NEW YORK UNIVERSITY LECTURE
On Wednesday 20th January 2007, Declan Gorman, Associate Artistic Director of Upstate Theatre Project was invited by the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University to give an illustrated lecture about his work and the work of the company.
The lecture was entitled “Fully Engaged: Theatre in a Changing Community”. It was well attended by current and former postgraduate students on the Drama-in-Education program, several members of the teaching faculty and invited guests.
The presentation concluded with a slideshow illustrating selected workshop, production and learning projects at Upstate, including images of the NYU Study Abroad program in 2005 and 2006. Declan dedicated his talk to the memory of Craig Hamrick the New York photographer who documented the 2004 program and who died tragically of cancer in 2006.
Fully Engaged: Theatre in a Changing Community
Hello. It’s great to be here at NYU. This is a kind of homecoming. Upstate Theatre Project and I personally have been privileged to work with the Steinhardt School Summer Abroad Program for the past two years in Ireland But this week is actually my first time in New York City. I would like to thank Dr. Philip Taylor and Professor Joe Salvatore for inviting me, back in 2004, to play a part in the Study Abroad Program. And I would like to thank Philip for inviting me here this evening, and especially to thank David Montgomery for handing over his precious class time to facilitate this presentation. Finally, to conclude these introductions I am pleased to welcome my own colleague from Upstate in Ireland, Paul Hayes, our newly appointed General Manager, who is also here with us this evening.
Ireland: The Context
I intend to introduce the work of Upstate Theatre Project to you, and in
so doing, to talk about theatre as an active culture in society, not as an
agent of social change, but as an integrated element in the life of a place,
in the life of a community in a given time.
Upstate was formed ten years ago at a moment when Ireland was primed with historic possibility. To understand our work and to allow you to measure it against your own vision for an Engaged Theatre, it may be useful to outline the context within which we formed the company and within which we now live and work.
Ireland is a tiny nation on the Western periphery of Europe. We like to think that we have punched above our weight as a nation and that we are renowned internationally (and especially here in America) as a nation of some importance. We have produced a few noted literary geniuses – Joyce, Beckett and Heaney to name but three. We played our part in the American Dream; our emigrants helped to build this city and this nation. And sadly, we are known as one of the nations of the world that has a war all of our own, which has flared up sporadically for most of the past 800 years. This has helped to keep us on your news channels and to keep the outside world aware of a small place they might otherwise not really notice.
Mostly though, like peripheral peoples and communities everywhere, Irish people have just been getting on with their everyday lives. Kids are born and they go to school. The farmers farm and the fishermen fish. The engineers build roads and the care workers care for the weak. Some of the weak die in harness or take drugs or end up homeless. In the end we all die, most of us quietly, lamented by our own families and communities but unnoticed by the people of New York or London or Sydney or Dubai.
And yet it is the ordinariness and invisibility of our lives that connects us most with similarly local people who never knew us in Texas and Brooklyn and Cairo. The universal human comedy is roughly the same everywhere, give or take a few culturally specific trappings such as sport of choice, language, religion and political systems.
It is the universal ordinariness of the people around us that provides the inspiration for most of Upstate’s work. And yet much of our work has managed to rise above the ordinary. The beauty in the work derives from the capacity of almost everyone we meet to dream beyond the boundaries of their everyday reality. And the drama in the work derives from the capacity of ordinary people to rise above the limits of their place and station when exceptional situations demand it.
And in Ireland we have lived through exceptional times. Twenty two years ago when I first stepped onto a stage, I was an emigrant in Germany. I was one of 300,000 Irish people – 10% of the population - who emigrated between 1982 and 1992, in the greatest wave of outward migration in peacetime Europe since the Second World War. We used to say that the Irish were bred for emigration. We had the worst economy in Western Europe. In the Republic of Ireland, we were still in the grip of a repressive Roman Catholic orthodoxy where Church and State were inextricably linked. Northern Ireland was midway through a dreadful, slow-burning armed conflict. A popular novel of the 20th century was called No Country for Young Men. Neither was it a country for young women, with contraception illegal, divorce unconstitutional and abortion a criminal offence.
And yet somehow a further ten years on, by 2002, Ireland had transformed into one of the richest economies on the planet. Historically a net exporter of people, we became a country of net inward migration, dealing with the sudden presence of new communities speaking over 100 foreign languages. Homosexual activity among consenting adults was legalized from seventeen years of age, younger than the general European standard. We elected not one but two women to the office of president, both of them regarded as human rights campaigners and progressive activists. The war in Northern Ireland officially ended with the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. To say that Upstate Theatre Project was formed in a time of change is an extreme understatement. We were on a rollercoaster of change, a tornado of progress.
And outside of us, of course, the world into which we were becoming increasingly
integrated was changing too. Old wars between East and West were replaced
by new wars between Middle East and West. Globalisation and franchising have
created continents which are increasingly indistinguishable from one another.
Prosperity in Ireland may have come at a price that we do not yet understand.
Local culture and identity in the sense that we once knew it are hugely threatened.
Theatre is helping us in small ways to process this. Upstate has made its mark working within - and reflecting back out - the world of ordinary local communities dealing with seismic change.
I now want to trace my own journey over and back across a range of new theatre movements that evolved in this two-decade period, and which reflected the wiser social changes in Ireland.
I tumbled into the theatre accidentally in 1984, when I was asked by a group of Irish expatriates in Munich to direct an amateur dramatic production. I was working in industry at the time, on the automobile assembly line at BMW. I had no qualification that entitled me to direct a play, but I got away with it and I fell in love with the theatre. I bucked the emigration trend by returning to Ireland later that year, well before the economic recession had ended. I put myself through Trinity College where I received my foundation in theatre and I proceeded to set up an independent theatre company called Co-Motion, along with the director Joe O’ Byrne.
We produced little-known German Expressionist dramas, political theatre and cabaret from Europe and eventually Joe’s own original work. Although I did not appreciate it at the time, we were part of a radical movement in the mid 1980s of returning emigrants and angry graduates, setting up garage bands, fringe theatre groups and alternative galleries. By my third year in the profession, I was nominated in Image Magazine as an up-and-coming actor to watch and Co-Motion had won a Sunday Tribune Award. The Fringe had been embraced by image culture and mainstream news media.
I was becoming increasingly conscious, however, of the unchanging landscape in the wider society – a landscape of continuing economic despair and emigration, entrenched warfare in Northern Ireland, drugs and desolation in the inner cities and corruption in the Church and in the body politic. Radical chic theatre as I saw it, no longer excited me. In 1989, I was invited by some associates to commit to a major arts event that was being planned, to highlight a notorious series of miscarriages of justice whereby ten Irish men, known as The Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, had languished in prison in Britain for fifteen years for terrorist crimes they had not committed. I became part of the team of artists and social justice activists that produced The Parade of Innocence, a huge protest theatre spectacle, directed by film-maker Pat Murphy. Four hundred artists joined with trade unionists, radical church groups, prisoners rights campaigners and members of the prisoners families themselves to lead a great Venetian-style Masque through the streets of Dublin. We were joined by 10,000 members of the public bearing lighted candles. It was a seminal event. Campaigning art would never be the same. And art for me suddenly had a purpose other than my own personal creative development.
From there I went to the City Arts Centre in Dublin in the 1990s and became involved for a number of years with the community arts movement. I worked closely with community and youth leaders and with people with disabilities, traveling out to the bleak edge city housing projects and the inner city tower blocks, helping local groups to produce naïve but powerful short dramas that highlighted local issues. At the same time, my role as the theatre programmer was also to support a new generation of independent theatre makers enter the professional world. We supported the early work of Conor MacPherson, Enda Walsh, Connall Morrison, Jo Egan, Bairbre NiCaoimh and many others - all important theatre people nationally and internationally now.
For a period these various approaches to theatre-making mixed and merged in the special crucible that the CityArts theatre was. At the same time, I reflected a lot on the perceived gulf generally, between essentially two kinds of theatre. On the one hand you had a kind of Applied Theatre – drama with a developmental, socio-political, educational imperative, that seldom featured in the media. On the other you had a bourgeois theatre of increasingly lavish Restoration Comedy Dramas, Important Abbey Theatre Plays and so on, with its challenging but essentially counterpart Fringe producing new writing, new cutting edge dance, new international work etc.. Seldom did the twain meet.
In due course, I became worried that the fringe of theatre was becoming less and less connected to social and political reality and more concerned with pure aesthetics or surface trends. But at the same time, I was concerned that the Community Arts movement was losing sight of such values as beauty and imagination in favour of political messaging or simply experiential personal development objectives. I was also, personally, ready for a change.
The Story of Upstate Theatre Project
So I left Dublin, moved slightly North to my native Border region and set up Upstate with the youth theatre activist Declan Mallon and a support group of dedicated arts and community activists. The experiment was to see if the values of progressive social change and of innovative art could co-exist. And of course they could. Great social change has always been informed by imagination and creativity.
We developed a policy which is summarized on the Upstate website (www.upstate.ie/about), blending live production, experimental lab-based devising, lifelong learning and local community theatre under one roof. The war in Northern Ireland officially ended and we were commissioned to undertake a piece of action research within our immediate region, investigating how the psychic life of the community was changing in response to the economic and social changes of the Peace Process. From this came my own first plays Hades and Epic, based loosely on ancient Greek and Celtic myth respectively, but founded on interactive research among young people, farmers, ex-paramilitaries and other Border people.
Declan Mallon and I would go out to a community project somewhere – maybe a youth drama group or a Macra club (which is a social organization for young rural adults) and run drama workshops. In some cases we would progress to a long-term residency, encouraging the local people themselves to write and present plays reflecting their own lives, in others we might stay a weekend and say thanks and goodbye.
We built up a research dossier, not of the obvious sociological facts which were already well-documented, but of shared hopes, interior anxieties and human capacities within the community and we would take some of these ideas back to the workshop in Drogheda where we would invite selected members of the community to continue the exploration with a team of professional actors, designers and choreographers committed to our way of working. And I would throw in a few ‘joker’ cards from my researches into myth. “If the Celtic hero Cuchullainn were to be reborn today, what would he come back as?”; “What might a Celtic spirit of confusion look like in a modern setting?”; “What would be today’s equivalent of Ixion’s punishment, lashed to a wheel with snakes and condemned to rotate forever?”, and so on, Eventually from this mass of intangible material, I would take two or three inspiring ideas and go off and write a play for Upstate Live, our professional touring company.
Back in the community, some of the residencies took root. We enabled the formation of new, locally-based theatre projects, but our work among the rural people was not so much led from a socio-political perspective as from the perspective of hopes and dreams. At Upstate, we have always argued that if you leave your issues at the door and come in and dream, you might be liberated to create something of true beauty. Your issues will follow you in to the workshop in due course anyway. Why begin with them? Why define yourself as a victim? Why not investigate your potential to imagine beyond your confinement and when you have defined yourself as a dreamer and a creator, then allow yourself to process imaginatively the things that confine you. Maybe dream your way around them or out of them. At least name them in new and humorous ways.
I will show a short extract from our 2003 documentary film, Shadows on our Doors, (available on request) illustrating how one such rural project embraced a drama programme. The concerns that emerged in the work of this particular group (Termonfeckin Macra) were to do with personal matters more than great political ones. Sexual fidelity in one case. How we are adapting and evolving in a new hi-speed, commuter economy in another. Bear in mind that these are all amateur actors and writers, albeit working with professional facilitators: The local accents may give you a little trouble initially, but only in as much as we struggle for a few minutes to adjust to your movies set in Fargo or the LA ghetto!
As the movie clip illustrated, that rural show, created by amateurs – farmers, hospital orderlies, teachers and so on - transferred to the chic professional Dublin Fringe Festival and was well received, the first Community-Engaged theatre work to come in to that experimental forum In the same period, one of our plays produced by the professional ensemble won a new writing award. Another transferred to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, a leading international theatre for new writing. The work of Upstate was being celebrated for its literary and artistic merit abroad as much as for its political and social relevance at home.
So I think we proved our point that social, educational and politically aware theatre – Applied Theatre or Community-Engaged Theatre, call it what you like - is not another planet of theatre but part of the great mosaic that includes Beckett, the Fringe, the Abbey, Broadway at its best and so on. In the documentary, “Shadows on our Doors” my colleague Declan Mallon observes, “Nobody owns the monopoly on dreaming”. When artists define themselves as citizens - as members of the community rather than oddities outside of society; and when farmers and inner city kids and immigrants and people with disabilities define themselves as creative participants in a vibrant culture rather than units in an economy, then art can offer hope - and conversely we can continue to hope for the future survival of theatre, an artform whose pending extinction has been predicted with perhaps too much certainty of late.
Thank you all for listening. I look forward to some questions and to hearing about your work after this short slide presentation.