Rosaleen McDonagh: A woman who broke the mould of our paralysing lack of ambition for disabled people
‘Mainstream’ includes actors who have at various times been ignored and marginalised because of disability and ethnicity
Former president Mary McAleese with Community Award and Overall Traveller Pride Award Winner Rosaleen McDonagh from Dublin at the 2010 2nd annual Traveller Pride Awards. Photograph: Alan Betson
Recently, during a live recording of The Irish Times Women’s Podcast, I spoke about the playwright and activist Rosaleen McDonagh, who is a friend and colleague. Broadly speaking, the brief for the evening, a live event in association with the Herstory movement staged on Culture Night, was to talk about women working in a similar field to one’s own who had struggled to have their voices heard.
I battled with the responsibility, however brief, of talking about Irish women playwrights, both in an historic and a contemporary context, who have fought (and clearly not always won) to have their work produced. The cacophony of creative voices out there with the sound turned down can feel a little overwhelming sometimes.
When I was trying to figure out what my contribution to the night might be, I thought about Rosaleen and something she said to me a number of years ago. She and I go back a long way: we met in the late 1970s when she was living in a residential setting that I was involved with as a volunteer. We were young. I had a couple of cheesecloth shirts, an idealistic boyfriend, a shedload of insecurities and little or no idea of the realities of institutional life. Rosaleen was a little girl in a wheelchair, a Traveller, separated for long periods from her family. I doubt that either of us could have suspected our futures would intertwine, let alone that we would both end up writing for theatre.
Whatever about my own potential, buried under a couple of ill-advised perms and a haphazard education, expectations at that time for for people in such institutions were pitifully low.
Low is too polite a word, though. One could go further and say that, socially and culturally, there existed a paralysing and generalised lack of ambition for disabled people. (As the recently deceased Martin Naughton, a lifelong campaigner for the rights of the the disabled, put it, a disabled person was “more someone to be cared for than cared about”.)
Rosaleen was one of those who broke the mould, shattered expectations.
Anyway, a few years back, the composer Ellen Cranitch and I wrote an adaptation of Racine’s Phaedra for Rough Magic theatre company. After one performance, at a public discussion of the piece, Rosaleen and I had a conversation.
“Don’t forget me when you’re rich and famous,” she joked.
There was nothing plaintive in her appeal; she was being pragmatic. Women in the arts share, I’ve come to believe, a collective responsibility. Whether we like it or not, there is a need to be vigilant about how the narrative of our times unfolds. Women’s under-representation in the arts (or any field of endeavour, for that matter) will impact on all our futures. It is a generational issue; what and whose stories survive matter profoundly.
At the time Rosaleen and I had that conversation, Waking the Feminists, a dynamic collective that burst into life in 2015 in response to the Abbey Theatre’s 1916 programme (which laughably included just one play by a woman) had yet to happen. Now going strong, it is a brilliant initiative, but the issue of whose voices are heard and witnessed goes beyond gender.
Mainstream is a co-production between Fishamble theatre company and Project Arts Centre as part of Project 50, and is Rosaleen’s first new play to be produced for a decade.
When I visited the rehearsal room recently, the cast and production team were at the end of their first week of unpacking and examining the piece. I really like rehearsal rooms, and it was a privilege to be allowed to interlope on the space, to breathe in that atmosphere of intimacy and commitment when something created in isolation meets the collective and the work starts to peel itself off the page .
Mainstream is atypical of the kind of work we usually see in Irish theatre. The cast, which includes actors who have at various times been ignored and marginalised because of disability and ethnicity, are working with a complex script. It is a love story, a story of friendship, of loss and of sexual betrayal, asking difficult questions about cultural identity, about inclusion and assimilation, about the concept of mainstreaming. It poses questions that rattle perceptions.
There’s a line in the play when a woman doused in experience says to her younger counterpart: “In any culture, a woman’s mistakes are rarely forgiven.”
In our own culture, voices such as Rosaleen’s are rarely heard. It is our loss.
Mainstream, by Rosaleen McDonagh, runs from November 16th to 26th at Project Arts Centre, Dublin