A little more than a decade later, in 2002, and an ocean away, he did just that.
The concept of the producing actor is hardly alien to Americans, he said, pointing to the Group Theatre, the Atlantic Theatre Company, the Wooster Group and Chicago’s Steffenwolf, some of whose key founders became better known to a wider audience for their work on screen.
“They’re groups of actors who got together 20, 40, 60 years ago. It’s still the same today,” he said. “It’s the only way to keep going in this business.”
Yet Heslin, it seems, would have a busy professional life even if he weren’t artistic director of the Origin Theatre Company. Earlier in the year he finished a 15-month long tour of the United States with “Stones in His Pockets,” while through September and October, he could be seen on stage at the Irish Arts Center in “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” and after Christmas, he’ll do film work in Ireland.
Origin is the main focus of his career, however. An understudy played his part in “Blowin,” while he directed the first few nights of its latest production, Mark O’Rowe’s “Crestfall” which had a successful three-week run at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. It was the culmination of months of work for Heslin, who runs the company from its Upper East Side office.
“George is the sort of person that excites me to have in theatre,” said Peter Tear, executive producer of 59E59 Theaters. “He’s determined to do something new.”
Said Heslin of Origin: “Our mission is to present contemporary European plays to American audiences.” More established companies, he explained, are fearful of taking on the work of emergent talent from Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe.
In securing Origin’s niche on the New York scene, the affable and unassuming actor has called upon contacts made over the years in two great theatre cities, Dublin and London.
Life, however, began in Limerick. He grew up in a family of five children in the Raheen Heights district of the city. His father, George Sr., now retired, was a welder at Krups. His mother Margaret, who died in 1999, was a homemaker.
Two of his siblings are nurses, one is a Limerick firefighter, and another a businessman.
George Heslin Jr., though, wanted to be an actor as far back as the age of four or five. “I don’t know where it came from because nobody in the extended family was involved,” he said. “But in my experience that’s the same with a lot of actors.”
It could be said that he got his first lucky break at the Jesuits’ Crescent College, where his English teacher gave up much of her free time to run the school’s drama program. No less than 17 people from Heslin’s time at the high school are involved professionally with theater and film, which he attributes to the influence of Marie Cummins, who retired last year.
Heslin became involved also with the youth theatre movement, which was still very new in 1980s Ireland, though it has flourished since throughout the country.
After a directing course at the Abbey Theatre, he went on to Trinity, where he said the American and British teachers provided “very good grounding with an internationalist perspective.”
He was kept busy in the two years after he left college, acting in two productions on London’s West End — “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” at the King’s Head Theatre and “Elegies.”
Heslin said that a career in New York, or even London, had not been on his agenda; it just worked out that way. He was heading for Australia after his West End experience, when his father sent in an application on his behalf for a green card.
The application was successful, but a West End meeting with a legendary acting teacher played a role, too, in his decision to be based at least part of the year in New York from 1994 onwards. Indeed Uta Hagen, who was born in Germany in 1919 and died early in 2004, has been the decisive influence on his career to date.
Hagen, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period, counted Jason Robards Jr., Jack Lemmon, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino among her students.
Heslin liked the attitude to the profession he found in New York. “There’s a belief in America you get better as you get older, that acting is a craft that you work on,” the Limerick man said. He sat in Hagen’s class, he recalled, with people who were starring in Broadway productions at night.
“But in Ireland, it’s a good apprenticeship,” Heslin said. “You spend less time on stage in New York unless you’re very lucky.
“Here, it’s a huge pool,” he added.
He got 490 resumes ahead of casting “Crestfall.” Many of the 65 he selected for audition had some experience doing Shakespeare, an advantage because of the rhythms and the “heightened language” O’Rowe uses in the play.
The director said that while most could identify with its emotional life, not everybody understood the world of the play.
“As a director, you really have to see some bright connection [by an actor] to the play,” he said.
Heslin picked Fiana Toibin, Mari Howells and Barbara Spence., who are from Ireland, Wales and the United States, respectively.
It was a measure of the director’s success, said the executive producer of 59E59 Theaters, that everyone who saw the play had a favorite actress.
“The job he did on ‘Crestfall’ was quite extraordinary. Our whole experience with Origin was terrific,” said Tear, saying the show’s was sold out for its three-week run. “Our audience is up for material that it’s a little bit challenging. The feedback we got was very positive.”
The Scottish-born Tear added that he hopes to have Heslin and Origin back in 2006.
Heslin himself plans well in advance. Origin’s “Mondays in May,” done in conjunction with Glucksman Ireland House, is a series of rehearsed readings that help determine future productions. Heslin also assigns directors to research and work on future projects.
Next spring, Origin (www.origintheatre.com) will stage “Clocks and Whistles” by Samuel Adamson, a British-Australian playwright.
So far, the company has done only English-language plays, mostly by Irish writers, but Heslin has commissioned the translation of a Bosnian work and other foreign-language plays are likely in coming years.
Origin has gotten support from arts councils back in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, while in New York the Irish and the British consulates top the list of institutions that back the company’s efforts
“They feel what we are doing is important,” the artistic director said.
Heslin is also grateful for the support of the Irish Repertory Theatre, in whose Chelsea premises “Crestfall” was rehearsed. The older company also serves as an inspiration.
“I really admire Charlotte [Moore] and Ciaran [O’Reilly] for what they’ve built over the past 17 years,” he said.
In common with the Irish Rep’s founders, he likes the idea having some control over his own destiny
“But with control comes a commitment to people,” he said. So in a fundraising letter sent out to supporters within the past year, Heslin set out goals for 2005, primarily two full productions and the rehearsed readings at Ireland House. “And that’s what I’ve achieved,” he said.
It may not be everybody’s idea of control of one’s destiny. Origin is taking risks that the more established companies don’t want to take for financial reasons. “Aidan Mathews is a hugely respected Irish writer, and he’d never been presented in America,” Heslin said referring to the well-received “Communion,” the company’s first production in 2005.
The same was true of Enda Walsh, another Irish writer showcased by Origin, and O’Rowe (though his film “Intermission” starring Colin Farrell and Colm Meaney was shown here).
Heslin said he derives job satisfaction from spreading the news about works like “Crestfall” that will, he believes, still be performed in 2105.