Recently I was invited by Dirty Protest Theatre and Fishamble to be a part of a panel at their online event On The Horizon| Ar Y Gorwel| Ag Bun na Spéire. It was a brilliant afternoon of panel discussions and play readings looking at the connections between the arts industries in Ireland and Wales, and I was delighted to be involved. By the time I closed my laptop at the end of the day, my mind was buzzing with all of the thoughts and ideas that were shared, and I am excited to see the connections between the two countries continue to evolve.
I’m speaking as an artist and arts worker who is Irish and has worked in Wales for the past two years, both as a freelance writer and theatre critic, and as Touring and Projects Officer with National Dance Company Wales and Company Manager of Richard Chappell Dance. Shortly after I moved to Cardiff, back in 2019, I sat down to write out my thoughts on moving to a new country, and I thought I might start by revisiting that short piece, called The Little Things.
It’s the little things. The short hop across a skinny sea to a city similar yet made strange by small details.
The nocturnal noises, just alien enough to pierce your sleep and rouse you to a foggy consciousness, a sleep-muffled moment of – “where am I?”
It’s the little things. The wide-awake walk home until your autopilot comes up to date.
The turns of phrase that give double take as you take them in for the first time – hearing “cheers drive.” Sentiment no different, but not your bus-stop thanks.
It’s the little things. The accents among which you’re the novelty in a sea of the usual vowels made unfamiliar.
The question of what jam to buy – getting it wrong going for the cheapest “mixed fruit preserve” but eating it anyway.
(Because in small ways some things are just the same.)
It’s the little things. The shower dial turned to the right temperature for the first time without thinking.
The place recognised by surprise and remembered – map rendered unnecessary in your pocket.
It’s the little things. The words recognised on signs as you find yourself learning.
The faces you pass each morning on your walk to work – soon to be the usual strangers that you’ll know but won’t.
It’s the little things. Your name on letters to an address no longer house-share-advert abstract.
Small things, those details in change, as the strange begins to rearrange itself to something you newly know.
It’s the little things.
And the longer I live here, the more I realise that it is those little things that connect Ireland and Wales, those little things that made a new country a little bit familiar.
Over several years working in theatre in Ireland, I had found a community. I could barely walk past a theatre without ending up stopping for a chat to someone I knew, my laptop automatically connected to the wifi of pretty much every venue in Dublin, and a fair few others across the country too, and in the same way you know who’s getting married, graduating, being christened in your family, I knew all of the shows that were opening, rehearsals beginning, programmes launching across the country.
When I decided to move to Cardiff, I braced myself to start from scratch.
Only when I arrived, I realised I didn’t have to. Just as people in the Irish theatre industry opened their arms to 17-year old me when I turned up, began writing, knocking on doors and getting involved in everything I could, as soon as I said that I was moving to Wales, people over here opened their doors and put the kettle on. Within no time at all, I was finding myself in foyers at matinees surrounded by familiar faces and friendly conversations, and I realised that I had a web of connections and community not just in Cardiff, but across various parts of Wales.
It’s that community which is the lifeblood and heart of both Irish and Welsh arts. There are plenty of similarities between the two countries – both are bilingual, both have connections through Celtic histories, both countries are defined by lush landscapes and rich cultural heritages, and hey, we’re even connected through Ireland’s patron Saint, St Patrick, who came from Wales. But the defining similarity, which transcends and encompasses all of the others, is a sense of community. When it comes to the arts in both Wales and Ireland, that sense of community doesn’t just mean local communities, but a national community.
This can present its own challenges – if we don’t enact this sense of a close-knit industry conscientiously, we run the risk of closing doors to people, and making people feel that they are left on the outside. I’m sure we all know too well the dangers of settling too comfortably into the familiar, and always working with the same people, always programming the safe bets, always hiring the same faces. If we aren’t careful, the industry can become small and insular, lacking diversity of voices and perspectives. And the last thing the arts industry needs, is another means of gatekeeping.
When I started my career at 17, I was in a lucky position – I had been exposed to theatre from a young age, I had a knowledge of the industry, and I was studying drama in University. We need to make sure we are creating an open community that not only welcomes people in positions like mine, but that welcomes those who have never set foot in a theatre before. As bell hooks writes, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” In both Ireland and Wales we have the strong bedrock of a community, and we need to be vigilant and aware of what we build from that.
We need to make sure we are building communities that not only include people we are familiar with and who are familiar with the industry, but the neighbour around the corner who feels that dance “isn’t for her,” the teenager in school who can’t afford to risk studying drama in university because of high fees and low job certainty, or the recently arrived refugee who is in a direct provision centre and has their access to the arts limited by time, space and cost. As The Care Collective put it in The Care Manifesto, we need to foster an industry “in which we can support each other and generate networks of belonging,” with “conditions that enable us to act collaboratively to create communities that both support our abilities and nurture our interdependencies.” With advances like the Universal Basic Income pilots in both Wales and Ireland, the appointment of Andrew Ogun as Arts Council Wales first “Agent for Change,” movements like Waking the Feminists and We Shall Not Be Removed, and ongoing conversations about how we change practices for the better as we emerge from the pandemic, we are beginning to work towards those networks of belonging. But we need to push further, open ourselves up to new ways of working, and get busy making the many small changes that make big ambitions a reality.
Wielded with generosity, compassion and care, the deep-rooted sense of community in both the Irish and Welsh arts industry could bring with it a model for theatre of the future, a theatre that is open and accessible to all. If we use our connections to people and places wisely, listen intently to those who need to be heard, and make changes to our ways of working, hiring, collaborating and creating, if we make a difference through all the little things, then we stand to not only open the doors of our industry, but to tear down the dividing walls altogether.
Originally delivered as a live talk at Dirty Protest Theatre and Fishamble’s event On The Horizon, 17th June 2021.