I was absolutely delighted to be asked to participate in the Abbey Theatre of Change Symposium which took place in Dublin from the 21st to 23rd January. This is the third and final international symposium and follows the hugely successful Theatre of Memory and Theatre of War series both of which questioned the role of commemoration, the nature of conflict and the danger of national narratives.
The Theatre of Change Symposium is the start of the Waking the Nation season and its primary focus was examining the responsibility of citizens to engage with issues of the near future and the role of artists to shape it. It was without doubt one of the most extraordinary events that I have been involved with for a long time. Day 2 where I was speaking kicked off with Irish artist Jackie Irvine talking about her novel Days of Surrender. The book's starting point is a very rare photograph that shows the feet of Elizabeth O'Farrell midwife and 1916 volutneer who had been asked to make a perilous walk from Dublins General Post Office down the sniper-lined streets to act as an agent of negotiation for the formal surrender to the British Army. Poking out from behind the figure of Padraic Pearse (leader of the Irish Volunteers) Elizabeths feet are clearly visible in the picture but all subsequent publications of the image include doctored versions where the feet are removed and with it the trace of a woman's presence and resistance to the British state. It was fascinating to hear Jaki narrate the literal erasure of the role of Irish women in this important moment in the history of the state.
I followed Jaki with a session called Big Data: Owning Your Own Story looking at content in the digital age and told some stories about my previous life in the arts in Ireland in the 1980's no trace of which remains because all events occurred before the creation of the Internet. Describing myself as a ghost in the machine in the Irish arts landscape of the 80's I tried to stress the importance of all of our creative stories being available to ensure we have a complete history or our collective creative contributions. Judging from the Twitter responses from the audience, largely theatre and visual arts practictioners, as well as regular Abbey audience members, what resonated most was my comment:
Author Andrew O'Hagan followed with a brilliant tour de force Stealing Lives: Does Your Story Belong To You? which interrogated what it means to be a writer, the ethical challenges when writing about real people or when writing about members of families including your own. It provided a wonderful insight into the mind of a writer who has explored the issue of identity in some quite challenging and interesting ways.
Theatre director Zoe Lafferty talked about Theatre, Resistance and Change sharing her experience of working as a director in Afghanistan, Yemen, Palenstine, Syria, Haiti and Lebanon. Her recounting of working with the Palestine Freedom Theatre had the audience spellbound as had the notion of using culture as a form of resistance. Often artists explore these issues but rarely place themselves in the site of actual danger. It was captivating, challenging and humbling to hear her talk about how theatre and storytelling can challenge the status quo, expose human rights violations and tell the human perspective behind war one that is often misrepresented in the media.
Israeli journalist and author Gideon Levy had the audience on their feet for a sustained standing ovation for his talk The Israeli Society And The Endless Occupation. His was a bleak view about what the future holds for both Israel and Palestine but what captivated the audience most I think was his 30 year career calling Israel to account for the Palestinian plight. Nearly every week for three decades, he has travelled to the Occupied Territories and described what he sees, plainly and without propaganda. “My modest mission,” he says, “is to prevent a situation in which many Israelis will be able to say, ‘We didn’t know.’” And for that, many people want him silenced. He pointed to a "moral blindness" on the part of Israelis which allows them to ignore the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people. It was an exceptional display of moral courage and integrity speaking truth to power without fear of personal repercussions of which there are many.
But for me, the highlight of the day was the presentation by Dr Emer O Toole and Dr Susan Cahill in what was both an entertaining and profound 45 minutes. Their talk/performance The Man Problem was brilliantly framed by legal affairs editor Derbhail McDonald who brought the audience through the 30 year heartache of the abortion "situation" in Ireland. For readers not familiar with this tragic terrain the tldr version is this. Over 30 years ago in Ireland we had a referendum. We agreed to allow abortions where it was proven that the life of the mother was at risk. But in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem we failed to legislate and the successive years have seen nothing but trouble and heartache. Emer and Susan are part of a campaign to repeal the eight amendment to the Irish constitution. In a very clever presentation Emer kicked off using a male persona on stage to model the usual stereotypical male approaches but making the important point that women get pregnant not men - yet our almost entirely male decisions makers are the only voices that are heard on the topic. Their clever slide made this point eloquently.
But it was Susan stepping forward to take the mic to talk about her own abortion that really drove the point home. Stories are a powerful way of helping us reach consensus, developing empathy even when we hold differing points of view. But there are few stories about abortions in Ireland because women cannot speak out. So it was the first time I have ever heard a young Irish woman describe why she had an abortion, how she felt and how the eight amendment makes her feel about her relationship with her own country. It was certainly a first for a woman on the stage of the National Theatre to declare that deeply personal experience to the world. "I don't fee shame. None" she said. It was just fantastic to demonstrate that kind of courageous leadership creating spaces for other women to find their voices. Because when it comes to abortion it is not male voices that should have the mic because it's women who need to be centre stage on that issue. I applaud both Emer and Susan on their courage and I'll follow their work with keen interest from the other side of the pond.
And in a lovely final piece of serendipity we got to share our taxi to the airport with the amazingly interesting Penny Arcade and talked all the way about the intersection of art and technology and the future of our world. As you do.
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