Artists Interviews

Each month we feature an in-depth exploration into a current project in order to share learning and provide insight into approaches to practice.

February 2011: Rhona Dunnett


Rhona Dunnett in conversation with Emelie FitzGibbon, Artistic Director / CEO of Graffiti Theatre Company, in February 2011.

About the artist

96858Emelie FitzGibbon is founder (1984) and Artistic Director of Graffiti Educational Theatre Company in Cork, Ireland. The company produces four substantial theatre tours per year (Primary, Post-Primary, Irish Language Primary and Early Learning), has three established attached Youth Theatre Companies and a wide-ranging Outreach Programme.
As a member of the Executive and as Chairperson, she has been involved with the National Association for Youth Drama for about twenty six years.
She is currently working on a new commission from Australian playwright, Angela Betzien and this transnational collaboration Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? was invited to be developed in New York this summer - one of only three and the only non-US play in the series. She is also working with the Associate Director to develop a piece of Theatre for the Youngest, Blátha Bána, and a pilot Early Years Arts Team.
For a full biography, click here.
I first met Emelie FitzGibbon at the old Graffiti offices on Pope’s Quay in Cork city when I was 16 years old. My brother and I were both members of Graffiti’s first youth theatre - Activate Youth Theatre. Along with Paddy O’Dwyer and Eilis Mullan, Emelie was involved in the beginnings of the youth theatre movement in Ireland and also in the beginning of my own youth theatre journey. Graffiti Theatre Company currently run three youth theatres and Emelie is a board member of NAYD.

About the project

Rhona: How did you first get involved in Youth Theatre and what drew you to the work?
Emelie: I first got involved in Youth Theatre with the Everyman Youth Theatre. I was very involved in theatre when I was in UCC and when I started teaching did some school musicals. They were the in-thing at the time. I also was involved with the Everyman Theatre Company, the amateur Theatre Company in Cork. They asked me if I would start this new thing that was coming out of Britain called youth theatre. I agreed to direct a piece for them. It was kind of a workshop/rehearsal; it wasn’t anything near as developed as we have now. I directed a production. When I look back at the cast now, there were a lot of people who went on to do a lot of work in the development of theatre in the Cork area, in general. I really enjoyed that and I was asked to continue it on the workshop level and that just didn’t work out. It was one of those things, I once called it in an article ‘desert blooms’; it was a great idea but it might have been slightly ahead of its time.

Rhona: You mentioned that the staff in the Everyman had been inspired by developments in Britain. How did they explain youth theatre to you at the time?
Emelie: I think it was young people putting on theatre, which would have been the definition at the time. Youth theatre and TIE and all that stuff were really vibrant in Britain in the 1970’s and early 80’s. It was beginning to fall apart by the mid-80’s because it had gone too left wing, you had to define yourself as Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyite before you ever defined your practice. At the same time, it was very influential. Gerry Barnes and Maurice O’Donohue who were working in the Cork Theatre Company at the time said there was this new thing and we think you might be interested in it. Gerry handed me some Pam Schweitzer Theatre in Education pieces so I thought I would try it for six months! There was knowledge that there was something particular about youth theatre and it might have developed because after the production we started some workshops, which were probably text based, I can’t remember exactly. The lure of getting involved in another production was too much. When we say youth theatre, they probably would have been classed as young practitioners at that stage as they were older than what we would call youth theatre now. They would have been out of school, some of them for a few years.

Rhona: And how did you move forward after that first youth theatre experience?
I have always been involved with young people teaching, developing, even at that time. I was working for the Cork Theatre Company. I was teaching in University at that time in the early 70’s and I got involved with the set up of the Cork Theatre Company and eventually just started directing for them. They were interested in a new form of theatre; Educational Theatre. I was also getting to be interested in process drama as it was called at the time, and Drama In Education and beginning to contribute lesson plans and that kind of thing in the development of new areas of work. I heard about this initiative and went up to Dublin to see what it was all about. Paddy O’Dwyer was involved in it and I had been in college with Paddy. It was actually a meeting of people who were interested in working with young people through drama. I can still see the room we were in. It was just an inspiration. Richie Ball from Navan brought down a class he had been working with and they were a class of lads and they improvised for about forty minutes and I was just blown away by it. I thought it was fantastic. These guys had just so much confidence and they were ordinary lads and I thought it was just great, very inspirational.

Rhona: And when was that Emelie?
Emelie: I ‘m not sure; I was trying to work it out. I would say it was about 1982 or ‘83 because I was beginning to move towards the idea of Children’s Theatre and Educational Theatre at that time and just feeling my way. I never jump into anything, that is the old academic training. (Laughs) Find out what you are going into before you go into it! So that was inspirational and then I was interested in the work of Dublin Youth Theatre that Paddy started at the time. Paddy and Eilis Mullan (former Director of NAYD) were working on it. DYT started in 1977 and it was the only thing on offer really at the time. I established Graffiti in 1984. It was always in the back of my mind to run a youth theatre again. It was a question of waiting for the right time. I think one of the interesting things that makes NAYD unique in its development, or certainly shaped its development, was the close relationship between people who loved Drama In Education and Youth Theatre. People who saw a crossover in the process of leading out young people, to bring out the confidence of the young people either in Educational Drama or in Youth Theatre. That is why I refuse to see too many camps, as there is a crossover in the philosophy.

Rhona: I was going to ask you about that. Because in Ireland over the last thirty years there has been a really close relationship between companies involved in Theatre in Education or Theatre For Young Audiences and Youth Theatre. It seems they have been closely married.
Emelie: Yes but I think even more important in terms of philosophy. It was the teachers, the educational drama people and the philosophy coming from practitioners such as Dorothy Heathcote and Cecily O’Neill, in particular. Those kinds of methodologies underpinned quite a lot of the early movement, largely driven by Paddy and Eilis as well, but I think that Paddy was seminal and it needs to be recognised. I think such methodologies shaped the work. It wasn’t just a case of ‘let’s put young people together and do a theatre piece’ which is a way of doing it and certainly was at the time. I think the people at the centre of the development were interested in the potential for the development of the young person, while not in any way negating the need for artistic standards.

Rhona: A lot of the people involved in the TIE world were also involved in developing youth theatre.
Emelie: That is true. TEAM was the first TIE Company but they never went down the youth theatre road. Graffiti developed a youth theatre and then Barnstorm Theatre Company came in after us. There were definitely crossovers.
Rhona: And you think that is based on a philosophy of working with young people?
Emelie: Yes. I think it is based on a philosophy of working with young people. I think it was very influential. If you look back at the early history of NAYD, you will see all those educational conferences. They were very important in the development of curriculum drama too, which was just beginning to develop at the time. It was people who valued the youth theatre methodology and were also involved with the educational drama methodology. I just think there was a synergy between the two, which fed into the development of practice on both sides but certainly into Youth Theatre.
Rhona: Thinking back to the early days of Graffiti then. You were creating work for young audiences there and then looking to set up a youth theatre. How did those two develop within Graffiti and how do they still sit beside each other in the company?
Emelie: They developed from a conversation I had with Nancy Swortzell! I had remained involved in youth theatre through NAYD, basically from that moment on the road to Damascus. (Laughs) I don’t know whether it was formalised as NAYD at that point but certainly I was involved soon after it was set up. That was one part of my life and needless to say I thought it would be wonderful to have a youth theatre but at that stage we were trying to get a professional theatre company established and that takes a lot of energy anyway. Nancy Swortzell was a very influential lady in Graffiti’s life. When I was teaching on the New York University Study Abroad Programme in Educational Drama, we were talking about developments and I said I would love to do is start a youth theatre. We had the personnel. Geraldine O’Neill, who went on to become Artistic Director of Activate Youth Theatre, had just started doing work with us at that time. Nancy said if we were to find a certain amount in the budget, we could do a youth theatre summer school, in association with NYU, the next year. Geraldine had already started Cat Knapps Youth Theatre in the Cat Club in Cork. Were you part of Cat Knapps?
Rhona: Yes I was in Cat Knapps.
Emelie: Cat Knapps came over then and kind of morphed into Activate Youth Theatre over about a year and a half. Activate took part with the New York University group in the summer school that following year.
Rhona: That was 1995 I think. It was my last summer of youth theatre!
Emelie: That’s right. Activate started to develop from there and became a very strong youth theatre, I think anyway, with good practice and doing an interesting range of work. It sounds ridiculous now, but it was very difficult to argue for a professional theatre company having an attached youth theatre at that time. There was an attitude of ‘why don’t you do what you are good at, why diversify’. Our approach was, if you have a group of people with a huge degree of experience, who are used to working with young people of all ages (from 7 to about 18 at that stage) in performance work and in workshops in schools why not put it into your youth theatre as well? It makes utter philosophical sense for companies such as ourselves and it makes practical sense in a country the size of Ireland to use those skills. At that stage there were very few youth theatres, they were only beginning to develop. There were the three big ones [Dublin Youth Theatre, Galway Youth Theatre and Waterford Youth Drama] and I suspect we were coming up next though there was Navan Youth Theatre and a few others at the time. It was all very dedicated and run a shoestring mostly. It became part of an entire philosophy of working for and with young people. Anything that fell within that remit, if we felt we had the capacity to do it and the ability to do it, we felt there was almost an obligation to do it. Rhona: It has developed a lot, so you have three separate youth theatres now under Graffiti?
Emelie: That’s right. It is always tight. There is no specific funding available for our youth theatre but it is acknowledged now that it is quite a successful model of mixed economy shall we call it, in the present climate! Economy is the wrong word but it is a very rich mix in that one part of the organisation feeds into another part of the organisation. The professional theatre company doing work with teenagers is enriched by the fact that there are teenagers in the building all the time. We are not re-inventing the wheel or going out to see what teenagers are thinking because there is always someone in the office is working with them. You get to know the zeitgeist very, very quickly. It is very enriching. I think having professionals around that can be called upon enriches the youth theatre. They now have a theatre to work in which is an enormous privilege for a youth theatre. It seems to be quite a good model, particularly for an organisation that works outside the capital, and needs to address particular needs in a particular area. In the last few years we have seen the growth of youth theatres in the Cork area, run by people who were with us too! Not that this is in any way inevitable; there are youth theatres in Cork being run by people who weren’t involved in Graffiti. I think there are around seven youth theatres now in the Cork area. There are probably even more when you go out further towards West Cork.

Rhona: You talked a bit there about some of the significant developments in youth theatre, so jumping back to the national picture what do you think were the big developments over the last thirty years?
Emelie: I was trying to work it out but I think the crucial thing is that it has happened in steps. It has been very strategic. I think there has been a huge growth in professionalism in the sector. There has been a big and sustained growth of practice and the theorising of that practice, which I think is significant and marked when I look at other countries. I think the continuous development of requirements in the field is also very good. It is constantly monitored. If we think there is a need for the upgrading of child protection guidelines, for example, that is done strategically. It is not rushed into; it’s not reactive all the time. There is a sense that it is needed. If it is felt there is a need for guidelines for travelling overseas, they are developed in a considered way. If there is a need to engage with the education sector, to become involved in conference work, that is done. If there is a perceived need to step back from it, that is done. These things are always done in a considered way with reference to the entire philosophy of NAYD and I think that is important. One of the significant developments is a recognition, and I think it was a gradual recognition, of the ‘theatre’ word in ‘youth theatre’. We have always been at pain to develop standards and I think people outside the sector are beginning to recognise good quality youth theatre.

Rhona: You mentioned at the beginning that you have seen an incredible development in the practice, so how do you think the practical drama work we do with young people has developed?
Emelie: I think it has developed by being open to new trends and fashions in theatre but also in workshop practice. I think that, referring back to people like Eilis Mullan and Paddy O’Dwyer, they were always aware of new ways of working. Both of them would have come from the Dublin Shakespeare Society, Eilis certainly did. Her background was theatre and literary theatre but she was also very open to process work. Paddy too was always looking outside, looking at Europe. He was an absolute theatre addict so new styles of theatre came in. I think that was very healthy. For example, we have just had a workshop here with Frantic Assembly, supported by NAYD. All of a sudden there is a kind of physical theatre vocabulary being developed and young people are using it. There have also been developments in Forum Theatre. I think there are many youth theatre practitioners, who are always aware of developments in theatre practice because they make sure they are aware of what other people are doing and have an openness in their work. There are lots of new trends coming in and people experimenting. There is the theatre company that came out of DYT; Theatre Club. Louise Lowe doing her site-interactive work in Ballymun and in other places. There is a kind of openness about the practice. There isn’t much to lose, I mean, in terms of the participants experimenting. That is the glory of youth theatre, you can experiment and you can fail. Nobody will think less of you if you fail trying to do something interesting. The worst thing is to have a bored youth theatre!

Rhona: Do you think that philosophy of how we work through youth theatre has remained the same?
Emelie: I think the philosophy has broadly remained the same, it has been refined and developed but at the core of NAYD is this valuing of the young person’s voice. I think you see that in something like the Young Critics Programme or trying to bring out new voices, for example playwrights. Again DYT has a very honourable commissioning level when you think of playwrights like Gerry Stembridge or Mark O’Rowe, those kinds of voices. Eilis and Paddy had a very good ear for the kind of writer that would be good for youth theatre. I think that there is a kind of doggedness that characterises NAYD; a commitment and a passion which I think thankfully goes on in the organisation and in the people who are involved on the Board and extends to something like ArtsTrain. There is a ‘coalition of the like-minded’; a phrase I came up with for it. It is never just a job. It is a coming together for the sake of something else, some other people, facilitating the voice of young people.

Rhona: What are your feelings about current youth theatre practice? What excites you?
Emelie: I love to see them trying new things. I love to hear work that youth theatre members have created themselves. I love to see the notices up in the space when they are devising, when the place is covered with arrows. I love hearing lines that they come up with. Here is an example from Fish Tank. They were devising last year, putting ideas into a fish bowl to see what they could come up with as drama pretexts. ‘She wondered what it would be like if that happened with colour.’ Isn’t it gorgeous, it opens everything up. In one sense it is like working with very small children, they are so open and so surreal in their imaginations. But with youth theatre there is obviously the control and the patterning they can bring to it but also this wild attitude; we could try anything.

Rhona: Younger groups can have a very surreal imagination that comes out in improvisation.
Emelie: I love watching it. Let’s say a kid has come in and they are really shy and the next thing you turn around and they are doing a major lead part and they are so confident and able to take the space. Your own brother was a great example. His shoulders were rounded and his gaze always down when he first came in and the next thing he was going off to a Drama Encounter in Helsinki off his own bat.
Rhona: He made friends with the Finnish group the year before and just decided to go! Looking ahead what are your fears and hopes for youth theatre in the coming years?
Emelie: My hopes are that it will go on developing and, paradoxically, the downturn in the economy will bring people back to youth theatre because I think we may have noticed a dip in youth theatre in the boom years when everyone went out and got jobs. The downturn might bring young people back to the values that youth theatre represents. I know that sounds like making the best of the downturn but that is what we saw in previous downturns. We saw more adults returning to volunteering and more young people looking for a place, I suppose, to express their own identity. My fears are that due to the downturn there will be no money to run the youth theatres. I think that is always a difficulty. Running the workshops is fine, if you can pay the staff. We have difficulties with the Fish Tank trying to get money, not to pay the core stuff but to pay for auxiliary stuff. This is despite the fact we would be regarded as very well funded by anybody outside struggling to keep a youth theatre going in their local hall etc. I fear that the standards of production, which I think are very important to validate the whole youth theatre experience, that they might suffer in the downturn. We never have the money to do the stunning productions, apart from the National Youth Theatre of course. That is hugely costly but it would be good to see that kind of practice validated because I think it validates the young person’s experience. It’s not for the ego of the director or the production house. It is just ensuring the members are seen in the best possible light and this is always the ambition of the good youth theatre. Money does play a part in it unfortunately.
Emelie: Can I go back and talk about the things I didn’t mention? There is just so much to talk about! Just going back to the steps that were important. There was the involvement in European organisations, led by Paddy, but also the development of National Festivals. Eilis developed them a lot. That was a way of bringing youth theatres together and I think it is very important because you had the little shoots in the wilderness scattered around the country and people not seeing each other’s practice. It isn’t exactly naval gazing because there was a want to see other people’s practice but a difficulty managing it. Again it came back to finance at that stage, when a youth theatre was just about in existence, how do you get the funds to bring them to see Galway Youth Theatre or another group? The development of a programme of facilitation in the guise of ArtsTrain was another important step. Those steps are always characterised by strategy taking the lead. I think that has been very important. When we had students from NYU, they were always overwhelmed by the organisation of NAYD and by the consideration of the organisation. Everything could be justified by reference to a core philosophy, by a core validation of practice. We published the handbook on youth theatre, a very important thing, we organised conferences on educational drama and put youth theatres in them as well. In the big international conference in 1998, Activate Youth Theatre performed. The involvement of strategic people such as Orlaith McBride, who keeps an eye on the larger picture, and this has always been NAYD’s approach, liaising with governmental agencies such as the Department of Education or now the Office of the Minister for Children, liaising with National Youth Council of Ireland, liaising with Dublin City Council. There is a sense that youth theatre is part of a bigger picture, it is not just that someone is pulling together young people and doing workshops with them. I think that is important.

Rhona: What are your favourite youth theatre memories?
Emelie: The problem is I have several favourite youth theatre memories! Richie Ball’s class at that very early event stayed with me. I remember several things in the Dublin Youth Theatre, when they worked in the house. I remember in particular taking a group to see an extract, I think it was from Juno and the Paycock. It was very moving. The intimacy of the room and the sense that the room was there when the events were really happening gave it a kind of extraordinary resonance. There was a wonderful National Youth Theatre production of The Crucible with an extraordinary cast and that stayed in my mind due to seeing a National Youth Theatre doing a big piece on a big stage and I thought that was wonderful. I have so many flashes of seeing young people performing who are now adults in all different walks of life, just little flashes of their confidence, their integrity and just feeling maybe I played a tiny part in them being there. I think that is wonderful. There is a funny story I have to tell you, going back to the Everyman Youth Theatre, which sadly never existed again. We did a production, it was called the Knacker’s ABC by Boris Vian about the Second World War that ends with the stage collapsing and one person being thrown into a pit. We had the pit in the Father Matthew Hall and I had cast one of the girls I was teaching in secondary school as the person who dies for France. All she had to do is stand at the side of the pit and say ‘vivre la France’ and jump into the pit and I can still see her doing it. Her name was Fiona Shaw! I think she was about second year at that stage. She was very good and threw herself face down into the mattress. I am sure Health and Safety wouldn’t like it these days!

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