Back to devising in an urban context: on the ground in Belfast

Our third and final day in Northern Ireland featured a fair amount of rain. No downpours per se, but quite a bit of misting and drizzle.

We started with a trip to Victoria Square, a new, ultra modern, high-end shopping mall in Belfast. At the top of the mall stands a large, plexiglass dome offering a 360 view of the city. We took the lift to the top, had some input from our tour guide Jerry, and then Jonathan set the group to work on another collection of tasks. He asked the students to work in groups of four and to consider the following questions:

How do we come to know a place? How do we penetrate its histories?
How do we account for a place or help other to access it?
How can a creative process and/or performance help us claim/reclaim a space?
What/who qualifies insider/outsider?

These questions have been at the heart of our inquiry throughout the course, but I think the rich history of Belfast actually helped to clarify the importance of these questions in an applied theatre context.

With these questions in mind, Jonathan then asked the group to engage in what termed a cultural treasure hunt. He sent the students out into the area surrounding Victoria Square and asked them to gather information from people they met on the street. Here’s the list that he provided for students to consider:

i.e. a place…
- where you bumped into a friend
- that reminds you of someone else
- that you know a story about
- where you used to go
- that you visited only once
- where you have never been
- that reminds you of somewhere else

i.e. a place…
- that I last visited
- where I meet people
- that I’m on my way to now
- where I always go
- that’s hard to find
- where I always meant to go


Jonathan asked students to collect the person’s name, the place, and the significance of that place. He also emphasized that these did not need to be extraordinary or historically significant places. This exercise was about mapping the experience of the everyday life of a place.

After 45 minutes, the students returned, and Jonathan gave them the following set of instructions and parameters for their compositions:

- In sight of/reference your PLACE NOT YET COMPLETED
- Re-imagine this space as one of the significant places captured in the first exercise that has been destroyed/demolished and is now being rebuilt with a new purpose
- Include two ‘characters’ you encountered in Part 1, one of which must be identifiably outside of the narrative (looking on)

- No spoken words
- 1 still image
- 1 slow motion section
- Clear beginning, middle, and end
- Be respectful/mindful of the life of the space
- Ensure you select a safe place to perform/spectate.

Twenty minutes later, traipsing through a light rain, we witnessed four original pieces on the streets of Belfast. A few people stopped to see what was happening, but most people just kept walking, more interested in staying dry than what some street performance. After the showings, I was struck by how much closer I felt to Belfast. I’ve been to the city five times now, but this fifth time was really “on the ground” in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. “Knowing” a place really demands a deeper level of interaction with that place and more importantly the people in that place. It’s a lesson learned, one that can carry into locations that I “think” I already know.

Following a lunch break, the group moved into the afternoon session with Jonathan at The MAC, a brand new arts venue in Belfast. We received a tour of the space, which features state-of-the-art theatres, galleries, and rehearsal spaces. It opened in May and is a beautiful example of how alive the arts appear to be in Belfast. Jonathan broke the group down into smaller working groups, and then each group was asked to create a verbal pitch for an applied theatre project that would pull from the work completed in the morning and be appropriate for the MAC spaces. I also asked the groups to consider articulating a question that they might be trying to answer through the creation of this new piece, while also making some kind of offering to the community that they might work with. Again, this focuses on the idea that we can’t just swoop in and take stories. What are we offering in return?

After the pitches, we made our way to a boat cruise on the Lagan River, offering another view of Belfast from yet another perspective. This cruise was followed by a short reception on the Belfast Barge, a floating restaurant-performance space-museum. Jonathan arranged for a community artist to join us, Conor Shields, the director for Community Arts Partnership. Conor spoke with our group about his experiences running this large community arts organization. He talked about obtaining funding from large government agencies, working with artists in communities, and making sure that the art-making is of the highest level. Here are some key points that Conor made in his comments to us:

- Conor spoke a bit about the history of the term “community arts,” and how it is having a resurgence. “Community arts” is an ancestor of the terms “applied theatre” and “community-engaged theatre.”

- the idea that in Northern Ireland, he was looking at “non-confrontational ways to support contention.” I love this idea that contention is allowed to exist, and that it can be supported rather than smothered.

- “Quality processes with well-compensated and supported artists will yield strong products.” Slightly paraphrased, but Amen!

- He talked about how community arts can offer people a way to represent themselves in alternative ways.

- Conor also made a clear delineation between the artist working in a community vs community arts. The way I interpreted his comments, I came to understand the artist working in the community as someone enters and uses the stories of a community in some way, but might not be interested in or concerned with the community being fully involved in the art-making process. Community arts would actually be focused on how the art-making is embedded with the people of that particular community and how they are involved in the process and product. These terms are still coming into focus for me, and I need more time to sit with the differences. I’m grateful to Conor for making the distinction between the two approaches, as it’s been weaving in and out of our discussions throughout the course.

After that lovely time on the Belfast Barge, we boarded our bus back to Dublin. We may have experienced Belfast and Northern Ireland through a bit of a whirlwind tour, but ultimately, I think I came out with a stronger connection to an amazing city that’s growing and changing quite quickly.

Please see below for some images from our final day in Belfast.