2016 is turning out to be a busy year for THEATREclub. Their piece It’s Not Over is at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival Festival. They are also touring with The Game which explores the act of buying sex, and their The Ireland Trilogy is being performed in The Abbey in November. Martin Leen caught up with Grace Dyas activist, artist and co-founder of THEATREclub at their new place in Fatima Mansions to talk about their work and the state of the nation.
Now that we have entered the second century of the Irish State how do you feel about the Irish Republic?
I guess it’s a dream that’s never that’s never been realised. I don’t think we’ve ever had a republic in Ireland in the basis of what it’s meant to be about, in a “by the people for the people kind of way” based on equality.
So activism is an intrinsic part of your work?
That’s what I do, for me the two things go hand in hand. I want to be someone who changes things and changes how things happen. The mechanism that I’ve chosen to do this is art. Some people march and some choose journalism, I’ve chosen this method. It’s hard because often the setup of how art should work doesn’t cater for activism very well and it can be a challenge to carve out a base.
You are also working on a durational artwork called Not at Home which means to make visible the experience of Irish women who have travelled abroad for safe abortion services. Could you tell us about this artwork?
We’ve been collecting stories of women who have travelled to the UK and other places abroad to access safe abortions. They’ve been writing their stories on finding out they were pregnant, and the journey they went on to come to that decision and how they travelled. We’ve been analysing what would have been different if they could have accessed this procedure here in Ireland and unearthing that shame and that feeling of been exiled.
There are many issues we want to unearth around the law here and the problems it causes for people. There are health risks such as doctors not being able to pass on important information about their patients’ health to the clinics. There are also issues for women who have found out that they have a fatal foetal abnormality after carrying in for most of their term, they have gotten to know it, when they go to the UK to get it terminated they have no access to funeral facilities, it’s very complicated to bring the remains home.
At the moment we’re just gathering the stories and meeting different women we want to collaborate with, meeting legal people and people with different backgrounds. We’re looking for a venue that we want to do it in; we want to try and recreate a clinic, so we’re trying to find a house in the city centre that we can use.
The genesis of Heroin, the first play that brought you widespread recognition in the Irish theatre scene came about when you were working in a phone shop in North Earl Street.
I was working there and our main customers were drug users that were coming in and out to buy SIM cards. One day one of them got really annoyed with me and spat at me. We had a big conversation about that in the shop. This conversation was the basis of the play because some people were going “ah sure god help him” and some were going “that these drug addicts should be rounded up and shot, they should be sterilised” and stuff like that.
I hadn’t been accustomed to hearing these kinds of views because I came from a family that were very sensitive about addiction. I found this very compelling and that there was a section of society affected by this affliction who were just completely dehumanised to the point that they could be exterminated. I found this very interesting so I went on a fact finding mission to find out how did it get to that point.
The answer is really sad, it’s years of neglect and policies that have devalued human beings which the Irish State has participated in for years…kind of purposefully as well, not by mistake. It comes from a belief that some people are worth less than others. That’s still prevalent today. The piece was looking at that and asking those questions, and this is a theme through all of our work.
You say that Heroin could be viewed as a history of Ireland,the other plays in the trilogy The Family and History could also be seen this way. The play History feels especially poignant in 2016.
History was a public art commission to mark the regeneration of St Michael’s estate. This is a 14 acre site in Inchicore. There was where the first Catholic emancipation burial ground was located; Catholics weren’t allowed say catholic prayers at graves, so Daniel O Connell set up a graveyard there. There are also a reported famine burial ground on that site, where people that were coming up to Dublin but died on the road so there were buried.
On the other side of the site there is a place called Richmond barracks which was a British army barracks. It was the place where everyone who participated in the 1916 revolution were brought to until it was decided what to do with them, some were executed, some were sent to England. If you read the bureau of military archives online there are records of the conversations that happened in between them while they were waiting.
When you read these first person narratives very rarely do they talk about Irishness or borders, it’s people like Tom Clark talking to the younger fellas all about social conditions, housing, health, happiness and the right not to be oppressed. That was a key that the vision that had been discussed on this piece of land was all about equal society or a republic.
After the civil war that site of the barracks was remodelled as a social housing project, it was pushed through by WT Cosgrave. It was called Keogh Square and one of the first social housing projects in Europe. Very quickly it became a black spot, it was a place where people were sent when they couldn’t pay their rent, it was much neglected, and it had no heat or electricity for years after anywhere else. On the other side Golden Bridge industrial school was built. This is the place where Christine Buckley was sent and where she spoke about, a place of terror.
In the sixties Keogh Square was knocked down and they built St Michael’s Estate. This was ten tower blocks from the rubble left over from Ballymun. They didn’t fit in in the area at all and very quickly due to the same failed policies this place became a black spot as well and became very hard to live there.
The people campaigned for years for regeneration, for traditional houses with gardens, on the same site. There were three failed attempts to regenerate that site. Three times people went and picked out their curtains, picked out where they wanted to live on the site, designed their own houses. This was all resident inclusive kind of stuff, but they were all based around public-private partnerships but they all collapsed around the boom.
Even recently enough two new developments have been built, but there used to be 400 units on that site, but there are only 200 units there now. It’s a privatisation of public land. Even today the residents are out protesting because the land is being sold off.
So we worked with the residents of St Michael’s Estate, ex residents of Keogh Square, nuns who used to teach in Golden Bridge, with Christine Buckley and the military history archives. The aim was to tell the story of the state through the prism of this one site that is St Michael’s Estate, so that in a way St Michael’s could be seen as everywhere.
A lot of work you do involves taking up residency in a community or working with communities. The work that comes from the residency, does it come from ideas you may have had before starting and building on them, or does the work evolve through a process of collaboration with the community?
It’s collaboration, we rarely know what’s going to happen, and it’s our story as well. We’re working together to talk about something. For example with the piece about St Michael’s estate some stakeholders wanted it to be just about the barracks or just about Golden Bridge but we had the vision to go no it has to be about all those things at the time.
This is an artistic impression to see what is compelling to see that all of the individual points are not that interesting on their own, but the whole thing together is what is compelling. We kind of frame things. But equally it’s not like the people we work with are subjects, we are all subjects, we know what it is like to live on St Michael’s Estate. I do live here.
What kind of a republic would you like to live in?
I think my big question for me is what is the state supposed to do? For me I believe that human rights should be taken care of by the state like housing, health, water, shelter, safety. The things illustrated in the UN convention of human rights which many places have signed up to without even noticing what is in it. It’s such a great document. In Ireland we had a really good record on housing, we built thousands of houses but then we tried to back out of it. That’s what the housing crisis is all about.
There is this entire smokescreen around it blaming developers etc. But it’s not, it’s because the government are trying to not to do it anymore and it doesn’t work in the market. The market won’t take care of it; it will to some degree but won’t take care of anyone who is vulnerable. It’s the same with health. The argument that the state shouldn’t be involved in these things feels all wrong to me; private businesses cannot be trusted to take care of these. If the state doesn’t take care of these basic rights for people then what is the state for at all?
Check out TheatreClub’s website for all information on their upcoming schedule.