Theatre of Change at the Abbey Theatre

At the end of January, I spent three enlightening and inspiring days at the Abbey’s Theatre of Change symposium listening to fantastic speakers from all over the world. I am so grateful for the Abbey for organising the symposia over the last three years. It’s a great way to kick-off the new year and I hope it’s something that the new Artistic Directors carry on with. The line-up for each symposium has been wonderful. One of the joys for me was hearing lots of different voices – different accents, different ages, different genders. I appreciate the Abbey bringing these people to Dublin and allowing me to sit in front of them, hear what they have to say.

It felt like an overtly feminist conference this year. WakingTheFeminists was not only in the programme but it was also mentioned in Fiach’s opening speech. (Not really surprising – it’s hard to talk about the Waking The Nation programme now without mention what isn’t there.) There were a couple of sessions on reproductive rights in Ireland and the role of women in the Rising also featured prominently.

Lian Bell, Eleanor Methven and Loughlin Deegan spoke on behalf of WakingTheFeminists on Thursday afternoon. Eleanor talked about her decades-long battles against workplace discrimination. She was one of the founders of Charabanc Theatre in 1983, set up to provide decent roles for female actors, so she is an old hand at this lark. Loughlin, on the other hand, admitted that although he would always have identified as a feminist, he “has been on a very steep learning curve since my involvement with Waking the Feminists.” He spoke candidly about having his belief that his career achievements were based solely on merit shaken by the stories that came out of the WakingTheFeminists movement. He also talked about patriarchal structures and the damaging Myth of the Great Man. (You can read their speeches in full on the WakingTheFeminists website, links above. Or watch below.)

 

On the Friday afternoon, Emer O’Toole and Susan Cahill presented The Man Problem. This was a performance presentation that looked at the fact that the vast majority of our politicians, political pundits, radio presenters and journalists are male and so when we start talking about abortion, it is rare to hear women speaking about it. We tend to hear the least from those who are most affected by it; those who have to travel, those who need medical attention that is not provided in this country. This is changing as more women are talking about their abortions. It happened that Friday afternoon in the Abbey, when Susan gave a very personal and poignant account of what it was like to discover she was pregnant while en route from Canada to Ireland, for a month long stay here. She described what it was like to be pregnant and not want to be, in a country that was debating the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. She waited until she was back in Canada to terminate the pregnancy and described how grateful she was to be able to go home to her own bed afterwards, and not queue up to get on a plane full of stags and hens. It was very affecting. Dearbhail McDonald’s potted history of the Eighth Amendment as the introduction to the piece was also very moving and a bit fury-making. Let’s hope that 2016 is the year that this cruel and archaic piece of legislation is removed from the constitution.


The Man Problem

DaysOfSurrenderThere were also a couple of presentations about the role of women in the Rising and how they have been removed from the “official” history. Jacki Irvine read from her book Days of Surrender . She read a piece about Elizabeth O’Farrell’s walk across Moore Street carrying the white flag of surrender. Elizabeth was the owner of the feet behind Pearse in the photograph of his surrender. Her feet were removed before the photo appeared in the newspaper in 1916, and Elizabeth’s role was also removed from RTE’s version of the events, in Rebellion a few weeks ago.

 

 

Over the years, the symposia have never let war be something distant, something firmly in the past. There are many reminders that war and conflict zones still exist all over the world. This year there were speakers from Israel and the occupied Golan. Taiseer Merei runs a theatre as part of the Golan for Development, which exists to resist Israel’s occupation and control. The theatre is locations underneath the medical centre, which is also part of Golan for Development. They offer people health care, education and art as part of a peaceful resistance in a dire situation. The Golan Heights has been occupied by Israel since 1967 because it’s an area with fertile land and lots of water.

Gideon Levy is an Israeli journalist who spoke about the situation in Gaza. He said that the only way Gaza can attract the attention of Israeli or the world-media is by firing rockets, otherwise they are forgotten about. He also made the point that there is precedent of how to bring down apartheid, we saw it in South Africa. Boycott Israel, he said, bring it to understand that the occupation is unacceptable in the eyes of the world. The way to make the Israelis’ feel this is if they lose money. He also talked about the dangers of dehumanising a specific group of people, which is what the Israelis have successfully done to the Palestine and which is in danger of happening to refugees coming to Europe.

As well as looking at the past and the present, the symposium also looked to the future. Emer Coleman’s talk Big Data: Owning Your Own Story looked at the past from the future, when she made the point that if you’re not on the internet, then you don’t exist. Emer worked in theatre at the beginning of her career but said there is no evidence of this career on the internet, so it’s like it never happened. In the future, history will be shaped by the machine. She talked about the “rise of the robots” and how that no longer means physical robots, but the software that has worked itself into every aspect of our lives. Because of the power of the tech companies, “technoethics” have to become more important. We need to make sure that these huge companies pay their taxes and behave ethically because the way things are going, soon they’ll own everything! It’s important to stop behaviour like Uber’s who say that Uber drivers are not their employees, landlords who evict tenants so they can put flats on AirBnb, and companies who fire full-time employees then hire them back as contract workers without any benefits. For anyone worrying about their content being owned by Facebook or other corporations, she recommends Jaron Lanier‘s book about mirco-licensing Who owns the future?

The role of the artist in remembering, celebrating and integrating the past and the world today was also recognised by the symposium, particularly in the first and last panels. The first one, The Body of The State included a number of artists from different disciplines. Visual artists Sarah Browne and Jesse Jones are creating a piece called In The Shadow of the State that will take place in Derry, Liverpool, Dublin and London. They are exploring statehood from the perspective of the female body and a different performance will take place at each location. Choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir talked about The Casement Project which explores what types of bodies are acceptable and what is acceptable for these bodies to do.

Sarah Jane Scaife spoke about her work with Beckett’s plays and placing them in the world we live in. I saw the first of these at the side of the Abbey as part of the first symposium, Theatre of Memory and I also enjoy The Women Speak in last year’s Fringe. I really liked how she placed those stories in history, and demonstrated how that history leads to the present.

On the final morning, we heard from Oskar Eustic, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York which sounds like a great place. Their show Hamilton is currently one of the hottest shows on Broadway, but the theatre started out making free theatre, the famous Shakespeare in the Park. He said that the mission statement of the theatre was to “Dislodge theatre from being a commodity and bring it back to being about relationships.” They also do performances of Shakespeare in prisons, which he said that the actors love doing. Once they do that, it’s hard to get them to do anything else. He was obviously very passionate about his theatre and the work they do.

At the end of the three days, I felt very sorry that it was all over and that there isn’t another symposium to look forward to next year. Well done to the Abbey and all the speakers. And the videos from the last three years are all available on YouTube, including this fabulous performance by Penny Arcade.

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