We always love to hear about the impact Belltable:Connect has on participating artists. In this case, we are absolutely delighted that a short play Henry Martin wrote as part of Belltable:Connect Theatre Makers in 2017, is receiving a production in London’s Bunker Theatre. Congratulations to Henry and break legs to the production team.
Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly writes about the experience of asylum seekers waiting to hear if their status application has been approved.
Have you ever waited anxiously to get a letter, waiting to hear if some fishing line you previously threw out in to the world has worked out for you? It’s a familiar feeling in the theatre world about eight weeks after the frenzied Arts Council deadline time. You open the door as you hear the postman coming to see if he has anything for you. As if your life depended on it. Giving the poor postman a fright in your pajamas and mad bed hair. You know as soon as you see the envelope size. A big envelope means it worked. You got some funding to make a thing. A small envelope means you didn’t. “Due to the high number of applications received I am sorry to inform you…” It’s always a tense time. You count down the days to getting that news.
But imagine if your life actually did depend on it. On what was in that letter. And instead of eight weeks, you had to wait months. Sometimes years. Getting the “we are sorry to inform you…” and having to apply again. And again. Requesting protection in Ireland. Appealing when your application is rejected. Seeking asylum from something you can’t go back to. This is Direct Provision. Walking down to the reception of the centre you have been put in every day to check. To see if you’ve gotten a letter. What size envelope it will be. To get that sinking feeling over and over in the pit of your stomach. Knowing that the letters from the Department of Justice usually arrive on a Friday, and that if you didn’t get one you will have to wait until next week. But you still check every day, just in case.
My friend told me about this. I met him in Limerick, he is in Mount Trenchard Direct Provision Centre in Foynes. He said it was awful, waking up every morning, going to check for a letter every morning and being disappointed every morning. He has been in Direct Provision for three years. Sharing a room, eating canteen food, not allowed to work, your life on hold. For three years. It’s a form of torture, an endurance test with no finish line in sight. He called me a couple of weeks back. He sounded different to usual. He told me he had received a letter. I waited to hear what would come next; he has been appealing his case and we knew this was the final chance. The words sprang down the phone line. He had been granted the leave to remain. I nearly jumped out of my seat on the packed bus I was on, the news fizzing down the crackly what’s app connection. Leave to remain. Three crucial, life changing words.
A couple of days later we were sitting in the Pipers Bar, across from the Abbey Theatre, having a celebratory pint. Celebrations like this don’t come too often, you have to mark them when you can. A famous traditional singer who was sitting at the bar was introduced to us, and the reason for our libations explained. He said he wanted to welcome our new friend properly to Ireland, and sang an old sean-nós Connemara song of welcome that reverberated around the bar, hushing people to stop and listen. I felt uplifted at this act of solidarity and humanity as the beautiful tune echoed through the bar.
But I also felt appalled that our government continues to enforce Direct Provision for years on end on people seeking asylum on our shores. What my friend has endured should never have been endured, and could very easily have been avoided. All it takes is one A4 page. A letter. A letter that determines the outcome of years of waiting. As the song came to an end I thought of Vicky Khokhar, who danced on the Abbey Theatre stage across from the pub we were in as part of Jimmy’s Hall Today, before going to the airport to be deported. A nurse from Pakistan, he had been in Direct Provision for three years, volunteering five days a week at a nursing home, but his application for asylum was denied. He was deported.
Back in the Pipers Bar, the song ended, and as me and my friend said goodbye I boarded the crowded Luas, full of people on a Thursday evening. Full to the brim with people going places, people with worries and schedules and craic and lives lived. And as the Luas departed Abbey Street, I thought of the 4,500 men, women and children still waiting in a state of stasis in Direct Provision centres across Ireland. Waiting for that letter. For the letter to arrive, at some point, that will grant them leave to live.
The next performance in the development of Displace by Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly will take place in Belltable on Thu, 13th December 2018. Click to book tickets.
This past September Belltable:Connect began its playwriting club in Belltable Hub, led by artist in residence Katie O’Kelly. The group consists of local Limerick playwrights who discuss work and current projects, share ideas and problems, and try to use their shared knowledge to help each other. Writer Paul McNamara shares his thoughts on participating in the playwriting club.
Being a writer can often be a bit of a lonely job at times. Having the opportunity to share with others and get ideas out of your head in the early stages of the writing process can be of great benefit. Getting to meet with other writers once or twice a month, all of whom are writing and excited about new work, makes the process more sociable and fun.
Using the wealth of experience in the room to overcome any problems is a great resource. Also, helping to solve other people’s problems or discussing different aspects of writing and theatre often inspires new ideas too.
At Belltable:Connect Playwriting Club everyone’s ideas and projects are at different stages of the process. This gives the meetings a sense of variety. One minute the group can be discussing how to fine tune a script getting ready for production, another moment we can be nurturing the seeds of a new idea. Not being stuck in one stage of development makes it all seem much more fluid and enjoyable. (This is also helped by the snacks provided)
Attendance at each meeting is always a little different as theatre people follow the lives of theatre schedules giving a constant flow of new ideas and perspectives. I have gotten the opportunity to get a lot of valuable feedback on my own new play which I am hoping to put on early next year and have gotten great advice from people on different ways to approach certain scenes and characters and ideas for staging.
An old army barracks. A disused hotel. A former convent school for girls.
This motley collection of buildings, each constructed with very different purposes and each with stories from their various pasts, have now diverged into a connected present. They have been repurposed from their former lives, transformed into a new function. They are now Limerick’s Direct Provision centres, scattered across the county from Foynes to the city centre to Knockalisheen.
I visited all three centres on one very hot day last week. My sunburnt arm from hanging it out the car window is testament to my Limerick odyssey-of-sorts. The mission was to put notices up in each of the three centres, inviting residents in Direct Provision to an open dress rehearsal of the Abbey Theatre’s production of Jimmy’s Hall, which opened in the Lime Tree Theatre earlier this week. It is the story of Jimmy Gralton, the socialist who built a little dancehall in a field in Leitrim and refused to hand control of it over to the Church. For this he was subsequently deported by DeValera’s government as an “undesirable alien”, despite being born in Effrinagh, County Leitrim in 1886. It is a story with the struggle for justice, freedom and equality at its core, and a community’s fight against an unjust deportation. Not a million miles away from the stories and experiences of many currently living under threat of deportation in Direct Provision right now.
Knockalisheen DP Centre is situated on a hill with a view of Limerick City when the sun shines. A labyrinth of portakabins and low-rise buildings, it houses around 230 people who have come to Ireland seeking asylum, including about 70 children. It is the only centre in Limerick with family accommodation, as two small play areas in the grounds indicate, yet when I arrive these lie empty. I go to the reception to stick up the notice about the play on the board, beside signs for English classes and how to seek legal advice on your application.
This centre used to be an army barracks, but its new reincarnation is not unfamiliar to it. In 1956, more than 500 Hungarian refugees were housed here. They were given a great welcome by the citizens of Limerick, but this welcome did not last on an administrative level. Despite the UN Convention conferring on all refugees the right to work, considerable efforts were made to prevent the Hungarians from seeking employment. One article from the Limerick Leader dated November 26th 1956 quoted some of the Hungarian men as saying that “they did not want to be idle”. This is scarily still the case in Direct Provision now, with the new regulations around the Right to Work still inaccessible to the majority of asylum seekers.
The Hungarians were confined to the Knockalisheen camp, and a Department of Defence report at the time likened it to an internment camp. In April 1957, most of the adults went on hunger strike as a stand against the conditions they were forced to live in.
Fast forward to 2007, when 200 asylum seekers in the same Knockalisheen camp went on hunger strike in protest against the diet and the poor quality of accommodation in the centre. History has a scary way of repeating itself. As I left the reception area having been relieved of most of the flyers by some enthusiastic young girls, I noticed the sign they have up on the wall – “Enjoy each day, and don’t forget to smile”. It takes on an eerie aggression in a place where people are sent to wait for months, often years, while their asylum application is processed.
Heading back in to town I make for Glentworth Street DP Centre, in the middle of the city. The plaster on the walls outside is crumbling, and the hinges where a sign once swung in the breeze can still be seen. This was the historic Hanratty’s Hotel, a busy spot in the epi-centre of Limerick life. DeValera used to stay there when he was canvassing in Limerick and Clare. In the 1980s, touring theatre companies to Belltable used to opt for the surroundings of Hanratty’s after performing. I’d say many a seisiún was had there after shows. But it has changed a lot since those days. The little door to get in to the centre is around the side and there is no natural light. I’m dazzled for a bit after coming in from the sun outside, but stick the notice up on the board. There are mostly single men in this centre, and some of them ask me about the play. The manager watches me from through the reception desk Perspex glass as I leave.
Back on the road heading to Foynes for the final stop, my arm considerably pinker than when I left this morning. Mount Trenchard houses 55 single men, an old grand house that was later bought by the Sisters of Mercy and turned in to a private boarding school for girls. The original house was built by the Anglo-Irish Rice family, and it has a dramatic past. It was used as a safehouse by IRA fighters during the War of Independence. The family boat was used to ferry men and arms across the Shannon Estuary. Mary Spring Rice who was reared on the Mount Trenchard estate was actively involved in gunrunning in the fight for Irish freedom in 1913 and 1914, held many nationalist meetings in the house and set up a branch of Cumann na mBan in Foynes. The Sisters of Mercy later built on to the original house, and what was the old chapel is now the recreation room for the residents in Direct Provision, a few pool tables lit up by the sunlight coming through the stained glass windows.
I had no idea how many people would turn up for the open dress rehearsal of Jimmy’s Hall. Western Limerick Resources and Doras Luimní very kindly sorted transport from the two isolated centres, as otherwise it would be impossible for people to get to the Lime Tree Theatre. But at 2pm on Saturday, people started arriving. About 40 in all, from all around the world and of all ages.
I sat beside one eight-year-old fella as the director Graham McLaren introduced the play and said it was an honour to have so many people currently living in DP as the first audience for the new version of Jimmy’s Hall. The band struck up and got a rapturous applause after each of the preshow tunes, especially the rendition of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. The little fella beside me sat on the edge of his seat the entire show, glued to the stage. It was an electric, exhilarating performance, and though I had seen the show a few times before it took on new meaning seeing it in that audience. The lines about deportation and injustice especially took on a weighted significance. The resistance dance at the end was explosive, and got a great applause from everyone. It was one of those rare times where you see anew what theatre can do. One guy afterwards told me he had never seen theatre before, and was blown away by it. The power of theatre is that it can challenge, demand attention and bring us to places we didn’t think possible. It is entertaining yes, but that intangible something that comes from watching exciting, enlightening theatre is what really gets me. The resistance dance played on loop in my head as I waved at the buses heading back to Mount Trenchard in Foynes and Knockalisheen. And it stayed with me all the way in the car back to Dublin. What happened to Jimmy Gralton must not happen to anyone else seeking refuge in our country. We must all dance the resistance dance and demand an end to Direct Provision. It is time.
The next performance in the development of Displace by Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly will take place in Belltable in December 2018. We will continue to keep you updated on the piece’s progress through Belltable:Connect blogs.
The first work in progress rehearsed reading of Displace by Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly took place on June 20th, 2018. Following the performance we spoke to some audience members to get their thoughts on the piece’s progress so far:
Displace is being developed as part of Katie O’Kelly’s residency at Belltable, supported by the Arts Council and Limerick Culture and Arts Office. This work-in-development rehearsed reading marked World Refugee Day. You can read Katie O’Kelly’s thoughts on the rehearsed reading here.
The next performance in the development of Displace will take place in Belltable in December 2018. We will continue to keep you updated on the piece’s progress through Belltable:Connect blogs.
Following the first work-in-progress rehearsed reading of Displace at Belltable a week ago, Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly shares her thoughts on seeing the play come to life on stage for the first time.
Sitting in the front row of the Belltable last Wednesday watching actors read my work in progress script of Displace was a surreal moment. I usually perform in my plays, but for the purpose of the reading I had my writer hat on so was watching it with the audience. I’ve never actually heard any of my plays performed before, so it was a terrifying and thrilling experience. The actors were amazing and breathed life into the characters which have, until that night, existed only in my head.
We started off the reading with a brief talk with Limerick-based actor Frances Healy, who performed in The Magdalene Sisters, and Donnah Vuma, a founding member of MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) and Every Child is Your Child, and campaigner to end direct provision. It gave a context to the work, and an insight into the systems of marginalization, isolation and oppression which the play depicts. It was an honour to share the stage with such brilliant, strong and courageous women, and I’d like to thank them both for taking part and sharing their experiences with us.
A trio of very talented actors then took to the stage to read the work in progress script. Georgina Miller, Sahar Ali and Niamh McGrath were exceptional at weaving the story together and presenting us with the many characters depicted in both the worlds of the Magdalene Laundry and the Direct Provision centre. At the end of the reading the audience was given the opportunity to give feedback on the script, and I had the chance to ask questions about what worked within the story and what needed further developing. It was so great to get feedback from people in the audience who are directly affected by the direct provision system in Ireland at the moment, and to see what else I can bring to the worlds to make them clearer and richer for those watching it.
The reading was sensitively staged by director Sarah Baxter and the feedback session was articulately presented by dramaturg Pamela McQueen. The brilliant Mags O’Donoghue steered us through the technical side of things, with producer Clara Purcell working miracles throughout the day to ensure the smooth running of the whole event. For a play which is so much centred on the female experience in these systems, it was crucial to have such a competent, committed and talented team supporting the work. A huge thanks to all who came along and to those involved in bringing it to the stage. I am feeling fired up and excited about getting started on the next draft, and can’t wait to get a full production up on its feet!
The next performance in the development of Displace will take place in Belltable in December 2018. We will continue to keep you updated on the piece’s progress through Belltable:Connect blogs.
Ahead of the work-in-progress rehearsed reading of Displace at Belltable on Wednesday, June 23rd, at 8pm one of the actors who will help bring the piece to life Georgina Miller wrote about the piece.
Hi, I’m Georgina Miller, and I am one of the actors taking part in the public reading of Displace in Belltable on 20th June. I was thrilled to be asked, as it’s a powerful piece with a story that is so relevant and touching. Good writing is not easy to come by and, as an actor, this play is a gift.
The two story-lines, each with their own inherent drama, compliment each other really well. Set in two different times in the same building in Limerick – a Magdalene Laundry in the 1950s, which has been converted in the present day to a Direct Provision Centre. The struggles within masked by its walls are as heartbreaking today as they were in the laundry days.
To my shame, I knew very little about the process and conditions for asylum seekers here in Ireland. I think Katie O’Kelly has done a wonderful job of presenting the reality of their day-to-day existence. She’s also breathed real life into the whispered stories and headlines of existence for women in the Laundries.
I know sometimes it can turn people off when you say that a piece of theatre is important, but this one truly is. We can’t shy away from the horror of our past, nor be ignorant to the failings of our system in the present. That said, the play is also warm and light-hearted in places, and the authentic female relationships and companionships are brilliantly represented.
I’m a mum of two small kids and, for me, it’ll be interesting to see how that experience informs my connection with this work. Both women in the play are dealing with their difficult circumstances whilst having the responsibility of another small human to consider. The role of a mother is a complex and challenging one at the best of times, and these women are forced to carry that out under extraordinary conditions.
Katie has written a remarkably accomplished and engaging piece—it had me in tears on my first reading, and I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing the audience’s reaction to it on the night.
Georgina has been working as an actress for fifteen years across theatre, TV, film and radio. She is also an experienced and busy voice-over artist.
Displace is being developed as part of Katie O’Kelly’s artist in residency at Belltable, supported by Limerick Arts Office. This reading marks World Refugee Day. To book tickets for the work in progress reading of Displace at Belltable on Wednesday, June 20th, at 8pm phone box office on 061 953400, ext 1 or visit our website.
An account from one of the last Magdalene Laundries in Dublin that closed in 1996. I remember 1996. Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland. ‘Ballykissangel’ was on the telly, and the film ‘Michael Collins’ was premiered. I saw the set of the burned out Four Courts when I was a kid. Mick McCarthy was manager of the Irish football team and the Spice Girls released their girl-power smash hit Wannabe.
On our street in Dublin, we spent the summer making up dance routines to it in our cycling shorts and Boyzone Tshirts. It’s hard to believe that while we were arguing about who got to be Sporty Spice there were women incarcerated in Laundries all over the country, never told when they would get out and forced to work in excruciating conditions for no money. Free slave labour. I found out recently that one of the last Laundries to close was in Donnybrook, five minutes from where I grew up.
Last week we Repealed the 8th Amendment, a huge win for women’s rights that have been oppressed and silenced for too long. But we still have a long way to go in unearthing and comprehending the systematic abuse inflicted on so many women for so long in this country. Justice must be sought. The church still hasn’t paid out the vast majority of what it owes to Magdalene Survivors. They seem to essentially be sitting on their hands until it is too late and there are no survivors left.
On Tuesday evening, I was outside the Mansion House as eight bus loads of Magdalene Survivors were driven to the Mansion House for a reception with the Lord Mayor and the President of Ireland. I bawled my eyes out at the sight of all these amazing women, ranging from their 40s to 90s, who had suffered so much at the hands of the Irish State and the Catholic Church. One woman shouted to me that the women of Ireland have ended this with the referendum, the stranglehold that our country has been in since the foundation of the Republic. But we still have a long way to go to fight for justice for Magdalene Survivors. We cannot afford to be complacent ever again. And we cannot forget our collective past.
This piece was written by Belltable Artist in Residence 2018 Katie O’Kelly. Read the Irish Times article which inspired this post here.
To book tickets for the work in progress reading of Displace at Belltable on Wednesday, June 20th, at 8pm phone box office on 061 953400, ext 1 or visit our website.
Clara Purcell has worked in theatre, film and TV production since 2012. She was production assistant on the feature-length documentary Nuala – A Life (2012, Accidental Pictures) and worked in production support in RTÉ for four years. Producing credits include Dubliner’s Women (2016, The New Theatre), which toured to Belltable in November 2017, and Norah (2018, The New Theatre). She has been Front of House & Marketing Manager of The New Theatre, Temple Bar since 2015.
Clara has been working with Belltable Artist in Residence Katie O’Kelly, dramaturg Pamela McQueen and director Sarah Baxter ahead of the June 20th work in progress reading of Displace at Belltable. Find out more about Clara’s work and the progress on the rehearsed reading so far in our question and answer session below.
Q. What has your role as producer of Displace entailed to date?
One of my main jobs as producer is to make sure that we are keeping in budget for the project and keeping track of our expenses. I have also been lucky enough to get the job that EVERYBODY wants when making theatre – applying for funding!
On a project that is based on real events and experiences, some of which are ongoing, it’s crucial that all members of the creative team get a sense of the worlds of the play. For this reason I organised a research trip to Limerick city where we visited the College of Art and Design which was formerly a Magdalene Laundry and Knockalisheen Direct Provision centre just outside the city where we met some of the residents. This field trip was crucial to fully understanding the gravity of the material we are tackling in the play.
I’ve also been working with Katie and director Sarah Baxter on organising the development workshop in May and the rehearsed reading in June – selecting and booking cast members, arranging the logistics of getting everybody in the rehearsal room and organising schedules to ensure we can get the most out of the time. The fun part is getting to sit in on the workshop and seeing the piece develop more and more each day. Having finished the workshop, our focus now is on the first public reading of the work in development on June 20th in Belltable.
Q. How much progress has been made in the project so far?
Katie has been working closely with dramaturg Pamela McQueen and director Sarah Baxter on the script since the project began late last year. Since then she has been busy meeting with people in the Direct Provision centres in Limerick and researching accounts of the Magdalene Laundries too. Katie is now working on her third draft of the script, having made amazing progress in our workshop two weeks ago with a fantastic cast of actors – Roseanna Purcell, Niamh McGrath and Sahar Ali. Sarah and Movement Director Bryan Burroughs helped to create a physical interpretation of the two worlds in the play which gave another dimension to the piece and Pamela helped Katie to restructure the script and develop the characters. We’re really excited to get feedback on this current draft from the audience following the reading on June 20th. The support from Belltable so far has been brilliant in providing rehearsal space, marketing support and really helpful suggestions and advice on the project. We can’t wait to show you what we’ve been up to!
Q. What should audiences expect from the work in progress reading on June 20th?
Audiences should expect to be drawn into two worlds by a brilliant cast of Sahar Ali, Niamh McGrath and Limerick-based Georgina Miller. They will have the chance to engage with the piece directly, giving notes and feedback to the playwright on how the play could develop. They will also get the chance to hear amazing speakers, Donnah Vuma and Francis Healy share their thoughts and personal experiences with the themes of the play.
Hearing your own work read for the first time by actors is both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. It somehow makes it real, takes it out of your head and brings it to life. It’s a strange experience, after carrying the world of the play around in your head for so long. To hear it spoken by other voices throws up so many new ideas that it can be difficult to jot them all down. They tumble out.
Last week we got to do a development week on ‘Displace’ as part of the Belltable residency. It was an amazing experience, to get to develop a work-in-progress with such a great team of supportive people. Our actors were Sahar Ali, Roseanna Purcell and Niamh McGrath, with Sarah Baxter directing, Bryan Burroughs as movement director and Pamela McQueen as dramaturg. As Bryan put it, it was great getting the opportunity to work ‘just us girls’ :-).
We started by reading through the script a couple of times to get familiar with the story and characters. I don’t think I breathed for the first read. But everyone was so positive and supportive that it made it much easier than I thought it would be, and I relaxed. They gave some great feedback on the script, what parts really worked and suggestions for parts that weren’t quite there yet. I went home after the first day feeling energised and excited to start rewriting.
The movement days were Bryan were invaluable. Very often when I’m writing, I become overly reliant on words at first; they are a safe area. No playwright wants to have blank paper staring at them. But through the movement exercises you begin to see what can be spoken and created through the actors’ bodies on stage, and sometimes it can be far more affecting and powerful in the absence of words. Particularly in the two worlds of the play, where language is so different. In the Laundries for example, the women were forbidden from talking to each other. They only spoke in prayer. Yet friendships were formed secretively, a whispered, hushed form of friendship. In the direct provision centres, language can be a barrier between people from different countries and cultures, often when they are sharing rooms. It creates a whole new level of integration that has to be dealt with. The body can sometimes tell us what words cannot, and this can be particularly interesting on stage.
One of the days was spent with myself, Pamela and Sarah dissecting the second draft of the script, pulling it apart and then putting it together again, to see what structure works best to tell the story we want to tell. This was a really helpful experience as a writer, because so often we can get stuck in one way of thinking; it can become difficult to see different paths the story could take. But opening up to get new perspectives on it can lead to interesting discoveries about the characters and their individual journeys in the story.
After so many great chats, exercises and ideas, I’m scribbling away like mad to get a new draft ready for the rehearsed reading on June 20th in the Belltable. This will be a new step for me as a writer, I’ve never done a reading of a work in progress in front of an audience before so it’ll be brilliant to see what new ideas it sparks!