Public Art and Community

This page introduces a few basic principles of community-engaged theatre and public art, and contains an extract from The Common People, a commissioned community play premiered by Artswell, Castleblayney in February 2011.

Writer and cast take a bow after a preview of I ♥ Mullaghmatt at the Family Resource Centre

I have been involved in developing methods and working hands-on in this broad area for many years, in particular during my tenure at UpstateTheatre Project.  The work of Upstate is discussed in a paper to the Citizenship and Applied Theatre conference at NYU, the text of which appears on the Conferences and Papers page.  I’ve also worked freelance to commission, and two particularly significant commissions in the past few years have brought me home to my native County Monaghan.  These were I ♥ Mullaghmatt and The Common People.  While these projects were independent of one another, they enjoyed a continuity of tone and methods.  These are described here.  More recently I was engaged by Louth Craftmark on a rather different but also stimulating project where a multi-cultural and inter-generational cast devised a play responding to the history of the Battle of the Boyne.  It is discussed in a 2014 blog post here.

In both County Monaghan cases, I was commissioned to engage in listening and research processes, but then, independently, to write a drama which was eventually performed by members of the communities it referenced.  In most of the Upstate work by contrast, the community particpants wrote the scripts themselves in facilitated processes.  The Monaghan Community Plays are therefore closer to the principles of ‘Public Art’ than classic ‘Community Art’.  While the difference may seem academic to the outsider, the ‘Public Art’ model allows the playwright more individual freedom to write in his/her own voice, albeit within the agreed parameters of the project and respecting the research, workshopping an interviews that have preceded the writing.

I ♥ Mullaghmatt was commissioned by Monaghan County Council and the Family Resource Centre to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Mullaghmatt housing estate on the Western edge of Monaghan town.  Twenty four people including children from the estate and the wider Monaghan communities performed the play which followed the fortunes of four fictitious families, and roamed from controversial exploration of the ‘spillover’ impact on of the Northern Ireland conflict and the situation of ‘Settled Travellers’  to joyful re-enactments of street football games, halloween bonfires and disco days.

Members of the cast of The Common People

The Common People is set at a banquet to celebrate the 100th birthday party of Elizabeth Eliot, a retired poultry farmer of Protestant faith who lived all her life in County Monaghan, where the majority faith is Roman Catholic.  Again, the play travels in time from days of communal joy and cooperation to the divisive beginning of the Northern Ireland Troubes and on to the post Good Friday Agreement rapprochment, adding the recent arrival of Polish farm-workers into the mix.  The cast of 36 ranged in age from 8 to 80 and were drawn from various religious faith backgrounds, from both sides of the border and from within the migrant community of Castleblayney.  In the extract that follows, elderly brothers John and William Eliot (Elizabeth’s sons) are prompted by a slideshow image at the banquet to recall their days as Protestant boys in a Catholic primary school during the 1940s.

Directly below is an extract from this community play, or you can skip ahead to the copied text of an Irish Times article by Peter Crawley about the performance, by scrollign down or clicking this link.

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Extract from The Common People

On screen, an image of children outside a National School, circa 1941.  Lights up on the dinner party, all gazing at the image.

JOHN Drumscullion National School! Well, boys-a-dear! Many’s a slap I got in th’awn place!

WILLIAM Many’s a slap we all got in it. Nearly seventy years ago and I can still feel the sting of the ashplant!

JOHN I mind Master McKinney sent me out to cut an ashplant once. ‘What for?’ sez I. ‘Get a good long one’ sez he, ‘A good long bendy one.’ It was to hit ME with, he wanted it. Out for a stick to bate meself he sent me.

WILLIAM It was a happy day he retired and Miss Brady took over.

JOHN Right enough. That was my last year. You were still a gasun. She was a dote. Mind you McKinney’s hard slaps weren’t the worst kind. Do you remember the priest?

WILLIAM Canon Kelly? Except he wasn’t a canon then. I’ll never forget him.

On the stage below, a rowdy gaggle of children run in and rearrange the furniture, swiftly creating a rudimentary school room.

MISS BRADY Very good now, heads down. Long division. 528 divided by 48. (The children emit a quiet whirring, buzzing noise, like machines. A hand goes up.) Yes, William Eliot.

BOY WILLIAM (aged 7) Eleven, Miss!

MISS BRADY Correct. You’re a bright boy, William Eliot. Right, 85 divided by 17. Heads down. (More whirring and buzzing. A hand goes up.) Yes, Jonjo McGinty.

BOY JONJO Ninety two, Miss.

MISS BRADY No. No, Jonjo. That’s a higher number than the number to be divided.

BOY JONJO Heh?

MISS BRADY (patiently) How did you arrive at ninety two, Jonjo?

BOY JONJO I didn’t, Miss.

MISS BRADY Explain yourself.

BOY JONJO I didn’t arrive at it, Miss. It arrived at me.

MISS BRADY Right. And how did it arrive?

BOY JONJO By bicycle, Miss.

MISS BRADY (without malice) If you were half as clever as you were smart, Mr. McGinty… Who got the right answer?

SALLY SCULLY Is it five, Miss?

MISS BRADY It is indeed. Maith and cailin! (A young priest looms in the doorway, watching) Oh, Fr. Kelly.

FR KELLY (coldly) Carry on, Miss Brady. I see you have a few cowboys here.

Jonjo makes a gunsmoke signal and sound, to much laughter. The priest stares him down. Silence descends.

MISS BRADY Now boys and girls. Say hello to Fr. Kelly.

ALL Hello Father Kelly.

MISS BRADY Fr Kelly is here to test your Christian Doctrine. William you can step down into Miss Clancy’s room. And Jane Carpenter. You can go too.

FR KELLY Ah no, Miss Brady. Let them stay!

MISS BRADY (awkwardly) But Father, they’re not …

FR KELLY I know what they’re not. Not Catholics. But I’m sure they must have some religious knowledge, hah? I mean they’re not heathens. Are you a heathen William.

BOY WILLIAM No Father.

FR KELLY So William. The miracle of the Immaculate Conception. (William drops his head. He has no idea what this means.) God bless us, the heathens in Africa know who Our Blessed Virgin was. I’ll come back to you. Now Sally Scully. How did Jesus die?

BOY WILLIAM He died on the Cross.

FR KELLY Did I ask you, Eliot? (Miss Brady goes to intervene, but is too cowed by the priest. She drops her head). Well, Sally.

SALLY On the Cross, Father.

FR KELLY Huh?

SALLY Jesus died on the Cross, please Father.

FR KELLY So…? So that…?

SALLY So that our sins might be forgiven.

FR KELLY Good girl. Now Jonjo… Mr McGinty. Where is Limbo?

JONJO Out the far side of Castleblayney, Father.

All laugh except priest and teacher. Tense silence.

FR KELLY No, Jonjo. That’s Muckno. Where is Limbo?

BOY JONJO (points) Up there. It’s where the unbaptised babies go.

FR KELLY Near enough. We’ll make a Christian out of you yet, Jonjo. Now, William again. Trans-substantiation of the Host.

MISS BRADY (timidly) Father, William won’t be making Holy …

FR KELLY The Host, boy? The Host? Host! Host! Host!

BOY WILLIAM (Creasing over) Please Miss, an bhfuil cead agam dul amach? Please can I go to the toilet, Miss.

Lights have come up faintly on older William above.

OLDER WILLIAM And I wet myself, there, in front of them all. For fear of a Catholic priest.

Below, the children are laughing at William.

FR KELLY The sooner they find some way to send these children to schools of their own the better. Not good for the other children. Miss Brady. Good day.

OLDER WILLIAM But Mammy was having none of it. (He calls across to Elizabeth) Isn’t that right, Mammy?

ELIZABETH Ah now!

OLDER WILLIAM She marched down to the school and said she would write to the Minister for Education in person if it happened again. She would write to the school inspectorate. She would write to the Catholic bishop and the Protestant bishop. She would write in to Radio Eireann.

JOHN That softened his cough for him. He never done that again.

WILLIAM Not exactly. Although I was to meet him again, many a time.
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The Irish Times – Friday, February 4, 2011

Community making theatre making community

PETER CRAWLEY

Declan Gorman’s play about seven decades of life in a Border town is an exercise in making art from real life and deploying symbolism with a purpose

HIS FIRST appearance is inauspicious and significant. An unwelcome trespasser who sneaks into an already suffering community, he brings nothing but bloody havoc while stoking suspicion. He is a fox.

Invading the chicken coop of a modest poultry farm just outside Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, his timing couldn’t be worse. It is the 1940s, towards the end of the second World War and as the farm’s recently widowed owner – the Protestant Elizabeth Eliot – comes to terms with her losses, a neighbour sees it in portentous terms: the chickens have been lined up like “war-time corpses”.

Eliot, the principal character in The Common People , an epic, sprawling drama of a community’s history, written and directed by Declan Gorman, appears to dismiss such heavy symbolism, shooing away the notion of a “witch fox”, a local shape-shifting legend, but even her earthly pragmatism wends towards greater significance. Determining to rebuild her farm, she extends her defiant break with the past into a plea for peace so that “the next generation doesn’t have to suffer a war like the one’s just ended”.

Gorman’s subject, though, is not so much the final arrival of resolution (how could it be?) as how conflict is smuggled into times of accord, often dormant but never extinguished.

The structure of The Common People is as wandering and warm as the folds of memory, constructed as a series of flashbacks during Eliot’s 100th birthday celebrations. Spanning almost seven decades of life among Catholics and Protestants on the Border region, the piece was informed by the experience of locals both directly (there were 35 people in the cast) and indirectly, via field recordings conducted by Carmel Rudden among elderly locals at ceilidh house nights.

Originally from Monaghan, Gorman drew both from these recordings and workshops, but also from the voices of his own childhood.

Performed late in January, and delayed from its scheduled opening in December by, as Gorman put it, “the Big Snow”, the play that resulted could sometimes seem unwieldy. Its dialogue spread wide among relatives, neighbours and friends, its plot became embroidered with nostalgic detail, while its progression became conversely elliptical. Act Two, for instance, ends with the 1960s, before Act Three takes up the action in 2003 – as though the entire Troubles had been censored.

Omission may have been partly the point, though. The substance of the play was “an oral history” of south Ulster, and the participants of a big community theatre project, or a cosy ceilidh night, can be slow to talk about it, reluctant to pick at the scabs of history – preferring to apply the balm of safer stories. Weaving a fiction from real lives, the playwright had to stress commonalities but also to signal disturbance.

We hadn’t seen the last of that fox.

Community theatre, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, is a theatre of the people, by the people and for the people. As Eugene Van Erven wrote in Community Theatre: Global Perspectives, “it privileges the artistic pleasure and sociocultural empowerment of its community participants” while its material and forms “always emerge directly (if not exclusively) from ‘the’ community, whose interests it tries to express”.

Professional theatre makers, like Gorman, the former artistic director of Upstate, routinely work in community theatre, but the form is not intended to be professional itself. The Common People may have been about a community, but in the show’s development, rehearsal, performance and reception, it essentially made one.

Of the 35 cast members, Gorman told a packed Iontas Arts Centre before showtime, were actors of many denominations and some of none. They had been drawn from Monaghan, Louth, Armagh and Down, and included non-nationals now resident in the region, and the cast ranged in age from eight to 80.

To the critic’s eye, the stage may have been at times a jumble of people, seven sitting with Ellen at a long top table on a raised dais, shoals of other guests at round tables below, switching roles and summoning scenes from the past with different levels of comfort. (At one point Gorman strode gamely onto the stage to substitute for an actor who had missed his cue.) But in the co-operation of makers, performers and audience, it was in effect a model community.

The tensions traced by Gorman’s narrative ranged from the religious (a villainous Catholic priest challenging Eliott’s two young sons in a mixed classroom to answer questions on the immaculate conception and transubstantiation) to the more overtly political (the hanging of an IRA man in the 1940s, a sectarian stand-off in a fleadh ceoil in the 1960s, community responses to mixed marriage, the murder of an RUC officer and the Civil Rights Movement), while the fox reappeared, with heavy portent, to kill a prized peacock.

“That’s nothing to do with us,” announces one character in the new century, “it’s all in the past.”

And as Polish migrant workers take jobs on the poultry farm, while new security systems attempt to keep any predatory metaphors at bay, a reminiscing ceilidh scene points to the uncertainty of creating a future: “Anyone got any recent stories?”

Funded by the European Union Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, which has supported cross-Border initiatives and the promotion of a shared society in Northern Ireland and the Border Region since 1994, the project comes at a time when such support, though still significant, is sharply diminishing.

From 1994 to 1999, funding for the programme stood at €500 million. It peaked from 2000-2004 at €531 million. Its latest programme, Peace III, has EU contributions of €225 million. The more mature the peace process becomes, it seems, the less support it receives. Perhaps that’s why The Common People ends with an unexpected jolt to the audience about the need to be vigilant.

On the night of my viewing, packed with spectators generous with their applause, the performance was interrupted when Carmel Rudden, Castleblayney commonalities project administrator, arrived to the stage with a uniformed garda and asked if the owner of a particular vehicle in Iontas’s car park was in the audience. Its description matched my own. As officials prepared to evacuate the theatre, the event was quickly revealed to be a ruse – all part of the performance – and the car in question had been identified at random, right down to the licence plate – a statistical anomaly that still seems puzzling.

“I couldn’t have written it,” Gorman told me, between mutual apologies afterwards. In the show, this spell-breaking moment is a sobering reminder that a gag can contain the shiver of terror. In community theatre, making art from real life and deploying symbolism with a purpose, it was a reminder that some of us can still be easily foxed.

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