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Friday 22 November 2019

Theatre: Voice of defiance carries the war on drugs and guns to a new stage

Social artist: Sylvia Beatley PHOTO: DOUGLAS O'CONNOR
Social artist: Sylvia Beatley PHOTO: DOUGLAS O'CONNOR

Colin Murphy

Sylvia Beatley's community was destroyed by drugs and guns. So she decided to fight back – with a play.

That play first appeared last year, called Scumbag. Now it's back, but with the softer title, Making Lemonade (it's at the Civic in Tallaght, March 5 to 8, and at the Now festival at UCD in May; see www.ucdnowfestival.com).

The play tells the story of a day in the life of one such 'scumbag' – a criminal, and also a father. It's not a true story, but is inspired by the true stories of those Beatley grew up with in Neilstown in the 1980s: boys who joined gangs and got shot, or shot others; girls who lost their men to the violence; kids who destroyed themselves with heroin.

She wrote it as a one-man play, and was offered a public reading of it at the New Theatre (as part of their enterprising series of readings of new work). But then the man she had cast pulled out, and she had to step in herself.

She pulled it off: the New Theatre offered her a slot for a full production, and that gave her the confidence to revive it this year.

Beatley wasn't an obvious candidate for the career of playwright. She left school at 15. By 16, her peers were "just falling down from heroin". By 19, she was pregnant.

She could see nothing for her or her child in Dublin, so she left for London. She did courses and got a job. But she wanted something more fulfillling, and chucked in the job to do voluntary work with the homeless.

She did a degree in community education. A part-time acting course gave her a weekly night out, and gave her the bug.

At 30, she felt it was time to move home. She got a shock: "drugs had just burnt everything out. A lot of the people I knew were just ghosts of themselves."

It was also time to take the theatre more seriously. She did a HDip in drama at Maynooth and then a masters in directing at UCD. "I used to think theatre was very middle class, full of people talking in a language you didn't hear every day. But then I read Mark O'Rowe's work. (O'Rowe is the writer of the hit play Howie the Rookie and the movie Intermission.) I thought, I can add to the theatre. I can write."

That intent was as much political as it was artistic. She describes herself as a "social artist". "There was all these shootings in Clondalkin. Nobody was standing up and saying, this has to stop. I wrote the play to try and get people talking about it." She intends to get community activists involved and have discussions after the play.

But will it make any difference? "The more we talk about gun crime, the more they will realise there are voices against them," she reasons. And then they may, she thinks, start to back down.

And the theatre can help show that there are alternatives. "Gangland has taken over. It's glamorised in the media. When you glamorise things like that, young lads that are growing up in a marginal existence, they latch onto it."

Ultimately, her ambition is to go back to Clondalkin and set up an arts centre. She wants to make "theatre that has the soap box," and theatre that has "an authentic working-class perspective."

"We want theatre to be more than just this middle-class space where people go just to enjoy themselves.

"Clondalkin is a great area, of hard-working people," she says, but "it didn't get the investment – and then, when there was investment, it was in probation services and drug projects, not in the arts.

"Theatre marks civilisation," she says. "I think we deserve it."

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