‘Trouble’– Theatreofpluck bring stories of NI’s LGBT community during the Troubles to the stage

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After 5 years of development, wrangling with production concerns about funding and creative concerns about how to honour over 46 interviewees’ stories within theatrical limitations, I was thrilled that Trouble finally had its world premiere at The MAC as part of 2015’s OUTBURST Queer Arts Festival (the only 10-day multidisciplinary queer arts festival in all of Ireland, which I co-founded in 2007 with a team of many queer artists who’ve worked tirelessly to grow it to its success today, nearly 10 years on).

Jane Coyle’s 4 star review in the Irish Times of TheatreofplucK‘s production (directed by Niall Rea & Anna Newell) cited it as ‘a chilling and challenging piece [that] shows how far equality and gay rights have come in NI– and how far is left to go.’ Chris McCormack called it a ‘provocative performance installation’ in his review.

Audiences described it as:

“Compelling and moving.”

“Fantastic. Lots of reminders about how far we’ve come. Great that our stories have been captured and shared. “

“Everyone should be made to see this. School syllabus!”

“That was totally amazing theatre. I never say that.”

“Really interesting and informative content. Good range of performers/interviewees, men, women, different sections of the community and a good age range. “

WOW. Back in time and very very moving. You captured the times brilliantly.”

“Very emotive performances, I am a bit dumbstruck to be honest. Still very true in today’s world too. Thank you for that, feel very privileged to have seen it.”

“Excellent performance. Innovative mixed theatre piece. Dynamic and inspired way to tell such an important and often invisible story. Needs to go out round the north and wider afield. Tender, shocking, funny, uplifting, beautiful, brave – very clever and creative again from Shannon Yee.”

In December 2015, TROUBLE transferred to Belfast City Hall as a video archive installation, celebrating ten years since the UK’s first civil partnership ceremony there. Despite this initial progress towards equality, today Northern Ireland remains the last place in the UK and Ireland to enact the same-sex marriage legislation.

photo 2Trouble is dedicated to PA McLaughlin, Sean Morrin, Peter Quigley, and all other NI LGBT activists the community has lost over the years; as well as the 46 contributors who kindly entrusted me with their stories. Research, development and production was made possible by support from the Arts Council NI and Belfast City Council.

Feedback

Ever since I began working on this piece about growing up LGBT during The Troubles in NI, I’ve grappled with the best form to present the theatrical experience in. It seems to be a mix of all sorts: quasi-historical archive that’s part verbatim theatre. My concern has always been how to honor the interviewees, their stories, and their trust; making a piece of theatre that is innovative, exciting, and moving is the best (and only) way to do that.

After doing the first round of interviews (courtesy of a 2010 Arts Council NI Support of Individual Artist Award), I felt stuck. How do I shape this plethora of stories? What is the best FORM to hold them? I needed feedback. I needed input. I needed a test, a look, a think.

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During a week in early July, Theatreofpluck, with Anna Newell, took some of what I had written, exploded it to its essences, and presented it back to me and a small group of invited guests. The audience was a composed of some interviewees, their guests, and local theatre professionals. This is some of what they (anonymously) said about the ‘experiment’:

“I was unsure what to expect, before arriving to the MAC I thought, ‘This could be so boring!’ However, I could have never been so wrong! The show was of such elegance and intimacy. It brought emotions of solitude and loneliness, bringing together how the so-called ‘Troubles’ affected people. It was something I would expect to see in Barcelona, not a small place like Belfast.”

“Very interesting, something verbatim can be boring but the presentation and juxtaposition of spoken/written word worked excellently against the background of the music.”

“Very invigorating. Innovative, exciting, insightful. Loved the whole set-up from the 1st stage through to the end.”

“This was something very different for Belfast and the queer community…parts were very over stimulating but at the same time powerful. I would hope this will be completed and finished—did we hear everyone’s story? Well done, beautifully done.”

“…challenging and boundary-pushing theatre. A very experimental piece where traditional and the untested were together.”

“Enjoyed the whole experience-the creativity of the pieces—of actually feeling like I was in the work.”

“I think that this is a very interesting approach to a potentially overwrought subject.”

“I think there is a lacking of stories told by women within different kinds of researches, and I think this ‘experiment’ could be a great opportunity to ‘voice’ more and more women’s experiences…The experience of the Troubles told by gay people is likely to be different from many others and I think it would be important to raise awareness towards them. Academic works have presented gay people’s lives in Northern Ireland to a certain extent, but I believe a work like this could perhaps reach a different and broader public…”

“Very different from anything I have ever attended.”

“I think you have done an amazing job in telling and honouring our stories. When I first heard your proposal to do this work I remember thinking—why is someone from outside that time doing this? But then I figured—no one else is doing it. I respect Shannon and I’ll trust her and go along with it. Having experienced this I realize you are the only one who could have done this. You have absolutely honoured the trust so many people have placed in you. Thank you. I look forward to further versions.”

I think we’re on the right track!

Name change

Had a really helpful slew of conversations about the title of ‘Gay & Troubled?’ with Anna (director) & Niall (designer/co-producer). I’ve been worried about whether just the word ‘TROUBLE’ would communicate the content of the piece. Niall assured me that anyone who knows about the Troubles would know, combined with the fact that a Northern Irish theatre company, TheatreofplucK, is producing it.

With his design sensibilities, he came up with this:

Love it. Captures it all with an image (though I was still holding out for an ‘S’ at the end): pink triangle, rewind button, ‘Troubles’ in NI.

That’s it, decided then.

‘Gay & Troubled?’ synopsis

‘Gay & Troubled?’ is a biographical, interview-based play that explores the experiences of a generation of individuals from the LGBT community that realized their sexuality while growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The play interweaves individuals’ personal stories of cultural identity, sexuality and coming out, religion, feminism, sectarianism, racism, conversion therapy, paramilitaries, politics, the normalization of violence and the effects of the Troubles on the psyche with important historical moments including the Hunger Strikes, the rise of the social LGBT scene and activism, the IRA ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement, the murder of Darren Bradshaw in the Parliament Bar, and the police raids on gay men which led to the European Court case that decriminalized homosexuality in NI.

This project has been made possible by the generous support of The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Some quotes from ‘Gay & Troubled?’ interviews:

“For years I thought the Ardoyne area was part of the anatomy because routinely you’d hear of a man being shot ‘in the Ardoyne area’.”

“I remember during the interviews [after the raids], [the police] were asking me sort of banal questions about sexuality which I didn’t want to discuss, but outside you could hear all the bombs going off, y’know, Belfast was erupting with bombs on this bright summer’s day… detectives asking me what you did and what you would like to do and who your friends were. It just seemed so bizarre—Belfast was being blitzed and they had so much time to spend on homosexuality.”

“A helicopter dropped off all these soldiers, there was a soldier standing there with this rifle and he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.”

“The Republican women and the women’s movement wasn’t as blended as it could’ve been.”

“In 3 years, I saw 3 people shot.  It seemed so random. There was never any explanation. It just happened, it was on the news and the next day it was over with.”

“I was going out with boys just for the look of it. It was tedious mostly.”

“What was it like being back in Northern Ireland? Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“I mean, you’d be out the back of the entries of the school, smoking and there’d be squaddies running up and down. You’d be going, ‘Oh fuck!…It’s only them.’ It’s like someone’s running up with an AK47 and you’re going, ‘Ach geez, it’s only you!”

“I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t like girls, then I must be a priest!”

“I have a theory that a lot of gay & lesbian people come out later, but we go through the same thing that 12 and 13 year olds through as teenagers, you know with our first love where you write really bad poetry but the thing is, you can afford alcohol also when you’re older. I wrote awful poetry.”

“I always think gay men are essentially monarchists and lesbians are more Republican. Gay men are metropolitan and women are more localized in many ways. “

Drafting

I’ve worked through a few drafts of ‘Gay & Troubled?’ now. Every time I look at it, and look back at the transcripts and listen to the interviews, I’m struck by the magnitude of the piece. How do I do justice to the experiences? The stories? The lovely people, some of whom I’d never met before, and the trust they gave me when we spoke for that hour or two?

There are a couple of performers that have informed the shape of ‘Gay & Troubled’ for me:

1. Anna Deveare Smith (Pre-Nurse Jackie). She did Fires in the Mirror about the NYC Crown Heights riots and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 about the Rodney King riots. She has used interviews as a way to gather various perspectives from communities experiencing violent conflict.

2. Eve Ensler and her work with The Vagina Monologues is an example of activism and theatre intersecting. I saw a performance of it in Belfast a couple of years ago, in aid of the Rape Crisis Centre, and the use of an ensemble in it was actually really effective.

3. And, of course, The Laramie Project.

So.

Drafting, shaping, redrafting, finding more fantastic moments from interviews, getting pleasantly side-tracked in the different cadences of interviewees’ individual voices…shaping, reshaping, cutting and pasting.

It’s a tremendous privilege.

The research and development of ‘Gay & Troubled?’ would not have been possible without the generous support of the Arts Council NI.