“Theatre allows us to converse with our souls—to passionately pursue and discover ways of living with ourselves and others,” writes New York University theatre professor, Philip Taylor.
For Northern Ireland's DAMD Theatre Group, this is more than just a saying, and more than just a theory.
It is a driving force behind all they do when they take to the stage.
“If we can inspire, nurture, challenge, amaze, educate or empower artists and audiences by providing a quality performing arts experience then we retire happily with our bedtime cocoa,” an unnamed company member is quoted as saying in a 2013 review of the group's performance of “The Laramie Project.”
And there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities for DAMD members to “challenge” and “educate.” When asked, what inspired the group to use theatre as an activist outlet, DAMD director, Melissa Smith offers a one-word answer: Oppression.
“We have a political culture of closing down awkward discussions before they begin,” explains Smith, “The frustration I feel has got to go somewhere, and drama is my medium.”
For example, Smith points to the ongoing debate over abortion in Northern Ireland. Women in Northern Ireland are only able to get abortions in cases where carrying the pregnancy to term “…threatens the life of the mother, or would adversely affect her mental or physical health.”
Pro-choice groups in Northern Ireland continue to protest Stormont’s stance on abortion to no avail. A recent attempt to rewrite legislation was voted down this past February.
“I cannot believe that as a 37-year-old woman if I need an abortion, I have to fly or travel to another country to do so because it is outlawed in Northern Ireland,” says Smith, “Who made that decision? People (mostly men) who believe that they know what’s right for me…Our politicians won’t even listen so there has to be another way of asking questions.”
It isn’t always easy to ask those questions and fight the good fight though, according to Smith.
“It is a spiritual resistance at times!” she says, “We have to bear in mind that we have no money when we select performance material.”
Selecting performance material and obtaining the necessary permissions to perform it are just part of the struggle. The group tends to rely on their “charm and people’s goodwill” when trying to find space to rehearse. They handle costume & set design on their own.
Why do they do it? According to Smith, the reason is simple: “…they love a role or the project.”
Though money is tight, the crew does get rewarded in other ways. Smith remembers a time, two years ago, when they performed A View From The Bridge. She says the performance was particularly relevant and meaningful because Northern Ireland has experienced a spike in immigration.
“It was one of those magical rehearsal periods where we became like a family. The play sold out its 4 shows and we were on a high,” says Smith, “After one show, a man stopped me and told me he had worked for the Arts Council for years and he could not believe when he read the program notes that we had literally delivered, in his eyes, the best play he had seen in years without any funding. He was horrified and enthralled in equal measures!”
Smith says that responses like that are part of what keeps the group going through the difficult times.
Selecting and performing meaningful theatre is only half the battle. Smith also recalls a time, back in 2015, when the group decided to perform the play, Shank. The group had to work to make the play more accessible to a Belfast audience.
“Shank in 2015 was one of my favorite plays. It was written by a London youth theatre company about the knife culture among young people and we had great fun adapting it to a Belfast setting,” Smith recalls, “Although it was a serious play, we had many laughs in the rehearsal room creating recognizable Belfast stereotypes. Belfast has such a unique rich slang and insult culture that it is probably not translatable or exportable.”
When asked what has been her favorite performance, Smith doesn’t even have to think about it.
“Definitely Laramie because it connected us to so many people and took us all over Northern Ireland,” she replies, “My only regret is that the post show discussions weren't recorded because so many fascinating stories and powerful messages came from people.”
The Laramie Project tells the story of the people who were most connected to the Matthew Shepard murder. Shepard’s murder is said to be “…one of the nation’s most heinous anti-gay hate crimes.”
“In Northern Ireland, we know a thing of two about hate crimes,” she continues. “So many passages resonated with me that I knew this would be a good way to talk about the issues we have in Northern Ireland through a different lens.”
As it stands right now, same-sex marriages are not recognized in Northern Ireland, and First Minister Arelene Foster has said that the DUP would continue to block proposed changes to legislation on the subject.
“As a person when I witness a hate crime, you can feel so powerless. Do I feel better if I report it to the police? Not really, yet that is the only official option open to me,” Smith says, “If I produce a play that can possibly open a space for discussion then I do feel I have taken action and made a statement.”
Some people have been open to the idea of using that space for discussions.
“Some people simply asked, ‘Is it good theatre?” says Smith of some people’s response to the performance, “Others thought they were being subtle but exposed themselves by asking questions about the content…”
The strongest reaction thus far, however, came from the one person who had the power to stop the performance from taking place in the youth centre which was slated to host it in 2010.
“He was ok with the subject matter being a hate crime murder,” explains Smith, “but when he found out it was a homophobic hate crime murder, he tried to pull the play from the centre.”
Suddenly, Smith and her group were asked to respond to a list of concerns. These concerns are outlined in a 2010 email which was provided to Queens Free Press:
1.The Youth Centre is a community based facility in the grounds of a Primary school with a mostly junior membership. 2. The Board faced a lot of opposition at the outset from local residents who did not want a youth centre on their doorstep. 3. Through good P.R. we have managed to turn this opposition around (mainly down to Robbie) to a stage where the local people support our work fully. 4. We are however, continuously sensitive to local opinion and would not wish to antagonize anyone if it can be avoided. 5. The Board and I personally, in no way wish to act as censor at any time but must be convinced that community reaction is positive and appropriate. Bearing all this in mind could you advise me of the following * Confirm that the play has been performed by Youth theatres in the past. * Any school performances? * What sort of issues doe the play raise (based on your knowledge of the play and its past performances)? * How does the group intent to manage the points listed under point 5 in the synopsis you supplied?
* Could you also supply me with a copy of posters and publicity materials * There will be people who will object to Matthew's sexuality, the violence, murder etc., even though this is not depicted on stage. How would you convince these people that these are suitable issues for debate in a youth centre albeit in an adult only environment. (I know this sounds like an interview question-sorry about that-but I can tell you that is just the sort of thing we will be asked to justify.
In the end, the play was allowed to go on at the youth centre, thanks in part to help received from The Rainbow Project. The show was well received.
Smith also observed an interesting change in the youth centre administrator who had initially tried to stop the show.
“The reception of that opening night, including one politician crying as she gave an impromptu speech on what she felt as a mum watching the play, prompted him to put on his name badge and walk around telling the audience he had brought the play to the centre and taking all credit for it,” Smith recalls, “That was probably the most restrained I have ever been in my whole life as there were many, many words I had for his behavior. I had to let it go because the play was the more important thing. I could not believe that he could mask his homophobia behind his authority.”
Fast forward to present day, and DAMD found itself performing Laramie again, this time for Belfast Pride 2016 which took place this past Summer.
— DAMD (@DAMDtheatre) July 30, 2016
"Theatre allows us2converse with our souls-to passionately pursue&discover ways of living with ourselves and others" pic.twitter.com/jRXzZ1ExI9
— DAMD (@DAMDtheatre) August 31, 2016
Now people are just left wondering what’ll it take to finally get marriage equality in Northern Ireland?
“I think 5 years - one term of our Assembly,” Smith guesses.
Of course, change may come sooner. Now that Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin Mc Guinness has resigned, there may have to be a new election. Human rights groups certainly know what is at stake.
— Amnesty Int'l NI (@AmnestyNI) January 9, 2017
Those conversations that DAMD started on stage, may very soon be taking place off stage as well.