Tony Coleman is one of Ireland's most gifted
playwrights and actors. His latest offering, I'm A Dad? Get Me Out Of Here! played to
full houses in its three-month (Sept-Nov 2004) national tour. The play asks some
basic questions about childhood and the shifting position of the modern Dad in a shifting
society. Peter Anny-Nzekwue meets Coleman after the play's
final run (Nov. 16-20) at Driaocht (theatre) Blanchardstown, Dublin to enquire how his personal
experiences have helped to define and shape his philosophy of life and theatre.
the 1990s Tony Coleman was having a flourishing career as an actor in New York City. He was performing
both on and off Broadway. His most notably flicks were Public Enemy at The Irish Arts Centre,
The Nightingale and not The Lark, Mass Appeal both at The Irish Repertory Theatre
and World Premiere of Marsha Norman's Trudy Blue at Actors Theatre of Louisville. His
American screen work includes: Law and Order (NBC) and One Life to Live, ABC
popular daytime soap. Things were really looking up. The future was indeed very bright for him.
At least three times every year Coleman wound take time out
to visit home in Ireland. There was Hannah, his daughter whom he loves so much, and the main
reason for his frequent visits. It was during one of those visits that Hannah insisted she
wanted to be with him more. The implication was that Coleman would have to return permanently
to Ireland. What about his romance with New York, a city he loves? What would happen to his
flourishing theatre career and his dream of fame and fortune? Coleman was at a crossroad.
"But somewhere deep down I knew that if I didn't
come back for her I'd regret if for the rest of my life."
Born in Ballyfermot, Dublin in 1958, Coleman
was trained at Focus/Stanislavski Studio Dublin. He had performed at The Gate Theatre in The
Recruiting Officer, Arragh na Pogue, Peer Gynt, Twelfth Night and Juno and the Paycock,
with which he toured Edinburgh, Jerusalem and Broadway. At least there was a solid background
that would provide a springboard when he returned home. In August 1998, Coleman was back to
Ireland to be with Hannah and to "rebuild" his life.
No sooner had he returned to Ireland than he entered
into a romantic affair that was to lead to a turning point in his life and acting career.
In the 80s, Coleman had worked with Emer. And by devine intervention, he ran into her again
shortly after he returned to Ireland and this time they began a romantic relationship. Emer had
a six-year-old son, Leo, from a previous relationship. So when Coleman and Emer decided to move
in together after a few months he had to take "a more active role in Leo's life."
"I liked Leo from the start but strangely found
it difficult to really bond with him. Yes, I could get him to school, pick him up from school,
do the homework but something was not quite right."
What was that "something"? Coleman could not pin
it to one particular experience. Perhaps it was that natural inclination for a child to be
possessive of his mother, which understandably, Leo was to Emer. Or it was Leo's frustration
at where his biological father fitted in the new arrangement. Perhaps Leo wanted that
closeness with Coleman, but he was interested in being a dad only to Hannah. Perhaps it was
jealousy, as Coleman resented that particular arrangement in which Leo visited his "real" dad
every second weekend and next week regaled Coleman with the tales of his experiences with his dad.
Coleman confesses that as a child he had a father
who was never there for him: "work, work, work." Coleman's father was away all week,
struggling to eke out a living for the family. The only time he had to talk to his father
was weekends, and invariably that was not enough for a son to create that atmosphere of bonding
nor did it leave a reservoir of knowledge that Coleman would have drawn from in his later years
as a man. Did it ever occur to him then that that "something" may be his own lack of experience,
since his own father did not take full responsibility to prepare him to become a man?
"Yes. My only map for intimacy with a boy was from an
experience with no real intimacy. I had to look at what it was for me to be a son
before I could understand how to be a father to one."
"Do we take that to mean that the past, in spite
of its imperfection, has helped to make the present relevant?"
"Yes, because it enable me to refocus on the past and draw
from that experience, and it heals because now I judge those imperfections of the past a lot less."
Gradually, Coleman and Leo managed to continue to
build that trust in each other, which eventually led Coleman to the moment of epiphany:
"As my relationship with Leo deepened I began to understand that my previous disconnection with him was less about Leo's willingness to come
halfway and more about my inability to make the emotional journey."
Coleman explains this inability to the fact that
it is a lot easier to identify emotionally with Hannah because she is a girl. With Leo it
is to him a more difficult challenge:
"Leo was a boy and fathering a boy means taking
responsibility for teaching him how to become a man. As his primary male role model, I was
going to be responsible for how he became a man, how he would treat the world, how he would
treat the women in his life."
Sounds logical. But something tells me that there is a
little twist in its tail. Patronising? Portentous? As a dad myself I should know that a man's
love for his child is unconditional because he is the biological father. Coleman is Hannah's
biological father; Leo's surrogate dad. Could it be that Coleman's emotional "disconnection" with
Leo is not just because Leo is a boy, but that Coleman is not his biological dad?
"Yes I did think that at first. It became clear to me, however,
that his father wasn't going to provide that love for him so I took the responsibility to do so."
Thereafter, the trust Coleman and Leo were building
in each other blossomed into a complete bond. It was the defining moment in their relationship:
Coleman realised that he would always be there for Leo, unconditionally; Leo, in turn, found
"real strength in himself."
"And what moral lesson did you learn from
these whole experiences?"
"A father has to make a conscious choice to love
his child unconditionally. Not only in the moment of their birth but every single day of his
life. Fatherhood means being prepared to make sacrifices no matter how high the cost. Fatherhood
means knowing that your children come first."
It is this historical reality that provides
Coleman the material resource for I'm A Dad? Get Me Out Of Here!. The play is a simple
story of Coleman, a forty-five year old man who willingly takes one month off work in order to look
after his seven year old son. And it turns out that it is not quite an enjoyable experience he has
expected. For that one month Coleman is burden by the drudgery of the everyday household choirs;
the expectation of a role model to a hyperactive son, Leo, who would one day grow into a man;
the spite of an over-bearing wife, Barbara, relishing the temporary reversal of family roles;
and the compelling demand of "one big universal law", which posits that "mothers know best".
With a dramatic landscape laden with metaphysical
angst and anguish; sarcastic humour and sympathetic laughter; glam rock and contemplative
silence, I'm A Dad? Get Me Out Of Here! explores the themes of childhood, fatherhood, family
and one man's quotidian struggle to keep his sanity in a world that is obsessed with the idea
of male perfection.
But the aesthetic construct of I'm A Dad? Get
Me Out Of Here! is existential. Existentialism posits that man is condemned to eternal
suffering and death in a universe that is incomprehensible, immutable and hostile. It sees God
as an "absentee landlord" who has abandoned man to his fate, and avers that if man were to be at
peace with this insufferable universe he would first have to know himself.
"Who am I?" Coleman has asked, contemplating the
bare dramatic stage; two plastic chairs at the either end of the stage, a wooden table at the
centre and a black jumper that lies silently on the table.
Coleman's self-search is all too familiar
with the Absurdist man in quest of self-apprehension: Sisyphus, when condemned by the gods
to a ceaselessly labour of rolling a rock up the mountain top; Willy Loman, after being sucked
and thrown away like a piece of fruit by the inhuman business world of Arthur Miller's Death
Of A Salesman; Vladimir and Estragon while waiting in vain for Godot in the arid and empty
landscape of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece: Waiting for Godot.
"I am nothing!" Coleman's self-negation is reinforced by T
Rex's Teenage Dream that sends a chill round the theatre hall.
Nihilism. Nothingness. Non-being. In Absurdist
theatre, self-negation works with the principle of opposition. To deny the physical self is in
fact to affirm the metaphysical being. Physical man is nothing when place in opposition with the
hostile universe, but the metaphysical man is prodigious, compendious and eternal.
It is with such self-apprehension that Sisyphus ceaselessly
rolls his rock up the mountain with a scorn and a smile; that Willy Loman confronts the business
world by an affirmative death through suicide; that Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot with a
stubborn will, even though it has become obvious that Godot will never come because he does not
exist; that Coleman responds with an affirmative declaration: "Here is the real man!", to the
two women in a lift wondering the scarcity of the modern man.
I'm A Dad? Get Me Out Of Here! ends with
Coleman emerging as the epitome of the real man. The archetypal man at the beginning of
the play, who is scared of losing his place to women, overwhelmed by the new demand of what it
takes to be a man and a father and shocked by his shifting position in a shifting society, has
transformed into the heroic ideal. No longer a reluctant anti-hero, but the Shavian Superman;
the Superhero. Man's self-affirmation, the existential thrust of I'm A Dad? Get Me
Out Of Here!, is final and total.
"This affirmation of the human spirit is the very core of
Beckettian theatre. How much influence does the Beckettian theatre have on I'm A Dad? Get Me
Out Of Here!?"
"I have only been influenced by Beckett in that it is the
same existential wasteland from which we have no real option but to draw some kind of hope and
"Do you see I'm A Dad? Get Me Out Of Here! as a
turning point in your career?
"Yes, not only in my career, but also in my life. It has
given me the confidence to put my ideas into the real world in a way that is very fulfilling. It
has given me back my soul. The part of one that gets destroyed when you are just an actor out
there looking for the next job. It makes that process all the more tolerable."
"What is your philosophy of life?"
"Whaoh" There is a pause and a deep sigh. Now he has his
index finger in his lips, contemplatively. And as the words come, they are
measured and assured: "My philosophy of life revolves around Honesty, in life and in work.
Love, in life and in work. Responsibility to the task at hand and to give 100 per cent"
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