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Sylvia captures life and crimes of city gangs

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Sylvia Beatley, playwright, talks to Chris Wasser. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Sylvia Beatley, playwright, talks to Chris Wasser. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Sylvia Beatley, playwright, talks to Chris Wasser. Photo: Doug O'Connor

SYLVIA BEATLEY was always getting into trouble at school.

"I was very bold," she says, smiling. "I was okay until I got into secondary school, and then I don't know what hit me. I would escape a lot into my imagination, so I'd be always playing characters and putting a show on for my friends."

Which, unfortunately, led to Sylvia being suspended. It wasn't that she was a bad kid. To listen to the 37-year-old writer and actor telling stories about her childhood, you imagine she was quite the joker. She liked school. She also showed an interest in history. But, at that moment in time, it simply wasn't for her. Not that there was a whole lot else to do in Neilstown, North Clondalkin.

"There was a lot of anti-social behaviour," she recalls. "There was nothing in Neilstown for us at the time, so nobody had anything to lose. Taking risks and having fun was like, a priority. And we had lots of fun and, you know, great memories – lots of giggles. But then, drugs started taking over and things started becoming destructive in the sense that boundaries were being crossed by young people."

 

Heroin

Indeed, crime began to spread across what Sylvia calls an "island community". Growing up in a house with four siblings, she had always enjoyed having fun. But the party was over as soon as friends of hers began taking heroin in the early Nineties. "I realised that drugs were actually getting a really big grip on people – everybody you knew was on heroin. I wasn't, but everybody I knew was. And it was awful. Like, people my own age ... it just kind of took hold. I remember being really young and thinking, 'I just want to get out of this'."

She had the choice. Sylvia had left school at 15. She'd already been working full-time for three years. "I kind of found a little bit of independence for myself, but I just was bored with it, and I wanted something more, so I went to London."

Sylvia was 18 when she left Ireland with her boyfriend. The relationship wasn't to last. At 20, she was a single mother living alone in London, trying to raise a newborn baby boy. She wasn't without family – an "amazing auntie" was there to help. But life got tough. "I just didn't have the kind of financial, emotional and physical support I needed on a daily basis. I pretty much had to do it all myself," she remembers.

Yet, her aunt was the one who encouraged Sylvia to re-educate herself. She wanted to have a career. She also wanted to get into acting – "to find that passion that I had as a kid". And so the hard work began.

First, she studied at the Anna Scher Theatre School in London. She then widened her options, obtaining an honours degree in Informal and Community Education from Canterbury Christ Church University.

In 2006, she and her son finally returned to Ireland and Sylvia began a Higher Diploma in Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Maynooth.

She also came back to Neilstown for a few weeks. She was surprised at what she saw. "I was looking at people who had completely faded away, and the trouble that the drugs had caused, and this kind of gangland environment that had really developed," she says.

"When I lived in Ireland, it was all about 'The General' and 'The Penguin', and everybody wanted to be career criminals and get their name in the paper, and when I came back, it just had exploded.

"There was one shooting after the other, and people were sick. The drugs had just completely burned everybody out."

It saddened Sylvia to see people leading dead-end lives because of decisions they'd made when they were teenagers. She wanted to write about it. There were dozens of ideas floating around her head as she continued her studies.

 

Authentic

"I always wanted to create an authentic piece of working-class theatre that had real hard-core issues, that wasn't just about the stereotype ... the angry drug addict – that you could actually live a day in the life of somebody."

She set about establishing her own theatre company, Twisted Peasant. Its debut production is now set to open at the New Theatre in Temple Bar. Making Lemonade, an hour-long monodrama which started out as a reading entitled Scumbag, focuses on a day in the life of Blade: "a criminal, a scumbag and a father".

"He would be kind of like the kid that was forgotten," says Sylvia of her lone, hoodie-wearing protagonist (whom she also portrays in the play).

Of course, Making Lemonade tackles some rather serious topics. Gun crime; drugs; robberies, etc. But there's a side to Blade that the audience might come to like. Or maybe even laugh with.

"And I think there has to be, because it is quite a horrific story," nods Sylvia. "And it turns on you completely. That's what gun crime is about, it's all fun and games until somebody ends up dead."

Last year, she set up a performance after-school drama group at St Peter Apostle Senior National School – her old primary school – in Neilstown. "I want to just show that you have options," she explains, "and that you don't have to be the product of a society. And there are great people up there – they have come through so much, and they really have got their community up and running.

"Some of the kids pay for [the classes] out of their Communion money, or out of their birthday money. You see that kids want more for themselves and they have dreams, and so I want to help because there wasn't anything like that for us when we were growing up."

Currently living in Celbridge with her son, Nathan (17), Sylvia might have taken a longer route to get to where she wanted to be. But, as she prepares to present her first play on a professional stage, it seems the journey has finally paid off.

"I always tell my son – how you get something started is you start asking questions, and just keep following that train of thought. It can be hard work at times and you can feel like it's all against you, but they're just the challenges that you face as a person and the growth comes from getting through that and learning about yourself. Just go for it."

Making Lemonade runs at the New Theatre, Temple Bar from May 13 to 18


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