Abortion Rights and Synth-Pop: “The WIN” at Smock Alley
You could almost be forgiven for thinking that the story of abortion in Ireland began in 2013, or in 1994. You’d be wrong on that one. Any number of battles have been pitched and fought in the decades since the foundation of the state, as women have attempted to secure access to the reproductive rights which have been denied them. One such episode concluded in 1993, when a referendum passed allowing the promulgation and dissemination of information about abortion to women seeking to have one abroad. Until that point, the information itself was deemed illegal. Founded in 1983, the Women’s Information Network spent years covertly supplying this information to women who sought it. Between 1987 and 1991, the organisation heard from and spoke with a total of 1,425 women, all of it carried out with neither funding or recognition. Disbanded in 1996 after the passage of the referendum, the Network’s story is still little known.
“They were never celebrated, they were never dramatized, they aren’t mentioned in books in movies or TV shows, if you google them nothing comes up”, says Cara Brophy-Browne, co-founder of Banbha theatre-company and director of The WIN alongside Tara-Louise Morrison.
“The play came before the company”, says Brophy-Browne. “We started off thinking about the play, about devising the play, what it mean. And when we started doing that, we realised we wanted to make this play with the idea of making political theatre, and theatre for change, and theatre being a very political space to discuss these things was something we were really passionate about and that we wanted to take further”.
Both drama students in Trinity College, the pair are adamant that the fact they are in university is a secondary consideration, if anything. “It’d be easy to label this piece as a student play, but it’s not”, says Morrison. The actors are professionals, most aren’t students, and both directors emphasise the standalone nature of the work. “We may be students”, says Morrison, but “our activism is not a result of us being students, it’s just what we do”
Based off the network’s records and interviews with original members, The WIN combines dramaturgical and musical elements to try and tell a story that has hitherto been left in near-silence. 6 actors, nameless aside from the monikers “Girl”, “Woman #1”, “Woman #2” and so on, alternate between telling that story themselves and acting out a non-narrative structure over a background of interviews and recordings. “It’s very much an ensemble piece, it isn’t character or narrative driven”, says Morrison, but the recordings are utilised as a sort of springboard to move into a scene, “that can represent an element of what the WIN did as a whole”.
Working with professional actors on the project, the often intense, deeply personal nature of the project has meant that rehearsals have been an emotionally heavy experience. As such, there has been a lot attention paid to ensuring that no-one feels unduly uncomfortable in the course of the production. “It’s been all about trying to create a totally safe space”, says Brophy-Browne. On the first day of rehearsals the pair brought a “safety blanket” with them into the performance space, for the ensemble to sit on whenever things got heated. “They came in with this big hippie routine on the first rehearsal”, says Susie Birmingham, the project’s composer. There were a couple of looks, but the directors dispelled any notions by saying actually telling that cast it was “because we’re both massive hippies”. In time, the blanket has become one of the group’s most valuable assets. “A lot of the material that we’re working with is really heavy”, says Brophy-Browne, so a defined space on which to take a few deep breaths and step away from the world of the piece has come to be incredibly welcomed.
The WIN is the first production from Banbha Theatre Company, set up by Brophy-Browne and Morrison with the intention of “exploring how theatre and activism can meet, collaborate and become a medium for change”. Such is the current discourse around the Repeal the 8th campaign, the parallels with the present moment in the play are unavoidable. “It’s not a period piece”, says Birmingham. The nods to the contemporary moment are obvious, and indeed the very existence of the production in 2016 makes it relevant to the debate being held. “It’s set in the 80s, but there are call-outs to today”.
The directors say that the intention is very much to alert audiences to the continuing inadequacy of abortion rights in Ireland. They point out the near total lack of change since the time the play is set. “It’s also for the audience to look at it and think ‘wow, in the 80s wasn’t it awful, in the early 90s wasn’t it – no, it was 20 years ago and it’s the exact same thing”.
Just as important, if not more so, Banbha hope for the play to act as comfort and in solidarity with Irish women suffering because of the lack of abortion rights, and an agent to break taboos around abortion in Irish mainstream theatre. “Even if it is a call to arms”, says Brophy-Browne, “it’s great if someone comes out of it and feels passionate about it, or even someone never gets to see it but they’re like ‘wow, they’re making a play about my experience, because my experience was traumatic as fuck”. Morrison continues, that “I think they feel supported because they’re no longer being silenced… so even if someone never sees the play, or they hear about it once or someone mentions it to you, and you go ‘yeah that’s important, they talked about that, they supported me”.
Of course, it would be remiss to omit reference to the music being composed by Birmingham for the performance. “We spent the first month of the process literally only listening to 80s girl-pop”, she says. Inspired by sounds from the time, a series of new pieces have been written and recorded. One is what Birmingham terms a ‘pop hymn’, “an 80s pop song in theory, but written to a classic hymn structure, so it kind of connotes religion as an underlying theme without coming out and going ‘oh hey! There’s an organ!”
The WIN will play for two nights at the Smock Allies festival this week (17th Feb), and will also feature in ROSA’s ‘Bread and Roses’ festival in June. Meanwhile, there has also been interest from further afield. While its creators remain guarded as to some of the specifics of the production, not wishing to give the game away, if it’s as well executed as it is brilliantly conceived, it may well have the legs to make an impact, and a difference.
Words: Cathal Kavanagh