The onset of winter can often facilitate a widely excused trend towards the hyper-commercialisation of theatre in city centre venues. The impactful lyrics of John B Keane and Louise O’Neill give way to the Gaiety Panto and the plush Bord Gais attracts crowds that the innovation of the Project Arts Centre could only dream of. “But sure, it’s Christmas!”, they’ll tell you.
Just outside the city however, in the Civic Theatre Tallaght, a pioneering collective of female artists known as SoloSIRENS is refusing to acquiesce to the norms of capitalism. From the centre of the festival, which runs from November 1st until December 14th, director Jenny MacDonald is thoughtful – and excited – about its base in Tallaght.
MacDonald is no stranger to the area, having worked with the Civic and Tallaght Community Arts for many years following an apprenticeship with Tony Fegan, director of the latter, when based in London. And, for a Canadian-born creative, Tallaght is a home away from home due to its “scale, architecture and [she’s told] the highest immigration level of anywhere in Ireland”. She explains her love for Tallaght: “It’s got this really exciting dynamic, diversity and there’s that immigration zest and go-getter kind of feeling.” An advocate for inclusivity and equal representation in her own right, MacDonald places immense creative value on Tallaght. “It felt like the place I had the most possibilities to bring the most different people together.”
The seeds of SoloSIRENS were planted in her mind when a New York journalist included her solo work Enthroned in an article recognising female artists performing their own work. The piece was also entitled “Solosirens”. MacDonald says that this article really got her thinking about female collaboration. Meanwhile, MacDonald was also leading an Active Audience programme with Liz Roche Company and a storytelling project called Where In This World? locally, both of which boasted “a lot of really strong women”. Macdonald says that all signs were pointing in the same direction: “While having this idea of creating a festival of solo female work, I was also meeting these amazing women in the Tallaght community and thinking it would be great to have a programme where they could engage with artists in the festival while also creating their own work.”
Within these various community engagement projects, MacDonald sees herself “more like a detective than a director”. “Who are these people?”, she continually asks herself, “and how can I let who they are be visible to more people than just them?”. As a director, MacDonald values this authenticity above what she calls “fixing people up … because that’s what we’re doing in society all the time. We’re brushing our hair, posing for Instagram – we’re fixing people up”.
With this approach in mind, MacDonald proposed this group of “powerhouse women” for the Abbey Theatre’s “5×5” programme. Securing this was a pivotal milestone in the collective’s evolution – and not only because it gave a distinct group the time, space and impetus to make work. It also counteracted the “history of marginalisation” affecting Tallaght-based artists. Although coming late to the realisation as an outsider, MacDonald acknowledges that “people have views of what [Tallaght] is, and as Jennifer Webster [a SoloSIRENS producer and Tallaght native] always says, ‘we also hold ourselves back’”. Thus, the support of the national theatre massively amplified the group’s confidence.
Martha Knight, a Trinity student an an assistant producer with SoloSIRENS, also recalls “a really lovely, supportive energy in the room” during the week, “partly because it was an all-female project”. As director, MacDonald pushed for a female-only team, and while members of the collective questioned this gender exclusivity at first, it had a widely felt, unforeseen impact on “how safe we felt among each other and how deep the work went really quickly”.
MacDonald was astonished to experience a newfound ease whilst directing the project, simply because she wasn’t “being watched”. Struggling to articulate this “watched” sensation, she discusses working predominantly “for men”, as “they run the festivals and venues to a large degree”. She articulates this feeling: “I know what I’m doing, but someone’s watching. And because we’re in a patriarchy that if I don’t get it really right, that’s gonna be a problem.” She explains: “It’s limiting, stressful and uncreative.” During the Abbey’s 5×5 week, however, MacDonald says that she “could feel [herself] taking up more space and just totally trusting [her] process”. She recalls this amazing sense of self-assurance: “I remember thinking: ‘I know what I’m doing and I’m just going to do it.’ I wonder if that’s what men feel like all the time?”
MacDonald notes the gender imbalance she’s noticing in the post-show discussions that follow each Friday night performance of the festival. The opening question, following her performance of Enthroned on November 2nd, was: “What does this work make you consider about women in society today?” It was met with a tentative silence before three consecutive male voices spoke, albeit respectfully, she recalls. Drawing a comparison between this and boardroom dynamics, she sighs: “I think there’s reasons why men are more comfortable responding in these formats. We’ve just rehearsed the patriarchy for so long, it’s like rehearsing the same play for a year – it becomes hard to come onstage and say something else.”
For this reason, SoloSIRENS, in collaboration with Trinity PhD student Claire Keogh, who is mapping the dialogue of the festival, are finding new ways to attain audience feedback and generate discourse, such as notes in jars, reflective surveys, journaling and video footage, while also “rehearsing how to speak as a collective” and constantly revising the structure of discussions. This collected data will be revised and presented in an open seminar held by SoloSIRENS in the Civic in the new year. MacDonald also aspires, with Keogh, to formally publish the festival’s scripts and findings for public engagement. Sharing this knowledge is imperative to MacDonald, who hopes to witness a broadening of perceptions, the growth of safe, open discussion spaces and more women being programmed in theatre in general.
For both Knight and MacDonald, the atmosphere of support really shines through in the festival’s conclusory performance, Falling, devised during the Abbey 5×5 week . “Falling is a microcosm of the whole festival”, MacDonald explains. “We want to explore more ethical, caring ways of making art and get beyond this ‘you have to be as ruthless as possible to make it good’, which I think is a myth of patriarchal capitalism. I don’t think it serves anybody.” Speaking about the group’s creative process, MacDonald says that “love and care really have to be stood up for in this world. They’ve been deemed to be these ‘soft’ qualities but they’re actually the strongest, the bravest”.
SoloSIRENS’s festival runs in the Civic Theatre Tallaght until December 14th, with performances of Baggage on November 29th and 30th and Falling on December 13th and 14th. Tickets are €14 or €12 for concessions.