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Jul 15, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Paula McFetridge: "The same number of people have died through suicide that died over the 40 years”

Creative director of Kabosh, discusses her love for theatre, retelling the stories of the Irish troubles, and her brief love affair with the circus Paula McFetridge leads her group in their final presentations at Session 532

Paula McFetridge has been messaging her family back home just before we sit down to chat, stealing some quick down time in between sessions. Her husband has been telling friends that she is in Austria to participate in the “Conflict Resolution Olympics.” She is actually at Salzburg Global Seminar to attend the session "Conflict Transformation through the Arts: Peace-Building and the Arts", but the artistic director of Kabosh Theatre Group is amused at the thought of the juxtaposition between the serious notion of conflict and the fun and camaraderie of the Olympic Games.

“I love theatre. But I also love sport. I love the idea of the live communal event. I think we spend so much time isolated, and so much time in a parochial setting or we engage more with the digital world and the more solitary our existence becomes, and I am a great believer in the communal,” she says.

Such enthusiasm for group activities has been instilled in McFetridge from a young age, “I was born in 1966 in Belfast. My parents were really determined we wouldn’t become embroiled, or bitter, or single minded,” she explains. This foundation has certainly been reflected in her diverse and surprising career moves. McFetridge was a youth theatre actress, started a circus troupe after learning how to stilt walk, acted as production manager for the Belfast Festival, held the prestigious role of managing director of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and latterly took up residence with Kabosh, a site specific theatre company.

“One of the advantages of creating theatre in non-theatre spaces is that people don’t feel intimidated by it in the same way. People are curious about space and so they then have access to arts, people are curious about 'the other' so it is a great way of observing how they go about their daily existence and also I think it is a great backdrop to the work and I found it a great inspiration for the work I do.”

Working within the context of a conflict that date back to her youth, McFetridge uses theatre in a way to readdress and redress stories, histories and ownership. As Northern Ireland comes to terms with a particularly violent century of unrest, McFetridge uses her shows to creatively and innovatively dispel ignorance and divisions, presenting histories back to communities in a way that challenges preconceptions.

“I am amazed how each space you go and work in, someone thinks they own that space, they claim ownership of it. I always say that I do something through the lens of my eyes and ears, but also a lot of work we do is single identity, so I don’t go in to alter the space. I somehow try to help people have different perceptions of that space and think of different possibilities. I think of sectarianism, and bigotry and racism and those awful things that are happening in the world and seem to be getting worse are caused by ignorance and ignorance breeds fear.”

Challenging and reshaping generations of stereotypes and distress, McFetridge sees her role as a facilitator, but one that has to push boundaries. She finds an irony in the public perception of artists: people think creative arts are neutral, but the arts are always far from neutral in their mission. If McFetridge is to be a torch bearer in the Conflict Resolution Olympics, she has to push audiences to the edge of their capacity, both physically and mentally.  

“I don’t look for balance, I don’t look for neutrality; I think I would be naïve if I did that. I think every artist by their very nature is political; we’re all individuals, we’re all human. I think the spontaneity and the honesty and the responsibility of the artist weighs very heavy on me. Emotionally, it is something that resonates between the artist and audience.”

For McFetridge, even the most ordinary of locations can be transformed into a vehicle of contemplation. From staging productions in the back of taxis, to alongside walking tours of the infamous Falls Road, and inside of synagogues, plays can break the fourth wall and come (un)comfortably close to unspoken truths. Often, by altering the most normal and benign of environments, there is a new threat and new frontier, reflecting on deep seated problems.

“I think if it’s not something I’m curious about, or something I have problems with or something I have issues with, it’s not going to have that possibility of change, it’s not going to have the danger or the risk, or something to say.

“There was a play I did in a moving black taxi on the Falls Road in Belfast. Because of 40 years of divisions, there is not city center living. Divisions remain strong. Planners want to find a way of connecting the people all around the city outskirts with the city center. So I created this show in a black taxi. Audience of five. Taxi driver is an actor, actress in the back. And we treat the audience like tourists. And the idea is the taxi driver is giving his version of the city, the woman in the back hasn’t been there since 1965, so she is seeing the city with fresh eyes and she is trying to reconcile why her family took her away. But the city is the backdrop to the show.

“So you go up the Falls Road in the taxi, you go through the peace wall, which we had to get opened every day by a wee man with a key, and down the Shankill. We brought it back three months later because of its success and I had to rewrite lots of it because murals had changed, there were new debates happening, we had to reinvent it.

“Then we were asked to do it for Derry, City of Culture. Take the model and use it for Derry. Yes I could use the model, but the play had to be completely different. The backdrop is completely different, the politics are completely different, what you want to know about the city is completely different.

“I create more and more shows that have elements that can be taken out and repurposed for different events and locations. It is interesting to see how you take the model of the show and share that model with someone in a country somewhere else and then it isn’t the show that travels, but the logistics and the methodology of how a show travels through space.”

The touring taxi was a huge success, but McFetridge is well aware that finite divisions can affect her work. Kabosh almost folded after an Irish Jewish backlash forced the cancellation of a number of their shows in the Belfast synagogue. Her work with the Coiste Republican Ex-Prisoners was accused of softening political tours, in line with Republican sympathisers. Acceptance is something that is still a daily struggle in Northern Ireland. McFetridge references an oppressive environment and atmosphere where people are constantly mulling over events, happy, sad, angry, and emotional.

“We have to ask difficult questions and be prepared to answer difficult questions and we don’t know what is going to happen, but if you go through 40 years of conflict, it is going to take at least 80 years to get over it. It’s long-term work and the rest of the world isn’t looking at us anymore and they think we’re sorted. 'Oh look at them, aren’t they good, they’ve got peace.\ As if we’re an example to the world. That’s not happened. And you can see the cracks starting to happen.

“The terrible statistic that there are the same number of people who have died by taking their own life through suicide, that died over the 40 years of conflict. That’s a terrible statistic. And the damage of suicide on family units and the ripple effect of that, that’s small-scale work and some of the social issues that have been masked because of 40 years of conflict are starting to come out. There need to be conversations about conflict and health...physical health issues, emotional and psychological health issues, homelessness, poverty, marital abuse, personal identity, sense of abandonment.”

Northern Ireland’s "Good Friday Agreement" of the 1990s is far from a shiny resolution. Generations face different emerging struggles across all social barriers. There are limitations for young people, not only politically but also socially and economically. Employment, particularly in the arts, is flagging and unrepresentation of new ideas only breeds further resentment. Meanwhile, older generations have lived through The Troubles, and are now struggling to identify as victors or victims. The visceral barrier creates political disengagement, a choice not to experience an Ireland that was hostile for so many decades.

As McFetridge reflects on all of this, she becomes hotly passionate as to the flux in Northern Ireland. Now is a critical time period in which to meet unresolved issues, before another generation is galvanised into action by recurring divisions. But there is no easy victory in this marathon, as McFetridge soliloquises, “How do you deal with levels of aggression that inevitably come from a long lineage of war?”    


Paula McFetridge was a session participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts", which was supported by the Edward T Cone Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpage: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/532