We were recently asked to speak as part of the cultural programme for the recent graduates of the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation. Here is what Shane wrote and presented.
Hello everyone. I’d just like today before I begin anything that I’m very very glad to speak at an event like this in this beautiful house. And I’d like to thank Meave for thinking of THEATREclub when organising everything. It feels like a real privilege to be here.
I’d also like to apologise for that tokenistic and formulaic introduction. Introductions are difficult. So I’m here to talk about theatre. A lot of events in theatre- training workshops, mixers etc start with people introducing themselves and saying what they do or why they have elected to participate on a particular workshop. A few years into your career this can become a little tiresome. This can be a boring way of learning who the other people are.
I recently took part in a workshop that was about creating theatre for young audiences. We were challenged to try and accurately describe what it is that we did for a living as if we were speaking to a group of 6 year olds.
So I’d like to employ that same methodology this afternoon.
My name is Shane Byrne and I am a lot older than you. (You’ll have to use your imagination!) But I’m definitely a lot younger than your Mammy and Daddy. When I was your age I didn’t like football and I used to imagine what it would be like to be as tall as this. I have a job. My job is to think up stories about the world and tell them to other people. To help us all understand everything.
The story of THEATREclub starts in the ramshackle three story Georgian house on Upper Gardiner Street that is Dublin Youth Theatre. Three young and in various ways wayward teenagers independently walked up the steps and inadvertently walked into one of Irish theatre’s most significant buildings. They acted, directed, they wrote, they designed lights and sets, they called themselves producers and drank sneaky pints in Kavanagh’s on Dorset Street with borrowed costume pieces to make themselves look older. They arrived on time on a Saturday for weekly workshops with the cream of the crop of Irish theatre practitioners. They were introduced to performance from Slovenia, London, Manchester, Bristol, Berlin, Ghent, Avignon and New York City. And they wanted to be just like the people on the stages in the videos.
We became interested in the experimental. We learned words like meta, and self aware and post dramatic. We performed as part of a monumental piece for DYT called This Is Still Life. A collaboration between DYT and the now internationally renowned Brokentalkers to celebrate 30 years of youth theatre in Dublin. We performed using our own names, the subject matter was our own lives and ours would never be the same again.
Shoot forward to 2008 and THEATREclub meet in a pub in Portobello to decide if we would actually go ahead with making a company. We decided that we wanted to make theatre that was about real things that we cared about. We wanted theatre that represented us and all our mates. We wanted theatre to talk about the important issues of the day. We wanted young people to go. We wanted everyone to know that theatre was not just about red velvet and red wine; but that it was about the Ireland we lived in. We wanted THEATREclub to change to world.
Five years, ten original theatre shows, 3 editions of our own festival, one TV show for RTE young peoples, thousands of tickets, several awards and many more nominations, live art parties, several boyfriends and girlfriends, a public art commission, international touring, late nights, floods of tears and “I can’t do this anymores” later, much of our ambition and mission is still the same.
We believe in incremental change and we believe in the power of theatre. We see a show on a stage as a conversation between artist and audience that can spread ripples that can reach wider than we’ll ever know.
Our shows initially were very much centred around our the generation who were told they could have it all only to have it all crash down around us just at the time we could start to make something of ourselves. We made shows like ROUGH, about young women in a desperate bid to become happy while making all the wrong choices. Fast food, casual sex and a round of drinks on their laser card. We brought our audience directly to my family home for GROUP THERAPY FOR ONE a show about me, myself, my problems, fears and feelings. We wanted to make a bold statement that young men should feel able to talk about how they feel I destroyed my comfort zone by inviting strangers to a group therapy session that was solely about me.
Our searingly current THEATREclub Stole Your CLOCK RADIO What the FUCK You Gonna DoAbout it? made the theatre community take notice. Three months after our first performance we had curated and produced a festival for new work from new artists in Project Arts Centre. We included ourselves in the programme and spent 4 weeks creating our third show in as many months with a recession chic disused wine shop as our rehearsal room.
We began to get better at what we did. The audience whooped and cheered mid show in a theatre, delighted to see the three cast members vilolently tearing up newspaper, throwing fruit and smashing up 80s vinyl. We emerged at a point where anger was the order of the day in a country that felt shocked, hurt, disillusioned and frightened. We knew that we were doing the right thing by making shows that were socially engaged and we decided never to make a show that was of little consequence.
My colleague Grace Dyas spent some time working in a phone shop selling phones. She worked at the junction between Marlborough Place and North Earl Street. A veritable highway for heroin addicts. They would come in to the shop. Ask for help with their phones or for new sim cards. On one occasion Grace was unable to help one customer with his particular problem. He spat in her face. A shocking and upsetting assault. The shutter came down. For Grace, she cleaned her face, she gathered herself. Her colleagues used abusive terms. They should be shot they said. Grace didn’t share their disdain. And in that moment she began creating our show HEROIN. A piece about the rise of heroin to epidemic proportions and about the social histry of Ireland from the 60s to today.
We made a partnership inside the community of Rialto Community Drug Team. We spent two years becoming experts on the issue. We worked with the men’s group. and sat in during methadone clinic hours or at the drop in. We learned that the addicts were people like us. And that it’s not all their fault. We discovered empathy. And we wanted to share it.
The show changed how we made our work and we developed a new performance language and form that we’ve been developing since. The show was a hit. Selling out ten nights and winning spirit of the fringe commissioning award in 2010 at Dublin Fringe Festival. But most importantly we learned about developing an audience. And about the right people being there for the right reasons. Sitting in dublin’s oldest theatre at a THEATREclub show was professional theatre makers, regular members of the public, the director of the Abbey Theatre, teenagers and old people, & men and women who were in active addiction. All of whom felt the same feelings at the same time. We would later call this designing the audience. And we would be doing it forever more.
In terms of theatre in Ireland we had firmly slammed our foot in the door. We rejected terms like emerging artist. Our years of incubation in DYT made us feel that we were fully ready to establish ourselves. In 2010 funding structures changed. The model of a theatre company on annual funding was destroyed and the playing field was opened wide up. We were the recipients of a Project Award from the arts council of Ireland. We were among the youngest theatre artists and newest companies ever to receive this type of funding. A controversial decision on behalf of the council. A first of many.
HEROIN’s sister show The Family was created because of the good will of a group of actors we had assembled. We now formally call them our ensemble. All of them worked for free.
Some we’d known from youth theatre days, others we’d met along the way. They agreed to make a show for free. We talked about our own families. Talked about everyone’s families and tried to figure out what goes on inside this first society that makes us the way we are. A continuation of a style formed in HEROIN the Family was developed over two years. A 1950s style set and costume in a dublin Estate. A show about a family where nobody plays the mother, there is no father, son or daughter role. We made a show about families that was blank and open for an audience to find their own way into and project onto our actors whomever and whatever they wished.
These two shows are currently touring in DOUBLE BILL and are parts one and two of our Trilogy about Ireland. The third installment, HISTORY is on its way in December of this year in Project Arts Centre. A public art commission as part of the regeneration of St. Michael’s Estate in Inchicore. While simultaneously it’s a show about the first 100 years of the free state.
St. Michael’s is 14 acre area in the south of this city. It houses, a former British Army Barracks where the leaders of 1916 were held captive before their execution in nearby Kilmainham, Goldenbridge convent and industrial school one of the most notorious homes of institutional abuse. The graveyard on the site was among the first purchased by Daniel O’ Connell for Catholic burial, inside is a mass grave from famine times. This is also the site of Ireland’s first social housing project; the infamous slum Keogh Square. A truly unique and almost incredible area in the city in terms of its relevance to virtually every part of Ireland’s social history.
Our show is being made with and within community. Our collaborators include Kavanagh House Drug Team, St. Michael’s Parish Youth Project and The Women’s Development Group at the Family resource centre.
We’ve come a long way from pubs in portobello and we’ve worked hard to have a our dreams realised. Our work and its contemporary form and experimental nature is often received with trepidation from our colleagues in the theatre. Often from those our own age, many of whom are all involved in the resurgence of literary theatre and the mini renaissance of the well made play going on in Ireland right now.
It’s part and parcel of what we do. We work incredibly hard. We gave up crucial years of our youth and much of our sanity to make THEATREclub into what it is today. Our work is our life but we’ve learned how to blow off steam and party like the other people still in their early twenties. There is romance in our lives again. We’re finding a balance while always stepping up our game.
We’re everyday trying to change the world. We work in a theatre. We are regularly given a platform. And we want to share it. We make our work to illuminate the dark corners and to give voice to the voiceless. We see creating as a definitive act of hope.
And I hope that I haven’t gone too much over time. And I hope that I have made sense and given you an idea of who we are and what we do. I certainly hope that you come and see a show or two too.
We see ourselves as artistic activists. We’re doing all of this while facing into severe cuts in the arts. With an audience with increasingly less money to spend on tickets. And a country that is constantly reading bad news. We’re back in recession. And it can become tiring, and can make you feel that changing the world through theatre is a notion too filled with the innocent ignorance of youth to actually be achieved.
At a recent conference in Paris about the crisis and the performing arts 78 year old Susan George was speaking. She is an activist, political scientist, and former board member of greenpeace who has been fighting for what she believes in ever since they started burning their bras.
I asked her how she kept going. How does she keep the will to keep fighting? Even when it seems to provide little change.
She asked me to imaging a giant hourglass filled with grains of sand all of equal size, weight and shape. And she asked me to imagine the sand dropping out one by one. The grains form a hill and then a mound and then a mountain. And then one grain will fall. And for some reason that will cause a momentous seismic shift in my mountain. And the landscape will never be the same again.
That’s what I do for a living.