East Belfast Arts Festival Welcomes Smashing Times

The Dublin-based theatre company set up shop at the East Belfast Arts Festival

It started over 20 years ago when four women – graduates of Dublin’s actor-based Focus Theatre – began taking buses out of the city to peripheral locations such as Ballymun and Tallaght.

‘They were interested in bringing theatre to communities that usually didn’t experience it,’ explains Freda Manweiler, manager of Smashing Times Theatre Company, the ensemble that developed from the pioneering efforts of those founding actresses.

The tactic of taking theatre to the people was much less firmly established in the Ireland of two decades ago than it is nowadays, when virtually every application to funding organisations has a panoply of access, outreach and educational boxes that automatically need ticking.

‘What we developed,’ adds Manweiler, ‘was a technique of our own, which is a combination of workshop and performance. Workshop being with community members, and then using professional performance to engage people in discussion on the issues we’re presenting. These usually have some kind of political connection, where there’d be a need to discuss what people have seen after the show.’

It’s a recipe that has paid dividends for the company from the beginning. ‘The audiences were really receptive,’ Manweiler comments. ‘And what the audiences came to the actors to say is, “We want to do that. How can we get involved? How can we perform our own stories?”. So we sent out facilitators to animate local communities to tell their own stories, and put up their own experiences using theatre to express it.’

And Manweiler is in no doubt that the modalities of theatrical performance can play a special part in loosening the hardened knots of memory, and helping to articulate the thoughts and feelings of individuals and their communities.

‘Because you experience through the performance what you’re actually telling, there’s an emotional engagement, both for the performers and for the audience. And I think people respond to that. We have been successful, and we’re expanding at a period when other companies are retracting. But it has to be entertaining as well, or people won’t come.’

Smashing Times is about to bring its particular brand of proactive, community-based theatre north, for two events at this year’s East Belfast Arts Festival. The first, Thou Shalt Not Kill, a new piece written by Belfast actor and writer Paul Kennedy, is a free event at BMC Tower Street Campus on Thursday, August 29. 

The second is a Storytelling Workshop at the East Belfast Network Centre from 10.30am to 5pm using drama and music, run in association with the Corrymeela Community, CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet), and the University of Ulster INCORE International Conflict Research Institute.

‘We do have experience of working in east Belfast, with a women’s group in Ballybeen, promoting anti-racism and anti-sectarianism,’ says Manweiler. ‘But this is the first time we’re bringing in professional theatre performance to east Belfast.’

Manweiler’s experience of the east Belfast audiences the company has so far worked with is that they are not, as the saying goes, backward in coming forward. ‘I would say that maybe rural border counties in the south will tend to be a lot more silent about issues. Culturally within some of the southern border counties the issue of silence is very big.’

The need to air concerns and forcefully express cultural identity in urban areas such as east Belfast is, by contrast, ‘very prominent’, as Manweiler puts it. ‘Finding ways of expressing that culture within the whole Northern Ireland context is, of course, contentious,’ she acknowledges. ‘But they would be the issues that people will want to talk about, and the people from east Belfast will generally be more forthcoming.’

The choice of raw material used to prompt audience discussion in the interactive participation forums the Smashing Times company specialises in is naturally crucial. In the case of Thou Shalt Not Kill, the script is specially sensitive, and had to be scrupulously researched before the process of writing began in earnest.

‘It’s a piece that looks at people’s experiences of living through the conflict in Northern Ireland,' says Manweiler. 'There are two stories, one about a man who is from a Republican paramilitary group, who goes on the run to the southern border counties. He’s reflecting on what he’s done, and finding a path to peace.

‘The other story is looking at a woman from the Protestant loyalist community, who has fallen in love with somebody from the wrong side. It’s about how she negotiates that with her own community. And there’s also a linking piece, which asks do our experiences change the way we interpret the world, and what we look for out of the future.’

Manweiler is at pains to emphasise that Smashing Times, in presenting such obviously controversial material, is in no way aiming to control its audience’s responses, or nudge their reactions in any particular direction.

‘As a company we don’t have any agenda in terms of taking sides,’ she argues. ‘It’s simply using the creative medium as a platform for people to have discussions. So we’re not saying, “This is how it is”. We’re just saying, “These are stories we have gathered”. There are many more stories out there we’re continuing to gather through the project.’

The ‘project’ Manweiler refers to is The Memory Project, whose aim is ‘to deal with the past and build pathways for the future and to promote peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland and the Southern Border Counties'. A documentary about the entire process is currently being made at various workshops and performances, and will include footage from the two events at the East Belfast Arts Festival.

While that will undoubtedly bring the company’s activities to the notice of a broader public, face-to-face engagement with ordinary members of local communities will remain its key priority, and is the biggest single factor motivating Manweiler and those who work with her.

‘It can be cathartic,’ she admits. ‘It can maybe open up a discussion people have never had before. Since the ceasefire there are dominant stories, but things also happened to loads of average people, and they’re the kind of stories we’re trying to get out.

‘That’s the kind of feedback we would get – people saying, “Those kind of things happened in our community, but people never talked about that before. And now I talk to my children about it".

‘Whenever I’m in a workshop I just feel so privileged to actually hear people’s experiences, and to provide people with that format to talk. Initially, when people come into a room, they say, “Oh, I don’t have anything to say”. And by the end of it you see the amazing lives people have had. So we’re continuing to develop the work. It will continue.’

The East Belfast Arts Festival runs until September 1. View the full festival programme.