We had the chance to ask Oonagh Murphy some questions about the new production of Tribes at the Gate Theatre. Oonagh is also involved in activism and recently won the Jo Cox award. We asked her about politics in modern theatre and also about Tribes. You can see the results below and our review here.
Tribes was part of DTF60
Tribes runs until 11th November, 2017
You are known as an Activist, having won the Jo Cox award earlier this year. How do you balance the two worlds of theatre and activism?
I’m still a little tentative of the moniker – activist. The organising and campaigning is something I do alongside my theatre work with incredible people who also give up their time. I see this as community-building and advocating for fairness. With Change of Address for example, we wanted to find an outlet to use our privilege as artists to create opportunities for people who are marginalised by their status as refugees-in-waiting. More and more, my theatre work and this community organising overlaps. I’m now developing a piece which collaborates with individuals who have migrated to Ireland, weaving their stories with Irish people who left for social, cultural or political reasons. It’s about interrogating our position to the migrant crisis, a growing anti-immigrant sentiment, by reminding ourselves that Irish people benefited from asylum around the world for the last century. But the work is always political. I don’t believe any piece of art is apolitical. When you say it’s neutral, what you mean is ‘it supports the status quo, the mainstream’; that is still political. So, with something like Tribes, I approached it as a political piece. It was about the politics of the outsider, who has power over another individuals experience, and what are the ethics around inclusivity. There is a whole discourse around Deaf rights which I was humbled to add my voice too.
Do you think there should be more politics on stage? More plays that make people think about the important issues?
We’re living in a moment where there is lots of politics onstage. Look at the last few months. Art work like THEATREclub’s ‘Not at Home’ and Tara Flynn’s ‘Not a Funny Word’ are putting the lived experiences of women affected by the 8th amendment centre stage. Work like Talking Shop’s Rapids interrogates the stigma of those living with HIV. Emmet Kirwan is doing incredible stuff around class, gender and privilege. ANU are continuing to interrogate our relationship to national history. I think our stages are alight with political rage. No longer are the issues that affect women or minority groups considered to be side attractions, or worse, plot devices. Of course, I believe this can go further. Waking The Feminists made a tectonic shift in how we talk about gender representation, and now I’d like us to talk about diversity in the arts. Race, class, access to education, physical ability – only when we look at barriers to making art under these rubrics can we truly consider Irish theatre to be healthy.
Do you think the days of riots at the theatre are long behind us? Has it become more middle class and safe?
Maybe. But the Playboy Riots were predominantly male, middle-class, cultural nationalists protesting what they considered to be blasphemous and immoral. Indeed, it was the sort of line of thinking that led to the oppression of DeValera’s Ireland. These were protests that pushed for censorship of the artist. I don’t think I would have been amongst them.
Tell me about Tribes? What questions does it explore?
Tribes is about the limitations of our relationships with our family. It explores how language traps us, and asks big questions about the nature of love and care within a family setting. Billy is the Deaf son of Hearing parents, with two siblings who are also Hearing. He has been brought up in the oralist tradition, with his family foregoing learning sign language, and instead focussing on bringing Billy up as an excellent lip reader. We meet him when he has returned from university, experiencing alienation, and returning with growing frustration to the family home. He meets a young woman, Sylvia, who is going Deaf and from a Deaf family where sign was the language they used to communicate. Sylvia’s presence is a catalyst to the family’s old hurts and a challenge to the power of Christopher; the overbearing academic father. For me, it’s a story about difference with family, and very much a coming out story. The scene where Billy brings his girlfriend home felt very similar to the first time I brought one home (although my Dad didn’t go for her at all!) It’s a play that challenges us to consider life from the perspective of the outsider, and in this moment we’re living through, which you could argue is a crisis of empathy, these stories feel more important than ever.
Tribes runs at the Gate Theatre until 11th November, 2017