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  • You Had To Be There:Irish Theater in 2011
  • Kathryn Rebecca Van Winkle

In 2011, Irish theater struck out for new territory. Despite austerity's pinch, the prevailing mood was one of expansion. From the Magdalene Laundries to the Derry Guildhall, the banks of the Lagan to the Grand Canal Quay, Irish theater-makers inhabited new and unconventional spaces. Belfast welcomed a state-of-the-art new theater building and Dublin opened the nation's first professional drama academy. And with a few exceptions—Druid's chilling Big Maggie, the Abbey's stylish Pygmalion, and the new Lyric's thunderous The Crucible—the most accomplished productions of the year were site-specific, documentary, im-mersive, silent, or solo.

None of these techniques is exactly a novelty in Irish theater, but 2011 marked a profound phase of maturation. Many groups and artists contributed to a year of Irish work based neither on a stage nor in a literary text. When their work succeeded, it was very, very good—not experimental, but masterful. For its part in propelling this movement, Fintan O'Toole recognized the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival, which ran from September 29 to October 16, as "the most significant in 30 years."1 He described the new movement as "magic hyper-realism," noting the frequent abandonment of "one or more of the basic elements of drama: a text, a theatre, an audience and a performer," and the commitment to the hidden, the documentary, the physical, and the place.

The festival organized a selection of its events under the name "Behind Closed Doors." These intimate, site-specific pieces used the most public of art forms to penetrate and illuminate the most private of spaces.

The term "site-specific" is used generically for any production performed outside a conventional theater venue. It is often more interactive or immersive than traditional theater, and frequently intersects with "environmental" theater, which abolishes the distinction between the space of the performers and that of the audience, and "promenade" theater, in which the audience moves through-out [End Page 133] the space, following the action or viewing it from different vantage points. Many historical forms of performance could be understood as site-specific, from the Ramayana in Uttar Pradesh—which covers three square miles over thirty-one days—to the medieval York Mysteries, when craft guilds paraded and performed biblical scenes at twelve sites throughout the city. But the term itself was coined in the early 1980s, and originally denoted a performance that was generated from or for the site itself, and was, therefore, inextricable from that space. Such site-responsive theatre attempts to engage with the layers of meaning— historical, architectural, aesthetic, cultural, residential, and so on—already located in a site.2

The Gloucester Street Magdalene Convent was the site of the most momentous Irish production of 2011. The convent closed in 1996, just a year after admitting its last "inmates": prostitutes, unmarried mothers, flirtatious girls, and mentally challenged women who were imprisoned, forced into silence and hard labor, abused, and sometimes buried in unmarked graves. Laundry, created and directed by Louise Lowe, won the title of best production of the year at the Irish Times Theatre Awards for its poetic, inexorable excavation of hidden history. ANU Productions opened the doors of the building to groups of three audience members at a time, plunging them into individual circuits of poetic but almost unbearable encounters with inmates, nuns, and relatives. The slam of heavy doors and the smell of carbolic soap infused this excavation of hidden history with a threatening atmosphere of reality. Each witness, surrounded by "Maggies" with hands scrubbed red and raw and glassy stares, was commanded to carry a steel bucket into a chamber where a woman bathed under supervision. Each sat in the chapel, discovered a cabinet full of women's hair, and heard a recitation of human rights. Lowe masterfully balanced testimony, physicality, and the myriad technical demands of staging looping scenes within a rambling nontheatrical space.

The spectators had various opportunities to interact with the performers, from whistling in the confession box and playing a prank on a nun to holding the hand of a widow as she whispered her...


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