Exploring the Female Voice – Cessair at The Civic showcases diversity by Madeleine Mueller
Cessair, the Civic Theatre’s most recent exhibition, opened with a song. The music guides the audience through the story of a woman who set sail for Ireland with over 100 other women, though only 53 survived the journey.
Performances took place outside the theatre, with ropes marking the boundaries of the stage. Actors dressed in blue and black moved around the stage, passing around the role of Cessair. Only six spectators were present for each showing, though others were able to watch the performance from nearby steps. After each performance, spectators were led into the theatre itself for the socially-distanced audio exhibition.
Every person sat in front of their own speaker and listened to a different story.
The exhibition, which showcased 50 different female voices, was inspired by the souls lost during Cessair’s journey.
“You hear yourself and everyone you know in the stories,” said director Jenny Macdonald. “I hope people feel really inspired by their personal and collective power.”
Cessair was created by Macdonald’s SoloSIRENs collective, a group all about uplifting women and amplifying their voices.
“There’s more to storytelling and teaching and learning from each other than the male gaze,” said SoloSIRENs member Neltah Chadamoyo. “I hope people walk away with the knowledge that Cessair is in all of us – in the land we live in, the land we breathe.”
Much of the workshopping of Cessair took place online with Zoom and the group was only able to meet in person a short while before the premiere of the exhibition.
“It’s really astounding how much we did on Zoom,” said performer Aoife Dempsey, “people got really creative about how we did it.”
Even though the performers weren’t able to see each other in person, the online workshops for Cessair tied the women together and gave them a creative outlet.
“Having this through the pandemic has been really important,” said Dempsey.
Cessair became more of a global project than originally intended due to the rise of online communication platforms during the pandemic.
“The siren call went all over the world,” said Chadamoyo.
The team collected stories from women on every continent to put in the audio exhibition.
“It’s been a year for the world to explore diversity and equality,” said Chadamoyo.
Cessair was a long time in the making, and Macdonald and the rest of the SoloSIRENs team are looking forward to reflecting on their work and celebrating the project.
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.’
“Enthroned” – a feminist fable full of chthonic darkness and “Grimm” truths. Jenny Macdonald, a Canadian born Irish dweller, brings her brand of archival, documentary style, physical theatre to the East Village.
Her autobiographical story has been imagined as the search by a princess to find and ascend her rightful queenly throne. Born as the last sibling in a five pack, her childhood is one of an imaginative outsider growing furiously as a creeping vine along the outside of things and places. An irrepressible desire for learning and unearthing leads her along an alternative path, where she will find her tribe of like, living friends who will keep her buoyant through all of the necessary trials she must complete. The quest for self-acceptance does go right through the forbidden forest of carnal pleasure, where she loses a few slippers and kisses a few frogs. But throughout her journey, she is nagged by a shadowy countdown that pulls her back into snow secrets and slams her back to a paralyzing past moment.
Macdonald is an agile, comedic, raucous actress that drags you along like a racing leprechaun in search of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She is mischievous with a disco ball twinkle in her eyes. At times we hold our breaths as we descend into the darker parts where the women www.enthroned.info can sleep for a hundred years, or grow long-haired and forgotten in tall towers if they are to await saving from self-absorbed princes. Macdonald creates her own white horse to gallop her to her rightful place as a self-accepting powerful woman. She electrified the theatre with her massive energy and her wise words.
Joe Salvatore is the American director that Jenny Macdonald snared to tell her story with his particularly glorious theatrical style. This collaboration has proved to be a great synergy between transformative truth telling and theatricality. The piece is beautifully imagined, perfectly executed, and crafted with wit and joy. Salvatore has found a great way to craft moments that are chilling and dangerous, which are heightened even further by the “fairy tale” context where villains can be monstrous. The story metaphor allows us to go into some deep wells of sorrow, as well as into the bright sunshine of freedom and release.
Troy Hourie’s design elements are simply divine. A miniature memoir kingdom is created with music boxes and revealing cupboards. The props cleverly transform as their meaning changes or are endowed with character, and I just loved the detail of each and every well-made piece. He created a lush and lovely world for Macdonald to play and grow in.
It’s a personal memoir wrapped in ingrained fairy tale archetypes that can both capsize and elevate you to a happy ending…where you finally fall in love with yourself. I thought she had written it just for me. It’s intimate, honest, and in your face. We need more of these 21st Century feminist fairy tales, with their wicked sense of humor, sensuality, and “anthemic” verses of self realized female power.
Fresh off their 5 x 5 programme in the Abbey Theatre, SoloSIRENs are set for a homecoming in the The Civic Theatre later on this year. SoloSIRENs is a series of theatre productions and discussions that are made up of a diverse group of women who are all either established or emerging in the theatre industry.
An initiative of Tallaght Community Arts, the SoloSIRENs series will kick off on November 1 with Enthroned, a solo production by Jenny MacDonald. Jenny, the creator and director of SoloSIRENs, caught up with The Echo recently to bring us up to speed on how she got to this point in her career.
Where are you from?
I am from Toronto, Canada.
How did you get into theatre?
The first show I did was at my summer camp in northern Ontario. I was a cat called Samuel. In secondary school, I started going to a place called the Young People’s Theatre every Saturday. It was somewhere between what would be a Speech and Drama school and a Youth Theatre in Ireland. I was hooked from that point on. I was really lucky to have some great teachers and mentors along the way.
What has been your biggest accomplishment in theatre?
I am really proud of my solo show Enthroned. It is the most personal piece I have ever made and I had to slog through some tough material to make it. I also feel proud of the way that I work. A long time ago I decided I am not the kind of artist who believes that people should be sacrificed to make the work great. I try really hard to create a context of care and support in any project.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I feel really lucky to do the work that I do. I get to travel a lot, I meet fascinating people, and my work is all about human story and connection. I love foraging around in some of the deeper layers of our feelings and experiences and seeing if I can bring a few gems of insight to the surface to share.
What do you want people to know about you and your work?
I really believe that the theatre gives us a chance to rehearse the ways we want to live and then to present those possibilities. It’s an exciting time in theatre. People are changing their approaches to it a lot. More and more people from different walks of life can make and participate in theatre and say what they need to say. I hope I am part of that change.
How long have you been working in theatre?
Working is a hard thing to define in the theatre. I guess if you mean “earning my living” that started about sixteen years ago. But if we are talking about working in theatre as in creating work for public presentation, that would be more like 25 years ago.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
There is a lot of uncertainty. I suppose there is in all of life, but in theatre the rate of change is fast and furious. You don’t always know when or where the next gig is or when or if you’ll have steady pay. Having said that, those challenges also keep it very alive. It’s kind of easy to live in the present in this work. We don’t get much choice!
What have you been up to recently?
In June I did a week of development with an amazing collective of women as part of the Abbey Theatre’s 5 x 5 programme. It was really exciting to work with an all-female ensemble and crew and to have the support of a national institution. We created a work in progress on the Peacock Stage. We will be developing it to present at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght in December as part of SoloSIRENs.
Do you have any big projects coming up?
I am very excited about my upcoming programme at the Civic Theatre. SoloSIRENs is a series of works by women running November and December of 2019. The first three pieces are solo shows. I will present my own work alongside the work of two artists I hugely admire: Nicole Rourke and Jacinta Sheerin. The series will culminate in a work by the women’s collective who did the Abbey Theatre 5 x 5 week. I want to create a space where we can investigate together and with our audiences what it means to be a woman today. I am really grateful to Tallaght Community Arts and the Civic Theatre for programming the work.
SoloSIRENS will be at the Civic Theatre from Friday, Nov 1 to Saturday, Dec 14. The production starts with ‘Enthroned’ by MacDonald and runs every two weeks.
The following shows are ‘Sweet About Me’ by Jacinta Sheerin, ‘Baggage’ by Nicole Rourke and ‘Falling’ by MacDonald and the SoloSIRENs collective.