The setting is a Direct Provision centre, filled to capacity with 100 people of many ages and backgrounds living side by side. Where does the drama happen? In the linen room, doing laundry, as Review learned at a new play performed by residents of one centre last week, staged as part of the Abbey's 5x5 community development series.
The work-in-progress, The Linen Room, was devised by Wicklow writer Tina Noonan with assistant director Seamus Quinn and 11 performers from all over the world who stepped on stage for the first time on February 21 to an invited audience at the Peacock in Dublin.
The cast came from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Guatemala, Albania, Iraq, Mongolia and other places - supported in no small way by Wicklow actor Kevin Olohan. What they all have in common is their temporary accommodation, in the former Grand Hotel in Wicklow Town which has operated as a Direct Provision centre since November 2018, now housing 100 people from 28 countries.
If you've ever shared a washing machine, you might relate to the routine chaos people living in this pocket of the system encounter just putting a wash on. "We set this here because we always meet in the laundry," says a young man named Fundi. "Chatting, laughing, sometimes taking other people's clothes by accident. Lots of fighting," he said. Fundi arrived some months ago from Zimbabwe and has met locals playing football with Wicklow Rovers. Asked about the experience of making theatre for the first time, he says that it was positive: "I'd like to go further."
Idah, a woman from Zimbabwe dressed in a faux sheepskin coat from Penneys describes with laughter one of the daily frustrations of the shared arrangement: "My character is very cross, because the young boys take advantage of the older people, they don't respect us. They throw our laundry on the floor."
On the set were four washing machines and a tumble dryer. Most of the actors played themselves. Kevin Olohan played a friendly electrician whose role was a kind of medium for coaxing stories and connections out of the people passing.
The script touched upon what the disparate nations have in common with one another: Guinness and British colonialism (Nigeria and Ireland), Latin American soaps, a love for Thin Lizzy and Liverpool FC.
It showed how residents communicate using Google Translate and sometimes mind each other's children, how they participate in a local choir, Tidy Towns, a knitting group and local football club. The children attend the local schools, and some adults work in nearby care homes or as cleaners.
Less happily, they in some cases share bedrooms. In one scene, Annastasia, also from Zimbabwe, expressed playful glee that her roommate Idah was going away for the night.
"I will be free!" she says. "I'll lie on my bed, put the TV volume on as loud as I can. I'll sing, I'll bathe for a long, long time, even in the middle of the night."
The Linen Room played to a heaving audience thanks in part to a minibus that brought family and friends from the Grand Hotel and back. Two babies cried, a toddler protested and people laughed loudly. Some made videos on their phones, like Michelle, a Guatemalan transition year student whose mother, Sheila, was on stage. Michelle sat with her sister, her three-year-old nephew and her grandfather, all living together in the Direct Provision centre.
Direct Provision was set up in 2000 in response to a huge increase in applications for asylum. To qualify for refugee status under the UN Refugee Convention, an applicant must prove a well-founded fear of persecution.
The procedures in Ireland to grant protection have historically been inefficient. The system was intended to house people for no longer than six months, though today, asylum seekers spend an average of three years and eight months in centres which have been criticised by the UN.
Review asked one performer, Annastasia, what she would change about the system here. "We are living in a centre where we can't cook our own food, it's a hotel. I miss it a lot and I miss my African cooking," she replies. Writer Tina Noonan first met the residents of the Grand Hotel at a tea and coffee morning in November held by the Wicklow Welcomes, a campaign which was formed specifically to support the newly arrived people seeking international protection. There had been opposition from business groups in Wicklow to the repurposing of the hotel as a centre for asylum seekers, and nasty comments online. Tina describes it as a "Klu Klux welcome at first".
A writer of several plays, Tina describes herself as "drawn to stories that struggle to find a platform". She previously worked with a group of Traveller women on a play set in the toilets of a Traveller wedding (Glimpses of High Society with Travellers performed in the dlr Lexicon in Dún Laoghaire). The women wanted to talk about discrimination in the play. She told them: "That's fine, but we need humour too, otherwise the audience gets bored".
Over coffee and the odd cigarette, she got to know people living in the Grand Hotel, "bouncing around having fun with them, singing songs". As she gained their trust and friendship, she learnt that they were private about the reasons they fled their countries: "I don't ask them where they are from, I don't ask them anything about their lives."
She accompanied a group to the Abbey to see Drama at Inish by Lennox Robinson, who enjoyed the slapstick humour and afterwards, a tour of the theatre. As she secured their commitment to making the play, she asked each person to pick a piece of music from their country that meant something to them, "because music is really powerful and it relaxes people." Knowing people often have to drop out of community projects mid-way through, she wrote the play as a series of two-hander scenes so that, if necessary, an entire scene could be cut. Her hope is that the project can be a "learning tool".
"To show how these people are all strangers, all living together, who have become like family. That these are highly skilled people, a lot have university degrees," Tina says. "They want to work. Most can speak a minimum of two to three languages. They could be such a huge asset to Irish society."
The cast included a former bank manager, a nurse, a pastry chef and a graduate of biology. Most of the people living in the centre are awaiting news on asylum applications, some have deportation orders, and some have leave to remain in Ireland but are awaiting housing.
"They've no privacy. Whatever about sharing a house with someone you don't get on with, to actually share a bedroom..."
Tina also observed how "alone" a lot of the newcomers are in Ireland. "I had family and friends I've known since I was 12 in the audience. They don't have that support here."
She plans to continue developing the play and stage it again locally in Wicklow.
The 5x5 project is intended to help communities engage with their national theatre for the first time. This year, as well as the 'Grand Theatre Project' Direct Provision group, the series features a Men's Shed, a group of women from the north inner city Dublin who devised a piece with Veronica Dyas, a group of visually impaired people, and a group of LGBT+ Irish speakers. Each of these groups received five days' worth of space, technical equipment and €5,000 in funding to develop a theatre piece. With the budget, the first-time actors could, for instance, receive a wage for their work.
"It's been a great learning for our organisation, to give a voice to these communities rather than imposing a voice," says Jen Coppinger, head of producing at the Abbey. "The most recent census shows a very different Ireland. We're trying to embrace that diversity and the new Ireland."
After the show, some of the performers opened up about their life here. "My dream is to find a house of my own so that I can invite all the people who have helped me since I got here," says Annastasia. "I don't want to be a person hiding, I want to be open."
Since arriving last October, she has found a community through her church and her knitting group. "Wicklow community is so good to us," she says. "They have given us a lot, even the things we are wearing."
Her friend and room-mate, Idah, leaned in and confides: "I feel really good to act in front of the white people. Because we're black. The white people will say the blacks, they can also do it." By way of explanation, she continues: "At first, they didn't receive us well. People didn't greet you on the street so much, but now we are one. Unity is everything."