Comic actor and author Tara Flynn of ‘Not a Funny Word,’ talks about her 30 year career in theatre, television, writing, and comedy, and taking time out from it to focus on the campaign to Repeal the Eighth.
Tara Flynn is a self-identified hustler. She has never stopped – not since the start of her career, and certainly not now. Her mark is found in many corners of Irish entertainment – from television, to voice acting, to YouTube. She has published a book, You’re Grand, and her most recent on-stage production is ‘Not a Funny Word,’ a frank and frankly hilarious portrayal of abortion rights in Ireland, and her own personal experiences. The scope of her work begs the idea that it is possible to use more than 24 hours in one day – despite this, I met her early in UCD, as energetic and dedicated about her work, and Repeal, as I saw her performance in the Complex Theatre for ‘Not a Funny Word’ a few weeks previously.
The production is as touching and personal as it is hilarious, from on-the-nose jokes about Ireland’s hypocrisy, to painfully realistic descriptions of disappointing one night stands and misguided doctors. For Flynn, doing a scripted set is much easier than doing a talk or panel “because it’s what I do. I know when tough bits are gonna come so I’m prepared for them, I know when it’s gonna be hard to speak.”
“Some things are hard to say in front of people,” she reflects, “every night a different bit catches me. I’ll go there with the full emotion of that, and even saying it aloud, it’s how I felt, but I puncture it with a little bit of humour – I know the humours coming, so I’m able to say it!”
A cleverly written and bravely performed show as ‘Not a Funny Word’ is never made without experience and talent, of which, Tara has a full house. Like the aspiring actors among us in UCD, Flynn followed her passion for the theatre through (mostly) ignoring her degree and taking to the stage at any opportunity, in UCC’s Dramat. Spending so much time acting, as well as busking in bands, meant that she missed “quite a few classes by third year – I always wanted to be somewhere else!” She credits college, and admittedly her English and French degree, for being the stepping stone to making a move on her dreams.
“Some things are hard to say in front of people, every night a different bit catches me”
“I knew I wanted to be an actor from a very young age, although there were very few people becoming actors in Ireland, and definitely not in Kinsale!” Growing up she tried to soak up as much theatre and culture as was humanly possible in South Cork. She was most particularly grateful and mildly amazed that “the nuns” brought them to Stratford-Upon-Avon to watch productions there. “In the 80s! It was really progressive, and I’m so grateful for it now.”
Flynn knew there was no way, that she could get into what was her original aspiration, classical theatre acting, without “sheer dumb luck or moving straight to England without any money.” So, after college, she moved to Dublin and did everything and anything to be around theatre. Connections in the dramatic scene saw her regularly attending comedy nights. “Totally by accident,” she stresses. She was working on the door at the comedy club, which led to getting on stage and performing stand up. She soon created a comedy group with her friends called ‘the Nualas,’ because they thought their songs and jokes “were really funny [to us] and we were wondering would this be funny to anyone else – and they were!”
Comedy took over, and she was happy it made her a more-rounded actor. In the creative field, you can’t just stick to one thing. “Hustle, hustle, hustle!” she laughs. “I’m always out there, sending CVs, MP3s for voice acting, doing stand ups and that kind of thing. In a very small pool like Ireland, you have to diversify.” She regularly does extra things like voiceovers to make ends meet, and adds “that’s a joke! I know it’s better than cleaning toilets – although I’ve done that too!”
“I think heightening awareness of women’s writing, so that women stay writing for themselves and other women, is so important.”
Acting and the arts are not known for consistent careers and reliable incomes, and I ask her if she was ever scared that her career wouldn’t work out. “Oh yes, I’m still terrified all the time!” she exclaims, “but I love my job so much, and staying in the business has felt like a real success to me.” Starting in 1990, Flynn has been in the industry for almost 30 years, which soars high above the average of 6 years. It’s so low because freelancers are simply not supported, particularly if you want to sustain a family.
This especially pertains to women, and after the age of 26, there are fewer roles for women. “We’ve got to make it more equal, so that you don’t suddenly see people disappearing from the business at childbearing age for financial or other reasons. I think heightening awareness of women’s writing, so that women stay writing for themselves and other women, is so important.”
Another issue for freelance actors and creatives is dismissal of the arts, and having to work two, three, or even four times as hard to get paid. This is what leads to the hustling, but when people ask Flynn to do “small” bits of work for free, she finds it “an insult that they would ask. I can’t afford to promote their work for free.” Flynn however, like most artists, recognises that it’s not all about the money. “I’ve boiled it down to: ‘how am I being nourished with this?’ If you can’t get paid, it’s important to feel enriched in some way. Like at the moment, I’m filming something (and I won’t say what it is yet!) and it’s for practically nothing, but we’re having a great time filming it and it’s a fun character for me to go off and build… and with all the campaigning going on, it’s reminding me that I’m an actor, as some people have forgotten!”
“I’ve boiled it down to: how am I being nourished with this?”
With her involvement with the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, she thinks people see her as controversial. From her perspective, the issue doesn’t have to be contentious, “it happens to so many people!” Flynn is very clearly passionate about the issue, and speaks insightfully and eloquently; and therefore, she is often asked to attend panels and talks. “Right now, everything I’m doing is for the campaign, and it’s all for free. People think I’m getting paid; no!” If she is offered any speakers fees, she asks them to put them back into the campaign.
She has a steady focus, and her dedication comes from the crucial need to act now. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen on May 25th, there are always surprises and we can’t be complacent, but we know from talking to people and the letters people send us. Our inboxes are full of the kind of stories you can’t even imagine. Things that are far more horrific and tragic that are happening… that people haven’t even hypothesised about.”
“We all have to do our bit, even if it’s just wearing a badge, or saying to a conservative ‘well I’m voting yes and here’s why.’” Flynn laments the criticism of campaigners of the past, because it was thanks to them that the referendum has been possible at all. “It was women like Ailbhe Smyth, Enda O’Brien, and Mary Holland, who started chipping away at the wall of silence, and we should be grateful for them as now the rest of us can speak. I’m so grateful to them. The wall of silence is protecting a lie.”
While passionate and immensely proud to work for the campaign and achieve a positive result, she misses her real job, acting and storytelling: “I’m very excited to get back and do some nonsense come July, I can’t wait!”
“Nonsense” is a word you could use to describe some aspects of her most recent production ‘Not a Funny Word,’ which I saw in The Complex in March. The performance details an experience of hers, one which only adds to her passion for Repeal.
“If she is offered any speaker’s fees, she asks them to put them back into the campaign.”
Flynn had to travel by herself to Utrecht for an abortion. The experience was hugely significant for her, and writing the show helped her to process it. For the show, “I wanted it to be like a hug, where you’d go out singing along. If it was something happened to you, you’d feel minded, but if you were someone who would never choose that option, you wouldnt feel alienated from the show or the story.”
For Flynn, the arts can help immensely in keeping the conversation going in a way that isn’t provocative, though it ends up being challenging. She feels comedy can help people to process difficult situations. “I use a lot of humour for distance,” but a lot of the show isn’t funny; it’s heartfelt, it’s heartbreaking.” That can be hard for any Irish person, we love a bit of a deflection,” she laughs.
My personal favourite part of the show was the song ‘Burn Her She’s a Witch,’ which was an interesting political commentary that compares medieval witch hunts to life as a woman in contemporary Ireland. The songs were composed by Alma Kelliher, and their catchy, pinch-of-salt melodies only add to the depth and complexity of the humour in the show. For the first few showings, they held a Q&A afterwards, and an older man, who Flynn immediately expected to have unwavering opinions, was positive. “‘I just want to say this was REALLY funny.’ He said, ‘I expected it to be shouty and quite negative.’ Flynn feels discussions are not wholly constructive, thanks, in part, to the media, who present the discussion as a binary, contentious issue, insisting for balance which reduces the impact of private, personal stories
It’s a discussion Flynn knows Irish people are capable of. “I’m not a controversial person. I’m funny, I’m messy, and I make dumb choices about people, and I’m left with the consequences, and I’m like you. We’re full and rounded people, and sometimes we make mistakes, and life is all about the mistakes we make and how we cope with them.”
She wants the show to be stigma-busting. “The stigma is global, and it’s going to exist after [the referendum],” but she wants to do it with as much humour as she can. Sometimes we’ve to talk about serious things, and some of the show isn’t funny at all, but comedy is important for everyone: “it adds warmth to something that can make you feel out in the cold” – and the fire is blazing in Flynn’s corner.