Critics’ Choice, Theatre by Sara Keating
SoloSIRENS: Baggage/Falling, Civic Theatre, Tallaght, until Dec 14
SoloSIRENs is a new festival at the Civic Theatre, dedicated to showcasing the work of women theatre artists, like Jenny Macdonald and Jacinta Sheerin, who are writing and performing their own plays. Sheerin is currently touring schools across the country with her show Sweet About Me, which looks at the relationship between food and anxiety in young women. Putting its money where its mouth is, the festival has been curated and staffed entirely by a female team, highlighting themes of abuse and addiction, and the patriarchal structures of oppression that make themselves felt in both the private and public spheres for women of all backgrounds. Baggage by Nicole Rourke offers one perspective. A “coming of rage” story, it charts the journey of a middle-aged women, who leaves her settled life in rural Ireland to sashay around South America, where she discovers the sensuality through dance. Performed by O’Rourke under the direction of Deirdre Molloy, Baggage has a final performance today.
The SoloSIRENs festival comes to a conclusion in later in December, culminating in a collaborative community engaged theatre project that engages with women living in the communities of South Dublin County, encouraging them to tell their stories. The resulting performance piece is called Falling, an intercultural intergenerational exploration of local women’s lives, collaboratively authored by the SoloSIRENs Collective. You can see it at the Civic Theatre’s studio space of December 13th and 14th.
Emer Tyrrell, THEATRE EDITOR
How SoloSIRENS is Giving Women a Voice On Stage
The onset of winter can often facilitate a widely excused trend towards the hyper-commercialisation of theatre in city centre venues. The impactful lyrics of John B Keane and Louise O’Neill give way to the Gaiety Panto and the plush Bord Gais attracts crowds that the innovation of the Project Arts Centre could only dream of. “But sure, it’s Christmas!”, they’ll tell you.
Just outside the city however, in the Civic Theatre Tallaght, a pioneering collective of female artists known as SoloSIRENS is refusing to acquiesce to the norms of capitalism. From the centre of the festival, which runs from November 1st until December 14th, director Jenny MacDonald is thoughtful – and excited – about its base in Tallaght.
MacDonald is no stranger to the area, having worked with the Civic and Tallaght Community Arts for many years following an apprenticeship with Tony Fegan, director of the latter, when based in London. And, for a Canadian-born creative, Tallaght is a home away from home due to its “scale, architecture and [she’s told] the highest immigration level of anywhere in Ireland”. She explains her love for Tallaght: “It’s got this really exciting dynamic, diversity and there’s that immigration zest and go-getter kind of feeling.” An advocate for inclusivity and equal representation in her own right, MacDonald places immense creative value on Tallaght. “It felt like the place I had the most possibilities to bring the most different people together.”
The seeds of SoloSIRENS were planted in her mind when a New York journalist included her solo work Enthroned in an article recognising female artists performing their own work. The piece was also entitled “Solosirens”. MacDonald says that this article really got her thinking about female collaboration. Meanwhile, MacDonald was also leading an Active Audience programme with Liz Roche Company and a storytelling project called Where In This World? locally, both of which boasted “a lot of really strong women”. Macdonald says that all signs were pointing in the same direction: “While having this idea of creating a festival of solo female work, I was also meeting these amazing women in the Tallaght community and thinking it would be great to have a programme where they could engage with artists in the festival while also creating their own work.”
Within these various community engagement projects, MacDonald sees herself “more like a detective than a director”. “Who are these people?”, she continually asks herself, “and how can I let who they are be visible to more people than just them?”. As a director, MacDonald values this authenticity above what she calls “fixing people up … because that’s what we’re doing in society all the time. We’re brushing our hair, posing for Instagram – we’re fixing people up”.
With this approach in mind, MacDonald proposed this group of “powerhouse women” for the Abbey Theatre’s “5×5” programme. Securing this was a pivotal milestone in the collective’s evolution – and not only because it gave a distinct group the time, space and impetus to make work. It also counteracted the “history of marginalisation” affecting Tallaght-based artists. Although coming late to the realisation as an outsider, MacDonald acknowledges that “people have views of what [Tallaght] is, and as Jennifer Webster [a SoloSIRENS producer and Tallaght native] always says, ‘we also hold ourselves back’”. Thus, the support of the national theatre massively amplified the group’s confidence.
Martha Knight, a Trinity student an an assistant producer with SoloSIRENS, also recalls “a really lovely, supportive energy in the room” during the week, “partly because it was an all-female project”. As director, MacDonald pushed for a female-only team, and while members of the collective questioned this gender exclusivity at first, it had a widely felt, unforeseen impact on “how safe we felt among each other and how deep the work went really quickly”.
MacDonald was astonished to experience a newfound ease whilst directing the project, simply because she wasn’t “being watched”. Struggling to articulate this “watched” sensation, she discusses working predominantly “for men”, as “they run the festivals and venues to a large degree”. She articulates this feeling: “I know what I’m doing, but someone’s watching. And because we’re in a patriarchy that if I don’t get it really right, that’s gonna be a problem.” She explains: “It’s limiting, stressful and uncreative.” During the Abbey’s 5×5 week, however, MacDonald says that she “could feel [herself] taking up more space and just totally trusting [her] process”. She recalls this amazing sense of self-assurance: “I remember thinking: ‘I know what I’m doing and I’m just going to do it.’ I wonder if that’s what men feel like all the time?”
MacDonald notes the gender imbalance she’s noticing in the post-show discussions that follow each Friday night performance of the festival. The opening question, following her performance of Enthroned on November 2nd, was: “What does this work make you consider about women in society today?” It was met with a tentative silence before three consecutive male voices spoke, albeit respectfully, she recalls. Drawing a comparison between this and boardroom dynamics, she sighs: “I think there’s reasons why men are more comfortable responding in these formats. We’ve just rehearsed the patriarchy for so long, it’s like rehearsing the same play for a year – it becomes hard to come onstage and say something else.”
For this reason, SoloSIRENS, in collaboration with Trinity PhD student Claire Keogh, who is mapping the dialogue of the festival, are finding new ways to attain audience feedback and generate discourse, such as notes in jars, reflective surveys, journaling and video footage, while also “rehearsing how to speak as a collective” and constantly revising the structure of discussions. This collected data will be revised and presented in an open seminar held by SoloSIRENS in the Civic in the new year. MacDonald also aspires, with Keogh, to formally publish the festival’s scripts and findings for public engagement. Sharing this knowledge is imperative to MacDonald, who hopes to witness a broadening of perceptions, the growth of safe, open discussion spaces and more women being programmed in theatre in general.
For both Knight and MacDonald, the atmosphere of support really shines through in the festival’s conclusory performance, Falling, devised during the Abbey 5×5 week . “Falling is a microcosm of the whole festival”, MacDonald explains. “We want to explore more ethical, caring ways of making art and get beyond this ‘you have to be as ruthless as possible to make it good’, which I think is a myth of patriarchal capitalism. I don’t think it serves anybody.” Speaking about the group’s creative process, MacDonald says that “love and care really have to be stood up for in this world. They’ve been deemed to be these ‘soft’ qualities but they’re actually the strongest, the bravest”.
SoloSIRENS’s festival runs in the Civic Theatre Tallaght until December 14th, with performances of Baggage on November 29th and 30th and Falling on December 13th and 14th. Tickets are €14 or €12 for concessions.
by Brian Sheridan
Theatre - Time for a Break, A Review of Sweet About Me
Sweet About Me by Jacinta Sheerin is the second installment in the four part series that makes up the Solo SIRENS Festival which is being held at the The Civic Theatre in Tallaght by the Solo SIRENS Collective. The Festival was created and is directed by Jenny Macdonald and produced by Jennifer Webster.
The festival is described as ‘an opportunity for audiences, theatre makers an a community collective to explore what it means to be a woman today’. Sweet About Me which was written and performed by Jacinta Sheerin examines addiction and the struggle to overcome addictions: drugs, alcohol or food. The play, though fictional, is loosely based on personal experience of eating disorder and the struggles that have to be faced in order to overcome such an addiction.
The play focuses on the struggles faced by Bernie. Bernie is 18 and struggling with an eating disorder who must now come to terms with her addiction. The play spans the four weeks which she spends in an addiction centre and the people she meets there including Leslie, Alan and Joyce (fellow residents) and Helen and Reuben who run the group and one to one therapy session which all the residents must take part in.
What is remarkable in the first instance is that this is a one woman show. Jacinta plays all of the parts. In addition to those mentioned already, she also plays Bernie’s parents, Joyce’s daughter and the father of Leslie’s children. This would be an achievement in itself. But, what makes this more than simply remarkable is that Jacinta managed to transform herself almost instantly from one character into another with such skill and fluidity that the audience could imagine that there was more than one person on the stage.
The main way that this is achieved is through voice and accent. Each character has a rather distinctive accent and vocabulary. But, in addition each character has other idiosyncrasies. Before we hear a word we always know what character is about to speak. On it’s own this amazing performance would make the play worth seeing.
However, this is only one, albeit convincing reason, to see this play. The story that unfolds is also engaging. At times it is very funny (Leslie is the star in this respect with Rueben and Alan also hilarious at times), at times it is brutally honest (Joyce’s daughter and Bernie’s inner voice/ alter ego and indeed Bernie herself) and at times it is heart breaking (Leslie describing her first score and the ensuing events is delivered with such a dead pan matter of factness that it almost takes a few moments for the true horror of her experience to register.
Although, the play focuses very much on a cast of characters who are at very low points in their lives, the abiding feeling by the end of the play is one of hope. There is a sense that each of these characters and especially the two main female characters have the ability to overcome the obstacles that have been placed in their way and indeed the situations that have held them back. While hope is the abiding feeling, there is a fear that the biggest obstacle that they will have to overcome is their own community and the very structure of society. But, by the end of the play we do feel that they will make it.
What really struck me as I was thinking about the play both on the night and afterward is that I could almost swear that there had been multiple actors on the stage. This is surely testament to the amazing performance both in terms of writing and in terms of delivery of Jacinta Sheerin. This is not an easy play to watch at times. It challenges the audience to really look at some of the issues that impact women in Ireland today but there is something hugely important in bringing this to the stage and I hope that lots of people will make sure to see this exceptional production.
by Barry Arnold
SoloSIRENs festival sees talented female artists curate, write and perform shows in Dublin
An exciting new festival will see women theatre artists write and perform their own work in Dublin. SoloSIRENs is a festival curated, directed and staffed entirely by a female team, providing a platform for women to collectively share and express the challenges they face in the arts and in society.
The festival will feature plays by Jenny Macdonald, Jacinta Sheeran, Nicole Rourke and the SoloSIRENs Collective, and will run at The Civic, Tallaght from November 1 to December 14.
SoloSIRENs Festival is created and directed by Jenny MacDonald, and produced by Jennifer Webster.
‘Exploring themes of abuse and addiction, the patriarchal voices that haunt us
from without and within, and how we rebuild ourselves when things fall apart,’ a statement said.
‘At the heart of SoloSIRENs is the ambition to create a unique engagement between women artists and women living in the communities of South Dublin County. Our collective will share and present stories that are rarely told. Tallaght is one of the largest suburbs in Dublin and is home to a dynamic community and vibrant cultural life .The SoloSIRENs Collective will share a multiplicity of narrative and voices, showcasing the richness of their diversity. We are creating a space for debate, dialogue and reflection about how women’s voices are presented, or excluded within artistic institutions and our wider society.’