Last week, Rant + Rave sat down with some of the creative team behind The WIN, a work in progress piece in Smock Alley’s festival of new work, Smock Allies: Scene + Heard, which can be seen on the 18th & 19th of February at 18.30. We spoke to Cara Brophy-Browne and Tara Louise Morrison, directors of The WIN and founders of Banbha Theatre Company, and Susie Birmingham, who has worked as composer, sound designer and co-collaborator on the project.
Can you briefly describe to us your current theatre piece, The WIN?
The WIN is a devised piece of documentary theatre about a group of feminist, activist women in the late 80s/early 90s in Ireland. WIN provided information and operated a telephone line regarding abortion and other options, and worked to make abortion information available in Ireland, which came to realization in 1993. These documents are extremely rare and confidential and we have also been interviewing the women who formed the organization.
What was your thought process around the use of real documents and the ethics of representation surrounding it?
We thought about the ethics of representation a lot, and it was a main issue for us. We considered the ethics of representing the women who called in, as all calls were all completely confidential, we worked around this by not using one woman’s story & amalgamating several. In rehearsal we didn’t use identifying pieces, and would photocopy specific sections if we were using them. WIN operated under a principle that when women answered calls, they would ask the caller ‘what would you like me to call you?’ as opposed to directly asking their name. All of our material is completely anonymous. The piece is fictional, and centres conceptually around one main storyline. WIN had in place a strong set of general ethics, and were a completely equal organization with no hierarchy. They gathered some information from English groups, and some from a Paris conference. We’re trying our best to use the material ethically, manage it properly and look after it. These women were entrusted with these calls and stories and now we are. At this point we’re so deep into the process that this kind of thinking feels like so long ago, but we’re so privileged to have the access to this information and have the chance to develop it. As a theatre company, we want to continue that equality and absence of hierarchy, especially as directors in the workshop space.
Delineating devising workshops and script rehearsal has been a really interesting part of the process – and that has come about by making that distinction clear, and currently incorporating more direction in rehearsals. We really try to focus on making everyone part of the process, and beginning each exploration with a ‘safety blanket’ space and three deep breaths. We share the plan for each workshop, reflect at its end and discuss the kind of roles we’re all going to play in each part of the work. We want to do our best to look after our actors and to have everyone facilitating each other.
What have the cast & their experiences brought to the project?
That’s not really our information to share! It’s really important that everybody comes from their own spaces, and with an issue such as reproductive rights there’s variance of personal experiences but everyone is affected in some way. It isn’t just a topic that affects women in the present, but it affects everyone around them. In some ways can feel like an intrinsic thing to what it means to be Irish, in a subconscious sense. When it’s brought to the fore, it affects everyone.
What are your interviews like – how do you edit and prioritize certain material?
Susie: We haven’t done that specific editing yet, we’re trying to gather more understanding. I was viewing it in a mythological way before but the women we’re interviewing are talking about personal experience. The concept of WIN’s illegality often isn’t a concern to the women we are interviewing and I honestly thought it would be. After a while I stopped listening for sound bites and started listening to them as people.
We really wanted to have general interviews before we knew what the show would be. Being pointed in our questions might be more conducive to ‘the art’, but it’s not all about the show in Smock Alley on the 18th & 19th of February. So many of these women didn’t have permission, or gave permission to themselves to talk about these experiences. It’s funny being in public locations talking about these topics. We were in the Radisson for an interview, and at a point in our interview there were plates banging in a really important part of a story, – it was frustrating because you want to get them to go back and repeat it, but have to accept that that’s part of the experience. It’s quite funny being in public space and talking about private issues. But it feels like an act of defiance.
Which is more of the driving force for this piece – art or activism?
This priority was different for every person in the ensemble & production team. Susie was more concerned with the art, and Cara more with politics and how choices fit with the piece’s message – however sometimes you also need artistic intervention. This was balanced out by the collaborative direction of the piece – Cara works in a theoretical & conceptual way, while Tara Louise is more practical about an idea’s implementation. It’s powerful when we see the planned idea, when one person takes lead, when one person changes a little thing and then the whole thing suddenly flows. We want to create a piece of agitational propaganda. A call out followed by a call to action, to get up and do something.
Cara: We do want it to be ranty.
How do you find having a male stage manager documenting a female dominated space regarding the performance of predominantly women’s experience?
Ask our stage manager, Austin! Not in devising as much at first. His taking down everything said in workshops was really important. Austin is constantly in contact with the cast and they’re all very comfortable with him, it’s a therapeutic experience. And very humbling. If there’s a change for one person involved or in the audience then that makes it worth it.
If you had the option, what kind of group would you like to present to this piece to in a non theatrical space?
Well, we’re performing at the ROSA Bread & Roses Festival later this year, and that will be for an audience of engaged activists. This piece is not suitable for children. Talking about abortion with young people is really great, but The WIN is not just talking about abortion. They’re intense documents, and not the kind of material that you can come in and workshop with and then run away. Those in workshops would just have more questions, more confusion and the whole process would have to be completely different. Workshops, if we used them, would be less about abortion and more about how WIN worked in a historical sense, which is something we could definitely pursue as Banbha Theatre Company. Banbha want to address more topics in collaboration between activism & theatre. We want to be both artists and activists at once.
How you feel your design has been shaping this process – are they being inspired by sounds and aesthetics of the time?
Susie: I’ve been working on and listening to 80s based synths and girlpop for quite a time now. It can be hard to make authentic synths and it’s hard to find the right equipment. Often you have to be playing for hours to get what you want from it. You have to be committed. For one part of the show I ended up coming up with 7 or 8 different versions of a section of audio. What I’ve learnt from process of writing for theatre, is you shouldn’t always show directors your pieces until you’re finished, they’ll get excited about the work and start to devise around it – but it changes. We were also trying to bring in the centrality of the Church at the time, so we’re experimenting with the concept of the pop hymn idea.
Cara & TL: The difficult thing is that we as directors have ideas and we can change our minds and forget to tell Susie, we forget we’re not all psychically linked! Devising with music has been really collaborative & tied, and there’s not always a strict line between the theatre/music disciplines in that regard.
How have you chosen to present your work on The WIN through the lens of intersectional issues such as class, race, religion, and gender?
WIN’s services were so classless – in terms of their advice regarding which clinics provided free beds, and so on. In terms of gender, there are no men involved in cast. It’s complicated when people say ‘what about men?’, because we’re all third & fourth wave feminists but it was a different type of feminism in the 70s/80s. We’re not necessarily advocating that feminism but it was a different time and there was a call for it. The piece isn’t just set in past, we talk about the present day in one section and try to be intersectional in that moment. WIN was very practical. They were providing a service that wasn’t there. They weren’t trained professionals and they acknowledged that, which is part of why the network slowly disbanded when abortion information became legal in Ireland.
This is the first public representation of Women’s Information Network and it’s a big responsibility.
Interview conducted by Jennifer Aust & Oscar O’Leary Fitzpatrick.
Banbha Theatre Company can be found at www.facebook.com/banbhatc.
Current and similar services in Ireland and information regarding crisis pregnancy can be found at:
Abortion Advice in Ireland – www.abortionadvice.ie
Positive Options – www.positiveoptions.ie/
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre – www.drcc.ie