Art is discursive: a day with Upstate Theatre

Today we worked with Upstate Theatre in Drogheda, a city of about 37,000 people in County Louth. This is our eighth summer program working with Upstate, and the company has rolled out an amazing welcome and an inspiring input each and every year. Today was no exception.

We were greeted by Upstate board member Irene White and Director Declan Mallon, and Declan proceeded to walk us through the history and ethos of Upstate Theatre. This was followed by two panel discussions with artists talking about the creation of new work with members of the Drogheda community. Feidlim Cannon and some of his company members talked about a new work called The Far Side that will premiere in November of this year, and Paul Hayes and actors from his project talked about the very successful Ship Street Revisited, a site-specific work that has its audience travel to five different houses to explore the people and history of Ship Street in Drogheda. We were also welcomed by the Mayor of Drogheda, Paul Bell, and he presented me with the coat of arms of the city.

After a wonderful lunch, we walked through town to the Barbican Centre for a three-hour movement workshop with Zara Starr, a choreographer working with Upstate on a new piece about the idea of home in Ireland. Zara took the group through an intense physical process that pushed the groups’ collaboration skills to the max. She followed this with some great work to create movement phrases, what she called strings. She set the group off in pairs, and asked the partners to create 12 points where they moved around, by, and/or through each other. Once these strings were set, she then asked the performers to take the work one step further by adding various dynamics to the phrases. Following a break, Zara then split the students into four groups and gave them 20 minutes to create an original piece about home. Each of the groups shared their work, and Zara recorded the material, with the intention that it may actually find its way into Upstate’s new work.

Upstate ended the day with sandwiches and drinks at a pub in town, complete with a trio of Irish musicians. As usual, the group left with a lot to ponder based on the inspiring work that we saw and participated in throughout the day. Our work with Upstate is always a highlight for this course, as students really see the range of possibilities that exists when a company fully embraces what it means to be engaged with the community. Upstate has been doing that from its beginnings, and it is evident in the depth and scope of the work that the company creates and produces.

Here are some additional notes, thoughts, and quotations, that I took from the day’s events. I think they are worth consideration for anyone working in an applied or community-engaged way.

From Declan Mallon’s presentation:

“Cultural inclusion is an equal right to participate in the nation’s artistic and cultural life . . . a fundamental democratic right.”

“Civic aesthetic space belongs in the psychological space that we all share.”

Sometimes the methodologies we use don’t work for the communities we’re creating with. We have to change the approach so that we build trust with those participants.

“Art is discursive.”

The terms “citizen artist” and “artist citizen”

Reminder: The belief that all people are creative

In community work, people may be the most comfortable with their own stories.

“There’s no one way to skin this cat called art.”

“We are multicultural within our own communities.”

From Feidlim Cannon:

Hand over the workshop to the participants. Make it about them instead of about the artist.

“Trying to make the screen dance” as it relates to the use of video in performance.

Because the lead artist is not from Drogheda, it may be easier for him to make choices about what stories and materials stay in the play and what parts come out.

Concise steps for interviewing participants for stories: “Interview, take the testimony, go off and investigate it.”

From Paul Hayes:

Paul mentioned the “rules of dramaturgy” for his project, and it made me think of the importance of aesthetic. Being rigorous about consistency in performance is part of that.

A paraphrase: Paul is aiming his shows at people who don’t come into formal theatres.
How can we all think more intentionally about this idea? Not everyone feels comfortable coming into a traditional theatre. How can we tell stories in places other than traditional theatre? It’s happening, but it needs to happen more. It’s a new challenge for myself.

From Zara Starr:

Create a string of movement with a partner:
Around someone
By someone
Through someone

“Hold on tightly; let go lightly.”
Practice this when creating new material for a work in progress.