FROM TALES OF THE TOWER BLOCKS TO YARNS FROM THE FARM
The Macra community plays in context
By Declan Gorman
This is a unique publication. The three plays contained in this anthology were devised, written and performed by the members of two rural community projects in Ireland. The writers and actors are ordinary men and women, members of Macra na Feirme – young farmers, factory operatives, computer technicians, hospital orderlies, hairdressers and so on. To our knowledge, it is the first ever published collection of playscripts from the community drama tradition in Ireland. While there have been no published scripts, there has been a history of written and performed work in this field which merits acknowledgement. These plays owe their inspiration in large measure to that tradition. In this essay, I hope to trace the lineage of the three Macra community plays by giving a potted history of the community theatre in the Republic of Ireland. I also hope to offer a view on the value of this area of work, exploring not so much the educational and social benefits, which are generally accepted, but the aesthetic and cultural standing of the tradition.
i. Community theatre in Ireland – a history
I do not wish to get bogged down in definitions of exactly what community theatre or community drama might mean. In America the term Community Theatre is used to describe the non-professional drama tradition, which is referred to as Amateur Drama this side of the Atlantic. Community Drama or Community Theatre has a very different and quite specific definition here. In broad terms, it refers to original work for performance that has been generated from within communities, often in the context of community development or educational objectives. Primary distinguishing features of the plays in this anthology are their collective authorship; their immediate relevance to the writers’ own world and that of their communities; and the collaboration that took place between professional artists and members of the community groups. It is these characteristics that mark them out as falling within the practice known as community arts. They are the most recent and contemporary manifestations, I believe of a relatively young movement that thrived particularly in Dublin during the 1980’s and the ‘90’s.
Some key events in the history of this tradition are given here. There have been other important community-based performing arts tendencies in Ireland not listed here, including a significant body of work in Northern Ireland and the work of Macnas, Theatre Omnibus and others in the West. I have chosen in this introduction to focus on a few particularly significant milestones in the unwritten history of community plays for the stage. It is noteworthy that it is almost exclusively an urban history - until recently that is.
In the early 1980’s, Peter Sheridan, who previously had been joint director of Project Arts Centre with his brother Jim, established the Theatre Workshop in the North Inner City area of Dublin. Under Peter’s direction, this group produced a series of ground-breaking dramas tracing community life over a century, including the evocatively titled, ‘The Kip, the Digs, the Village’. Peter was subsequently involved with establishing The Balcony Belles, the celebrated women’s drama group from Sheriff Street. This group grew, and blossomed in the early 1990’s with Fiona Nolan as the resident writer and facilitator. The women, all local – mothers and daughters, ranging in age from teens to mature years - produced topical and folk-historical dramas set in the inner city of Dublin. Among these were ‘Soap Opera’ and ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ which was staged as part of the ‘From Sheriff Street to the Shankill Road’ season on the Peacock Theatre stage in 1996. That season was designed by Kathy Mc Ardle, the then Outreach Education Director at the National Theatre Society.
Through her earlier involvement with Wet Paint Arts, Kathy Mc Ardle had been involved in a range of innovative community theatre projects concentrated around young people. Wet Paint (estd. 1985) had initially operated as a professional theatre production company which researched, developed and toured dramas aimed specifically at community and youth audiences, and had achieved an international reputation for this work. In 1987, the company changed direction, with significant long-term impact on the community theatre tradition in Dublin. Instead of bringing professional actors to perform in the community, they began to work in partnership with a number of community youth organisations to animate and generate dramas that would be devised and performed by the young people themselves. Kathy was involved with a number of these projects. One was Route 36 from Ballymun, whose ‘Stories from the Seven Towers’ and ‘Open the Lid’ were moving chronicles of the lives of young people trying to find hope in a society that was still disgracefully indifferent to the circumstances of its excluded urban youth.
Kathy also directed dramas with the Rialto Youth Project, which remains an exemplary community initiative in an area of Dublin characterised until very recently by generations of political neglect and consequent poverty and marginalisation. With in-house script teams led by local writer and activist John Bissset, the Rialto Youth Project produced a sequence of social realist plays in the mid 1990’s that compare with the best international published works in this tradition. These included ‘Here Today, Where Tomorrow’; ‘In the System’ and ‘Inside Out’, which became the subject of a video documentary made by Enda O’ Brien in close co-operation with the community. That video was intended as an independent production for TV. It was never shown on RTE, ostensibly due to a copyright issue surrounding the soundtrack. This is a shame, as it said more than any commissioned study ever could about the culture of marginalised youth in Ireland and the efforts of communities to stand up to political indifference, a partisan justice system and the scourge of heroin abuse.
Around the same time, across town in Coolock, a group called Walk the Talk was making waves. Set up by local man, Tom Mc Dermott, it was a collective of young people who wrote and performed a number of dramas, including one play called ‘Whether You Like it or Not’, which became a considerable success in 1993. Among the members was a youthful Stephen Gately, who later became a pop star. Other Dublin initiatives of the ‘90’s worth noting were New Vision, the North Clondalkin Arts and Drama Group which had a short life span being tied in to a finite training programme for women, but which was the first community drama group to show work at City Arts Centre, in early 1993. The facilitating artist in that group was Joni Crone, who also directed short, polemic dramas of great impact with the Parents Alone Resource Centre, in Coolock, while a mile down the road, Jo Egan was directing original dramas with KLEAR, a women’s adult education project in Kilbarrack. These groups were all affiliated to (CAFE) Creative Activity for Everyone, the umbrella community arts body in Ireland, which facilitated a number of community drama festivals in the early 1990’s, and was instrumental in establishing training and networks that assisted the development of the fledgling movement.
I was involved as a fascinated observer in all of this, from my position as Development Officer at City Arts Centre, which became for a while a safe space where community theatre and the emerging professional fringe could meet and occasionally share and learn from one another. It was a golden age of sorts for urban community drama. The theatre initiatives are best understood in the context of the broader social changes that were occurring in Ireland during the 1990’s.
Through the emigration and unemployment ridden 1980’s, communities had consolidated and learned the hard way about who held power and how they were condemned to permanent exclusion by the dominant politics of the day, unless they were to take action for themselves. By the early nineties, the processes of community and youth development and adult education had begun to energise communities, and the language of empowerment and self-advocacy had entered the vernacular. Not only community theatre, but community arts in general enjoyed a period of great confidence and achievement. Street theatre and parades of a simple celebratory but often quite political nature became commonplace not just in Dublin, but nationally. Community music grew, with samba ensembles, African drum groups, a resurgence of traditional music, and fusions of Irish and world music-making mushrooming in housing estates and rural villages.
As the ‘90’s drew to a close, however, and the economy began to boom, the nature of community action began to change. There were fewer and fewer full-time personal development training or community employment projects for adults. These had been particularly fertile ground for the drama work. Also, key personalities who helped fuel the urban drama explosion moved on, naturally. The need for high profile advocacy work around community drama receded somewhat. While unemployment was dropping rapidly, of course, the long-term consequences of the political culture that had fuelled it did not magically diminish. The crisis in urban youth life will take much longer to eradicate. Most major towns and cities in Ireland now have a notable percentage of young people who have dropped out of the school system early, who are homeless, addicted to drugs or otherwise showing the wounds of generations of damaging poverty and indifference. Community arts methods continue to have a critical and positive role to play within youth work in particular and work within still-marginalised communities in general. Most towns and counties have youth training projects, North-South exchange programmes, disability projects and other progressive initiatives to redress at community level the neglect of an era of bad politics. Community drama still continues in Dublin and elsewhere. Professional assistance and supports for the local voluntary initiatives continues to come from CAFÉ as well as the Smashing Times organisation, which works with a number of the long standing and newer groups.
One area which was only beginning to awaken to the potential of community arts in the late 1990’s was that of rural development. In some ways, community activity and community spirit, which had to be developed from nowhere at all in new urban housing estates, or salvaged in fractured inner city communities, had survived reasonably intact in rural Ireland. The school, the church, the Credit Union, the Tidy Towns committee, the community brass band, the amateur drama group, the GAA and so on continued to be focal points for community assembly. Nonetheless, social problems existed in the country just as they did in the city. Some were age old, such as isolation, alcoholism and indeed poverty. Others were modern, such as the spreading drug culture, the increasing visibility of depression and suicide, particularly among the young male population. Modern community development methods were increasingly coming to replace a more conservative culture of non-intervention in the welfare of individuals and families. Organisations such as the Irish Countrywomen’s Association were re-inventing themselves in response to changing social realities. Rural development projects sprang up, encouraging new kinds of enterprise, socialisation and community welfare.
In 1996, I received an invitation to work evenings and weekends with a Macra na Feirme group in Monaghan. Macra was celebrating fifty years of community work as a social and educational organisation for young men and women under 35 living in rural Ireland. As a proud symbol of its new image and approach to its mission, it had appointed a national arts officer, Emer Mc Namara, to oversee a countrywide programme of contemporary arts initiatives in rural areas. Out of that initiative came ‘Connected’ the earliest of the three dramas contained in this collection, and the commencement of a new phase of hands-on community theatre work in rural Ireland for me personally, inspiring the establishment of Upstate Theatre Project and further partnerships with Macra in Termonfeckin,. County Louth.
Our debt to the history given above is considerable. The issues in post 1996 rural Ireland were of course different to those facing the Dublin groups in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, but the intention has been similar – to make good theatre from local experience, with as much focus on the artistic quality as on the social development that might be involved.
Having considered the immediate historical lineage of these plays, namely the community drama tradition of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, I would like to place the work into other contexts, beginning with a tradition as old as civilisation and one that has particularly deep roots in Ireland, namely community storytelling.
Storytelling is a fundamental human instinct, particularly associated with local tradition in Ireland. The word may conjure up the essentially lost image of the local seanachaí sitting at a fireside recounting far-fetched ghost stories. But this is only one part of it. Martin Scorsese has conferred the ancient title of storyteller onto the men who gather to rap at street corners in the New York ghettos. So much of social conversation is storytelling. In Ireland we tend to romanticise that we are the only ones who do it. I have a vivid memory, however, of listening to a bus driver and a couple of passengers on a morning bus in Munich in 1981 reconstructing the details of an incident reported on the previous night’s news, and thinking it was a reassuring piece of communal storytelling in an alien city.
Storytelling as a self-conscious formal ritual may need reinvention in the era of global television, film and pulp fiction, but it continues as an intuitive tendency. Community theatre has a part to play in reinvigorating this oral culture in modern Ireland. Theatre artists have inherited and invented methods and skills that can be applied in animating, illustrating and enlarging narratives. Within communities there will usually reside a deep font of story, from gossip to confession to fantasy, and within all of us is the capacity to dream and invent. When artists bring their skills to a marriage with a story-rich community, the possibilities are great indeed for vivid storytelling. Well managed community drama can gradually learn and acquire the trappings of good theatre generally - sophisticated dramatic structures; high production values; evocative stage effects – but its uniqueness will come from the sense of ownership of stories and the characters in them. Where much of theatre is filtered – a writer writes a play from his or her experience or observations, a group of actors and a director interpret it – in community theatre, the stories are invented from within a shared experience of writers and audience and performed by the inventors. It is a subtle difference, but one which might help to explain the unusually emotional response that can attend community drama performances. The stories and their inhabitants feel utterly credible, even where the players may have limited training in the actor’s craft.
The participants in these Macra projects have proved themselves to be natural storytellers. A significant phase in the process of writing the plays has been "The Grid" as we have called it, a kind of storyboarding exercise. This is a point where - the characters and the place having been well established through improvisation and discussion - a story or set of stories is devised for them. Working in teams, or as a single group in some cases, the participants begin orally to tell a chronological tale, while one of the artistic team has the task of recording the key episodes on a great big wall-chart spreadsheet. This has consistently proven the most exciting and revealing point in the collective creative process. The night or nights of the story.
In the case of "Tunnel of Love" for instance, a group of nine writers were gathered in John and Lorraine Leech’s kitchen in Termonfeckin, where most of the storytelling and writing work took place over the cold winter of 1998. I vividly remember the collective intakes of breath and squeals of "Oh my God, she wouldn’t" or "He never!" as we invented a simple, credible story of infidelity among their imaginary peers. When we reached the point where the bride overhears a conversation at her own wedding, confirming her suspicions that her groom has been unfaithful, the mix of glee and horror was palpable. The nearest equivalent to the atmosphere of that evening was when the show was performed and the intakes of breath and the gasps of familiarity and dismay and delight came from the local audience. They were watching people they knew, telling – in fact living out – a story they understood intimately. The line between reality and fiction blurred. The story was entirely made up – a clever archetypal construct – but the collective ownership of it, among the writers who were now acting it with familiar ease, and the audience who sensed the pure truth of it, was something the mainstream theatre with all its methods, struggles to achieve.
This is not, of course to diminish the sophisticated craft of trained actors or indeed professional playwrights in other modes of theatre, nor indeed to suggest that theatre should be confined to linear narrative approaches. It is simply to acknowledge a unique feature of a special and often overlooked field of practice in the dramatic arts.
In a paper for a Dublin Corporation conference in the early nineties, Martin Drury proposed that the community arts may be the resurgence of long-suppressed communal creative tendencies which went out of currency at the time of the industrial revolution and remained suppressed into the twentieth century, when the specialist professional artist (like the specialist everything else) came to prominence. One thinks of the medieval jongleur, folk theatre, mystery plays or strolling player traditions, and of course the Irish storyteller. Community theatre is folk art for the 21st century, but it is folk art with computer-aided lighting, reference points in video culture and pop-music sound tracks, and usually with a specialist artist or two hired in to help it along, with wall charts, laptops or whatever else it takes to get the story into shape. It is an ancient form serving an ancient need, but executed in the manner of the era we live in.
iii Chronicles of our time
Whatever views might exist about the artistic merit or otherwise of the community dramas discussed above, and of the three that are recorded in this book, few could argue that they do not add up to an insightful chronicle of the times and places we have been living in. For this reason alone, the case for documenting and publishing the plays is compelling.
The shocking immediacy of the Rialto Youth Project’s short drama, ‘In the System’, presented in 1993 among other places, (and of all places), at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre in Dublin, has been compacted in my memory to a couple of images that speak eloquently about Dublin’s lost youth. A young man dabbles in heroin. He recovers and kicks the habit before it becomes an uncontrollable addiction, and goes on to live with a young woman with whom he has fallen in love. He is subsequently diagnosed HIV positive. I remember distinctly the moment when the young male actor turned to his partner in that converted bank chamber and uttered the cryptic but universally understood words, "I have The Virus". And I remember the silent shock that registered on the teenage actress’ face, as the reality of this dawned on her character, as it dawned on the audience just as it was dawning weekly on many real young people in the inner-city during that decade.
I have occasionally recounted at conferences and in guest lectures, how I first encountered a community drama process. I had asked if I might attend a rehearsal of the New Vision group in Clondalkin, in 1992. I had heard enough about the group to wish to include their show of songs and sketches ‘In the River, On the Bank’, on the programme for ‘Futures’ a season of community, youth and professional theatre which I was charged with curating for City Arts Centre. But I wanted to see and experience the group’s work for myself. In particular, I was anxious about whether the show, which might resonate in the suburbs where the women lived, would be likely to survive the transfer into a cool, black-box studio in the centre of town. I spent the afternoon in a shanty-hut of a community centre, rain creating a rich rhythm on the tin roof above us, watching nineteen women from eighteen years to sixty, act out sketches about the world they inhabited. There was the unemployed father unable to buy his kid a computer for Christmas; a tearaway teenage girl eluding the heavy-handed coppers and so on. I was the sole audience member and I laughed and I cried – cried as discreetly as I could. The story of Dublin’s working class women was in those sketches. The performances were true. This was such a clear message about the impact of the recession on real people, that there was no question but that it should have a performance at the Futures season. In fact it went up as the opening performance - in the presence of his eminence, Ronnie Drew, who officially launched the programme. Diana Theodores, then Drama Critic with the Sunday Tribune recorded that "New Vision’s first full length work was a revue of songs and scenes reflecting issues that are forever timely in the community…The message was loud and clear and passionate. Devising a work of theatre was life therapy for these nineteen people and not only was a lot of it enormously engaging to watch, but it also confirmed that meaningful community theatre is a transforming agent of the most positive nature".
In these Macra plays, one can trace the considerable changes that have occurred in Ireland even over the five years from 1996 to 2001. In "Connected" there are still scenes set in the dole office – a common setting for community drama in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. The feel of the play is close to the earlier Dublin dramas, in its contrast between the economic circumstances of the working class characters, notably the depressive scheme-work postman, James and his father, Big Pat, and the equally dysfunctional but better-off mother-and-daughter Sarah and Alice Green. Two years on, in Termonfeckin, although we explored some economic and political themes in the workshop phase, and even devised a twenty minute performance about emigration in the 1950’s, (never publicly presented, but captured on video), the group voted strongly against producing work along these lines.
The play that emerged, "Tunnel of Love" begged a fascinating question. Because it was about questions of personal morality, rather than macro issues such as poverty, economic exclusion etc., was it true community theatre at all? If it wasn’t about poverty in an obvious sense, did it betray the tradition? I felt decidedly that it was a community play. It was all about a community – a village, in which old and new values clashed and merged. I recall a discussion among the male actors one evening when – as it happened – no women were in attendance, about the motivation of a male character who withholds an indiscretion from his fiancée. The discussion broadened to matters of social and ethical import – the changing role of men in society and so on. It was pure community group process. And of course, politics and economics did slip through into the play itself. There were references to the changing demographics of the village; the theme of emigration – but where the emigrants are coming home rather than leaving - and the curse of what remains the most damaging drug of them all, alcohol. All these are glimpses into late ‘90’s Ireland, as is the very fact that it became possible for communities to make theatre that was not about unemployment.
The most recent Termonfeckin play, ‘Zoo Station’, could be said to have departed even further from the themes of the earlier decades. Most of the protagonists appear economically comfortable – commuting executives; third-level students; pensionable railwaymen. The themes are intensely of-the-era, however, begging searching political as well as humanist questions. How are we living? Why are we living in traffic jams and trains? Have we mistaken communications technology for communication, and so on? These are very real questions facing very real communities now.
The immediacy of community theatre as a record of the pulse of the times is surely self-evident. If for no other reason, the scripts should be recorded and kept as rough documents of the time, for future generations of historians and artists.
iv Theatre in Ireland
One final exercise in placing these works into some historical context remains. That is to explore their position within the wider artistic canon of Irish drama generally. That canon nowadays includes not only the great literary tradition, from Synge to Murphy to McPherson. It also contains a wonderful wealth of ephemeral work, such as the crossover dance theatre of Coiscéim; the physical theatre of Barrabbas and Corn Exchange; the street theatre of Macnas, the volcanic politics of Paul Mercier’s work and – any day now, surely – the coming of multi-cultural performance. At the risk of congratulating my contemporaries too enthusiastically, I believe this has been a good age for Irish theatre. The past fifteen years has seen the emergence of independent theatre of great quality and diversity in all corners of Ireland, North and South. The past decade has seen a pragmatic and progressive reinventing of itself by the Abbey Theatre, while the Gate and Druid have scored internationally. Irish contemporary dance groups draw large audiences at international festivals. Young Irish writers are nurtured and celebrated in London and New York. Blue Raincoat, a modest company in the modest town of Sligo can sustain a brilliant ensemble of highly trained mime and physical theatre performers. While I would concur with the view that a fair amount of indifferent work continues to make it onto our stages, I think it is reasonable to say that we are making artistic waves. We are setting new artistic and thematic challenges for ourselves, our audiences and our policy-makers. Not alone this, we now have Irish Theatre Magazine providing, for the first time in a decade, a consistent intellectual forum for critical analysis of these trends. Who is asking about community theatre in all of this?
In fairness, there is not that much community theatre around to talk about, since, as is noted above, dedicated community theatre groups are thin on the ground now, with changes in employment trends and so on. But if we consider youth theatre, a massive growth area in the Irish arts, as a first cousin of community theatre, perhaps the gap in the aesthetic discourse becomes more evident. Not that anyone would want a brace of our reviewers to descend suddenly upon our youth theatres, to apply their decidedly mixed critical methods to the productions and projects of our young pretenders. Most youth theatres, like the community theatre, are dedicated at least as much to the broader educational and social development of the participants as they are to artistic concerns. But precisely out of that duality of intent – as argued above in the case of community theatre – can come a voice that is unique and that has cultural and artistic significance.
The science of criticising community theatre would require a language and insights appropriate to the form itself. The risks are greater even than in other arts tendencies. You can either be so moved by the social context – and by the sheer will and effort of the participants – as to be blind to or forgiving of indifferent work. Or you can take the view that social context has no place at all in the criticism of art, and start by declaring a generic standard of excellence in art that all work must aspire to. This perspective has its vocal champions in academic and media criticism. It holds sway in fact. The elusive quality indicators have inevitably been established in contemporary bourgeois or past museum settings. In my view, however, this starting point is a highly political piece of nonsense. Art can not be separated from historical and geographical context ever, whether we are talking about the archaeological gems of the Inca past, collected paintings from German Expressionism or the poems of W.B. Yeats. Only when a language and appreciation of the culture of the artist has been appropriately defined, can the artist’s work be truly appraised. Anything less becomes an appraisal of technical skill before vision.
With reluctance, I have to acknowledge (alongside the triumphs) the presence of poor practice, ill-judged artistic ambition and even thorough-going rubbish within all the various domains of theatre celebrated above. This applies to fringe theatre and national theatre institutions just as it does to community theatre. The curious distinction, however, is that the benchmarks are generally understood in the dominant professional production model. Within community theatre, the question of aesthetics is seldom if ever raised – it is even considered a middle class affectation by a minority of thinkers. The absence of this debate, however, creates the vacuum in which high-brow critics can patronise or dismiss an entire body of contemporary artistic exploration by virtue of the fact that it starts out from social agendas such as education and community development, as though this is anathema to artistic creation. In fact such human and humanist quests can ignite powerful art.
We have sought in these Macra plays to define and develop a specific aesthetic for our brand of community drama – for narrative-based communal storytelling on the stage. Whether we have succeeded is for others to debate – our own view is that in some measure we have and in some measure we haven’t. Rigorous internal evaluations follow each production. This extends to the quality of the artistic work as well as to the process, the management and the communications. There are always mistakes from which to learn. Through the learning an increasingly distinct voice is hopefully emerging. Some of the key artistic features and techniques are named here.
The simultaneous telling of several stories, creating a sense of a complex but self-contained community. There may be a couple of key protagonists (as in ‘Tunnel of Love’), or the key hero may be the wider community as a collective (as in ‘Connected’) or the community in its fragmented disparity (as in ‘Zoo Station’). But there will always be multiple narratives unfolding. This connects the plays to certain external artistic traditions – novels; stage adaptations of novels; movies as well as grand epics of the theatre itself, such as Gerhart Hauptmann’s ‘The Weavers’. A couple of movies in particular are worth mentioning, Jacques Tati’s ‘Jour du Fete’; Preston Sturges’ ‘The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ and Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ all share this choice of the community as the hero.
The use of movement. My own brief training as an actor and pretty much my entire theatre career thereafter tended towards physical and visual models. I have invariably brought this preference to bear on the manner in which I have tried to facilitate workshops and writing in community settings. Upstate Theatre Project is inclined in all its work to physical approaches, although we would stop short of describing ourselves as a "physical theatre" company. The Macra groups have come to this approach with complete openness, even though they might have had little or no exposure to such traditions previously. The movement in the productions has always been of a simple but evocative order. A perfect instance is the moment early in "Connected" when, to a carefully chosen, lively pop song, the town comes to life and the postman is seen distributing letters to actors passing over and back on the stage. The oldest trick in the book is reinvented for a new troupe, a new audience, a new context. Nine actors hurrying across and back, vanishing into the wings, re-appearing perhaps pushing a baby’s buggy, perhaps having teamed up with a partner, then vanishing again, become the entire population of a town.
Vernacular language. I read somewhere years ago that the writing of dialogue is the easy part of playwriting. I do not know if this is fair, but I can testify that time and again, the participants on these projects have proven themselves remarkably gifted at it. The dramas are almost exclusively written in dialogues and monologues involving ordinary characters in ordinary situations. The story framework having been worked out in a group process in advance, individual participants are given the task of writing individual scenes. With all of the writers generally coming from the same geographic region – a region that happens to have a rich and beautiful vernacular – there is a remarkable consistency in the "music" of the writing. No-one is asked to attempt heightened or poetic language. The natural cadence of everyday speech in the hands of people who are sensitive to the pathos of the situations, or who are natural comics, is enough to give an overall rhythmic feel to the play. My work as script supervisor has been to edit out occasional inconsistencies and so on, and occasionally to add short links (such as the description of the movement pieces). I have never found myself needing to "correct" or improve work.
These are just some of the characteristics of the creative adventure that these plays have been. Somewhere in the mix of structure, dialect, design and above all narrative content, an aesthetic has emerged. Audiences compare and contrast the plays with previous work. A tradition is defined with its own language.
v. Why this book?
This anthology has been assembled and published for a variety of reasons. While there exists a body of practical and theoretical writing, analysing and promoting community art, the nature of the field is such that much of the practice itself is ephemeral. It resides in communal memory, with one phase or project inspiring the next – as the subjective history given above perhaps illustrates. But as the shelves of libraries and commercial bookshops fill up with an ever-more-exotic range of world theatre scripts, the significance of community theatre practice may be lost to scholars, historians and above all, new generations of practitioners. This is one modest contribution to the canon of world theatre in its great diversity. Alongside your ‘Plays from South Africa’ collection, you may now file your ‘Plays from Termonfeckin and Plays from County Monaghan’. I hope that someone may be inspired to dig out and restore and publish some of the ‘Plays from Dolphin’s Barn’ or ‘Plays from Ballymun’ to sit alongside them. Just for the record, if for nothing else.
Apart from adding them to the record, there is of course a political intent to this collection. There is a deliberate desire to place this body of work and the work that inspired it, onto the reading lists of theatre societies, critics, colleges and drama courses. This is because we contend that these are plays of merit, to be read and considered in their proper context, as part of the theatre history of Ireland. There is an act here, of challenging the view that this kind of work is all very well as some kind of therapy for the marginalised, but not as art, not as literature, not as drama. The virtual exclusion of community drama from the theatre publishing industry is overtly or unconsciously a political act by the industry. This is an overt response.
One of the primary reasons for publishing plays, of course, is in response to the demand from amateur and professional companies for scripts to produce. One day an enterprising troupe somewhere may choose to produce one of these plays. We and the writers would be most flattered and would certainly appreciate the royalties. This, however, is not a primary aim of the book, and in fact a degree of caution is advised before any group, particularly an inexperienced one, might undertake either ‘Connected’ or ‘Zoo Station’. ‘Tunnel of Love’ is a somewhat more conventional and manageable type of play. The earlier and later plays were written first and foremost as stories, tales, narratives. The job of making them work on a stage was not a major consideration at the writing point. We trusted to faith and the experience and intuition of the design and direction teams, to stage what are more like film-scripts, with small casts doubling up in several roles.
What would please us even more than a future production, would be the possibility that someday, somewhere, a community group and a group of artists might be inspired by these plays and the accompanying essays, to link up and create new plays for new times and new circumstances. With this in mind, my colleague Declan Mallon has written an account of the journey undertaken jointly by Upstate Theatre Project and Macra na Feirme, Termonfeckin, setting out key stages and some practical tips. As noted earlier, this journey was inspired and helped by my own previous relationship with the Monaghan people, where some of the techniques were crash-tested and proven. Of course, what was good for this group of artists and these particular communities will not suit others, who – as we did – will probably borrow from many sources in order to devise their own methodology.
The value of community arts is generally acknowledged. As argued earlier, it is more commonly acknowledged, however, in relation to social and educational benefits than for any intrinsic artistic qualities. In some regards, this is perhaps as it should be. As the world becomes increasingly money-driven, alien, de-humanised and remote from ancient systems of ecological, religious or humanist values, the importance of community development and communal activity increases. The arts is known to be an effective "tool" in community development. After a number of years of work in and around the field, I have become enough of an accidental sociologist to be in a position to offer my own anecdotal tuppenceworth to the body of documented evidence of the personal and communal value of good arts practice. And I was always convinced of the political power of the arts to effect change. In recent years, we have noted the acceptance of the developmental value of community art and arts-in-education at every layer of society, including from government and local government – (although it can often be of an unthinking arragh-shure-put-a-bit-of-drama-into-it school of acceptance). But community art is much, much more than a "tool" for something else.
Our desire with this book was partly to affirm yet again what has been affirmed so often by others in the past, that well-designed arts activity can and does transform individuals, societies, communities for the better. The other matter we sought to affirm was that men and women collectively in communities can create works of art that are stimulating, poetic, entertaining and genuinely original, and so enlarge our understanding and appreciation of known and unknown worlds. As you read these plays, I hope you will hear the echoes of audiences from Monaghan to Ennis to Drogheda to Dublin who have laughed aloud, cried, been silenced, hollered out questions at the actors (in an unscripted intervention during Connected in Monaghan) and left the theatre moved in some way. Is this not, after all, what plays are intended to do - as well as residing on printed pages for present and future scholars – even if they arose from socio-educational as distinct from pure aesthetic motivation? Is this not a measure of Art in practice?