Abbey’s Theatre of Change opens with the body politic

The three-day conference launches the theatre’s Waking the Nation programme

The opening day of the Abbey's Theatre of Change Symposium, the first event in its commemoration programme for 2016, took place on Thursday. Opening the theatre's Waking the Nation programme, the three-day plan of discussions and performances addressed "the changes facing Ireland in the very near future" and, in the words of Abbey director Fiach MacConghail, "the role of the artists and their activism in this time of change".

Such challenges and transformations took on various expressions, but feminism "was a recurring theme" said MacConghail, who was not the only speaker to quote feminist theorist Judith Butler. "Freedom does not come from me or from you," he quoted; "it happens between us or, indeed, among us. The claim of equality is not only spoken or written, but is made precisely when bodies appear together."

The body in Irish politics featured liberally. In an early panel titled The Body of the State, Irish artists described recent and forthcoming performances that responded to Irish history and contemporary politics in physical terms. Artists Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne discussed their forthcoming In the Shadow of the State, part of the Ireland 2016 programme, which explores statehood from the perspective of the female body: "industrial incarceration (the Magdalene laundries); obstetric violence (symphysiotomy without consent or admission of wrongdoing); the legality of marital rape (until 1990); reproductive injustices (too many horrors to name)."

Choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchuir also described his forthcoming dance piece The Casement Project, inspired by the biography of Roger Casement, the British establishment figure later hung for both his Irish nationalism and homosexuality. "Where bodies go is always political," Ó Conchuir concluded.

Waking the Feminists, a movement that began last year in protest of the Abbey’s male-dominated centenary programme, was represented in a panel called Wide Awake. Lian Bell, the set designer instrumental in beginning the movement, reported on the progress of WTF’s manifesto for equal representation of women and economic parity, and said of the Abbey’s commitment to gender equality, “We will hold them to that” while ensuring that across Irish theatre “change is systemic and long-term”.

Describing the ideological debates among women of the Rising, during a history of Cumann na mBan, Women’s Studies historian Dr Mary McAuliffe recalled the limited representation of women in Irish politics and the struggle to include feminism in the ideologies of a new Republic, and quipped, “I think these arguments are still being had today.”

A panel titled History is Only Tidy in Retrospect involved the stories of women who have travelled to the UK for abortions, where the playwright and documentarian Mark O'Halloran noted such high traffic that discounts are offered to Irish women in Liverpool clinic. While poet and playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi noted that "change cannot take its poetry from the past", instead taking the migrant experience as a metaphor for future journeys, Stacey Gregg authored a speech (delivered by actor Kathy Rose O'Brien) that wittily imagined a future of commercial genetic modification, with little ethical inhibition, eventually making men redundant. "One wonders how it must have felt to be witnessing a revolution that would change the course of humanity," she slyly noted.

It was easy to recall, then, the event's opening words from actor and storyteller Nuala Hayes, who pithily encapsulated the relationship between message and art: "Where ever you have a story you'll find the truth, hidden, under her cloak."

The symposium continues on Friday with speakers including author and critic Andrew O'Hagan on the ethics of storytelling and academics Emer O'Toole and Susan Cahill on "The Man Problem" and the movement to repeal the 8th Amendment. It concludes on Saturday when Richard Kearney and Sheila Gallagher present a multimedia response to on-the-ground stories of 1916.

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