Tuesday 22 October 2019

Days of Grace: Irish theatre's MeToo maven reveals bullying, backlash and her new play

With her new play making its debut at the Abbey, Grace Dyas spoke to Donal Lynch about bullying, backlash and the Irish MeToo moment

Playwright Grace Dyas became a poster girl for the Irish version of the MeToo movement. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Playwright Grace Dyas became a poster girl for the Irish version of the MeToo movement. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

It's the week of Grace Dyas's first show on the main stage at the Abbey and, understandably perhaps, she is a little hard to pin down. Messages go unanswered, arrangements are left dangling, and, eventually, the interview is postponed. When we finally get to sit down, she immediately asks if she can tape the conversation. It's for everyone's protection, she adds, ominously. You can't be too careful.

It's unusual behaviour for an interviewee, but such caginess is also understandable. Despite her impressive body of work, and its ambitious scope - this latest piece, It Was Easy (In The End), aims to bring about the end of capitalism in Dublin - Dyas is perhaps best known for igniting what she calls "a grenade" in Dublin theatre circles. In 2017, she wrote a blog about the former director of the Gate theatre, Michael Colgan, in which she accused him of rounding on her at a Dublin Theatre Festival. She alleged that he said: "You've lost so much weight, I'd almost have sex with you." The blog exploded quietly online; it was retweeted thousands of times and, eventually, made its way into the mainstream media here. Other women chimed in with their experiences of dealing with Colgan. Dyas became a sort of poster girl for the Irish version of the MeToo movement and a chastened Colgan eventually published an apology in the Sunday Independent in which he said that his behaviour, while "misjudged", should not be "equated with sexual crimes".

In a sense, Dyas had changed everything - new structures were put in place in the Dublin theatre world and the Gate began its own controversial inquiry into Colgan's conduct while he was at the helm of the theatre. But in another sense, life went on, much as before. Colgan, while undoubtedly now enjoying a different kind of renown, quietly continued with his post-retirement work, and Dyas continued her own work: It Was Easy (In The End) is a three-hour attempt to "bring what is happening on the streets of Dublin onto the stage at the Abbey." Audience members are able to come and go during the performance - in order to make the theatre experience less stuffy - and Dyas aims to "break elitism down" and show that "theatre should be accessible, even if you don't have power".

Speaking truth to power is something that she agonised over during the Colgan affair in 2017. "There was a back and forth in my mind," she explains. "I thought was it the right thing for me, my life, my family, the sector, and Michael. Ireland is a country where women aren't given the right to bear witness to their own experience, so I had to work hard to say what I was going to say. I was also worried about being sued."

Friendship and ambition blurred together in her relationship with Colgan. She found him brilliant company and often sought his advice, she says, but she also figured that socialising with him was a prerequisite for advancement in the theatre world, and, particularly, getting work at the Gate. "I didn't feel it was a necessity to go drinking with him but it was a necessity to go drinking with him to work in the Gate. I went to dinner with him and to lunch with him. I never had a dinner in his house privately, but yeah I went to dinner with him, just the two of us."

She had heard reports of Colgan's behaviour, but mostly defended him during this time. It was the Waking the Feminists movement, and what she perceived as his own hypocritical contributions to it, that spurred her to take action that fateful night in the Oak Bar on Parliament Street during the Dublin Theatre Festival, she says. "He wasn't my boss, but he did have a position of power. He was in a professional function with a role as a former board member of the Dublin Theatre Festival. I was an artist presenting a major piece of work within the festival, and within that context he said something sexual."

Dyas grew up in Rialto and attended UCD for a semester before making her name in the theatre world. Her first piece, Heroin, debuted in the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010 and her piece, Not At Home, gave voice to the stories of women travelling for abortions. She was severely bullied in school and "shouted at my whole life." She says it was this background, too, which emboldened her to stand up for herself that night. She "gave as good as I got" and shouted back, but, although she recalls almost forensically what he said, she won't get specific on what she said, beyond what was detailed in the blog.

"I responded to everything he was saying to me", she explains. "I don't think there's a recording of it, I don't think anyone made that."

She says that what she wanted, at that point, was the directors of the Dublin Theatre Festival to elicit a verbal apology from Colgan, which he should have delivered, in person, to her. She felt that, given Colgan's power, in the industry, this was highly unlikely to happen and that any complaint would get back to him. But given that her complaint was about this lack of proper due process, why, then, did she take Colgan's own due process from him by putting the allegations online where they went viral? "I totally hear you and I've thought about it a lot and examined my conscience. I wondered, have I initiated a way of doing things that is more exposing and more vulnerable for everyone involved? I do think if your intention is to create a process, as mine was, then it's right to do it."

Abuse of power is "endemic" in Irish life, she says. But given that, should all employees, or even those working in the same sector, be able to vent online, as she did? "I think it's true to say that there's a risk of most bosses abusing their power." Bullying, she adds is "broad and subjective to the person, that's why structure is important".

Has she ever bullied anyone herself, I wonder. "Wow," she begins and takes a breath, before continuing: "(Bullying) is a behaviour that comes up when people are under a lot of stress. Anytime anyone has ever spoken to me about my behaviour that wasn't appropriate I've tried to do everything to put it right."

Given that MeToo was about harassment and sexual crimes against women, did she worry about the implications of broadening its scope, in an Irish context, to include bad behaviour? "I feel I had a right to be part of that movement," she responds. "I feel like my experience was worthy of that movement. I took a lot of time to think if I would refer to MeToo in it. I thought the moment empowered me as a woman."

Journalist Jon Ronson and others have written about the devastating effects of internet swarming and shaming. Last year the director of one of Stockholm's biggest theatres committed suicide after a wave of MeToo accusations.

The situation with Colgan did become a pile on for a time, as week after week, more women came forward and more outlets picked up the story. Did Dyas worry about the effect such public accusations might potentially have? "I had no way to know," she tells me. "I don't know what Michael suffered."

She works two jobs, but neither pay, she says. She is living in a friend's place in Milltown with her husband, Martin Sharry, for a few months. At the suggestion of the Rubberbandit's Blindboy, she recently set up a Patreon page, and she says is appealing for people to donate to her - "as little as €4.27 a month". "I struggled a lot at the end of last year," she explained. "I am being paid more for this project at the Abbey than I have been paid in my life before. I want to make a lot of money, that's why I want everyone to come to see my play!"

'It Was Easy (In the End)' opened at the Abbey Theatre on April 26 and runs until May 4, 2019. Tickets from €13, including booking fee, are on sale now from the box office. See: https://www.abbeytheatre.ie

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