For the second year in a row, Dot Dot Productions, in association with The Irish Repertory Theatre, the American Irish Historical Society and Great Performances catering, has brought James Joyce’s The Dead back to life for the holidays in Manhattan. With a script based on Joyce’s novella, adapted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon and New York Times bestselling novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, directed by CiarĂ¡n O’Reilly, The Dead, 1904 is a marvelous example of immersive theatre at its best where an audience of 55 moves from room to room with the actors, listens to the music, watches the dances, dines on a meal inspired by the menu in the novella and observes the characters in their interactions. And, a lucky few even get a chance to share the meal with the characters during the play’s famous dinner scene.

Melissa Gilbert and Rufus Collins

With a setting provided by the American Irish Historical Society’s mansion on New York’s 5th Avenue and catering provided by Great Performances, the cast, led by Melissa Gilbert and Rufus Collins, transforms place and time in a magical way.

Stay Thirsty Magazine decided that exploring the thoughts and observations of the three principal engines of this theatrical experience would be insightful, and in that regard, we visited with Rufus Collins (from the cast), Sophie Colgan (from the American Irish Historical Society) and Executive Chef Mark Russell (from Great Performances) to glean their perspectives of this unique production of a holiday gathering on January 6, 1904, the Feast of the Epiphany, in the Dublin home of two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, and their niece, Mary Jane.

Terry Donnelly, Melissa Gilbert, Patricia Kilgarriff and Patti Perkins in The Dead, 1904

At the party are students, friends, a celebrated tenor, a lost alcoholic and the couple, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy. Over the course of an evening, there are conversations, music, dancing and dining. There are speeches and disagreements – polite and impolite – and when it is all over Gabriel learns something about his wife that changes his sense of who she is and who they are to each other, of what it actually means to be alive, and to be dead.

The Dead, 1904 Trailer - Courtesy of The Irish Repertory Theaatre


STAY THIRSTY: How did you prepare for your role as Gabriel Conroy in Dot Dot Productions’ revival of this James Joyce story? Do you feel that you are in a way the embodiment of Joyce’s spirit and life?

RUFUS COLLINS: I knew and loved Joyce's great novella from college (I was an English major at Columbia) so some of the “work” was already done. The final
Rufus Collins
transcendent paragraph I knew by heart. Part of the challenge was being able to conceive that this literary masterpiece, which was written to be read, could be performed by a company of actors. Once we started rehearsal it became clear that the ingenious adaptation would take care of that and we were able to treat the material like any play. 

Certainly Gabriel is a projection of Joyce himself, but perhaps not a complete one. As we know from Joyce’s biography, and his great love for his wife Nora, his marriage did not suffer the fate that Gabriel’s does. I believe Joyce imbued Gabriel’s psyche with jealousies, inhibitions and self-doubt that he himself felt, but Joyce consigned Gabriel to a sad fate—a heart that never experiences passionate love, but one that the great writer himself did not suffer.  

STAY THIRSTY: The play’s storyline includes such broad emotions as jealousy, callowness, insecurity and insensitivity, along with an arrogant rejection of culture. What are your emotions like during the performance? Do you personally identify with Gabriel’s temperament and philosophies? How difficult is it for you to maintain character with the audience as part of the production?

RUFUS COLLINS: Many of the emotions that Gabriel experiences during the evening of the story are described in prose in the original work, parts of which read like melodrama in comparison to today’s literary taste (“show don’t tell” “less is more,” etc.). Necessarily, an adaptation for the stage leaves the long emotional internal passages (except for the last one) out of the script. Until the end, the script contains fragments of the whole portrait that Joyce wrote. My challenge as an actor was to bring life to those moments and link them together to form a coherent character trying to play his “role” during an annual family event. It is situation familiar to anyone who goes to a yearly Thanksgiving feast or other family holiday dinner. So, yes, I certainly was able to identify with Gabriel on that level. As far as his philosophy, I can’t easily say that I identify with him, but I understand his realizations about fleeting quality of existence. This is not exactly a philosophy, but it is an outlook, an awareness of the fragility of life and inevitability of death.  

STAY THIRSTY: What do you want the audience to take away from participating in this very intense, immersive theatrical experience? How has the experience of immersive theatre changed you as an actor?

RUFUS COLLINS: I don’t have clear sense of what the audience should take away. I think we encounter art for personal reasons and extract meaning individually. I do hope audience members share some of the emotional journey of Greta and Gabriel Conroy’s marriage on this particular night. Universal truths about loss and longing, memory, time, aging, life and death are revealed in the bedroom scene especially. I hope that these revelations resonate in a deeply personal way with our audiences.

Immersive theater removes the “4th Wall” completely. It is the most exposed acting I’ve ever done. There is no private space; therefore no distance between character and actor. I hope to bring this integration of role and self into my future work. 


STAY THIRSTY: What part does the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) mansion play in this revival of The Dead, 1904?

SOPHIE COLGAN: The Society’s mansion plays a central role in the production which recreates the Misses Morkan’s holiday party in 1904 because the Society’s unique Beaux-Arts interior allows the audience to be transported to that earlier time.
Sophie Colgan
As the New York Times review of the play stated, “Unless you glide among the upper echelons of New York society, you are not likely to attend a holiday gathering in a more sumptuous setting this season.”

STAY THIRSTY: The AIHS moved into its 5th Avenue headquarters in 1940, but the building was built in 1900 and reflects the unmodified grandeur of American Beaux-Arts architecture. How does this period setting enhance the emotional experience for the audience during this production?

SOPHIE COLGAN: For the audience to experience and participate in the evenings performance within the setting contemporary with Joyce’s story creates an effect that would not be accessible in a theatrical stage set.

American Irish Historical Society Mansion - Main Room (Second Floor)

STAY THIRSTY: What one element of the building is the most influential to this theatrical production success?

SOPHIE COLGAN: The Society’s crystal chandelier and wall sconces cast a warm and glittering light over the evening’s festivities.


STAY THIRSTY: Since this production of The Dead, 1904 includes not only food and drink for the characters, during the running of the play, but also for the audience, how did you develop the menu for this event and strategize the service details of the meal?

MARK RUSSELL: We started with James Joyce’s description of the meal in The Dead using it as a guide to developing a menu that would appeal to 21st century tastes
Mark Russell
and could be served within the logistical constraints of the production. The former translated to making certain changes in the actual dishes presented, most notably with regard to the goose that Gabriel carves for the dinner party. Goose is not something with which most Americans are familiar and the first experience with it should not be in the middle of an immersive theatrical production! You have to grow up eating goose to appreciate it. So we substituted turkey. 

Dealing with the show’s logistics, meant condensing the menu somewhat and designing it for family style service that could be orchestrated to fit within a very tight schedule so as not to disrupt the flow of the play. It may be worth noting that, true to Joyce’s description, ham was part of the menu last year; however we saw too much of it coming back to the kitchen – yes there is a kitchen at the society where we prepare the meal for each show. To avoid such waste we cut the ham from the menu for 2017.

The Dead, 1904 - Main Course Service

STAY THIRSTY: Did you want the audience to experience the flavors, tastes and aromas of the 1904 period in Dublin? How was the Irish palate of that era the same and different from the palate of today?

MARK RUSSELL: Absolutely, our goal was for the food to be in keeping with the vision of the entire production, which transports the audience to another time and place. That’s why we tried to be as true to Joyce’s description of the meal as possible. It required some research, particularly with regard to the “floury potatoes” he referenced. Quite frankly, I wasn’t certain what that meant; there are certain varieties of potatoes which are considered more “floury,” than others, but it didn’t make sense that Joyce was talking about a certain kind of potato … he was talking about a dish, a potato preparation. After consulting treatises and cookbooks dedicated to Victorian /Edwardian Irish gastronomy, it because clear the term referred to potatoes that are boiled in their skins until they burst open. So the mashed potatoes served at The Dead, 1904 are made from potatoes cooked that way.

The Dead, 1904 - Main Course

I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak to the Irish palate today as opposed to that of more than 100 years ago. I can tell state that Dublin has become one of the world’s culinary capitals with multiple Michelin-starred restaurants serving cutting edge cuisine. However, just as it is in this country, such food is not the everyday experience of the vast majority of Irish palates. Actually, the more I think about it, I believe it’s safe to say that, while today’s Irish palate is likely somewhat more sophisticated, more globally influenced than it would have been in 1904, a fundamental appreciation of fresh ingredients, simply prepared to bring out their natural flavors, remains the same.  

STAY THIRSTY: What particular part of the menu stands out as the most memorable? What part conveys the greatest connection to the immersive aspect of the play and makes the greatest connection for the audience?

MARK RUSSELL: The sauces accompanying the beef and the turkey; glazing the beef with fig. They address the flavors Joyce described in his story. And there’s the nod to the floury potatoes. The meal as a whole has an old-style, very comforting persona that I think has a soothing, relaxing effect on audiences, enhancing the immersive experience. We’re always hearing that people forget they’re part of an audience, feeling like they are actual guests at the sisters’ dinner party.

Melissa Gilbert and Rufus Collins in The Dead, 1904

The Dot Dot production of The Dead, 1904 runs through January 7, 2018.

(Photography credit: Carol Rosegg)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.