall correctly,” O’Neill says. “We did it for the lifers in a prison in Rochester. That was interesting. They all wanted Pozzo to hang Lucky. The sides they took were exactly the opposite of what you’d think. They sided with the authority figures and against the victims.”
After the O’Neills finished their Rochester run, the Townsell family invited them to bring Godot to Buffalo. “They ran the Airways Motel out by the airport,” O’Neill remembers. “Chris said, ‘What’s the deal?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay you.’ [Laughs] The usual! ‘But we can put you up.’ They had a hotel, so at least we weren’t sleeping on the floors. We were moving upwards in the world! Kevin Townsell also said, ‘I’ll wine you and I’ll dine you,’ but it wasn’t wine, it was Guinness.”
Since the Airways had no theater space, the restaurant in the basement was converted and, despite a brutal snowstorm, swarms of people came out to see the critically acclaimed Godot production. “One of the people who came out to see it was David Lamb [artistic director of the Kavinoky Theatre at D’Youville College],” O’Neill says. Lamb and Chris O’Neill had met previously on the stage at Trinity College in Dublin and had become friends. Lamb saw Chris in Godot and invited Chris to work at the Kavinoky for a while. “Chris had a lot of problems with individuals and debts and stuff back in Dublin,” O’Neill says, “so he saw this as a golden opportunity to start a new life in the ‘Land of the Free.’”
In 1986, the Donnelly Visas (a lottery instituted by Congressman Brian J. Donnelly of Massachusetts) gave Chris O’Neill an opportunity to settle in America permanently. Chris recruited help from various corners to fill out 970 applications for the selection. “He called me and asked if I’d do twenty for him and I said I would,” O’Neill recalls. “While I was putting them in the envelope, [Josephine Hogan, ICTC cofounder] and I were recently married and Laura was just born. And I said, ‘Should I put one in for ourselves?’ We decided, why not, so I put one in.” Ultimately, Chris got it and Vincent did not.
But Vincent and Jo’s names came up when the lottery was redrawn in 1989 by another congressman, Howard Berman of California. “The only person we knew in the States was Chris O’Neill. He happened to be in Buffalo, so we came to Buffalo,” O’Neill says. “I had one job when I arrived. It was directing Waiting for Godot at the Pfeiffer Theatre, starring Chris O’Neill and Saul Elkin.”
After living in Buffalo about a year, Vincent and Josephine created the Irish Classical Theatre Company with Jim Warde and Chris O’Neill. ICTC is currently celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary season.
“It’s been an extraordinary journey, a very productive journey. I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” O’Neill affirms. “I really have.”
Special thanks to Josephine Hogan for her help with this article.
Darwin McPherson is the former theater previewer for Spree and a longtime contributor.