Participation and community plays

Part of the reason for setting up this blog was to post about academic research to an audience who might not otherwise read it – academic books are expensive and articles are often only accessible to those in academic institutions (though this is now changing – but that’s a story for another day!) This blog is based on a chapter of a book provisionally called Participation and Performance, edited by Helen Nicholson and Anna Harpin (due to be published in 2016). It’s about participation and community plays and I chose to focus on the Shankill community play Crimea Square which was performed in Belfast in 2013.

What’s interesting about this is the way that it links into questions about authorship that emerged at the event which Gerri has described in our most recent blog – Unwrapping Hidden History – in July of this year. My goal in writing the chapter was to suggest that participation alone is no guarantor of the redistribution of authority that might lead to positive social change. The project threw up questions about who has the authority to write a community’s stories, levels of expertise needed to craft those into a dramatic narrative, and who can authorise the telling of a community’s stories in a public arena.

The Playwrights

Authorship and authorisation
Community plays are usually authored by a professional playwright, two of the most famous historical examples being The Poor Man’s Friend by Howard Barker in Bridport (1981) and Entertaining Strangers by David Edgar in Colchester (1985). But Crimea Square was written by four community members who worked in close collaboration with writer and community artist Jo Egan. After seeing the play and talking to the writers of Crimea Square I started to see them as ‘experts by experience’, an idea developed in mental health settings where self-help groups become, what Tesheen Noorani calls, ‘crucibles for learning’. The writers were already ‘experts’ in their own local histories. Writing the play allowed them to examine that history in a critical way and to share that complex history with a local audience.

The writers were bringing their expertise as local historians and bartering this with the team of theatre professionals for their expertise in writing and staging a play. The sense of ownership and pride for the writers – confirming their expert knowledge of their own history and their authority over their own stories – was palpable in my discussions with the writers. What Jo and her team did was to show how, in dramatizing these stories, they might be able to show some underlying complexities. Through this process all those involved came to understand that their history was more fragmented than they might have imagined.

For example, they discovered an Irish-speaking Catholic policeman who had lived on the Shankill (a traditionally Protestant area) in the early 20th century. They showed him refusing to sign the Covenant, a document which was mainly signed by northern Protestants to protest against the imposition of Home Rule by Ireland in 1912. But they showed that this wasn’t because he was a Catholic, it was because he thought his service to the community as a policeman was a big enough statement about his sense of belonging. They were also able to point out the gender discrimination in the highly patriarchal society of the time because women weren’t permitted to sign the Covenant and had to make do with a declaration. In this conversation they showed this, as well as how women were at the forefront of protests against unfair working conditions in the local tobacco factory – all in 3 exchanges of dialogue!

EVANGELINE: When you sign your name’ll be on the Covenant for the rest of time – for all to see.
BIG JIM: It won’t Miss Evangeline know all. The women signs the declaration. Only men signs the Covenant. Don’t be leading your mother into wild ways. Next thing she’ll be out in strike like them lunatics in Gallagher’s.
EVANGELINE: Oh aye, so they’re lunatics because they want paid properly and better working conditions!!

Stories can become fixed over time and if these stories can be used to divide people and reinforce a sense of difference that can’t be helpful in a place that is coming out of a protracted sectarian conflict. In the process of becoming ‘experts’ or authorities in their own histories, and in being able to perform that expertise to a wider community through the play, the writers developed personal confidence in their own skills. In the process of writing they were also meeting and working closely with playwrights and actors and this increased their confidence in getting involved in cultural opportunities from which their community often feels excluded

One of the writers summed up the cultural impact of being involved in the play:

This whole community feels that the Lyric [theatre] isn’t for them. They get the idea that it will be full of Catholics and nationalists and middle class people – and that’s fact, that’s the way it is. I still think that but now it wouldn’t stop me from being involved in it. I have the confidence to go now.

Some of the writers and actors have been involved in setting up a small theatre company called The Heel ‘n’ Ankle (rhyming slang for the Shankill) to create and perform their own work and they have now produced five plays. One of the writers is now volunteering with the Linen Hall Library, digitising their collection, some participants have written a four minute film on mental health while one is working on a novel.

Although community plays are often thought of as conservative forms of theatre in academic literature this project showed that, in the right time and location, they can be very powerful. The project picked up on a growing interest in local history in Northern Ireland and the play could have simply reinforced a restricted sectarian history of the Shankill. Instead Crimea Square seemed to encourage the writers to appreciate the ways in which identities are multiple and layered and to present those complex identities to a wider audience through the play.

Thank you to John Dougan for his permission to use these photographs.

Cast singing lesson

blog about the play

review of the play


About alison jeffers

I am an academic working in theatre and performance.
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