EU Peace III Conference
Smashing Times Theatre Company work with Troubles survivors on real stories at The MAC on September 2
The era of the Troubles has spawned great art, from Gary Mitchell and Owen McCafferty's plays to the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin to paintings by Joe McWilliams and others. Alongside this professional work, Troubles survivors have been able to express themselves in writing and art workshops across the country.
But there is an important strand of culture that exists between these two bodies of work, which will be celebrated during the EU Peace III Conference workshop being held at The MAC in Belfast on September 2. Organised by the Special EU Programmes Body, it involves art based on real experience – true fiction, if you like.
A drama in three parts called Thou Shalt Not Kill, distilled from a handful of people's real experiences, will be performed alongside the screening of two of the films produced under the umbrella title Sharp Focus - Crossing the Divide, produced by Calipo Theatre Company, which were also inspired by actual events.
Mary Moynihan, artistic director of Smashing Times Theatre Company, the group behind the drama, explains how her interest in what she calls 'living theatre' started.
'Smashing Times began in 1991 when a group of women started making theatre for ourselves. We shared the theatre with different communities and wanted to take the work outside while maintaining quality and the artistic process. There were often lively post-show discussions and we went on to design exercises to bridge the gap between the stage and the audience.'
This central idea – of incorporating other voices within professional pieces – continued in work with different groups, such as those suffering from mental health problems. And, in 2012, Smashing Times were asked to produce plays based on the reminiscence of people affected by the Troubles.
They listened to real life stories and then worked this material up with the help of professional scriptwriter Paul Kennedy. Thou Shalt Not Kill is an authentic piece, containing the spirit of the survivors' tales, but not the actual detail.
'It is important for the people who share their experiences to realise their exact story won't be used,' adds Moynihan. 'This is theatre, not transcription, but the speech is immediate and close to realism, as if someone walked in off the street.'
Thou Shalt Not Kill contains two monologues, linked by an expressive dance piece. The plots are realistic, too. 'The woman [at the heart of the drama] was the victim in a mixed Protestant-Catholic relationship whose story was about violence used against her,' Moynihan explains.
'It was also about resilience, what she'd tried to get through. The man's story is about violence too, but he's someone who took the violent path in the Troubles and now has to make the journey towards peace. Both stories explore ideas of forgiveness.'
Moynihan and her colleagues are all Stanislavsky trained, which means they understand the force of Method acting, or the process of inhabiting the skin of the characters or people being portrayed. The stories are bleak overall, but Moynihan is quick to point out that there are moments of black humour that came through the research.
'There were some funny stories, like the woman whose bag was searched at a checkpoint and she had a pair of knickers in there.' But the narrative is chiefly tragic, although with some chance of hope. At the end of the monologues, Cathy sees harrowing events being ironed out by the passage of time and the chance meeting of two children, and says:
'And the wee girl smiles at Adam and he smiles back, that lovely way children can smile at each other and his mother goes to me, "Alright?" And I go, "Aye". And we cross and go our separate ways. That little girl was Robbie McFarlane’s daughter. And just that, just that moment, crossing the street, the kids, the innocence, the hope... something.'
The back story is that Cathy's son has met the daughter of the man who killed her partner. Thou Shalt Not Kill has gained good feedback while touring youth centres, schools and community groups across the country. Although the show led to some tense discussions when it was performed at the Lyric Theatre earlier this year, that is perhaps part of the purpose.
'We aim to create a space for dialogue,' says Moynihan. 'Cathy speaks about this moment involving the children and that comes from the interviews we did. The question is how you go forward.'
Oral history expert Michelle Moloney works in conflict transformation. She was involved in the film project Sharp Focus - Crossing the Divide and underlines the importance of people being able to tell their stories in the current Northern Irish political and social climate. 'Art does have a significant role in helping people define what happened.'
Moloney points out that older people who lived through the conflict understandably wanted to make things better and bearable for their children. 'So it was about protection for them. But there's always the question of fear too. But you don't have to live through it to feel something.'
Moloney worked with young people on the film project which, she says, involved an 'interpretation' of events. In one workshop, when the filmmakers from Monaghan were interviewing an old man about his experience, he suddenly and unexpectedly burst into tears.
'The young filmmakers had been trained in how to respond,' recalls Moloney, 'so they asked him if he wanted to stop and when he said he wanted some time, they honoured this.'
The man's painful story of his brother being shot was changed so that the emotion, rather than the autobiographical detail, was retained in the final piece. The filmmakers instead created a story line about an elderly woman whose son was killed and a flash mob dancing at the memorial. 'So they changed the story to being about themselves, the outsiders – the kids in trouble with the guards.'
On events like the EU Peace III Conference as a whole, Moloney believes that is 'difficult to measure the social echo, but this project has worked on all sorts of levels'. Ultimately the value of work of this kind, she argues, is in bringing history to life, of transporting stories to people who haven't heard them before and attempting to make sense of the world through art.
EU Peace III Conference takes place in The MAC, Belfast on September 2. Visit the SEUPB website for more information. This article was amended to remove the incorrect quote 'It is therapeutic storytelling' at the request of Michelle Moloney.