Mary Kelly: All That Is Needed Is The Agreement Between Story Teller And Audience

 In Interviews

Berlin-based actress and playwright Mary Kelly talks about about cultures embracing storytelling, the struggles of women then and now and Berlin’s transforming art scene. Mary Kelly will perform her play Two for a Girl, co-written with Noni Stapleton, on May 10th, 11th and 12th. To learn more about the play and buy tickets for Mary’s and Noni Stapleton’s Two for a Girl at theaterforum kreuzberg, visit Berlin English Repertory Theatre BERT.

Q: According to the written introduction to the play, Two for a Girl is “a homage to the intimacy and simplicity of traditional Irish theater.” While traditional Irish music and dancing have soared to unprecedented popularity throughout Europe in recent years, far less is known about the country’s theater tradition. Would you like to introduce our readers to the world of Irish theater and your sources of inspiration within it?

A: When I say it’s a homage to traditional Irish theatre, I mean it’s a homage to elements of it, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely. I also say the play is “…about the transformative power and necessity of being heard and bearing witness.” Traditional Irish theatre is a wide address, but I am referring to Seanchaís and Fitups in particular. A Seanchaí is a story-teller born out of ancient Celtic culture and had a number of functions and approaches to those functions in Irish society. The simplicity of the interaction with the Seanchaí, for me, is where the gold is. There is the teller, the information (story) and the listeners. The exchange can happen in a home, a pub or the side of the street. All that is needed is the agreement between story teller and audience. 

I’m drawn to cultures that value story-telling. You see it in their people and how they interact. You witness it in their public spaces and daily interactions and not just at the other side of a 40 Euro ticket and some heavy velvet curtains. If you come from a tradition of story-telling, then you inherit an understanding of what it means to listen. And if you understand this, then you know the value of the exchange. Therapists can tell you the value of it. People pay up to 200 EUR an hour to tell their stories and be listened to these days.

For over a century, up until I believe the 1970’s travelling theatre companies brought theatre to villages and rural communities around Ireland ensuring the people had access to professional theatre. The existence of the Fitups of course is inspiring, but also I like how lightly they travelled. How little it takes to tell a story. In the Irish theatre tradition I’m drawn to the intimacy and simplicity because I believe this heightens the exchange between story-teller and audience, and there’s not much more wonderful than that.

Q: Your play Unraveling the Ribbon was a success in Europe and the United States. It describes the respective fates of three women (or two women and a young girl) in different stages of their lives and relationships to other people. So you are clearly interested in females questioning and transforming the roles assigned to them. What do the women in your plays have in common, what separates them? 

A: I think you answered part of the question – yes, I believe the women in my plays question, and transform the roles assigned to them. And there is obviously a stage between the questioning and the transformation where the bite is, the struggle. I should say while I’m using the phrase “my plays” that I love collaborating. Two for a Girl was co-written with Noni Stapleton and Unravelling the Ribbon with Maureen White. 

What separates my female characters has often been a result of commission requirements. The Scarlet Web – a play commissioned by Big-Telly Theatre company – was inspired by the fact that Ireland has one of the most recent “witch” burnings, 1895. Bridget Cleary’s husband set her alight because he believed she was a fairy or it suited him to believe she was a fairy. Big-Telly asked me to write a play inspired by this story. I normally find people who’ve had the experience I want to write about and talk to them, whether I have funding to do so or not. For The Scarlet Web, interviews weren’t possible, except for one. My grandfather was born in 1889, so I got to drain my mother of all she heard about this time from him. Historically, I knew and read more about post famine times – the fearful atmosphere, the conflict within a lot of people between the desire and need to emigrate and the sense of obligation to stay and fight British rule. Many British landlords were burned out of their homes at the time.

Typically, it has been the “hysterical” women who get punished/burned/silenced, which usually means women who are reacting to oppression in a way that doesn’t suit the norms of the place and time. I found this time in Irish history to be rich in high stakes, and therefore drama. The story centres around a couple set to emigrate until the husband gets drawn into the fight for his country, the chance to own his own land. The wife who has created her own wealth through hard work and ingenuity tries to leave anyway. The brave, loud and bold women often didn’t make it. I have really digressed. The point I was trying to make is my female characters are separated by class, time and age, but have a lot more in common than not.  

It would be remiss of me not to mention and applaud the WakingTheFeminists movement in Ireland, a grassroots campaign that sprang from the rage voiced by thousands of people at the Irish National Theatre’s male-dominated 2016 programme. Predominantly female playwrights and actresses, including myself, poured fourth their experiences of exclusion in Irish theatre. What has followed was unimaginable at the time. The results urged all the leading and publically funded theatre companies to present their plans for addressing the glaring gender imbalance. The results are in the programming. The Irish Times recently published an article which outlines The Gate Theatre’s 2017-18 season under new artistic director Selina Cartmell: “Cartmell’s inaugural 2017-18 season explores the many guises of “the outsider”, in seven productions that feature female playwrights, directors and designers prominently.”

Writing plays about women, and especially marginalised women wasn’t the “trendy” choice when I started writing in my early 20’s. It kinda surprised me at the time because I wrote about women because I am a woman. I wrote about marginalised women because I wanted to research and hear voices we don’t often hear. I was genuinely interested, I wasn’t trying to write socially aware or inclusive theatre (although I was delighted to realise I had). But I became very aware that it wasn’t “cutting edge” or “daring” or “cool.” The plays did well because of unbiased publishers and of word of mouth, but their themes were far from a marketer’s dream. There is more room for these themes now. What a strange world we live in.

Q. Berlin has a flourishing Freie Theaterszene, over 400 independent ensembles exist alongside the state theaters. Yet it is widely feared that off-culture is in danger of getting gentrified out of the city and therefore marginalized. Cultural senator Klaus Lederer faced a lot of criticism in a recent statement of the Freie Szene, even though cultural funding has been increased by 15%. Are the prophecies of doom justified? 

A: Unfortunately, I believe they are. Rents are illegally high in Berlin now and they continue to soar without consequence for landlords. I now have to live outside the Ring which was not the case when I moved here in 2011. Living outside the Ring is no problem but what is a problem is that theatre and studio spaces inside the Ring are being bought up for real estate or are suffering from raised rents and therefore closing. So the scene itself is disappearing from the city. The scene that Berlin is famous for. The scene that draws tourists here. It’s pretty depressing when the scene that was partly responsible for bringing the attention and therefore finance to Berlin is the first thing to suffer and deteriorate under that same attention and finance.

Christophe Knoch, Filmmaker und Speaker for “Koalition der freien Szene Berlin” in his criticism of Klaus Lederer points out that the Freie Szene cannot partake in the success it helped create. He also explains how this 15% increase means nothing when you take the increase in the cultural budget and inflation into account. Knoche says Berlin is well on the way to becoming like Paris and New York where artists end up being banished from the city, thankfully it’s not close to this point yet but yes, the wrinkles are starting to show. 

I cross my fingers and press my thumbs that Theater Haus Mitte for example will remain what it is: dozens of rehearsal spaces for dancers and actors in the heart of Mitte with very low rental rates. As an Ausländer who has been welcomed and enjoyed the willingness of Germans to attend English theatre in large numbers and to be curious about Ireland and the Irish themes in my work, I hate to be critical of Berlin in any way. Germany is still one of the few countries in the world offering massively reduced rates for artist’s health insurance. It has 120 fully funded Opera Houses. There is something very sophisticated and civilised about living in a place that understands the importance of the Arts in the ways Berlin has and does, but it feels like one department isn’t speaking to the other and Berlin let itself be bought up in poorer times without thought or regulation.

If it becomes like Paris and New York then it’ll be an hostile place for artists and we’ll/they’ll go. I do wonder where.

Q: What are you currently working on? Any upcoming projects?

A: I’ll perform Two for a Girl at Theater Forum Kreuzberg this week on the 10th, 11th and 12th of May. There’ll be a post show discussion after the play on the 10th when I’ll talk about the research process for this play. I’ll perform it again as part of CRAW, a new and very exciting Irish Music and Arts Festival at Kultstätte Keller 22nd-24th of June. I’m also in charge of THEATRE for the festival and will be adding another Irish play (which I’ll direct) onto the bill in the next few weeks. The festival itself has an incredible line up of music, film, spoken word, art, and dance. It’ll be part of 48hours Neukölln and well worth a look. There are limited tickets to a lot of events so booking early is advised. I know I’m really flogging it here but my excitement is genuine. I love being part of a festival where I get to be around quality artists from other disciplines and the Irish element brings an added sense of community to it. It’s like running away with the circus for the weekend.

I think it will have that feel for the audience too. The theme of the festival, however, is not light hearted. Generally speaking, Irish people are angry with Ireland and the work being made is showing that. All events will be at Kultstätte Keller which is full of different spaces, nooks and crannies and there promises to be some real spectacle.

I am hoping to bring Two for a Girl to New York in January 2019 but that’s still to be confirmed. I’m also in the early stages of writing a new play – with Irish female voices. No surprises here.

Reminder: You can win tickets here on Irish Culture Events until May 9th, 6 p.m. by sharing our giveaway.

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