What makes you feel sexy? What are your thoughts on porn? Do you think Irish drinking culture affects how we express our sexuality? These are some of the questions Co-directors Soirse Burns and Eimear Griffin asked the twenty young Irish people they interviewed during the research process for their new UCD Dramsoc production ‘Boys & Girls’.
The pair had originally decided, about a year ago, that they wanted to ‘write something together that discussed sexuality in an Irish context and we originally were brainstorming about the Magdalene laundries’. Eimear explained that the focus on the Magdalene Laundries came from ‘specifically the Tuam mother and baby home, cause my mom’s from Tuam. These are just accepted things that no one really talks about, which kind of goes with sexuality in general in Ireland.’
Discussions of the horrors of the history of sexuality in Ireland led them to make a more constructive resolution about the type of dramatic piece they wanted to create; something with ‘a focus on trying to be solution orientated rather than saying this is a problem, this is really bad, look at it more like; this is really bad, but we can do something to help it, we can look at it in a positive light.’
They choose to interview people aged between 18 and 25 years old, because ‘those are the key years for figuring out your sexuality, but no one talks about it, you’re meant to go in from like 17 years old knowing exactly what you like, knowing exactly what you want, knowing exactly who you like, and it’s bizarre because everyone’s just figuring it out, In the play we just hope to discuss it and get people to talk about it.’
Their original aim was to conduct 40 interviews, but, as interviews began to stretch beyond the 90-minute mark, they decided that 20 interviews was a much more achievable aim. ‘We thought it was important to root it in something that we knew and something that’s real, which is why we went for a research-based angle because if you’ve never really written before, which neither of us had, its kind of scary to make that leap’.
Soirse’s desire to use research as a foundation for socio-political themed theatre existed long before the seed of Boys & Girls was sown, ‘I loved interviewing people. When I was in India I interviewed alcohol sellers about alcoholism in their community, with my last play I interviewed a number of psychologists, a trainee doctor. We used the Theatre of Oppression approach; we performed a play about adults with intellectual disabilities done by actors who do not have intellectual disabilities in front of individuals who have intellectual disabilities. That’s where my passion for research-based theatre came from.’
There is a question as to whether this piece is political, especially when female sexuality in Ireland has historically been so overtly political, with issues like abortion, contraception and assault so present in the Irish female narrative. Eimear and Soirse have wondered about this too, ‘We had a discussion back when we were making the manifesto, about whether or not this is a feminist piece, and it’s interesting because I guess inherently it is, you can’t negate that. We don’t think about it from that perspective, but the fact that there are two women heading this project about sex and sexuality particularly from a female context and that it deals with subjects like love, heartbreak and assault, we wouldn’t think of it as a feminist piece, but it’s interesting that it becomes that inherently. In that sense, it is political by extension, but rooted in the personal.’
‘We really thought Catholicism would be a big theme but its almost like we’re very much focused on the product of it rather than actually it, so we wouldn’t talk about how Catholicism affects you, like how groups like Accord come into secondary schools but we’ll talk about how a girl could wake up the morning after having sex and feel a weird shame even though she wanted to have sex – Catholicism isn’t hit on in a super specific way in the play and it didn’t feel that big during the interviews either, but we very much got the sense that, after picking things apart with the cast, that its kind of almost omnipresent, it has permeated the Irish psyche and that’s not a revolutionary statement, everyone is aware of that.’
As for how the production will look, the aesthetic of Boys & Girls is described as ‘sickly sweet’ and overtly beautiful, aiming to find the universality in a surreal setting. Contrast is also relied upon heavily to force us to question our preconceptions. Soirse explains this with the example of a lollipop, ‘We have a few running motifs in the play, like the lollipop, to encompass innocence and the interpretation of something as sexual when it’s not, how females are always sexualised, even when you don’t want to be.’ Eimear makes a similar point when describing a particular photo she loves of ‘someone’s back and it’s covered in acne. It’s almost jarring that these images are matched with the pink hue because you’re not used to seeing them in this context or seeing them at all – we’re used to seeing airbrushed bodies and images of perfection.’ These images and symbols are asking us to confront our preconceived notions; why do we automatically sexualise innocence or not see the beauty in human features?
The production has an Instagram account that focuses on the gendered colour scheme of blues and pinks. Eimear explains that the ‘colour binary is informed by the name and the name came about because we were just interested initially… in examining interactions between male and female. Which makes it sound like we went into this wanting straight viewpoint which we never really did, but it’s not just in a sexual capacity, it’s in every capacity, how the patriarchy informs the way we conduct ourselves and how our relationships with men affect us and affect our psyche.’
Despite doing rehearsals with a number of feminist essays, the interviews have remained the cornerstone of the production. ‘The actors were briefed going into it that confidentiality was massively important and that they weren’t to discuss any of the details that came from the interviews outside of the rehearsal room.’
When using the interviews, the cast ‘divided them into different categories, for example, love and discussed what we liked about listening, what surprised us, anything that we disliked, any strong emotions that came from it, we would do different writing exercises or we would break off into pairs and do a movement based exercise, after that would try and apply a narrative to it or find meaning within the movement.’ The crew took part too, ‘It’s been a hugely collaborative process… As we’ve devised with the cast, we’ve devised with the crew too, they’re been completely present at the rehearsal process.’ It seems to have become a theatrical think tank of sorts, that encompassed every member of the production, well beyond just the cast.
But how will this grand collaborative process be translated to audiences? Well, the piece is primarily movement, but with occasional monologues and abstract dialogue. The co-directors say that the medium of the piece became movement organically, but in hindsight, it makes sense that sexuality would be explored through movement. An act that is primarily psychical has been filtered through words and perceptions to return, full circle, to physicality – a dramatic movement production. Without a linear plot, they would hesitate to call ‘Boys & Girls’ a ‘play’ and they poset that perhaps ‘piece’ is a better word, ‘It’s going to be very immersive, in terms of the set, the sound, the lights.’
Though both Soirse and Eimear agree that they hope to portray an experience of Irish sexuality that can be universal to audiences, they also recognise that they cannot speak for every young Irish person’s perspective, ‘Because this is our first venture into doing anything like this we wanted to root it in what we knew personally and what our cast members knew personally as well, so we haven’t really branched into anything like people of colour’s perspective’s or trans issues, because while I believe those things are so important in terms of representation, we wouldn’t want to do a disservice to anything like that, we felt it was right to start with what we knew ourselves.’
‘I do feel like in the process we’ve kind of discovered what we focused on heterosexual female-male relationships and lesbian relationships, bisexuality or asexual spectrum, demisexuality and pansexuality, because that’s what we found in rehearsals, and maybe in the future, we could expand to incorporate other sexualities.’
The piece is by no means the final product as Soirse and Eimear intend to continue their research, interviewing students and expanding their understanding of sexuality in the Irish context. It seems best to view the production of ‘Boys & Girls’ that will show in the Dramsoc Theatre this week as a snapshot – an abstract interpretation of Irish sexuality at this exact moment in time.
By Muireann O’Shea – CoEditor