Two Irish Plays

Last month I saw two plays about life in Ireland, and the effect of the IRA. Both were written by English men, both were about things I didn’t know that much about. I saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman on a wet afternoon in London at the Gielgud Theatre where it transfer to from the Royal Court. A couple of weeks later I saw Jimmy’s Hall in the Abbey. Both are period pieces set in Ireland but they are very different plays, in their treatment of the IRA and Irish history, and in the way they were staged.

JimmysHallPoster

Jimmy’s Hall is based on the Ken Loach film of the same name, and they are both based on the true story of Jimmy Galvin and the community hall he built and managed in Leitrim in the 1930s. It’s about the opposition he encountered when he organised community art classes, poetry performances and dances. This opposition originated from the Catholic Church but ultimately it was the Irish government who had him deported; the only Irish man to ever be deported from the State.

The Abbey’s production emphasises the real-life aspects of the story, with direct addresses to the audience that includes Church directives on what women could and couldn’t wear, descriptions of the court scenes at Jimmy’s trial and a recent speech by President Higgins where he called out the shameful behaviour of the State. This opens the show and of course made me teary-eyed. There are few things as effecting as the rightous anger of our magnificent president.

The production is also lushly visual and includes lots of live music. This is performed by the cast who also perform wonderful dance sequences. We get the impression of a community that is lively and connected, despite being ground down by poverty. The characters talk about the broken promises of the 1916 Rising, about how the bubble burst, about the uselessness of politicians and how living should be about need, not greed. Their concerns and difficulties resonance with the present day, with characters facing homelessness and even the Church’s insistence on controlling education is similar to their Sisters of Charity’s attempt to hold on to control of the new maternity hospital earlier this year. We continue to fight the same battles. Our hero, Mr. Jimmy Galvin is a proud communist, working for the betterment of all. In contrast the clear villain of the piece is the parish priest, Fr. Sheridan who was almost booed like a pantomime villain when he first appeared on stage. It was an interesting experience to feel that distaste for the church in the Abbey Theatre on a Saturday lunchtime from an Abbey audience. The off-stage villain was the IRA who it was felt had let down the people by getting into bed with the Church.

FerrymanPoster

The priest in The Ferryman is a more pathetic character as he is forced to act as messenger boy for the IRA, sent to deliver information about a man, missing for the last 10 years has been found dead. It’s 1981, Maggie Thatcher is letting the hunger strikers die in prison and the Carney family are getting ready for the harvest. The Ferryman is strongly grounded in that time and place, there are no present day echos here. The set and costumes are impressive with a strong attention to detail. This set quickly fills with members of the Carney family.

From the beginning, the audience knows that this happy, busy, family day is going to interrupted with the news that a body has been discovered. It is skillfully told, and there’s a lot to tell in this 3 hour production, and very enjoyable. The Carneys are a good Catholic family with seven children, though when one of the younger girls is told her future by her clairvoyant grandmother, she baulks at the idea of triplets. They don’t see motherhood as their only option. It feels like a time teetering on the cusp of modernity. The Undertones make an appearance on the soundtrack and the clothes are relatively modern, but the work of bringing in the harvest is left to the men. The female children busy themselves with kitchen chores and childcare while male cousins are bussed in to help with the farm work. The IRA are glorified and the Rising has already become a glorious myth in a way that is not felt in Jimmy’s Hall when all the bloodshed and friends and family lost are still fresh wounds.

Patrick Lonergan has written a post called “Is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman an Irish Play?” where he talks about the various echos of many plays from the Irish canon, among other things. I found The Ferryman a more traditionally Irish play than the first in-house production from the new Abbey directors. There are aspects of post-dramatic theatre in Jimmy’s Hall and the use of dance and music feels modern. Even the soundtrack is modern – the audience enter the auditorium to trad covers of Whitney Houston among others. The Ireland depicted in The Ferryman is gone, and it’s depicted with a certain nostalgia. The Ireland in Jimmy’s Hall on the other hand – an Ireland still struggling out from under the long shadow of the Church’s control, an Ireland that doesn’t protect or support it’s most vulnerable citizens – that feels very current.

The Ferryman is the bigger production of the two, with a long running time, a big cast, including lots of young children and live animals and a violent, dramatic ending. However it is Jimmy’s Hall that I would love to see again. It felt more moving, more engaging and more relevant than a lot of things I’ve seen lately. It reminded me of Riot, which is one of my favourite shows from the last year. The inclusion of The Parting Glass in both shows makes me think I may not have been the only one to link the two.

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Katie Roche and the new guys at the Abbey

Have you seen Katie Roche at the Abbey yet? It’s very good. I recommend it. It feels very modern. I don’t know if it’s the writing or the production; probably a bit of both. The character of Katie feels modern, she is opinionated and ambitious and fun. The play shows that modern, free woman trying to fit into the restrictive, hyper-patriarchal Ireland of the 1930s, a time that had very set ideas about how women should be. Katie Roche illustrates how harmful those ideas were, and how harmful it can be to be a round peg trying to fix into a square hole. It’s also a wonderful visual show, with a magnificent performance by Caoilfhionn Dunne.

Katie Roche was the sixth show I’ve seen in the Abbey so far this year and I’ve enjoyed them all immensely. I loved revisiting old favourites such as Dublin by Lamplight (which was so beautiful on that stage) and Ballyturk (where I enjoyed the addition of Olwen Fouéré), I loved getting a chance to see Druid’s magnificent production of Waiting for Godot after I missed it in Galway. I enjoyed Room which was a very different show for the Abbey, and I adored Jimmy’s Hall. I have more to say about Jimmy’s Hall but I will save it for another post!

I like what the new guys at the Abbey have done so far. I haven’t been organised enough to get to one of the free previews yet, but I think it’s a great idea. I also went to a couple of the Peacock work in progresses – A Whisper Anywhere Else by Jimmy Fay and Not A Funny Word by Tara Flynn. Plays that take a clear stand against the church, the police force, the state – things that feel a little subversive to be discussing in the Abbey Theatre. I love that Jimmy’s Hall opened in Leitrim and that Two Pints toured to pubs around the country. I think the new directors are doing what they set out to do by taking the Abbey out of Dublin and making it a nationwide National Theatre. There have also been day-long working sessions on gender and new writing and I’m interested to see what comes out of those.

FreePreview

So get to Katie Roche if you can. It closes on Saturday so there are only three shows left and I know it’s hard to ignore all the Fringe goodies, but try and make some time to see this show too, if you get a change.

First Thought Talks at GIAF

I wish I could have spent more time in Galway during last month’s GIAF but all I managed was a couple of day trips. I saw Arlington (a love song), which was dark and twisty and very Enda Walsh, and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a high-energy belter of a show with a fantastic cast and great songs. I also went to one of the First Thought Talks in Aula Maxima: “All the World’s A Stage – Can Theatre Define a Nation“, a big topic which I thought was particularly relevant in our big centenary year. I liked that the people on the panel were from different nations – The Guardian‘s theatre critic Michael Billington, Neil Murray – a Welsh man who was Artistic Director of the Scottish National Theatre until he took up his new position at the Abbey this summer and Cathy Leeney, the token Irish woman, who teaches drama at UCD. The panel was chaired by Cathy Belton. It was a really interesting, wide-ranging discussion that touched on loads of topics and I think she did an excellent job facilitating that.

There were copies of Michael Billington’s book 101 Greatest Plays available to buy after the talk and they talked a little bit about the book, particularly about the plays that he had left out. He said that a lot of people were very upset with him for leaving out King Lear. He also left out Waiting for Godot, instead choosing to include Beckett’s All That Fall. He was however, very complementary about Druid’s production of Godot, crediting it with making him see the play in a new way. (Sidenote: I didn’t even try to get a ticket to Waiting for Godot. Partly because I feel like I only just saw in the Dublin Theatre Festival but also because of my embarrassing tendency to fall asleep during Beckett plays. I knew I wouldn’t be able to doze off undetected in the Mick Lally Theatre, it’s too small to the potential for embarrassing myself too high to risk! If there is another run I will try and get a ticket because I’ve heard such good things about this production that I feel confident that it will keep me awake!)

There was also some discussion on the plays Billington did include, particularly where they were from. As a proud Welshman, Neil Murray was disappointed that there were no Welsh plays in the book, though Ireland was reasonably well represented. Nobody mentioned of the number plays by women on the list but I did a bit of research afterwards and found that the 101 plays included only five by female playwrights, which is not a great ratio. There were more plays by Shakespeare on the list than by women. The five plays written by women were The Verge by Susan Glaspell, Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Billington does write a little about the lack of women and how he made his choices here.

The discussion about how to represent the nation on stage began by asking how theatre in the UK can reflect the nation after the Brexit Referendum. Michael’s suggestion was that it should become more European; bringing European countries to British stages, saying to those companies and to the UK audiences – we are still part of Europe. There was also the flip-side of that, which was the Scottish National Theatre taking show into communities, 10 SNT shows premiering on the same night on 10 different stages in various locations around Scotland, and how this gave the communities and the audiences a more tangible sense of connection with their national theatre. I wonder if theatre is always outwards looking and aspirational, does it lose that connection?

I was eager to hear what one of the incoming directors would have to say about our National Theatre. Murray described the Abbey stage as being “highly charged” and that he was interested in seeing new companies bring work to that space. He also seemed interested in seeing lots more new work and new writing on the Abbey stage, which would be a break from tradition. This is a theatre that has staged three different productions of The Plough And The Stars in the last seven years. As Neil Murray said that’s “not a criticism, just a fact.”

WTFatAbbey

Once talk turned to the Abbey, the WakingTheFeminists movement was not far behind. There was praise for all the work they have done in drawing attention to the sexist bias that exists in theatre so we can start working to change it. Someone else pointed out the other types of diversity that disappeared through funding cuts in the last few years, namely theatre companies representing cultural minorities that lost their funding during the recession and now no longer exist. Pan Pan’s 2006 production of The Playboy of the Western World, in Mandarin with an all Chinese cast was mentioned as a show that brought a non-white, non-Irish audience to the Project. If theatre is attempting to define or even just reflect a nation, it should reflect all parts of that nation.

There was also some discussion about ways to get young people into the theatre. Partly by changing what is on the stage, but also by offering cheaper tickets or free tickets or pay what you can tickets. All of which I am very much in favour of! I particularly liked the suggestion of selling last minute tickets at a greatly reduced price. The Abbey do this for Cameo Club members – €10 Standby tickets, Monday – Friday only, 30 minutes prior to the start of any Abbey Theatre show. Sadly it’s not available to everyone because you must be a student or aged 26 or under to join the Cameo Club.

There are interesting times ahead for theatre in Dublin. The change of personnel at the Abbey and at The Gate will shake things up a bit. WakingTheFeminists is already shaking things up, read this article to see what they’ve done so far. There will be lots of interesting repercussions coming out of that movement and I’m looking forward to them. In terms of Brexit we don’t know what the repercussions of that will be. Right now, the main effect it’s had to bring a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds – will it be harder for Irish theatre makers to go to the UK, long-term or just to tour? I studied drama in the UK, will that become more difficult for Irish people to do? The only concrete change is that the pounds is currently really weak against the euro, which I’m sure Irish artists in Edinburgh this year are pleased about! I don’t think the rest of it will be so positive.

All That Fall (asleep in the theatre)

Once my body decides it’s nap time I will fall asleep anywhere. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I am struggling to stay awake. I once attempted to nap while sitting on a high-stool in the kitchen at a house party. Someone sensibly put to bed before I took a tumble. I’m not a very sociable passenger because I’m likely to doze off in the passenger seat of the car, or the bus, train or plane. Any trip that’s over an hour long, I will have a little nap. My mum used to make fun of me for sleeping on the bus to and from work everyday. I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

While having a little snooze on the bus is reasonably acceptable, falling asleep in the theatre isn’t really. I don’t go to the theatre intending to fall asleep; it just happens. I’ll be watching a show, enjoying it even, when suddenly my head start to nob and I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. I can’t help it. I might rest my eyes and keep my ears trained on the stage, hoping that the drowsiness will pass, but I know I’ve kidding myself. Once I close my eyes, a cat-nap is not far behind. I’m more likely to fall asleep in matinees than evening performances. Maybe because it’s the perfect set-up for a nap – sitting in a comfy chair, in the middle of the afternoon, with the lights down low, while someone tells you a story. It sounds exactly like nap time! Suddenly falling asleep seems like the only logical thing to do.

Beckett has a particularly soporific effect on me. I’ve dozed off during two different productions of Happy Days, one staring the fabulous Fiona Shaw. I missed Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot, because I was asleep in the stalls in the Gaiety, not the most comfortable of seats. Actually maybe I can’t blame the comfortable chairs for my tendency to snooze because I managed a couple of micro-naps during SJ Company’s The Women Speak while perched on a table or a low school bench.

I’m always desperately hoping that no-one notice as my eyes close and my head nods closer and closer to my chest. I’d hate to insult anybody with my inability to stay awake. It’s not you, I want to tell them, it’s me! It’s not a criticism of the production, it’s just that my brain has a hard time concentrating on Beckett for any length of time. It’s trying to find a nice, neat story where there isn’t one and then it shuts down in self-defence. It just needs a little break, it will boot up again in a few minutes.

My poor tired brain found solace in Pan Pan‘s All That Fall. It’s a radio play so closing your eyes is totally acceptable, and with the rocking-chairs and cushions it practically encourages a gentle trip to dreamland. (Napping in the theatre will give you very trippy dreams.) I can’t remember if I fell asleep during All That Fall, probably because I wasn’t struggling against it, I was able to drift in and out of the story without guilt and I really liked that. It’s a radio play that you listen to from your rocking chair, surrounded by lots of other rocking chairs. Light plays an important part of the experience too as it soothes or startles at different points in the play. It’s definitely my favourite way to see/hear Beckett.

All The Fall is on the Abbey stage until the end of this week. For anyone in need of a lunchtime nap, there are €15 euros tickets for the 1pm show, if you quote “Bewley’s Offer” online or on the phone. Go and have a cerebral and completely acceptable nap at lunchtime. Afterwards, you’ll be able to tell everyone that you napped on the Abbey stage.

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.

Theatre of Change Symposium

The Abbey’s symposium Theatre of Change is on this week and I’m really looking forward to it. The full timetable is on their website and there are lots of things I’m really interested in. I’m delighted to see #WakingTheFeminists on the bill and author Emer O’Toole, who will be talking about The Man Problem.

Stacey Gregg‘s talks at the previous symposiums have been fantastic and and I’m sure this year will be no exception. The title of her talk is Genethics, Genomics and Geena Davis and it’s part of a panel called History is Only Tidy in Retrospect, which includes writer and actor Mark O’Halloran and poet, playwright and essayist Gabriel Gbadamosi.

Stacey Gregg’s talk from 2014 starts at 6 min 50
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In terms of world events and current affairs, there’s a talk from Lara Marlowe called Fatal Attraction: France and the Middle East and Israeli journalist Gideon Levy will talk about The Israeli Society and the Endless Occupation. On a hopefully more optimistic note, there’s a talk titled Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place with Ray Dolphin.

I’m also looking forward to the an except of Penny Arcade‘s piece on Thursday evening. Longing Lasts Longer is described as a meditation on what it means to be human that addresses the nature of change, revolution and altruism.

Of course, the events 1916 are also included. The final event of the symposium is Twinsome Minds, a multimedia-performed lecture by Prof. Richard Kearney and Prof. Sheila Gallagher, featuring stories and images from 1916. There is also a staged reading of Jimmy Murphy’s play Of This Brave Time, Jan 20-23 nightly at 8pm. This play is based on eye witness testimonies from those who experienced the events of the rising first-hand. Also in the Peacock, there’s a rehearsed reading of Nancy Harris’ new play Journey to X on Saturday afternoon at 2pm.

There are lots of ticket options for all the Theatre of Change events. You can buy three day tickets for €70/60. Though the Early Bird offer is still available, at time of writing and that’s €50. There are one day tickets available for €30/25 on Thursday or Friday and €25/20 for Saturday. Or you can get tickets for Twinsome Minds on Saturday morning for €10. The Peacock performances have to be booked separately, even if you have a 3-day ticket. They are €6/4 each. All tickets are available from the Abbey website.

January Treats

Sometimes the last few weeks of December can feel like hard work. There’s all those jobs that need to be done by the end of the year; the days that are too short and too dark; there’s so many nights out and so many hangovers and so much rain. Then the holidays come and it’s a relief to just relax in front of the tv or the fire, eating and drinking and sleeping too much; ignoring the fact that soon it will be January when the days will be just as short and dark and the weather just as miserable, but with no Christmas break to look forward to. Instead there’ll just be counting the days until payday and failing to live up to New Year’s resolutions made in happier, more hopeful times.

So it’s a good idea to do something nice for yourself and plan a couple of treats for January. I know I will need something to help me get through that long month. It might be connected to a resolution but it must be something fun. Something far away from that faithful trinity of resolutions – diet, exercise and managing your money. For me, this usually means booking tickets. Last year it was Walworth Farce, which I’d booked in November and definitely brighten up my January! This year, I have tickets for Nollaig na mBan at the Irish Writers Centre on January 6th and the Theatre of Change at the Abbey at the end of January.

Nollaig_na_mBanI booked my ticket for Nollaig na mBan really early this year because last January, I only got in by the skin of my teeth. (Thankfully sometimes throwing yourself at the mercy of the waiting list works out!) It was a really fun night in the Irish Writers Centre; Una Mulally quoted Constance Markievicz and Tara Flynn managed to be very funny about Ireland’s lack of reproduction rights. Other speakers talked about mental health, being a “lovely girl” and apologising too much. The panel discussion included lots of recommendations of great books by women which I’d forgotten by the time I’d got home because I got carried away by the wine and the Secret Santa-style book-swap at the end of evening. It was a really fun night and I enjoyed it immensely. Sadly it’s already sold out for this January but the waiting list worked out for me last year so it’s maybe worth a try.

The other ticket I’ve booked is for the Theatre of Change, the three day symposium at the Abbey. This was the thing I was most excited about when the new programme was announced in October. I’ve been to the last two and found them fascinating and insightful. (I even did a top five of my favourites panels and presentations from the Theatre of War, with YouTube links.) For this year’s Theatre of Change, I’m hoping for forward-looking, optimistic discussions but I don’t really know what to expect. One of the things I’ve liked about the last couple of years is that the content was surprising; often it was the speakers I didn’t know that I found the most fascinating, and the topics that I didn’t even know I was interested in were where I learnt the most. I know that spending three days in the Abbey listening to a bunch of artists and academics talking may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but to a giant theatre-nerd like myself it makes me very happy. Tickets are still on sale if you feel the same way. The €50 Early Bird tickets are available until December 31st.

Other January treats
First Fortnight – the mental health arts festival begins on January 1st and there are events happening all over Dublin until January 16th. I’m hoping to see some of the plays that I missed during the Fringe, and maybe some of the visual arts exhibitions and discussions. I’m also looking forward to Enthroned – “a modern fairytale charting a woman’s journey to confirm her right to existence” which takes place in St. Patrick’s Hospital.

What We Call Love: From Surrealism to Now
This exhibition is on at IMMA until the 7th February. Featuring modern and contemporary masterworks from the world’s leading collections by Abramović, Brancusi, Dalí, Duchamp Ernst, Giacometti, Oppenheim, Picasso, Warhol, Yoko Ono, and many more.

Dublin Old School – there are still some tickets available for this show in Project Arts Centre, 12th – 16th of January. I loved it last year – it’s really energetic and manages to be both funny and sad. It was one of my theatre highlights of 2014.

Dublin Film Festival isn’t happening until February but you could buy yourself a gift voucher now and make sure that you definitely go and see something during the festival.

Or if you fancy a bit of self-improvement, you could sign up for a class. This January, the Science Gallery are running short courses on how to make an app, web development and getting to grips with the Raspberry Pi, a tiny but powerful computer. The Irish Writer’s Centre has loads of courses coming up in the New Year, as does the very reasonably priced People’s College.

Whatever you do, do something nice in January.

A Turning Point in Irish Theatre

WTFatAbbey

Thursday 12th November 2015 was a momentous day for Irish theatre and Irish women. The #WakingTheFeminists event at the Abbey was a deafening roar from women who had been silenced for too long, as well as a proud celebration of the amazing Irish women who work in theatre.

I wasn’t in the Abbey on Thursday afternoon but I was following along on social media, from my bus journey into work in the morning and throughout the day. I was a distracted employee, my head and heart were elsewhere. I tuned into the Periscope broadcast for a little while at lunchtime but I found it a bit too emotional. I was in danger of weeping at my desk; weeping with pride for those courageous women speaking up on stage and with joy that they have finally been given the opportunity to say those things. There is a huge sense that what was said were things they’d felt for a very long time, issues that they felt strongly about, but also things they’s been warned against saying. Some spoke about how they had almost come to accept the absence of women on the National stage, they’d almost stopped talking about. And then Lian Bell came along and encouraged them to speak and each voice was joined by a dozen others and then a dozen more. I think the whole experience was cathetic for lots of people, I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in their eyes on Thursday afternoon. It opened up something; something very necessary and long over-due. The fact that 500 tickets sold out in 10 minutes and the over-flow filled the bar, the foyer and the street outside shows how necessary, how longed-for this event was. (Not to mention the 4,680 supporters that have signed the online petition.)

I am in awe of the organisers for making it happen so quickly and run so smoothly. That meeting, that large ticketed event, with 29 speakers from across the theatre sector, with sign-language interpretation, that was recorded and broadcast online live; they put all that together in about a week. It also started and finished on time, or close to judging by tweets and the length of the video. And it was a beautiful theatrical event. I loved that image of the empty stage that slowly filled with women as each speaker sat down after they said their piece.

EmptyStage

I love that they included Lucy Kerbel from Tonic Theatre, a UK company set up to help their theatre industry achieve greater gender equality. I love the dance party at the end, that’s included in most of the videos of the day’s event. I also love all that press coverage. This is an organised movement with a lot of savvy producers in it’s midst! And very well connected – so many high-profile men and women from all over the world have shown their support in the last couple of days.

It was also very encouraging to see the incoming Abbey directors – Neil Murray and Graham McLaren tweeting their support on the day.

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This is just the first step, I think there’s still a lot of hard work to be done before we see any real change in the theatre landscape. But it’s an incredible first step. It’s so hopeful and buoyant, it’s people working together and being generous to each other, and making change happen. The will is there and the last two weeks have shown that change is possible – the Director of the Abbey recognised and admitted to mistakes in the 2016 programme. I don’t know yet if there are any plans to make changes to that programme, but it’s still a good first step.

And these first steps towards equality are not just happening in theatre. Sexism is being noticed and reported in lots of areas. There was a lot of press coverage around Equal Pay Day at the beginning of the month; Equal Pay Day is the day when women start working for free because of the gender pay gap. It’s Ireland that gap is 14.4%, which means for every €1 that men earn, women receive on average €0.86. Earlier in the week, the Hearing Women’s Voices report came out to say that women’s voices are wilding under-represented on the radio. And on the same day as the Abbey meeting the Irish Film Board issued a press release to say that it “recognises and accepts that major underrepresentation of women exists in Irish film” and declared “its strong and heartfelt commitment to gender equality and diversity as a strategic priority.”

ACStrat

I would like to see other funding bodies make a similar commitment. In September, the Arts Council published their new ten-year strategy, Making Great Art Work – Leading the Development of the Arts in Ireland (pdf). Right now, they are asking people to respond to the strategy and suggest which objectives and actions to focus on in the first three-year plan. Right now, the strategy does not include any references to gender equality. After everything that’s been said in the last couple of weeks, this feels like a grave omission. Working towards gender equality should be a priority in that three year plan. A rising tide lifts all boats, and you can’t make truly great art if you are not supporting female artists.

You can respond to the plan here.

Sunday Round-up

1. Back from my holidays
I was lucky enough to spend the last couple of weeks in Spain, which was wonderful. I swam, I sat in the sun drinking wine, I ate lots and lots of tapas and read lots of books. (Yep, old-fashioned, paper books.) I also attended a Golden Wedding Anniversary, which was a first for me!

Nerja

October is a good time of year to go away and get a bit of necessary sunshine before facing into the winter because it has the added benefit that you arrive back to wonderful autumn colours on the trees. You don’t get that spectacular colour palette in southern Spain. The colours you do get include bright blue skies and warm yellow sunshine so I’m not complaining, but all those greens and yellows and reds makes the bus journey back from the airport a bit less depressing!

2. Waking The Feminists
Being back in Dublin also means lots of chats about Waking The Feminists in theatre bars and foyers. It’s often been the first topic of conversation. I know I’ve said it before but it’s so incredibly exciting. It’s going to get even more exciting this week when the first public meeting happens on Thursday at 1pm. Venue will be confirmed tomorrow and women in the arts are asked to arrive at 12.30 for a photo-shoot. Change is coming!!

If you want to catch-up on everything that’s happened in the last 10 days and to see all the things that have been said by women in the arts, as well as what’s been said in the press – check out the WakingTheFeminists website.

3. White Label Symposium
WhiteLabelI spent Saturday in Wood Quay at the White Label’s Story Machines – Theatre and Technology Symposium. White Label are a collective of theatre makers and the symposium was about how technology is represented on stage and how it can be used in the theatre.

The workshop on Saturday morning was run by Identity Problem Group. They are a interdisciplinary artistic collective from Poland who use a lot of technology in their work. There is a huge focus on technology in their work which was very interesting, as was their use of improv and the six months they get to rehearse a show!

In the afternoon, there was a reading of Override, a new play by Stacey Gregg. We only got to hear the first half but it raised lots of questions about medical improvements and enhancements to the human body. I’m looking forward to seeing the full production next year.

This was followed by a short documentary about theatre artists who want to replace actors with machines and a presentation by Akhila Krishnan who works for 59 productions. That link is worth clicking because they have worked on some amazing projects – when she joined the company Akhila’s first project was the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics! They also run a paid internship.

The final event was a panel discussion with Sophie Motley, Jack Phelan, Kris Nelson and Akhila Krishnan about the using technology in theatre productions and the challenges in presents, particularly in the context of the work being made in Ireland. Some of lessons here were that if you are including technology, it should be absolutely vital to the show, it’s important to do loads of prep work and have a realistic budget! I also thought it was interesting that they described themselves as “video artists”. There’s more from the panel on the White Label’s twitter.

It was a really great day of exploring ideas and hearing about new technology. I enjoyed it and look forward to White Label’s next event.

4. New Writing
You can see six new plays at the New Theatre this week, as part of their New Writing Week. Tickets are €4 and available on the door. Shows start at 7.30pm. I’m not going to get to see all six but I am hoping to make it to one or two.

Full Line-up
Mon 9th – Dummy by Emma Hughes
Tue 10th – Another Billy Conn by Andrew Kenny
Wed 11th – Normal by Caitriona Daly
Thur 12th – Drawing Crosses on a Dusty Windowpane by Dylan Coburn Gray
Fri 13th – The Entrepreneurs by Neil Pearson
Sat 14th – Loveboxxx by Lauren Shannon-Jones

5. You’re The Worst
This American sitcom is still one of the funniest things on telly right now, and the second season is also breaking my heart on a weekly basis right now. If you like Catastrophe, you will love this. It’s not on tv this side of the Atlantic yet, but it might be possible to find a few episodes online.

YOU'RE THE WORST -- Pictured: (l-r) Aya Cash as Gretchen Cutler, Chris Geere as Jimmy Shive-Overly, Kether Donohue as Lindsay Jillian, Desmin Borges as Edgar Quintero. CR: Autumn De Wilde/FX
YOU’RE THE WORST — Pictured: (l-r) Aya Cash as Gretchen Cutler, Chris Geere as Jimmy Shive-Overly, Kether Donohue as Lindsay Jillian, Desmin Borges as Edgar Quintero. CR: Autumn De Wilde/FX

Them the breaks

[This is long and a little bit rant-y and I still didn’t include half the things that have flitted across my brain over the past week. If you’re short of time, skip to the end where I have included a few suggestions towards action. Also, I am aware that it’s not just women who are discriminated against in the arts, and in the world at large. Theatre is dominated by middle-class, white, able-bodied men. I’m writing about discrimination against women because that’s what I know, and because I want to add to the conversation that’s happening and keep up the momentum that has built over the last week. I expect/hope that getting more women in positions of power will help to open the doors to all, particularly because women have experience being the Other and the Outsider.]
Fiach Mac Conghail ‏@fmacconghail Also, sometimes plays and ideas that we have commissioned by and about women just don't work out. That has happened. Them the breaks.

Because I’m still on my holidays, I haven’t been spending as much time in front of my computer as I usually do. I saw the reactions to the Abbey’s Waking The Nation announcements on Twitter before I read anything from the Abbey. And maybe because I’m in holiday mode (ie had a few glasses of wine), I didn’t pay much attention to it. There’s nothing new about women being ignored by the big arts institutions. The Abbey isn’t even the worst of them – at least they included a few women. You have to go a long way back to find the last time the Gate staged a play written by a women. But then the discussion didn’t go away. There were more comments on Twitter and conversations on Facebook. I realised I needed to take a closer at this before weighing in with an opinion.

I went to the Abbey’s website and looked at the programme and I read the press release and then I got angry. The more I read, the angrier I got. The programme is described as “an exciting roll-call of new Irish voices alongside major revivals of the some of the great plays from the Abbey Theatre repertoire”, but doesn’t include a revival of a great play by a woman and those new Irish voices are almost all masculine. In 2015, that is a disgrace. I am particularly disappointed that all the revivals are by men. This suggests that nothing written by a woman in the last 110 years was deemed worthy of inclusion. Then Fiach’s comments on Twitter just added insult to injury. He said he programmed the things that spoke to him, and they just happened to be all written by men. That’s just not good enough. When you are the Artistic Director of the National Theatre with €8 million of taxpayers money to spend, you should feel obliged to include the voice of half the population, even if it isn’t to your personal taste.

Pointing out sexism is a bit of a hobby of mine. In my experience when you tell people they are being sexist they get defensive. The Abbey was no different. While defending this bit of blatant sexism, a lot of the blame was thrown back at women – there was the suggestion that if they were good enough, they would have been included; that the plays weren’t ready and it would be unfair to the playwright to stage them; that there were just more good male playwrights to choose from. The other thing that surprised sexist-deniers do is point out all the things that they have done for women. In Fiach’s tweets he listed the plays by women that have been programmed since 2008 (all nine of them, three by Marina Carr) and the female to male ratio of the New Playwrights Programme (13 out of the 24 writers were women). It’s always the same – sexists will blame women or deny the sexism is happening. Nobody has ever turned around to me and said “oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed. How did we let that happen?”

Because I don’t think it was done on purpose. I don’t think Fiach is intentionally or maliciously keeping women off the Abbey stage but I do wonder if he didn’t notice the lack of female voices or just didn’t think it was important. If I was feeling generous I might say that it’s understandable not to see this lack of women as something unusual or unacceptable. For a long time, leaving women’s voices out of public discourse was the norm. We live in a patriarchal society and those attitudes are ingrained at every level and in every aspect of our society. Patriarchal attitudes are insidious, they are so deep in our brains that we are mostly unaware of them. That’s why we have work against those unconscious attitudes and biases.

This means that, if you think there are no suitable plays by females writers that fit into the big centenary programme at the National Theatre – try harder! Find the one you dislike least or spend more time discovering and working with female writers until you find one you do like – don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Them the breaks”. That’s not good enough. You need to do more. Some might say that’s not fair – why should they spend more time working with women or cultivating female talent? If it’s all about equality, then shouldn’t the women be treated exactly the same as the men? But the cards have been stacked against women for centuries and because of those insidious patriarchal attitudes women still aren’t regarded the same as men. We need to take the time and effort to balance the scales. And now is the time to do it.

Quotas

The mere mention of quotas tends to makes people uncomfortable. I understand that, I used to feel the same way. But as I saw how how slowly things are changing – sometimes the change is so slow if feels like we are going backwards -I changed by mind. I’m impatient; I would like to see a more equal society within my lifetime and I think quotas are necessary to make that happen. Change is uncomfortable, so the fact that quotas provoke that response means they must be a good thing.

People are against quotas because they are afraid they will allow unworthy women to get things that should have gone to more deserving men. My instinctive response to that is; I don’t care! Again, it’s about balancing the scales. If quotas move us towards gender equality, then the risk of hiring a few under-qualified women is one I’m willing to take.

I also think that the chance of that happening is really small. There are loads of very talented, very capable women out there who are not getting the breaks they deserve because our patricachical society favours men and has done for centuries. There are loads of statistics that prove that this bias against women exists. If you believe that there are less women in politics or running companies or making work for the Abbey stage because they are just not good enough, you are dismissing a long history of sexism and you need to read up on the subject. Or you know, just believe women when they talk about their lived experience of sexism. The #WakingTheFeminists tag on Twitter is a good place to start. And if you think any woman who gets a place at the top table after the introduction of quotas is not going to work incredibly hard to prove that she belongs there, you obviously don’t know that many women.

In order to see make real change in gender equality in the arts, I believe we need quotas and that they should be linked to funding. Either the programme is 50% female, or you don’t get the money. That would speed up the rate of chance! As a kindness to those who can’t cope with the word quotas, we can refer to them as targets instead. This is what the film funders did in Sweden. When Anna Serner became CEO of the Swedish Film Institute in late 2011, she announced that by the end of 2015 Sweden would seek to have equal gender funding in all productions – the first country in the world to do so. At the time of this announcement, 26% of funding went to female directors. That was almost doubled and they reached their target ahead of schedule in a mere two and a half years. Targets work and it would be wonderful to see that sort of commitment from the Arts Council of Ireland. That’s my big pipe-dream plan for change. Here are a few other smaller suggestions.

Actions towards change

1. Go and see work made be women.
I’ve already talked about #FairPlayForWomen here. There’s also a Facebook group and a calender of events with lots of suggested shows.

2. Open Space meeting.
I love the conversations and sharing of personal stories that’s been happening on Facebook and Twitter over the last week. I’ve felt very connected and engaged with the Irish theatre community over the last week. So many voices saying the same thing makes it clear that this is not a small issue and it’s great that those voices have been amplified by Lian Bell. (This article is a good summing up of things that have been said already.)

Now we need to meet in the real world and start making plans. (No doubt this is already in the pipeline.) I think we should do this in an Open Space meeting on the theme of gender equality, something similar to the Devoted & Disgruntled meetings that happen in London each January. Theatre Forum have also hosted Open Space events around the country, though generally without a theme. I’ve been to a couple and I think the form would really suit this discussion. The agenda is set by those in the room, but everything is recorded for those who can’t attend. Actions are agreed on for each topic and a person is chosen to get the ball rolling, and keep it rolling.

3. Riot at the Abbey.
In her piece for the Irish Times, Una Mullally suggested it’s time for another riot at the Abbey. I’m not sure how I’d feel about walking out of or disrupting a theatre performance. It would feel disrespectful to the actors and other artists, as well as the audience. Am I too timid for this revolution? I suggest a picket line outside the theatre on opening night instead.

4. Theatre of Change Symposium
In response to Una Mullally on Twitter, Fiach said that women will be represented in the Theatre of Change Symposium in January. I really enjoyed the Symposiums over the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to the next one. But anyone included in that programme will get at most 90 minutes to speak to a fairly niche audience. (It’s more likely to be a 20 minute presentation, followed by a Q&A.) It’s not the same as a 4-6 week run on the Abbey stage. I think Gender Equality needs to be a topic included in the symposium. At this stage, it feels like the least the Abbey could do.

In the meantime, we will keep shouting about it. We will remind everyone that this is not acceptable behaviour. It’s time to stop feeling unsurprised and start feeling outraged. We have to keep talking until we are listened to. Hopefully nobody will have to throw themselves in front of a horse this time before that to happens.