Transformation of Irish Theatre by Migrants Explored in New Book

Alan Wai in Barabbas's production of Charlie O'Neill's 'Hurl' which premiered at the Galway Arts Festival in 2003. Photo by Ros Kavanagh
Jan 12 2015 Posted: 15:02 GMT

The transformative impact of inward migration on Irish theatre is documented in a newly published book Staging Intercultural Ireland: New Plays and Practitioner Perspectives.

The edited collection contains eight plays with critical introductions, and six interviews with migrant and Irish-born theatre artists who are producing work at the intersection of interculturalism and inward-migration in Ireland during the first decades of the 21st Century. The book is edited by Dr Charlotte McIvor, a Lecturer in Drama at NUI Galway, and Dr Matthew Spangler, an Associate Professor of Performance Studies at San José State University in California, and is published by Cork University Press. The book offers a contribution to transnational migration studies, as well as intercultural theatre research in a global context.

When inward migration numbers began to climb in the early and mid-1990s, Irish-born and migrant theatre artists started producing theatrical work that addressed these profound cultural and demographic shifts. Their performances have been produced at venues ranging from the Abbey Theatre, to mid-sized theatre companies, to community centres, and even refugee accommodation centres.

The plays in the book have been selected due to their critical impact within the field of Irish theatre and the various forms of cultural, political, and social conflict and accommodation they register. The plays in question include: Donal O’Kelly’s The Cambria (2005), which dramatises African–American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ journey to seek refuge in Ireland in 1845; Rosaleen McDonagh’s Rings (2012), a play about the widespread discrimination experienced by people with disabilities and members of the Traveller community in Ireland; Charlie O’Neill’s Hurl (2003), which depicts immigrants excelling in Ireland’s most iconic sport while grappling with their broader lack of acceptance; and Nicole McCartney’s Cave Dwellers (2002), a play that draws on Samuel Beckett in its portrayal of refugees waiting for someone to guide them.

Also featured are: Ursula Rani Sarma’s Orpheus Road (2003), which explores the challenges of growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the metaphor of cross-cultural romance; Bisi Adigun’s Once Upon a Time & Not So Long Ago (2006), which dramatizes the intercultural encounters of west Africans in Ireland; and Paul Meade’s Mushroom (2007), a play that is based on the experiences of undocumented migrants working in highly exploitative conditions.

The theatre artists and companies profiled in this book include Bairbre Ní Chaoimh formerly of Calypso Productions, John Scott of Irish Modern Dance Theatre, Declan Gorman and Declan Mallon of Upstate Theatre Project, Anna Wolf, Kasia Lech and John Currivan of Polish Theatre Ireland, actress Alicja Ayres, and José Miguel Jimenéz of the Company.

According to McIvor and Spangler: “ Ireland is unique in that it is one of a small group of nations to have such a close and powerfully charged relationship between the theatre and debates of national and cultural identity. The theatre in Ireland offers something of a looking-glass through which changing culture might be viewed, though as we have argued, the plays collected here do more than simply reflect an extra-theatrical reality; they are also themselves active agents of cultural change.”

It is especially fitting that the book has been written by faculty in NUI Galway, which is at the heart of the nation’s most diverse city, and the work is continuing. Dr Charlotte McIvor is already in the process of expanding this research with the support of an Irish Research Council starter grant which will allow her to finish her full-length monograph on the subject titled “Towards A New Interculturalism: Migration and Performance in Contemporary Ireland” (forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) as well as expand the research in other and more collaborative directions.

Dr Jason King, who has also extensively published in this area including a contribution to Staging Intercultural Ireland, is working with Dr McIvor as a postdoctoral researcher on the IRC project, “Interculturalism, Migration and Performance in Contemporary Ireland” and comes to NUI Galway directly from working with the Integration Centre. This project is based at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies.

Drs McIvor and King are also partnering with local schools, including Scoil Chroí Íosa- Presentation Primary School and Mercy Primary School, to develop drama workshops on interculturalism and diversity in Ireland today. They hope to extend this work into a long-term drama outreach program with community partners including schools among other constituencies.

According to Dr Charlotte McIvor: “I often encounter the perception that the end of the Celtic Tiger meant the end of migration and its impact on the future of Irish identity. However the 2011 census tells us that 17% of this nation is non-Irish born and you need to look no further than our schools - as we have - to see that this perception of mid-1990s migration trends not influencing our nation’s future is false. Our research responds to Ireland as it is now, and Ireland as it will keep evolving. We do so through looking to theatre as a mode of not only reflection, but intervention.”

Upcoming events associated with the IRC project include the “GUIDE (Galway University Integration through Drama and Education) Symposium" on 31 January 2015. The event is for educators and theatre practitioners working in the area of interculturalism, migration and integration, and has been made possible with support from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

In addition, an international symposium “Interculturalism and Performance Now: New Directions?” will take place from 10-11 April 2015 featuring leading scholars in theatre and performance studies from Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK and Turkey debating the issues at the heart of the project. Both events will be open to the public.


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