Blog: The Importance of Theatre in Promoting Equality in Today’s Society
By Megan O’Malley
Member of Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble
What role does theatre have in promoting equality in Ireland today? In my opinion it holds a great deal of importance. Maybe this is because I’m an Actor and have idealist notions of changing the world through my craft; or maybe it’s because storytelling is ingrained in us as a powerful tool of communication.
On my first day of actor training I was asked ‘is theatre to affect change or entertain?’ Now, already having these notions about changing the world I immediately thought, affect change! But it then dawned on me that at 18 years old the sole purpose of any of my theatre trips to date (outside of mandatory school trips) was for entertainment. So here I sat, baffled on my first day; how can theatre change the world if I’m only going to be entertained? I quickly copped on and realised good theatre was doing both, so well in fact it was making me question the world I lived in and had me thinking it was my idea to do so.
In a country where ‘sure, it’ll be grand’ is our motto, theatre is, in my opinion, the best and most effective way of highlighting important issues. Why, I hear you ask? Firstly, because the majority of the audience have spent their hard-earned money on the tickets, there’s a good chance they want to be there, so they will be open to investing in the story. Secondly there is an immediate and intimate connection between the audience and the performers that is unlike any other art form. It is this connection, along with the actor’s ability to play the truth of their character, that forms bonds between us and allows us to empathise with, understand or even hate the characters on stage. Once we begin to form these options you have us, we’re invested.
To further explain how this is an effective communicative tool I’m going to talk about the current production I’m involved in: Flaming Inspirations by Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble.
We have devised a show highlighting gender equality with the question ‘how far would you go for what you believe?’ To do this we used Brecht’s Antigone as our foundation. Antigone was willing to face death in order to give her brother a ‘proper’ burial. Her life was not as valuable to her as her morals and this is how we got our question. We then looked to Irelands past, present and future, to form our stories for this production. We remain mindful not to commend or condemn the actions of our characters, thus allowing the audience to form their own options. We aim to create a discussion about the lengths people have gone to for what they believe are their rights, and the lengths people are going to now, and how they compare.
Theatre is a reflection of society. Without directly asking the audience, the action of a play can have you wonder ‘what would I do if that were me?’ It is through this questioning of ourselves and our world that we may seek to change it. Looking at a question raised in Antigone: if a member of your family died and you were told you could not bury them would you accept that or would you fight it? Let’s take a real life Irish example: say you are Catholic and an infant was born in your family but died before they was baptised. You go to plan the funeral and are told you cannot bury them in the local graveyard because it is consecrated ground. This is a reality many Catholic Irish families have had to face.
If I’m walking along the street and someone stops me to tell me about the tragedies taking place in the world and for the price of a cup of coffee I can help change this – I’m a) not listening because I’m trying to come up with an excuse to leave and b) convinced this person and everyone else in the company is just getting paid with the money I give them.
If I sit down to eat my dinner and a Trócaire ad comes on – I’m going to switch it off because I want to eat my dinner without feeling guilty or having to acknowledge how privileged I actually am. And for the most part if a homeless person asks me for money, I like countless others before me, will give an apologetic smile and walk on.
In writing down these truths, I could beat myself up over appearing so heartless, or I can accept that these are actually socially acceptable responses in these situations and go about living life in my blissful ignorance. These are socially acceptable responses because someone is asking for my time, money, or even personal space, and I am choosing not to give it to them. This is where the magic of theatre comes back in. As I’ve said we’ve paid to be there, we’ve set an evening aside to go. By doing this we are asking to be engaged, we are choosing to listen, we want to be invested in the story you’re going to share. So if this story is about the marginalised, about bodily autonomy, war, starvation, homelessness, we are going to be more open to hearing it. We may even get to that place where we wonder ‘if that were me’, making us more likely to empathise and wish it weren’t a reality for anyone. We might even be inspired to fight for equality for others – but if we don’t know of the inequalities that others face, or we’re closed off from hearing them, we will remain ignorant.
In conclusion, theatre is an effective and important tool for promoting equality in today’s society because it is one of the only places we actively choose to listen to someone else’s story.
Megan O’Malley is currently a ‘Masters in Theatre Practice’ student in University College Dublin. Previous to this she graduated from the Gaiety School of Acting’s two-year full time course in 2015. While training she took on many roles, including: Runt in Disco Pigs, Ophelia in Hamlet, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and Mags in The Spinning Heart. Megan also played Melissa in The Full Moon Hotel by Philip Doherty. Since graduating she has played Queen Elizabeth in ‘Gráinne’, and has worked on several short films including ‘Rising’, ‘The Nest’, ‘Lilith’ etc . She also stared in Kerry Golds latest TV commercial and We Cut Corners music video ‘Of whatever’ by Stoneface Films. Megan was awarded the Gaiety Theatre Bursary, 2014. More recently recently Megan won the F.A.B. bursary award for Best Actress 16-21. Megan is also a passionate writer and was the first in the school’s history to premier her own work ‘MJ’ for the GSA graduation industry showcase. She also worked alongside Paul Meade for her Manifesto piece ‘The Mourning Seat’. From there Megan worked with Paul Meade over 2016 in developing her idea for ‘Home’, and was thrilled to present it as part of Smock Alley’s Scene and Heard festival for new work in 2017. Megan has since expanded ‘Home’ to a full length production and it will be premiering in The New Theatre in 2018.
Flaming Inspirations used Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation of Antigone as a catalyst to explore equality in Ireland’s past, present and future. This original multi-disciplinary performance incorporated theatre, spoken word, movement and film to explore feminism and gender equality and raised questions of how far have we gone and how far will we go for what we believe in. A collage of encounters took place with a focus on issues facing Irish women both past and present. Through abstract movement, original scenes, and poetry, the ensemble created characters ranging from the female hunger strikers of Armagh prison to women fighting for bodily autonomy in Ireland today. The piece aimed to open a discussion for the audience on where we are today in relation to equality and what are we doing to challenge this position. The performance was followed by a post-show discussion with members of Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble and guest professional artists.
Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble was made up of 15 young artists aged 18 to 23 who devised and created the piece. The performance was directed by Róisín McAtamney and premiered at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin on 27 October 2017 as part of the international project Women in an Equal Europe, and also featured in the Women in an Equal Europe International Creative Arts Symposium earlier the same day. The performance was supported by The Arts Council Young Ensemble Scheme.