For a theatermaker in Dublin, October is the biggest month of the year. The Dublin Theatre Festival takes over the city. As someone who just moved to Dublin, it was my chance to dive headfirst into contemporary Irish theater. Through these plays, I glimpsed a cross-section of what Irish artists are thinking and talking about. The Festival left me with questions and ideas that will follow me through the rest of my studies in Irish theater.
One trend I saw was the use of presentational ensemble theater to call attention to communities in Ireland that are not usually represented onstage. Rapids was a documentary play where actors performed the stories of people living with HIV in Ireland; the five actors in The Good House of Happiness incorporated their personal experiences as East Asian immigrants in Dublin into the script; and this is a room… featured an ensemble of teenagers who acted out scenarios about homelessness and Dublin’s housing crisis. In all three, the actors were careful not to claim ownership over these stories, and not to reduce entire populations to one narrative. Rather, these pieces were about the act of giving voice to someone else who might not otherwise have a voice. They educated their audiences but they were not didactic.
Another theme that ran through the festival was gender. The Sin Eaters was my favorite play that I saw in the festival. The all-female cast showed how generations of Irish women have lived with trauma from violence committed against them and their ancestors. It was site-specific to a chemistry lab in the Poolbeg Towers. There were eight people in the audience, and the actors led us on individual journeys through the space. By creating individual journeys and not providing us with any space to share our experiences with each other, the piece highlighted how women are too often isolated from each other. They seldom get a space to talk about the different kinds of violence they’ve experienced, so they think they’re alone. After the show, I stood in a circle with four audience members I didn’t know. We shared the different individual scenes in which we took part. Maybe that conversation was a model for how we break the cycle of violence.
A question that I have been struggling with is the role of internationalism in Irish theater. My professors and colleagues say that there was an unusual shortage of international acts in the festival, and that these Irish companies were only programmed because the festival was unable to program more international acts. There is a sense in the theater community that internationalism is inherently progress. This attitude is very different from what I’m used to in the United States, where, often, theater communities only look inward to find new talent. To an extent, I agree with the importance of looking outward – theater should be diverse and multicultural – but, from the plays I saw, it is clear that internationalism is not the only way to achieve progress. All of the aforementioned plays were made by Irish theater companies. They were innovative, subversive, and rigorous. I wonder if, in looking to other countries for cutting-edge theater, Ireland shortchanges its own artists and the inventive work they are doing. As an American who came to Dublin to make theater, I will continually navigate when it would be helpful for me to bring in my perspectives as a newcomer from another culture, and when I should step back and listen. If the Dublin Theatre Festival has taught me anything, it’s that I have a lot to learn.