Gay, Bi-Racial Playwright Writes About Belfast Women

Shannon Sickels makes being an outsider an artform

Shannon Sickels describes herself as a ‘multiple outsider’. Sitting in a café, drinking tea that smells like Fruit Gums and talking about Hatch - the play she has written and produced with Skewiff Theatre Company - she doesn’t look it. It is only when Sickels ticks the points off on her fingers that you see where she is coming from.

‘I’m queer, bi-racial Chinese-White, not from Northern Ireland and I have a acquired brain injury,’ she says. ‘That theme kind of pops up.’

Whilst some might be left feeling entrenched, Sickels views her uniqueness as means of gaining perspective. A lot of her work deals with themes like change and the influence outsiders can have on situations - something she experienced in her own life, when her partner’s expiring visa led to Sickels leaving New York for Belfast.

An actress who had fallen in love with writing after a course at the National Theatre Institute, Sickels had been looking for somewhere to study playwriting part-time. The expired visa and the MA in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University provided the impetus for her to move. ‘Now I’m stuck here,’ she deadpans.

Jokes aside, Sickels affection for her adopted home is tangible as she talks about the ‘bubbling, cultural vibrancy’ she feels here. She enthuses about the Do-It-Yourself art scene in Belfast, contrasting it to her experience in New York, where people complain about not having a ‘space’ or funding.

‘People don’t wait for permission to do something,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘They just do it.’ And so does Sickels, who approached Skewiff Theatre Company with a draft of a play that she had written and asked if they wanted to work with her. They did, and the result is Hatch.

‘I had been playing around with the piece when [playwright] Damian Gorman was working with me on the Creative Writers Network Mentoring Programme,’ Sickels explains. ‘Then it just sat in a drawer, but it never went away, always in the back of my head.’

Hatch is about a group of women dealing, or not dealing, with change in post-conflict, present day Belfast. It is directed by Stephen Beggs of Bruiser Theatre Company, and Sickels is delighted to have Beggs' directorial skills and experience with physical theatre on board. ‘He just got the play,’ she explains. ‘And it’s all unpaid. Or rather, he’s getting paid in good karma!’

For Sickels, it is particularly satisfying to see Hatch preparing for its stage debut. The play was written before she was hospitalized with a life-threatening brain infection. 'One night I was dancing on tables at Outburst, and the next I was in hospital.'

Writing was an important part of her recovery, with the process of articulation and revision helping her deal with the side-effects of her illness. However, like many a writer before her, recovery was also an important part of her writing.

‘I don’t really remember going into hospital,’ Sickels says. ‘But I remember waking up in the Royal, paralyzed down one side with all these strange people getting IVs and all kinds of crap, looking around me and thinking... this would be one crazy Fringe show.’

The seed of that idea has become an aural project that Sickels is currently working on with members of the Sonic Arts Research Centre, which utilises 3D sound-scaping technology. ‘It recreates this visceral trip,’ Sickels adds. ‘It seemed very appropriate for that story.’ 

Sickels is also working on an interview project, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, that records the ‘coming-out’ experiences of people in Northern Ireland. The inspiration for the project came from an urge to pay something back to the local community.

‘My partner and I were lucky enough to have the first public civil partnership in Northern Ireland,’ she says earnestly. ‘I felt that we wouldn’t be here without all the work done by activists who came before us.’ Collecting the information has gone well, although Sickels admits to feeling a bit odd about asking strangers for fairly intimate stories. ‘It’s not something you can just ask over a pint in the pub.’

Sickels hopes to put on a rehearsed reading at the end of the project for all the contributors. She's certainly keeping herself busy. It sounds like she is planning to hang around, but would she ever consider going back to New York? She hesitates. ‘You never know,' she says, grimacing. 'My partner and I wouldn’t be legal over there. I’d not be able to get her over the border!’

Find out more about Hatch and other Pop Up Pick n' Mix Festival events in CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.