Etcetera Theatre Company

Connal Parr, board member of new organisation dedicated to giving voice to the loyalist working-class community in Northern Ireland, on why 'theatre is very important in a general cultural sense'

Image used with permission ©Travel Addicts - 2014

In the court of public opinion, loyalism in Northern Ireland could certainly be in better shape. Agree or disagree, but 28 months of increasingly sporadic protests and prolonged interface standoffs have not cast it in an especially favourable light. These occurrences, however, are far from representative.
 
In spite of the activities of a minority, organisations such as Etcetera Theatre Company are giving those from within loyalist and working-class Protestant areas opportunities to express themselves, and their politics, through the creative process. Launched in 2013, Etcetera possesses a fairly simple remit: to foster and give voice to the considerable artistic skills of a new generation in and around working-class Protestant communities. 
 
The genesis of the company emerged in the wake of Martin Lynch’s 2009 play, Chronicles of Long Kesh. Questioned by a number of loyalists about the way in which their side had been presented in the play, Lynch challenged them to take action by telling the stories in a manner of their choosing. Impressively, a number of them did just that. 
 
Etcetera would be founded, then, in north Belfast’s Mount Vernon estate by, amongst others, Billy Hutchinson, William Mitchell and dramatist Robert ‘Beano’ Niblock. All three men have well-publicised past associations with loyalist paramilitarism but each has embraced the positivity of dramatic creation. Indeed, Tartan, Niblock’s visceral depiction of protestant youth gangs in 1970s Belfast, staged a successful tour in 2014, performing at The MAC and Shankill Road’s Spectrum Centre.

Connal Parr of Hertford College, Oxford, serves on the board of Etcetera alongside Hutchinson and Mitchell. Parr, whose doctorate at Queen’s University focused on working-class Protestant politics and culture, has something of a pedigree in this area – his mother, Anne Devlin and uncle, Joe Devlin, are leading figures in Irish theatre; his grandfather, socialist stalwart Paddy Devlin, founded the SDLP. 

Parr seems well placed, therefore, to comment on the significance of the company’s ongoing efforts. That said, he is keen to draw an initial and necessary distinction when discussing the subject with others. ‘I’m someone who thinks it is vital to distinguish between the working class and loyalists,' adds Parr. 'These are very different things. Protestant working class can be labour, it can be Irish or it can be these things at the same time.’
 
Both groups are interlinked, obviously, but Parr is intent on describing one as separate from the other. ‘It’s wrong for people to mythologise that this is a Protestant working-class thing, just on its own.’
 
Comments made in October 2013 by DUP MLA William Humphrey will not have helped Etcetera’s cause. Humphrey's assertion that theatres offer nothing to working-class Protestants was hugely counter-productive, says Parr. ‘It shut down the debate.’ The statement was also wildly inaccurate, he contends, citing the notable likes of Gary Mitchell, Graham Reed and Marie Jones — also an Etcetera board member — as exemplary standard-bearers for the rich theatrical tradition born out of this segment of Northern Irish society.
 
In their capacity as Etcetera board members, Parr and Mitchell even carried this message to Stormont, submitting oral evidence to the Northern Ireland Assembly inquiry entitled Inclusion in the Arts of Working-class Communities. 
 
In spite of the excellence springing from within loyalist communities, however, it is widely acknowledged that sections of that populace have long exhibited an ambivalent attitude to artistic endeavours. This may constitute a reaction to the republican embrace of theatre and drama but, as Parr suggests, the antipathy to these things has now become an issue in itself.
 
‘It’s part of a broader thing about the arts. This is where it does go into a current Protestant working-class problem.’ As with everything else, the tension is one with historic roots: ‘What did the young males from such a background do?' asks Parr. 'They went into industry. They didn’t do the arts.’
 
In telling one’s own story, Parr believes that there are vital lessons to be learned from the other side of the divide. ‘The theatre is very important in a general cultural sense. I think what loyalists, in Etcetera and outside, can learn from something like [west Belfast arts festival] Féile an Phobail, and the republican movement, is the way in which culture and theatre can be some kind of displacement and some kind of a stage in which to put those energies.’ 
 
In Parr's view, the positive effects of directing efforts into other pursuits are there for all to see. ‘From the early 1990s, as the cultural events are going up, and republicans are writing plays and staging plays, the violence is gradually going down. I firmly believe this.’ As such, Etcetera will attempt to direct its constituency thus. ‘I think that the energies and antagonisms that people have can be expressed in art and culture. They are often a way to catch those things.’
 
Equally, there is no intention to ape what has gone before. In contrast to the disciplined uniformity of the messages delivered by writers from the Irish republican community, Parr points to the penchant for dissent within loyalist circles. ‘Gary Mitchell said that if you go into a Protestant street and throw out a question you’ll have ten different opinions.’ This forthrightness, he argues, makes for fine material. 
 
At a time when newspaper reports have cast young, working-class Protestant males as low achievers, Etcetera seeks to subvert stereotypes, to provide simple chances to those who want them. Specifically, Parr recalls being contacted by an aspiring actor from east Belfast. The young man simply wanted a shot and a quick exchange of e-mails with Parr and some colleagues secured him his goal: an audition. 
 
Other projects will follow, of course, but Niblock’s Tartan is a solid opening gambit. In the immediate future, scenes from The Man That Swallowed a Dictionary, the playwright’s newest piece about the late, greatly missed David Ervine — Hutchinson’s predecessor as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party — will be hosted by the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road, Belfast on March 4, 2015. Full information is available here
 
The event is being organised by the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities at Queen’s University, and will also feature a lecture by Parr on the Protestant working class, Ervine and labour politics in east Belfast. Much goodwill exists to maintain the forward momentum. ‘If we can prevent one kid from getting in trouble,’ Parr concludes, ‘we’re doing our job.’ 

The image leading this article originally appeared at www.traveladdicts.net/2014/03/belfast-murals.html