Queen's Policy Engagement

Women theatremakers in Northern Ireland – New Podcast Now Available

In a new podcast series, Queen’s University researcher Dr Shonagh Hill generates a conversation across generations of women theatremakers in Northern Ireland that celebrates their work, as well as highlighting the challenges they face.

Women theatremakers in Northern Ireland – New Podcast Now Available

The series opens in the 1980s as one of the founding members of Charabanc Theatre Company, Carol Moore, reflects on their first production, Lay Up Your Ends (1983). Carol describes how Charabanc defied expectations:

‘It was completely unique and unexpected in this corner of the world, that female theatre-makers would successfully produce their own work.’

The company of five women were groundbreaking in their development of processes and theatrical forms that accommodate untold histories and overlooked experiences. In Lay Up Your Ends, the women working in Belfast’s linen mills during the 1911 strike are placed centre-stage.

In the following episode, fellow Charabanc member Brenda Winter-Palmer speaks to the company’s vital theatrical legacy as well as her own work after leaving. Brenda went on to establish Replay Theatre Company in 1988, who continue to make theatre for young audiences. Charabanc created a rich body of work and provided inspiration for future generations of theatremakers, and yet the struggle for gender equality continues. This was starkly quantified in ‘The Headcount’ report (2021), which surveyed the gender breakdown of eight Arts Council of Northern Ireland core-funded companies from 2014 to 2019.

The podcast series turns to the successes of, and challenges for, contemporary feminist theatremakers through discussion with Gina Donnelly and Seón Simpson, who work together as Skelpie Limmer. They are motivated by their belief that ‘serious theatre doesn’t have to feel serious’: a sentiment that resonates with the political intent and humour of Charabanc’s work. Charabanc was founded during the economically lean years of the 1980s but there were some funding opportunities, as Brenda observes of the Education for Mutual Understanding program, ‘the government, desperate for some way of culturally reconciling, for once noted that the theatre and the arts had a huge role to play.’ Underfunding of the arts is an ongoing challenge but it has been exacerbated by stringent cuts in recent years: Gina and Seón discuss how they navigate this difficult terrain by situating themselves as ‘international artists who live in Northern Ireland’.

The series concludes with a conversation between lighting designer, Mary Tumelty, and musician, composer and sound engineer, Katie Richardson, who share their experiences of working in the tech roles in which women are most starkly underrepresented in theatre. They describe the misogyny and gatekeeping they have encountered in the workplace, and their resultant commitment to mentorship and creating safe work environments is palpable, as Katie says,

‘I do feel a responsibility to be the big sister I didn’t have in music and sound for anybody else and to call out stuff so it does get better’.

While many challenges endure, these episodes reveal the determined refusal of women theatremakers to accept these as limitations and compromise their art.

You can access the series by clicking here  and episodes are added weekly.

Dr Shonagh Hill
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Dr Shonagh Hill is a Research Fellow (AHRC funded) in the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen's University Belfast. Shonagh's current study entitled ‘Generations and Feminist Temporalities in Contemporary Northern Irish Performance’ encompasses theatre, performance art and dance that have taken place in Northern Ireland in the last five years. Shonagh previously was a Marie Curie Fellow at Queen's.

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