ROOM CONVERSATION 09.09.2020
Stace Gill and Maria Nilsson Waller (Flora Fauna Project, Glendalough, Ireland)
Veronica Dyas (Theatre Practicioner, Dublin, Ireland )
community, dublin, jobs, youth theatre, practice, life, drama, writing, body, called, artist, people, dance, trauma,
Veronica Dyas: Okay, thanks very much for having me. Lovely to be here in the ROOM. I started in theatre from as far back as I can remember. I used to make up and direct plays in primary school, and I used to get the older people in my class to do what I wanted them to do for the little shows that we put on in our bedrooms and in the flats and, and in the classroom sometimes.
Then my mother brought me to the Liberty's Music and Drama Society on Meath Street, it was in the little Flower Hall. And it was run by an amazing community activist called Madge Clabby. So she used to come in and teach us the dance routines, and it was mostly devised work, although we wouldn't have called it devised work at the time. We used to go in to do competitions. I had one of the programs from that in my drawer in my office in ITI. So I took that home the other day to put in to my scrapbook. So we used to go up against different community drama groups, and the Billy Berries and all them. And we used to have an ongoing rivalry and strong rivalry with the Billy Berries, because we were from the inner city [ the Liberties, Dublin city]. And it was a very different thing. Yeah, so from the time I think I was six when I started there. And we did like parades; we did the Liberties Festival every year; we did the Tops of the Towns, all that kind of stuff. It was just-- it was an absolutely fantastic thing to be part of. Like it was huge at the time, like it was about, at any time, there was probably about 40 members, like 40 kids from the age of six up to 18 in a community hall. Yeah, it was amazing.
[ Dublin Youth Theatre]
Veronica: Then I joined Dublin Youth Theatre (DYT). And in the meantime, after I was-- between the time (I was still joking about this)-- between the time I was in the Liberty Music and Drama and DYT my Uncle Pat became an actor. So he's a visual artist, and his brother Tighe is a visual artist. So there was always art around us in the family. And me granny on the other side was also an artist. And she would have been like, self-taught outsider artist, even you could describe her as, but she wrote poetry as well and she was very socially conscious. My dad's brother, Eamonn would have been, like one of the inaugural members of the Communist Party in Ireland in the 60s, lived in a commune and all that kind of stuff, had a really good friend from the northeasterners. He is an activist still. And so I would have grown up with a very socially conscious mind frame or frame of mind or whatever, and DYT changed and saved me life. And so I was a member of DYT for about three years actively. Then I kind of fell off the planet and went on me own journey and kind of got lost in drink and drugs and the rave scene of that time. And it took me a long time to come back to myself from that I suppose. So I kind of lost touch with DYT and the people that I was with in Dublin Youth Theatre and stuff. The process of that journey back to myself, I suppose, necessitated me having a job as a cleaner for a number of years, having a job in Dunnes Stores head office, and then going to work in health services for nearly 10 years.
Veronica: When I got to work, I started in the finance department to James's. But when I got to the social work department, the social workers, I always say this, I described it as they saw me before I saw myself and they encouraged me to kind of go back to my creativity. So I'd never stopped writing through all of that, those periods, but I hadn't done-- I hadn't made anything in the world as such. And so I started saving up my annual leave to do shows and I'd take time off work and I'd write and direct a show. Two of them I did. And then the social workers were like, you need to apply to college. They helped me apply because it was so alien to me, like the only person who had gone to college in our family were the two boys-- the two uncles-- all the women on my ma's side were told to leave school at 14 and get jobs, like. But the boys were allowed to go on to higher education and both of them.. their dad worked in Guiness's all his life-- they were strongly encouraged to go and get jobs in Guiness's that were permanent and pensionable. And both of them went to art college, which phenomenally changed my life. Because if they were in art college, I was like, 10 years younger than the youngest. So I was brought to the end of year exhibitions, and I was brought to all the galleries in Dublin. And my ma was also very culturally aware, like, and she went back to college as a mature student, which also had an impact, because then I knew it was possible. Because when I was going to school, when we went to career guidance, we were told to be hairdressers. That was as much as was seen for us, you know, that was like the '80s. And even, even up to leaving cert there wasn't a sense that there was another possibility, but I had that kind of family life that showed that was another way of living, I suppose.
Stace Gill: You knew what was possible.
Veronica: I knew what was possible. Yeah, but I'd known it I suppose from the time of Liberties Music and Drama, and that was a group of community volunteers running that. Like, you know, there was no funding and as far as I know, like, they might got, you know, local support from the shops or, you know, and, and there were fees, which were something like two pound or something or a pound a week or something like that, you know. So they did it for the community, you know, and so many young people were saved through that.
Veronica: I think my first practice was writing, they always writ-- wrote-- writ [laughs]. I was written. I always wrote, like, from the time I learned to write.
Stace: You do be written!
[Practice of writing]
Veronica: I do be always writing. I just always did it. Like, it's bizarre, I just don't know. I always wrote like. My uncle Pat, who's a visual artist and an actor. He gave me a notebook, which I still have, and he wrote in an Arseny Tarkovsky poem in the front of it: "Now summer is gone / And might never have been / In the sunshine's it's warm / But there has to be more." And he did a little painting. And that was when I was 12, I think. And since that notebook, I have like, loads of them since then. But just always written whether it was shit poetry, or, you know, just prose or just stream of consciousness, like, like, I have notebooks [from] the last few years that are just like a stream of consciousness lists. You know what I mean? They're not-- because I tend to write on the computer now, which I didn't used to do at all. And so that was just, that was my form. I think I was inspired by James Joyce, like he was my favorite. And for me Junior Cert-- we were forced to do Junior Cert and Inter Cert. And I had this amazing teacher called Mr. Pollard. And when everyone else was doing whatever they say, text was, he let me do Portrait of the Artist.
Stace: Ahh, that book!
Veronica: Like, I was 15 and he used to bring me up to the front of the class and he'd work with me on Portrait of the Artist. It was unbelievable. So I did my whole project for the Inter Cert on James Joyce. Yeah, I was very lucky. Yeah.
[ The value of community work]
Stace: Do you feel that, because you've gone on to do incorporate so much community work into yourpractice, Is that because of what the theatre group did for you?
Veronica: Could be.
Stace: Is it because you saw what was possible for you? And if it was possible for you, that means it's possible for everybody else?
Veronica: Yeah. I knew the value of it. I knew the value of being the kid that wasn't into sport or, you know, whatever it is, like, fashion or whatever it was the time that I was into art and creativity and I knew the value of somebody from where I was from having that access. Yeah. 100%. From the beginning, like, even before I you know-- I knew my granny painted my, granny Dyas, like my Dad's Ma. She taught herself to paint by chewing the top of the matchstick when they were still living in the tenements. Like, she literally chewed the top of the matchstick to make a paintbrush and had little poster paints, you know. She taught herself from that. And when she was old, she ended up teaching the old folks in Ballyfermot and we used to be laughing going, you know, you want to say, you are the same age as them [laughs]. But you know, there was always that community aspect in my life like, so I knew the value of it. And I knew that Dublin Youth Theatre saved my life as a teenager. I knew that. And loads of people that came through DYT would say, when you meet them, you might not even know them, you just know of them. Because you know, they're a DYTer. And you'd say to each other, it saved my life. And they'd be like, yeah, you know, or they'd say it and I would say it... Yeah, you know, so I knew the value of an intervention, a creative or artistic intervention in someone's life. Yeah.
Maria Nilsson Waller: I was gonna ask, in what way did it save your life? Like, what is the intervention?
Stace: What is it intervening, though? Like, what is it about? Obviously, it's the community aspect of being part of a group of people who aren't, who are trying to protect people from ending up on drugs, or ending up in crime or ending up in gangs or whatever it is, because definitely in, in areas that I grew up in, the youth clubs, and when adults took an interest in the young people for real, and started trying to mentor through any form of creativity, it did keep you off the streets. I know that's a cliche, but so there is that element, but what on a deeper level? Is it about the creativity, and specifically it's theatre, in your case? Can you say what it is about theatre, writing, drama, all of that that somehow saved you.
Veronica: It was the freedom to be yourself, really. It was the freedom to be in a space that you are not only allowed to be yourself, but it was promoted, like it was encouraged and facilitated. Like one of my facilitators in Dublin Youth Theatre was Veronica Coburn, who, you know, I don't know if she'd say she was a formal mentor to me, but she was certainly a mentor in my head, you know what I mean? Like, I aspired to be like her. I still aspire to be like her. She's a phenomenal facilitator, like, she's just phenomenal. And I, I was 14, when, you know, I was in DYT-- 13 or 14 when I started. And it wasn't just that you were, you were, you know, it was encouraged that you be your authentic self through the practice. So Veronica would be a clown expert, of you know, that's probably not the right word, but her practice would be clown. And that whole ideology would come through, and how she held the space and created the space for us to be free. So I suppose it was the freedom to be yourself, but also in the integral potential in that because anything is possible, then, if you're allowed to be yourself, you know. Because there was nowhere else in my life that I was able to be myself at that time. Like, I wasn't able to be myself like I'm sitting here now, at that time. You know, there were too many conditions. There was, you know, being in a Catholic School; there was the nuns; there was the violence; there was the absolute abject poverty that we were experiencing to some degree that was in the community I lived in. And it seemed like that was a, it was a beacon of hope, like, it was like a space that was absolutely full of potential.
Stace: That seems to be very important in your work, being authentic. Your artistic statement-- I've been reading it over and over and over again. Because it doesn't, I was saying today, it doesn't sound like a theatre practitioner, a director, a playwright. It sounds like a leader and a teacher to me. And I was thinking it would be amazing if more people actually made these statements for themselves, particularly in a position of facilitation, teaching, guiding, whether it's creative or educational. You talk about in the statement, that the intention is to be authentic, to be present, to be yourself. What do you think in the society that you grew up in was stopping that from happening?
Veronica: Trauma, I think. Like, beneath all the kind of socio political things you can point to-- like poverty and, you know, crime and you know, structural abuses-- under that is trauma. It's generations and generations of trauma that people are...
Stace: Ancestral as well as personal.
Stace: So you're dealing with all the adults around you.
Stace: Whether it's teachers, parents, aunts, uncles, whoever it is in your life. The people on your street.
Stace: Everybody's under the same.
Veronica: Yeah, I think it's trauma.
Stace: Maria was saying today talking about the body practice and theatre. I feel like that's probably got something to do with the healing.
Veronica: Yeah, 100%.
Stace: The being present and the being authentic. Because when you're in a theatre space or a youth theatre group, any space, eh, to be your authentic self, you have to land in your body, somehow. And theatre probably gives some sort of...
Stace: ...for that to happen. Can you explain more about how theatre can bring you into your body? Or what the body practice is of theatre? Because, I haven't worked in theatre very long and it's dance-theatre so it's all body.
Stace: But in regular theatre practice, what would you say is the body practice? What's your body practice?
[ Body practice ]
Veronica: I suppose is different in every theatre setting. Some of the more traditional, like play- based work would be roundtable and then get up and block out the scenes, you know what I mean? And build it into a play that the audience sees and the same thing happens every night. That's not generally what I do, or what a lot of the people I'd work with do. I always use dance in my practice. Not necessarily that I would dance in the end on stage, but I would always, always dance in making work. And I would always, always dance in preparation to go onstage like, that is my ritual. Like, I have my music on, and I'm dancing, and I have the "stay in the love meditation dance" that I perfected over a long period of time, you know. That. When we were with myself and my sister were doing a show in Manchester called the "Dyas Sisters," one of the exercises one of the provocations led to me trying to explain what the stay-in-the-love dance meditation is. And Dylan and I ended up making, he was working with us in Manchester, and he ended up making a song, which I then-- this was like something we were talking about earlier today-- like, sometimes the thing doesn't go anywhere. That show got canceled. It was probably ostensibly one of the biggest failures of our careers.[laugh] And yet, everything that we did after was impacted through that.
[ Here & Now ]
Veronica: So "Pass the Love" Dylan wrote and I used it in every version of "Here and Now" after that, you know what I mean? I danced in "Here and Now" in the woman in Project Upstairs deliberately to dance as I was in that moment, do you know what I mean? So Ella Clark [dance artist] came in and worked with me that time, and she-- I described it as she un stuck me, because I was so up in my head. That I'd been moved from what I-- I thought I was going to be doing the show in the Cube [Project Arts Centre, Dublin] and then I was put in the space upstairs. I was under a lot of pressure. I had a huge group of collaborators, which was part of it, because I'd come back from the Camino and I was trying to-- basically we were trying to find a way to all be in our dream at the same time. That was the impetus, which was largely successful, but it was stressful, you know. I was doing in installation in the day, like 12 hours or something like that -- nearly eight hours maybe -- upstairs and installation that was interactive with people that came in and then I had three performance, live performances, at the end of that week and then it culminated in a walk to the sea.
Veronica: Had I known in advance what physically that was going to be, that kind of eight-hour durational, anyone could walk in the door and you're engaging with them in your shop, you know, you're bringing them through the space. It was very physically delineated space. Lian Bell helps me to you know, from her design practice, helps me to kind of figure it out. But had I known that I was going to be like that, I would have just done that. There was no need for me to be doing three live performances as well. And you know, I just, but you don't know those things until you put your body in that place. But my intention-- Ella Clark had told me about Deborah Hay and I had been kind of trying to figure her out for a while. And she-- I've worked with her somewhere along the way very briefly with someone else's work. I can't remember how I met her. But the intention there was, this is the moment where I danced, this is after I say the big thing, and I'm gonna dance in this moment and whatever way that happens will be whatever. You know? So it wasn't choreographed. It was literally trying to be real at the time, you know. In the previous version of that, I had invited the whole audience down on stage, this was all that signified me when I gave away everything except what I needed to live here and now. That was the ritual to mark the end of that. I invited the audience down onto the stage to dance on a spiral of letters I got from the bank about my house and being evicted, and or not being evicted but having to sell it basically, because it was negative equity and it was my response to that. But I made a spiral out of all the letters, hundreds of them on the floor, and I invited the audience down to dance for all the others. At that time, there was another 96,000 people in mortgage arrears in Ireland, and nobody was talking about because I don't know, I just didn't seem to be nothing happening with it. And it was a ritual, you know, and the whole audience came down. So yeah, the, I don't know how to like, like, there's people like Veronica Colborne, that would have a very physical practice. Like, it would be clear, this is the form, you know, I've worked through clown or I am a clown, like Raymond Kane would say, or whatever.
Veronica: But for me, it's always been more like, I went to RAD [Royal Academy of Drama, London UK] to do my masters. In RADa and kings [King's College, London UK], we had this amazing like, dichotomy between, like, traditional, RADa based form, and, you know, craft, and then this, this mad radical contemporary practice in Kings, kind of intellectual based and academic base. And so I had this amazing dance teacher, and we called him Dr. Dance. And he, Darren Royston. He was brilliant. So he had to teach us like Victorian dance. So like, you're talking about actors going through there that ending up in the Royal Shakespeare... you know, that means they have to have all those kinds of technical [skills] by robots, almost. And he introduced us to Laban and I was like this is fucking deadly like, the kinosphere and this, you know, I loved it. And then he was like, you know, right up there. As part of our assessment, I ended up writing a poem called "I am a physical anarchist." So I can feel all that stuff. But I can't-- if you give me a set of moves, I can't... But it's integral to how I work, like. It's absolutely part of my practice. But I couldn't learn a waltz. I'd imagine I couldn't, never tried. But it's always there. It's always there. And when I was doing "In my bed" the time before the show and the time in between, because I was doing two shows a night the first time, I just put my headphones in and put on Aslan and I danced through the whole space. And I use that kind of physical meditation to transmute the energy before the audience came in, like. So there is a whole thing, the same in Axis [venue in Ballymun] with "My Son, My Son," we had a number of technical problems that day, it was a one day get in and chill situation. And at one stage, there was a problem with the projector and it was going on a long time-- the production manager and the stage manager were dealing with it and I was on the stairs dancing. And at one stage they came and said, "It's not going to work-- the projector." It was a very small aspect of the show in my head at that point because Ballymon--I had worked there for years, there was a lot of energy, there was a lot going on there. And the work I was bringing in was fundamentally inspired, in part, by that lived experience of working there in the community, like in the youth service. And I just kept dancing. I was like, "it's grand, forget about the projector. I'm really focused here on changing the energy." Like, there's no dancing in that show. You know what I mean? But that show couldn't happen without dancing and like, I can't go on stage without dancing. It's bizarre, like.
Maria: Wow. Amazing.
Veronica: But I'm trying to-- that's the thing. Because it's not always-- it's a way of me getting into my body. It's not always possible for me to be in my body.
Stace: This was my next question from what you're saying. What I have found with art, with all the different ways that I've engaged with creative practice from singing to writing, and dance was the one that really flipped me upside down and inside out, it sounds to me like the theatre practice, or whatever practice you're involved in-- today, we're talking about theatre-- it's a way of staying in the body of facing the trauma, somehow, without having to look it in the eye directly. Like even the dancing on the letters, you know, it's a way of facing it, dealing with it, getting people to come together on that issue.
Maria: I think there's something to trauma as well, like it's in the body
Maria: So, you can deal with the trauma, intellectually or conceptually or whatever, you can have a great understanding. And maybe you can even you know, have come to a point of forgiveness or have a you know, acceptance. But if you haven't dealt with the body, it's actually still stuck.
Maria: and I think you can, in vice versa, you can come at it from just the body as well. You can actually start shaking your body and a lot of things will loosen also in there. So I mean, there's something-- we've been working with the kids in Ballyfermot actually. We had a project with a lot of 10 year old kids, and especially the girls, in the warm up exercises, as soon as we get to kind of moving anything kind of like hips and pelvic area, they are only children, and they still...
Stace: They're already embarassed.
Maria: ...they cannot access this part of their body because for some reason that they don't even understand it is off limits.
Veronica: Yeah, yeah. It's been segregated. Separated. Yeah.
Stace: 10 year old bodies. Ancestral shame.
Stace: Even a modern 10 year old, still has that.
Veronica: And the body remembers, that was the whole premise of "In My Bed." The body remembers, like the trauma is in the body. It can't be healed just by sitting in analysis for, you know, can't be healed just through counselling. And it's also that thing like, when I was down "Here and Now," I met Dr. Neilshaw. You know, she's a scientist, artist. She's amazing. She wants to be the first Irish woman in space and I've no doubt that she's going to achieve it. But she talked to me about this idea about DNA as plastic. So, before they thought it was all set. But scientifically, we know now that it's plastic. So when you, for instance, if you were given birth and there's a scarcity of foods, for a period of time, the child will scientifically grow up to have heart disease, because they'll accumulate fat around the heart. You know what I mean? That there's a, that the child is absorbing, even in the womb, like it's plastic, it's not set in stone, what's your going to be for the rest of your life, like. It was fascinating to me. And I and that makes 100% sense to me because the intergenerational-- like the famine, we're not over that. Like they say it takes seven generations or something like that. We haven't, had a chance to get over any of the traumas.
Veronica: And the trauma kept happening. So it's like, growing up in the inner city, it's like one of the lines in "My Son, My Son" was there's a lot of drama in our lives, do you know what I mean? That was part of the introduction. You know, because every day, there'd be something else to deal with. Like, you know, in primary school and over the summer, everyone's older brother and sister was on heroin. Like that's a trauma, whether you're on it or not. That's because you're seeing something happened to people that you know, are your community and you're going what? It's totally surreal as a child to witness that, you know what I mean?
Stace: It was like waking up with The Walking Dead.
Veronica: Yeah, yeah.
Stace: Literally outside on the streets. Your neighbours, your friends.
Stace: Your friends.
Veronica: Your family friends.
Stace: Yeah, family.
Stace: All of a sudden literally look like The Walking Dead.
Veronica: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It's always the drama. Then when you're in that kind of trauma, for me anyway, I realized in recovery that I was addicted to the drama. You know what I mean? Because that's what I know. So if there's drama, I know how to handle this, because I'm in survival mode. It was very hard to let go of the drama and go actually what what's going-- you know, what is this? Like? What am I here for? What do I want? What do I need? What can I do? You know, from a place of strength. It's much easier to stay in the drama because that's what the brain has, you know, been conditioned to understand. Well, I suppose the thing about the trauma is that it's very hard to face it oneself, you know. So as a society then to start trying to break that down. And it's an awful lot easier for the kind of succinct narrative in the last few years of neoliberal saying, you know, hating on the poor, you know, making it our fault that this is happening with no understanding of the generational structural problems that created all that. So it's much easier to blame and shame people for being oppressed than to actually go, this is all of our responsibility, and actually, I only have me gaf [house] because of this. And, you know, I only got to college because my dad did, you know, we just happened to be born into, you know, a family that facilitated him being a doctor or whatever. I mean, just picking him as one example. But that kind of narrative that says, I have a right to this. Those people over there are bad, which is kind of, simple as it sounds, is how we're being dealt with, like for a long, long time, you know.
Stace: It also turns the community on themselves.
Veronica: Exactly. And it perpetuates shame.
Stace: That's one of the worst things that I found. What's possible in those communities is exactly what's possible in any other community. It's just they have a really-- they have a much harder time getting there.
Veronica: Yeah. Yeah.
Stace: You know?
Veronica: Because the conditions aren't accessible.
Stace: Because the conditions aren't readily accessible within themselves even. The battle to even get that person to the table is so huge that just the achievement of getting themselves into the room...
Veronica: Because we didn't know the table existed.
Stace: Yeah, totally.
Veronica: Like we innocently just were living our lives. And then at a certain point, you realize:oh, there's the table [laughs] in a room, that we're not-- we don't go into that room.. You know what I mean? Like, in 2008 and after that-- the [financial] crash and all, when I was doing "Here and Now" and losing the house and battling with the bank and all that, and trying to use that experience to look at the bigger picture-- I had conversations with members of my family, and they were like, "But we're not poor?" And I was like, but relative to what's there, we are absolutely dirt poor. Like, I mean, I'm not saying globally, I'm saying, you know, locally for now. But like our concept of what's available and possible is not expansive because we're not conditioned to be. We see people getting up early in the morning and gone to work and coming home wrecked from building sites or whatever, you know, post office or whatever, manual bodily jobs that was available to them, and eating their dinner. You know, we don't. And that's the majority of the communities where we grew up. So -- if they were lucky enough to have jobs through this third recession that we're in now. So we don't know about the room. We don't know about the table. We don't, you know, it takes enormous efforts to even get into the space where awareness-- it's unbelievable. It's also about like, get rid of the room, you know? The room should be everywhere. There shouldn't be a table. The hierarchy is absolutely wrong, and it's not even serving itself.
Stace: and I think Irish people are quite close still, in that. We still have an opportunity, I think in this country [Ireland], not to allow that divide to grow any bigger. Because we're still sound.
Veronica: Up to a point. But also, what gives me hope is that we're so small [in Ireland]. That if we can get our own shit together, imagine what a beacon of light we could be.