Reflective blog written by Mary Nunan about her experience researching The Hood collaboratively with Jo Slade in Belltable Hub as part of the New Work Commission 2020.
Throughout 2019 Jo Slade (poet/visual artist) and I (dance artist) began exploring some ideas (for performance) based on a text that Jo was working on comprising a series of poems, in draft form. The poems use the contemporary ‘hoodie’ as a metaphor to explore such issues as: identity/ anonymity, centre/ periphery, body/not body. As part of our research we were looking at how we could use text and movement improvisations to disrupt fixed meanings attaching to these terms.
The process was long and slow. Because of the complexity of the themes we were exploring we did not want to take any short cuts. Belltable Hub provided a perfect environment for us: a warm, clean, light-filled space with a really reasonable rent. The latter was important because it, literally, afforded us the opportunity to take the time necessary to incubate our ideas. Interestingly, as time went on the room itself (dimensions/sparseness/atmosphere) became a source of inspiration for the work!
In 2020, with support from Limerick City and County Arts Office and a research commission from Belltable we were able to further develop our ideas with support from a mentor.
At the end of August we presented our Research-in-Progress (4 sessions presented over 4 days to an invited audience). The presentations took place in Studio 1. We received really positive and helpful feedback from our audience. So we must go on!
For the next phase, we want to continue to explore our core themes and deepen our research into the content and structure of the emerging work. And we also want to explore some ideas about possible (innovative) performances contexts. We are looking forward to doing this should our application, to the Arts Council, for bursary funding be successful.
Special thanks to Marketa and all the Belltable staff for their support throughout and especially for the care they took with all the Covid protocols. It was a very safe house to be in (poetically and practically) at all times!
Receiving the Belltable:Connect Commission to begin to write my new play “Paddy McGrath’s Daughter” was extremely important to me as an independent artist and one of the highlights of my working year.
This commission created the space for me to be able to write, both physically and financially, enabling me to spend an extended amount of time in Limerick City for research and development towards completing the 1st and 2nd Drafts of this new playtext.
My relationship with Belltable as an Independent Artist working freelance was cultivated through the Gap Day Initiative created by Lian Bell & Mermaid Arts Centre. Having spent two days working in the Artist’s Hub Space at Belltable, Limerick early in 2019, I was able to develop a relationship with the Artistic Director, Marketa Dowling and spend time talking though my work, interests and plans and became more familiar with the team and the physical infrastructure of the theatre. It also served to refamiliarise myself with the city of my maternal Grandfather in the context of my arts practice. This time spent on Gap Day contributed to my artistic impetus to write “Paddy McGrath’s Daughter”.
Spending an extended amount of time writing in Limerick was crucial to the development of this new play. The Belltable:Connect Commission enabled me to be here, tune into and walk the landscape in my Grandfather’s footsteps and talk to members of our family about him.
This time in the city facilitated the beginning of new relationships with key people and organisations in further developing this work, such as The Hunt Museum and Limerick City Council. Crucial to making work about and in Limerick, was the new connections I made with the amazingly amazing Artists from the city. I can’t imagine another mechanism that would have created those relationships with artists, actors, directors, technicians as cohesively as the presentation evening of these four new plays with and about the Limerick community in November. The evening served to test the work in front of a very warm and generous audience, and provided the lead in time and space to work with two amazing actors, Ann Blake & Pat McGrath who brought this new text to life. Their expertise, as well as that of the rest of the amazing team created a safety and rigour in staging this early draft of a new work.
As an independent artist, working freelance and without regular funding, being commissioned by Belltable:Connect has had a significant impact on my practice, broadening the scope of my relationships, work and enabling me to write a new play for theatre with the physical, financial and artistic resources required to do so. I feel both privileged and grateful to have been supported in this comprehensive way. I look forward to further cultivating all the new relationships generated through this process, and continuing to work to complete “Paddy McGrath’s Daughter”
Belltable:Connect has been a fantastic experience for me. Firstly, the commission gave me permission to write the play that I wanted to write. It was important to be trusted as a playwright in this way. Secondly, the play was a departure from my previous work and I got the chance to experiment with a more poetic mode. I feel my writing has really improved through this experiment and Belltable:Connect gave me the time and space to be able to do that. Thirdly, Belltable:Connect gave me the resources to work with actors on the text for a couple of days. This resource was invaluable and I learnt a lot about the play from that experience and from the audience that came to see the works in progress. I would highly recommend this programme with its simple, trusting and well resourced schedule.
Belltable: Connect has been an invaluable resource to me as a playwright. The commission has allowed me the time and space (underestimated resources within Ireland’s predominantly unsustainable arts industry) to create a new piece of work. The financial remuneration has allowed me to develop the play while still making rent. As well as the privilege of being offered a commission, which is very reassuring in and of itself, Belltable: Connect has provided professional and personal support to me at all stages of the artistic process – guiding and advising through difficult moments of self-doubt and worry – through more reassuring and positive moments of discovery and learning.
Marie [Boylan] and I were delighted to receive a Belltable:Connect commission for our play ‘Red Army’ last June. Writers work in a void – we never know if our work will be commissioned or funded. We never know if it will make it onto a stage. Belltable:Connect managed to address both these issues in one fell swoop. We knew that the commissioned plays would be showcased to a public audience in November so we could finesse the script with that in mind. This is the best way to test a script. Prior to the showcase, we worked with the four actors and director for two long and exhausting sessions.
If the play was a car, then this was the
garage, where it went through rigorous testing, adjusting and stripping. This
was a brilliant learning process and watching a director (the wonderful Jean
McGlynn) at work with the actors was a lesson in itself. Words on a page take
on a whole new life when spoken and acted and the script shape-shifted accordingly.
Actors ask very tough questions and we needed to be on our toes with the red
pen. This was invaluable to us – to have actors, a director, a studio, tech
time in preparation for the reading – what an incredible resource for
playwrights to have.
night itself was a great success. It was wonderful to sit in the audience and
watch the work of our Limerick peers while we waited for our piece. After the
first on cue laughs from the audience, we relaxed and enjoyed our own play (Is
that possible?). The audience reaction was excellent. We left the Belltable,
determined that the next time we hear our own words, spoken and acted, that it
would be the full play. The whole story.
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.