Saturday 10 December 2016

Stage: Is Irish theatre now too elitist and middle class?

Maggie Armstrong

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

New Order: The Waking The Feminists meeting at The Abbey Theatre. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
New Order: The Waking The Feminists meeting at The Abbey Theatre. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

We have been silenced. We'll be silent no more. That was the cry that pierced the walls of the national theatre last week and rattled the world in its small way. The occasion was #Waking the Feminists, a public meeting that sprang from opposition to the Abbey's ­gender-blind programme for 2016: 10 plays, nine by men, one (short play) by a woman.

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Feminists spoke up on behalf of women of colour, Traveller women, disabled women, regional women, who are all marginalised in the arts. It was pretty historic. Feminism, so often a stuffy, if not totally threatening, term, was suddenly the New Order.

But it was another f-word that had people shifting in their seats, when a silver-haired woman spoke from the crowd. "A big fair f***s to everyone," said Cathleen O'Neill, working-class activist. She said she felt proud today, but needed to raise another matter - class. Theatre for the working-class is "relegated to community arts," she said. "Don't forget us, sisters," she implored the well-heeled theatre-makers on the stage.

The next morning, over coffee and scones at the Kilbarrack Community Development Project (CDP) which she manages, Cathleen described how she left the Abbey "on fire, empowered by it". But also, "seething". She felt alone. At midnight she couldn't sleep, still processing the day.

She had gone along to support the women's struggle. But she did not feel as supported by them. She felt that in speaking out about their oppression as women, they had divorced their cause from another, more life-threatening form of oppression - poverty.

As a mother who raised five children and has six grandchildren, she described what feminism means to her. "Feminism means the right to be the person that you are regardless of your gender. To walk as tall and dream as tall as any man." She joined the women's lib marches in the 1970s. But, "feminism was always a very middle-class movement and it paid token service to working-class women. They were almost recreating the patriarchy, as feminists."

Kilbarrack is known to many of you, if not by name. The Snapper was filmed here nearly 25 years ago. Its most famous native, Roddy Doyle, is still a force of good in the community, along with poet playwright Paula Meehan. It is an area of "profound disadvantage." So it's hardly a surprise that no theatre is put on here, and there is no tradition of theatre.

"Theatre is seen as too expensive, exclusive, not for us," said Cathleen. Older people go to the Odeon cinema for €5 on a Wednesday, and play bingo. Kilbarrack CDP runs an after-school youth project attended by 74 children. Not one of them has ever been to the Abbey. And yet, locals are still talking about the night, in January 2014, when the Abbey came to the community hall on an unplugged tour of The Risen People, James Plunkett's epic drama of the Dublin Lockout. The place was packed. Local writers stood and gave noble calls. "I wished that the entire Northside link had access to that," said Cathleen. "People were mesmerised. It was an incredible night. It proves to me that theatre can work."

Cathleen is the oldest of 13 children from a poor family, whose father lost an arm in World War II and was unemployed. At 12, when she got top marks in her Primary Certificate, the Sisters of Mercy at Goldenbridge offered her a scholarship to a fee-paying secondary school. But she couldn't afford books or uniforms and lasted only a few months. She got a job in a sewing factory and spent her free time in libraries, racing through Victor Hugo, Robert Graves, Charles Dickens.

In 1994 she completed an MA in Equality Studies. But when she's not campaigning or being a mother to all, she's at the theatre. She tries to see a matinee of every production in the Abbey. "I think the arts are so important," she says. "For me, they're not something that you enjoy, they're something that you live."

The children at CDP are part of the Abbey's outreach programme, and they love making theatre. "They understand drama. Because their lives are so dramatic." When they make short films, they tackle topics like violence, drugs, alcohol, safe sex. "These are the things they are afraid of. They're scared."

To give them real opportunities in the arts, they need the support of artists. "We cannot do it ourselves because bread and butter issues take up all our funding," she says. "All we can do is bring magic in here, through literature. We've built our own library. I've got them reading really good work, now I want them to write really good work. I want them to walk with their middle-class peers and know as much about literature."

At 67, having survived cancer, Cathleen is retiring in July. She wants to leave the children with access to a future. Beginning with good food, warm clothes, the right to healthcare, an education and the chance for self-expression.

Last week, artistic director of the Abbey, Fiach Mac Conghail said he needed to examine his privilege. Now Cathleen would like all #Waking the Feminists to examine their privilege. Working-class women too. "What I'm calling on are alliances," she said.

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