‘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.

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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!