Ten things we learned at the Theatre of Change Symposium

Tackling malevolent cupcakes, mutant lesbians and “the man problem” at the Abbey

1.  We need to become more body conscious

If this year's Abbey symposium chooses too wide a theme to fully cohere, it is helpful to root discussions in physical terms. When the choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir speaks eloquently about dance, describing his forthcoming The Casement Project, he identifies a cultural "blind spot" about bodies. It chimes with other descriptions, in both the early Republic and the present, of bodies that had been repressed, concealed, interned or policed.

We are reminded of the women airbrushed out of the Rising (Mary McAuliffe's history of Cumann na mBan; Jaki Irvine's Days of Surrender), of a woman's place constitutionally designated in the home (Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne's forthcoming In the Shadow of the State), of Mark O'Halloran's assertion that the borderline between the State and the individual, when it comes to abortion, is inside a woman's body. "Where bodies go is always political," Ó Conchúir says.

2. Theatre is not just a commodity


A discussion between Oskar Eustis and the Abbey's director, Fiach Mac Conghail, crystallises the underlying theme of the symposium: the social and political importance of theatre. Eustis says that his "basic job" as director of New York's Public Theatre "is to revive the idea of theatre as a living exchange between human beings" rather than merely "a commodity".

His perspective as a programmer echoes the themes that artists such as Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne, the choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir, the writer Mark O'Halloran and the director Sarah Jane Scaife discuss as they present their work. But Eustis's description of the evolution of Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theatre's greatest initiative, from a democratic gesture "to the hottest ticket in town" is a pertinent reminder that even the noblest pursuits can be co-opted to a capitalist agenda.

3. “Wherever you have a story, you’ll find the truth, hidden under her cloak”

So says the storyteller Nuala Hayes, invoking a Middle Eastern parable. But the relationship is very easily frayed. "A writer's career begins when you realise there is no such thing as private property when it comes to stories," says the author Andrew O'Hagan in a riveting presentation about the ethics of storytelling, which discovers very few. Writers steal from life "to cut deeper, go further, sparing no one . . . in order to get it right". O'Hagan's writing is so delicious that you savour every sentence, almost missing the tang of machismo: the flinty vocation; the icy conscience.

Elsewhere the issue of who gets to tell which stories is more vexed. "Really, abortion should be none of my f***ing business," Mark O'Halloran, who is currently working on a documentary called Life, says apologetically. He uses the words of women who have told him their stories to highlight the difficult choices facing Irish women seeking abortions, and the trauma inflicted when they have to travel for the purpose. "My biggest task was to get out of the way," he adds. It's a little disingenuous: for telling such truths writes aren't just in the way; they are the way. They have to make a worthy cloak.

4. If you don’t think Ireland has a “man problem” you’re probably not part of the solution

Taking to the stage in white shirt and red braces – borrowed, presumably, from Gordon Gekko – the writer Emer O'Toole presents The Man Problem with her fellow academic Susan Cahill. Together they deliver a polemic, a performance of gender, a feminist critique and a personal testimony. Where O'Toole leads with "hard stats" – 5,000 Irish women travel for abortions each year, 84 per cent of Irish politicians are men, 71 per cent of women v 62 per cent of men support repealing the eighth amendment of the Constitution – Cahill introduces illustrative stories.

"That's just an anecdote," O'Toole mock mansplaines. "Keep it professional." This is a feint, of course. When Cahill eventually describes her own experience of seeking an abortion, the politics of sharing such stories becomes clear. The moderator Dearbhail McDonald has earlier condemned "our failure to listen" to such experiences, something Nancy Harris's excellent play Journey to X also seeks to correct.

5. X marks the spot

The actor Eleanor Methven sneaks a subliminal message into her short presentation on behalf of Waking the Feminists, briefly waving a "Repeal the Eighth" campaign poster as she concludes a bleak personal synopsis of more than four decades of artistic activism. Nancy Harris's 2011 play, Journey to X, meanwhile, is given a rehearsed reading by teenage actors.

Harris subtly dramatises the vulnerability of contemporary teenagers, as a group of 15-year-olds make a trip to London with the dual purpose of auditioning for The X Factor and securing an abortion for one of them. Harris's play is an important one, targeted at an audience who deserve to see their lives reflected on stage, and there are several calls from a mature audience for a full production.

6. Cupcakes are malevolent

The performance artist and feminist activist Penny Arcade delivers a rousing anti-capitalist tirade that manages to tie together the ideas of the political theorist Hannah Arendt with a dozen pillowy candy-topped cupcakes.

Drawing from her experiences as a radical feminist growing up in 1960s New York, Arcade provides a potted social history of late-20th-century culture: the violence of the 1960s socialist revolution; the pacifism of the 1970s; the Yuppie gentrification of the 1980s, when “the decades started to repeat themselves”; the advent of the hipster artist in the 1990s; and the rise of armchair activism in the meaningless aughties.

This leads her to a diagnosis of the contemporary moment, when the cultural ubiquity of the cupcake reminds us of the bloated self-benevolence of contemporary life. “Cupcakes are malevolent,” she bawls. “This is the banality of evil.”

7. We are all mutant lesbians

In Genethics, Genomics and Geena Davies the playwright Stacey Gregg follows recent developments in gene therapy to their logical conclusion. Inspired by Philip K Dick's dictum "If you think this world is bad, you should see the others," Gregg imagines a future in which data-sharing, the monetisation of fertility, germ-line engineering, and gene selection render sperm obsolete, resulting in a world run by "mutant lesbian social warriors".

Delivered with deadpan sincerity by a black-clad, bespectacled Kathy Rose O'Brien, the lecture only slowly reveals its satirical edge – but then embraces the ridiculous in its finale, a riotous montage of Patrick Swayze film clips. Feminism is the overarching theme of the symposium, and Gregg's futuristic fable is a stirring reminder of the dangers of cultural consensus. "We are all mutant lesbians now, LOL," the perennial presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweets as Gregg sums up from the vantage point of 2054.

8. You can’t afford to be a casual feminist

It isn't unusual to hear a speaker hesitate when announcing the name of the Abbey's 1916 commemoration programme, Waking the Nation; the movement born to protest it, Waking the Feminists, seems to trip off the tongue more readily. Actually, the symposium absorbs much of its discussion. Fiach Mac Conghail is not the only person to quote the feminist theorist Judith Butler.

Speaking on a WTF panel, the once “casual feminist” Loughlin Deegan checked his privilege, having got to the top of his profession before wondering “where all the women had gone”. Deegan says that we need not only more women in positions of influence in the industry but also more feminists. Could anyone apply? Urging men to collaborate with women when bringing abortion stories into the public realm, Emer O’Toole cautions the well-meaning casual feminist, “If your answer to this is, ‘Well, I’m as good a feminist as any woman,’ then you are not as good a feminist as any woman.”

9. Poppies belong to everybody

Prof Richard Kearney and Prof Sheila Gallagher consider the idea of "twinsome minds" in a performed lecture that blends academic analysis and live animation. Over 60 minutes they explore the dualities inspired by the unified ideals of nationalism through oral histories and written accounts of male and female revolutionaries in the early decades of the Free State.

Some of the most memorable images of the weekend come from the photographs of "irreconcilables" – such as the assassinated Winnie Barrington, or the sisters Min and Mary Kate Ryan – overlaid by objects and documents pertaining to their histories. The visual underscoring is a stark reminder of the palimpsest of past and present, and a warning that the commemoration of 1916 should be not just about what happened but also about what did not happen, and what might have happened had the Free State's history not unfolded the way it did. The poppy and the Easter lily, Kearney argues, are the same thing: tokens by which we remember our dead, who are no longer able to take sides.

10. The Middle East will always be unfinished business

A substantial part of this year's symposium takes off where last year's, the Theatre of War, finished. In Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?, Ray Dolphin of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs returns with an update about the region's dire living conditions, isolated by Israel and Egypt, ravaged by war, and critically short of drinking water. Reports of "cultural resistance" against Israeli occupation, from the director Zoe Lafferty's experience with the Freedom Theatre in Palestine, or Taiseer Merei's Golan for Development, are laudably stoic but barely encouraging.

"How can people with values live in peace with this reality?" the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy asks of the country's "endless occupation", advising that international boycotting of Israel is "the only game in town". The Irish Times journalist Lara Marlowe concludes her history of France and the Middle East – from crusades through Algiers to jihadism in Paris – with the observation that containment "seems to be the path we're taking now with Islamic State". Meaningful change seems a distant prospect against intractable, unlivable stasis.