Tag Archives: disability culture

Answering back and returning the gaze: Alternative Dramaturgies

Cover of Horizons/ Theatre no.4. Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux

Cover of Horizons/ Theatre no.4. Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux

Delighted to receive a copy of Horizons/Theatre numero 5 from the University of Bordeaux Press today, which includes an essay I delivered at a conference in Tangiers last year on ‘Alternative Dramaturgies.’ The work builds on my 2003/06 AHRC Creative Fellowship ‘Alternative Dramaturgies Informed by a d/Deaf and disability Perspective’ and my on-going Fellowship at the International Research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ at Freie Universitat, Berlin, since 2011. The essay is in English, and the abstract follows:

Answering Back and Returning the Gaze: Two examples of ‘alternative dramaturgies informed by a Deaf and disability perspective.’

Kaite O’Reilly

Abstract:   How do we ‘write’ disability? Is it in the aesthetic, the narratives, the content, the form, or the bodies of the performers? This paper seeks to introduce ‘alternative dramaturgies, informed by a Deaf and disability perspective’, exploring some of the dramaturgical developments I have initiated as a playwright working within disability arts and Deaf culture since 1987. Alternative? To the mainstream, hearing, non-disabled perspective, and by ‘alternative dramaturgies’ I mean the processes, structures, content and form which reinvent, subvert or critique ‘traditional’ or ’conventional’ representations, narratives, and dramatic structures in performance.

Much of my work as a playwright and theatre maker explores issues of how distinctive Deaf and disability cultures operate with, against, and/or in opposition to ‘mainstream’ or ‘dominant’ cultural paradigms. The paper will raise questions on the dynamic between majority and disability culture, and signed and spoken languages, looking at the interface and relationship between hearing majority culture and Deaf culture, and experiments in bilingualism between spoken/projected English and theatricalised BSL (British Sign Language).

This paper aims to reflect on my work exploring alternative dramaturgies regarding the aesthetic, content, form, processes, and narratives in a series of my past works, including peeling (Graeae Theatre 2002) and In Praise of Fallen Women (The Fingersmiths Ltd, 2006).


Copies can be obtained through the director, Omar Fertat, Horizons/Theatre omar.fertat@u-bordeaux-montaigne.fr

20 Questions…. Rosaleen McDonagh

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_photoRosaleen 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 review of Mainstream: http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/rosaleen-mcdonagh-mainstream

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

On the road… A dramaturg in Dublin

O'Reilly's feet on the brass plaque from James Joyce's 'Ulysses', O'Connell bridge, Dublin.

O’Reilly’s feet on the brass plaque from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, O’Connell bridge, Dublin.

Writing can be a lonely business. One of the joys of my work is when I dramaturg another playwright’s script, or mentor them through a particular project or phase of development in their career.

For many months I have been working with Rosaleen McDonagh as she writes ‘Protégé’. It’s been a fascinating process working closely on a complex script, interweaving Traveller aesthetics with disability culture. During the past two days it has been my great pleasure to be in Dublin working with Rosaleen and Fishamable Theatre Company on what I feel could be an important play.

I’ve worked with Rosaleen before, as dramaturg on her forthcoming play ‘Mainstream’ and I included an extract from her play ‘Baby Doll’ in ‘Face On: Disability Arts In Ireland and Beyond’ which I edited for ADI/Create. Rosaleen is a force to be reckoned with in a city and country that has very little disability arts and culture – that is, work led and made by disabled artists which is invariably, but not exclusively, political, reflecting the experience of living in a disabling world. Ireland followed a different model to the civil rights movement that the UK and American disability cultures grew out of.  It is owing to Rosaleen’s engagement with disability culture and her knowledge of Traveller culture that makes her work so fascinating and unique.

Working alongside Jim Culleton, the artistic director of Fishamble Theatre Company, we have been communicating and giving feedback via email – a skill in itself owing to the difficulties of interpreting ‘tone’ and discussing minutiae online. How refreshing, then, to finally gather in one place and explore the words on the page in ‘meat space’ rather than cyber.

Jim and Rosaleen, Fishamble Theatre Company, Dublin

Jim and Rosaleen, Fishamble Theatre Company, Dublin

Jim gathered a terrific group of actors to work on the script – Mary Murray, Don Whycherly, John Connors and Cathy Belton – and joined by Fishamble’s producer  Marketa Dowling and literary officer, Gavin Kostick, we began reading the script. Hearing a script read aloud is aways an astonishing moment for a playwright, regardless of experience. It can be emotionally overwhelming, alienating, and surprising. The actors created an immediate and powerful dynamic, shifting effortlessly between roles, presentation modes, theatrical conventions and styles. An intense and lively discussion followed, where the gathered company explored with Rosaleen the many options open to her in revision.

Rosaleen and Fergus presenting their work

Rosaleen and Fergus presenting their work

Apart from working on the script, Rosaleen has been experimenting with form and developing her dance skills, creating a movement piece with Fergus Byrne.

The dance piece explores the more challenging and often disturbing relationship between the medical profession and the atypical body, and the power relationships and abuse which can arise within institutionalisation. This shares themes in ‘Protege’ but both Jim and I felt that, further developed, it could be a stand alone piece in its own right.

Rosaleen and Fergus receiving feedback

Rosaleen and Fergus receiving feedback

Working with Rosaleen, Jim, Fergus and Fishamble, I’m reminded again of the exceptional dynamic of generosity, trust and respect which is required to make this kind of developmental work. The material is unfinished, in progress, and not yet robust, so if not handled carefully, there could be casualties. After a brilliant, engaged, enthralling two days we parted with kisses and laughter, our heads in a spin from the breadth of the material explored. It was not just Rosaleen with much to think about.