Tinderbox Theatre Company's Hanna Slättne discusses the challenges of writing for theatre in turbulent times.

The political landscape is changing, comparisons to the rise of fascism in other times and places abound.

We know plays take a long time to write, to fundraise for and to produce, so it feels urgent that we think very carefully about what stories we are choosing to tell and how.

We are told we are all stuck in a bubble, an echo chamber where we only encounter people with similar opinions and outlook as ourselves. We are probably in a Northern Irish bubble and within that a Belfast bubble and then there is probably a further bubble within the bubble: a theatre bubble.

We know what the world looks like from within our bubble and the big question is how do we reach beyond it without compromising the things that are important to us within our own practice and our own values. The theatre blogs, newspapers and websites are full of articles about how necessary theatre is at this point in time. Giving advice on what kind of theatre we need. What kind of approaches and methodologies. In the wake of Brexit and Trump the consensus is that we need to reconnect with the grass roots. Reconnecting with the grass roots will not be the same in the US or the Midlands as it is here in Northern Ireland. Every place is different and every community communicates in different ways so how do we respond as theatre makers and writers in Belfast? What kind or stories, approaches and styles are we considering and working on?

Northern Ireland has a very fine tradition of genuine community and participatory theatre projects. Only a few weeks ago MACHA Productions mixed professional actors, community performers and politicians on the stage in their production Entitled. Last weekend Tinderbox presented Convergence: a showcase with 10 community groups exploring thing that were important to them and coming together to share each others stories. So theatre in Northern Ireland is firmly connected with the community. However every society needs its artists and as a theatre company Tinderbox has put writers at the centre of our work for the last 12 years, providing a platform for our artists to explore their chosen ideas and stories. Whilst connecting with the community we also need artistic freedom and we can have both. For us it’s never a choice between community and artists, between populism and elitism, rather the questions are: What are the stories for the next few years to take us through a turbulent time where the rhetoric of some of our leaders is playing on our various fears to divide us.

In the workshop Writing For Theatre that we are running in the Imagine! Festival we will be asking the big questions any theatre maker is most likely asking themselves at the moment: Shouldn’t a playwright just write what they feel passionate about without considering the audience? What is the role of the story teller and theatre in an increasingly divided society? How do we situate ourselves in a world where fact and fiction are becoming hard to separate?

Theatre is all about connection, it’s about showing the complexities of life and society, it’s about seeing the world through other peoples’ eyes and above all it’s about empathy. Do we need to think about how we achieve connection in new ways?

We are also very excited to present Famla by John McCann as part of The Imagine! Festival of Politics and Ideas. It’s a play full of ideas and relevance to Northern Ireland and to politics yet it came out of a memory, some voices and an old abandoned house. It’s a beautiful examples of new writing at its best firmly anchored in its time and place yet theatrical, beautiful and full of heart.

Hanna Slättne

The workshop Writing for the Theatre is Upstairs at The MAC on 23rd March at 2pm. Find out more here.

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