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Humanising the past

A Northern Irish theatre company is showing how theatre can humanise the past and hold up a different lens to what we think we know. The AHRC’s Care for the Future Theme Leadership Fellow, Professor Andrew Thompson, explores this innovative approach with Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of the Kabosh theatre company.

Kabosh is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Can you tell me more about Kabosh?

Founded in 1994, Belfast-based Kabosh is a site-specific theatre company committed to challenging the notion of what theatre is, where it takes place and who it is for. The company believes that theatre can transform people’s lives, and over recent years we have become the leading theatre company in the north of Ireland working in conflict resolution.

We have presented original plays in a range of spaces from a moving black taxi to a synagogue, from a playground to a local government building, from the roof of the Titanic building to the basement cells in Crumlin Road jail. We want citizens and visitors to look at their surroundings with fresh eyes.

For all of our work we commission local playwrights. Then we find a location that would enhance our presentation of that narrative. This may be a contested or unusual space that we want to animate with a new narrative.

What are the challenges of working in the Arts in a society which has only recently emerged from the Troubles and is still very much grappling with the complex and divisive legacies of the past?

It is challenging working in an environment such as the north of Ireland but given the work I am interested in doing − and Kabosh’s commitment to confronting head-on issues of social and political importance − it is also an incredible opportunity. I always say; if you can’t imagine a provocative artistic response to history, space and community in Belfast where else could you do it? There are a number of stories still to be told, misconceptions that need to be grappled with, sensitive issues that the media and politicians can’t or won’t address, contested spaces and narratives to share.

I am acutely aware of the responsibility of the artist. There is a time to tell a story. A time to challenge. A time to simply give a voice.

You say the advantage of your work is that it appeals to those who don’t tend to engage with theatre. Can you tell us more about who Kabosh has been able to reach out to and with what effect?

The audience demographic for every project is different. A lot of our cultural tourism work appeals to locals who want to see how we animate their space or people taking friends or family home for a trip to show off their city, as well as visitors.

For example, when we staged ‘Belfast by Moonlight’in St George’s Church, we engaged with the caretakers, religious leaders, committee members, and their musical director. We ensured the entire company had a respect for the space and its users. We allowed the staff to sneak into final rehearsals, and they became ambassadors for the project over time. On the opening night their pride was palpable, they owned the production.

Our community engagement project for ‘Belfast by Moonlight’ was on the Shankill Road, a protestant working-class community. We worked with a local history group and curated an oral archive of local stories. We then commissioned a playwright to create four short plays which explored the history of the area and staged them as part of a walking tour delivered by locals. Both the participants and the audience for the live performances had limited engagement with theatre, many also had limited knowledge of their area. The creation of an app will allow audiences who don’t know this street to experience its history through fact and fiction. Giving someone safe access to another’s story and space challenges pre-conceived ideas and promotes acceptance.

The AHRC’s Care for the Future Theme has a strong interest in the ways that archives can be seen as a resource for the present and a source of inspiration for the future. Can you share with us an example of how Kabosh has used an archive as stimuli?

In 2007 we were approached by a member of the Belfast Jewish community and asked if we could engage them in an arts project. They were an aging community very much in decline and wanted to find a way of archiving their story. At their height in Belfast in the early 1900’s they numbered approximately 1,000 people. Now, in 2014, there are less than 45. I was interested in looking at the idea of ‘what would we miss when the Jewish community was gone’. I was brought to see their synagogue in north Belfast and at that moment I decided to stage a play there. I knew the curiosity around the space would ensure many traditional non-theatregoers would attend the performance and so engage with the narrative of an ‘other’.

The Kabosh Creative Producer at the time, Jo Egan, interviewed 45 members of the Jewish community — 30 still living here and 15 who had left Northern Ireland. The archive was then sent to Gavin Kostick, a respected Dublin-based playwright, who we then commissioned to write ‘This Is What We Sang’.

The play was set on Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness. The composer Neil Martin took traditional music from the Yom Kippur service and reimagined it for a traditional Irish unaccompanied singer. We staged it in Belfast in 2009, then in 2010 we took it to the Synagogue for the Arts in New York City and won ‘Best Production’ at the 1st Irish Festival.

Many things came up in the oral archive that shattered local myths — particularly that the decline in the Belfast community was a result of the conflict. There were many reasons for the emigration including a lack of opportunities in the sectors like medicine. They witnessed the sectarianism prevalent in Northern Ireland, as well as experiencing anti-Semitism themselves.

What is important to me is when you take an archive and then fictionalise it then you challenge both the storyteller and the listener. You can ask difficult questions as the story is fictional, but because the story is based on a truth, audiences cannot dismiss it.

You live in a society in which commemoration and historical anniversaries are very important – and sometimes the trigger for sectarian violence. People can take very different views of whether something should be commemorated, the spirit in which it is commemorated, and even what is being commemorated. Do you think there really is scope for commemoration to play a part in healing and reconciliation?

We take inspiration from the idea of commemoration, marking moments in our past, exploring the power of theatre to humanise the past and hold a different lens up to what we think we know. We need to see what unites us, what separates us, ask the difficult questions, not be reverential, and give voice to universal emotions such as grief, loss and triumph.

I do find the word commemoration difficult however, as it lends itself to celebration, which is not always the emotion that I associate with the event. So I tend to consider our vision as providing a moment of reflection through animating the individual and personal stories within the event, trying to give voice to the commonality, seeking to maximise engagement with the historical moment. We often feel that we have ownership over different moments in history and commemoration can fuel division as opposed to facilitating a shared truth or at the very least a shared acknowledgement.

Let me give an example. The 31st August 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire – six weeks later there was a loyalist ceasefire. Both were short-lived but it was the beginning of change. I felt it was important to reflect on how far we have come, particularly given the current fragility of our ‘peace’. However, the 1994 ceasefires are not considered a turning point by all: it is a contested historical moment. I felt a play was not the suitable means of expression as we do not have a shared narrative, but that we needed a moment of reflection.

Kabosh commissioned a 20 minute orchestrated score to be performed by 20 musicians at Belfast City Hall. We developed a website for people to comment on the music, on the ceasefire and on where we are at now, 20 years later. The music is also the soundscape for an installation in the Victoria Square Shopping Centre viewing gallery as part of the Belfast Festival. This viewing gallery is the only city-centre spot where anyone can see the whole city for free, but is also evocative because the shopping centre is a peace dividend — a business investment in regenerating our city. The artistic experience provides a link between the past, the present and the future.

You have just reached your twentieth anniversary as a theatre company. What’s next?

In 2015 Kabosh is reviving ‘Those you pass on the street’ by Laurence McKeown, an important, provocative play about dealing with the past. We will tour it to community centres for single-identity and cross-community groups that are exploring this sensitive issue.

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at the GPO in Dublin – two key moments that our divided society do not have agreement on. What links these two events? The working class being deployed as cannon fodder, the loss of endless young lives, the grief of endless mothers, the victor and loser, oppression and liberation. Kabosh plans to mount a series of pop-up plays telling personal stories as well as staging a dialogue between individuals from the same period who never conversed with the aim of exploring commonality.

2016 also marks 20 years since the closure of the last Magdalene Laundry (Mother and baby home) in Ireland and 50 years since their closure in England. Through looking at the history of the laundries in association with the National University of Galway (NUG), Moonfish (an Irish language theatre company) and a Czech company, Kabosh aims to explore this brutal system from our shared past.

I believe the role of the artist should humanise the silent voices, the individual players within these violent events from our past: giving voice to the revolutionaries, the reactionaries, those impacted by the choices of others in order to create a re-examining of events.

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