Continuing the series of questions offered to writers, sculptors, directors, choreographers, musicians, artists, poets and others involved in the creative process… I’m delighted my dear friend and fellow dramatist Rosaleen McDonagh has agreed to participate. We have known each other many years and I’ve been her mentor and dramaturg on several projects – Mainstream, and Protege. Her vital and unique perspective and theatrical ‘voice’ is a fascinating and important addition to contemporary European drama. It is with the greatest of pleasures I introduce her responses to 20 Questions…
Rosaleen McDonagh is a Traveller woman from Sligo. She worked in Pavee Point Travellers’ Centre where she managed the Violence Against Women programme for 10 years. She is regarded as a leading feminist within the Traveller community.
McDonagh’s work includes The Baby Doll Project, Stuck, She’s Not Mine, and Rings. McDonagh was shortlisted for the PJ O’ Connor radio play Awards 2010. Colum McCann, Booker Prize winner, gave her the rights to adapt his 2007 novel, Zoli, for stage. Commissioned for a feature article in the Irish Times in 2012 responding to Channel 4’s series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Irish Theatre Magazine also commissioned Cripping Up; Copping Out about Disability Arts in Ireland. Currently in development with RTE, Unsettled, a television drama. Rosaleen has a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies, an MPhil in Ethnic and Racial Studies and an MPhil in Creative Writing, all from Trinity College Dublin. She is about to embark on a phd in disability studies in Northumbria University on “ Disabled Traveller Identity: The Affirmative Model” (working title).
What first drew you to your particular practice?
When I was in London during the nineties seeing a lot of Disability Arts the attraction with theatre started. Back here in Dublin I began to question where were disabled people or disability culture? Simultaneously there had been a number of old Irish plays that had really negative off the wall representations of the Traveller aesthetic. It was at this point that I started writing my own plays on the quiet. Having friends over for dinner, ploughing them with food and merriment in the hope that they would read my plays. Fifteen years of writing on the quiet seemed like a cop out.
What was your big breakthrough?
A reading of my piece John and Josey. This was about a gay Traveller man and his sister Josey. Both characters were attempting to push and stretch the cultural boundaries of Traveller identity. After this I had a production of my play “Stuck”. This piece looked at notions of masculinity in the frame of Traveller identity.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
Polemics. As an activist checking and scolding myself for infusing my characters with too much political diatribe.
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
“Peeling” by Kaite O Reilly and the GRAEae theatre company. The play came to Dublin and I was invited to the opening night. My stomach did a belly flop. Tears ran down my cheeks and there was a lot of distress. My own internalized shame and oppression as a disabled woman was suddenly exposed. It really did have a profound and lasting effect on me. Also novelist, poet, essayist and playwright James Baldwin is my source of inspiration.
What’s more important: form or content?
Content. When you have content the shape and making of a piece is easier to manage and imagine.
How do you know when a project is finished?
You don’t. As a writer you’re continuously in a state of manic editing. The audience in a theatre finishes your work for you. How others interpret your work can often bring a writer to a very unexpected place.
Do you read your reviews?
Yes. But invariably I forget about them.
What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?
Forget your age. Everybody’s moment comes. Be ready for it, enjoy it but don’t rush it or long for it. Keep writing. Try different forms of writing from poetry to prose and essay writing. Read widely. After you get a rejection letter from the Arts Council force yourself to write a note to thank them and then while you’re on the computer get back to work.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Some of Alice Munro’s original collections of short stories. One of Ian Dury’s shirts or guitar!
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
That writing is easy or glamorous. The writer may have these attributes but writing and the art of writing is rigid, messy and unforgiving.
What are you working on now?
Three pieces for theatre. Protegee which is a piece inspired by Colum McCann’s novel “Zoli” about a female Roma poet, based on the real life poet Papusza in Poland during the 1940s.
“ Mainstream” an old fashioned love story.
“Chapter 13” which documents institutional abuse towards disabled people here in Ireland.
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
Colum McCann’s novel “Zoli”. Zadie Smith’s novel “ On Beauty” and one item of Vivienne Westwood’s haute couture collection.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Representation. The burden of representation is ever present. The pressure internally to encapsulate elements of the Traveller aesthetic while honouring disability culture. The binary position. If I write about Travellers or disabled people mainstream critics say I’m insular. While my instinct to encompass characters with impairments is strong, I attempt badly to ignore this urge. Then audiences & critics from the disability community reprimand me. Nobody told me that representation is such a critical part of theatre.
What’s your greatest ambition?
To continue to value my independence. Cherish my own bodily integrity and to believe my mantra“ I’m good enough, smart enough, strong enough”.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
Today brings with it it’s own joys and confusions. Do the work. Trust the work. Insecurity and lack of confidence keeps the edge off your ego and hopefully helps bring a measure of humility.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
The critic’s opinion was Traveller culture and heritage in all it’s form, oralism, telling stories and music has a linear position in mainstream Irish culture but maybe not on an Irish stage. The canon of Irish literature and theatre misappropriates Traveller culture as objects of settled writers and audiences curiosity. Everything Irish is rooted in Traveller culture but I would say that wouldn’t I?
And the best thing?
That I might have some potential.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
My baby needs time and attention. Nourishment and space to grow or develop it’s own personality. My plays, my characters are my babies.
What is your philosophy or life motto?
Relax, relax. Francis Bacon’s quote comes to mind: “People say relax. What do they mean? I never understand this, where people relax their muscles and they relax everything – I don’t know how to do it. So it’s no use my talking about relaxation”. Attempting to relax, I murmur this quote and vaguely imagine what it would be like to be fully at ease with my Cerebral Palsy.
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
How and when to be alone.
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
What’s it like being part of the first generation of Irish Travellers who has kicked back at cultural traditions and expectations of Traveller women? Sometimes it’s a lonely place to be. It can be frustrating and isolating. But then there are magic moments of profound excitement and sheer boldness and I love breaking all the rules and stereotypes.
Previous posts on the blog about or concerning Rosaleen:
A documentary about community worker, political activist and playwright Rosaleen McDonagh during the build up to her play ‘Stuck’ in the Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQLUwJuo5o4