Thursday 9 July 2015

Since Dramaturgy Went Away (1): Jacqueline Nolan @ Edfringe 2015

Philomena endured a lifetime of separation, Maggie can't face the truth of reunion.

Since Maggie Went Away 
Written and performed by Jacqueline Nolan
Directed by Lora Mander

1949: Maggie, an Irish country girl, secretly gives birth to a baby boy and is forced to give him away. 2010: Her journalist daughter discovers a global story on abuse in the Catholic Church is also her family's narrative, and sets out to put flesh on the bones of a past hidden by church, state, media – and shame. A true story of atonement for the sins of others, softened by Irish humour.

Since Maggie Went Away is a dramatised, autobiographical piece.

"It started as a newspaper article I wrote in 2013 about discovering I have a brother who was abused in a Catholic institution. When I travelled back to the Catholic home where my mother had given birth, I was attracted to the cemetery situated in the grounds, but there on the neatly trimmed lawn – struck by the absence of gravestones – I felt I was standing on a bigger story." (The writer)

Some things you can't forgive....

credit: Karolina Joniec
Ballydam Theatre, part of Jacqueline Nolan's writing-acting company, aims to give an artistic voice to greater political issues, to tell the truth behind the facts. 

The narrative journalism article Jacqueline wrote in 2013 was published in The Irish Times magazine as 'My Mother, My Brother' and in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad as 'Die voetstappen in de nacht'.
"The best articulation of the hurt, pain and ongoing legacy of Catholic Ireland."

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53), 11 August, 3.05pm (50 mins)
theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39), 12-15 August, 12.15pm (50 mins)

The Fringe
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?

Since Maggie Went Away began in 2010 when my life started turning into a kind of screenplay; or, at least, viewing it like a screenplay helped me to digest the details as they emerged.

I was working freelance at the Dutch world service radio and one of the journalists was investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. By coincidence, I found out I had an older brother in the same year: my mother had him secretly in 1949 and they were forcibly separated in 1951. He ended up at a Catholic home for boys in Dublin, where he was abused – physically and sexually. Almost six decades later, he tracked her down.

My mother couldn't face the truth of her own secret and turned into a wizened, old woman overnight. She died before she and my brother were reunited. Some time after I visited my brother – he lives in England – I wrote a newspaper article about my family's story. When I travelled back to Castlepollard, the Catholic home where my mother had given birth and was incarcerated for almost three years, I was attracted to the cemetery in a corner of the grounds. But there on the neatly trimmed lawn – struck by the absence of gravestones – I felt I was standing on a bigger story.

A year ago, Amsterdam's English-language Orange Tea Theatre approached me about an evening of monologues they were producing. I wrote a 20-minute piece set in the cemetery; how I had felt when it dawned on me that I was standing on a mass grave. Just before the performance, a story about a mass grave at another mother-and-baby home made international headlines. 

Over the past year, I have developed the monologue into a full-length play; it's as if the characters simply demanded to speak.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?

The diversity of its audience mostly – an audience that will understand the story and the language. A part of me is almost afraid, though, that it might get lost among the jungle of shows. 
credit: Karolina Joniec

Since Maggie Went Away is the story of so many Irish families. It is ongoing and it is topical, as tens of thousands of adopted and fostered children are still searching for their mothers (and fathers) – many of them in the US – because Irish legislation denies them the right to know who they or their biological parents are.

I see Edinburgh as the first stage of this play's journey.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
I wouldn't like to fill in what I expect an audience to feel or think. Part of the beauty of performance is that the audience's response brings in new elements you didn't know were there yourself. Why does an audience laugh or cry at different places during a run?

I've done two Amsterdam previews and people said the piece was funny and moving at the same time. It isn't a shopping list of all my family's woes – I try to tell my story without sentimentality and without demanding sympathy. Maggie's language captures the spirit of Irish country humour; I had great fun with it.

The play also shows the corrupting influence of excessive power. In Catholic Ireland, that power was all-encompassing up until recently. The priest used his power to compel victims and their families to collude in their own abuse, and to keep hideous crimes secret for decades. By naming what happened, and not packaging it in safe words like 'injustice' or 'abuse' (the brother character talks about being hauled out of bed and taken to "posh rooms"), the victims, the characters, get an identity. That identity is their victory.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
When I set about transforming a newspaper article into a one-woman play, many of the scenes didn't work so well when performed. I had clear characters, with a clear voice, but the piece as a whole was too literary, or too much within a storytelling genre. My director, Lora Mander, assumed the role of dramaturge, editing on the fly and shaping the script into a performance piece.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
Lora, the director, had me put aside the script for several scenes. She asked me to improvise the words more 'in the now'. We recorded the audio on my phone and then rewrote these scenes. This made it easier to block the play and bring in movement.

Lora brought in more theatricality to the piece than I had intended, but now I feel this really works. In scenes where there are two or more characters, I practised improvised dialogues between these characters so that I could find the right tone and right level of menace and subterfuge.

Physicalising some of the scenes helped to bring out a bestiality, getting down to the true rawness of reality through a physicality that is not entirely realistic.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
If the audience isn't touched in some way, then the piece is just a work of self-indulgence. The audience makes it become alive.

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