Oonagh Murphy and Identity LGBTQ support group
Funded by the Arts Council Artist in the Community Scheme
The Mouth of a Shark was a verbatim theatre art work which began as a series of workshops and conversations between artist Oonagh Murphy, and a community group of LGBTQ asylum seekers living in direct provision in Ireland. The work was developed as a collaborative experiment between a group of Irish artists, led by Murphy, under the collective, Change of Address, and culminated in an ambitious theatrical production featuring original music from composer Maeve Stone, as part of the Where We Live Festival, produced by Thisispopbaby in 2018.
Oonagh Murphy collaborated with Identity LGBTQ Support Group over a period of 9 months. Identity was established in 2016, emerging from the work of Change of Address collective, to meet a growing need for pastoral care and community-building for asylum seekers and refugees who identify as LGBTQ. The community met during that time on a bi-monthly basis, in connection with the Irish Refugee Council.
Over the course of the project, within creative workshops, many of the members of the community anecdotally shared experiences of persecution in their home countries, on the basis of their sexuality and gender expression.Oonagh invited a group of about 10 to be interviewed further for the project. This initial group was then further expanded to include a wider community choir made up of individuals with experience of displacement: some were asylum seekers, currently applying for status, some were refugees, and some were economic migrants.
By the end of the project, in production at Where We Live,the participants were a diverse group made up of Irish artists, members of the Identity group, and a community choir, collaborating over the course of 9 months (7 part-time and two full-time).
At the core of the project was an intent to create a theatrical archive of testimony of the voices of those who have been displaced because of persecution on the basis of who they are and who they love. As an medium-term community-based project, The Mouth of a Shark aimed
- to build a community of artists and makers;
- to foster a shared sense of solidarity between those living in Ireland from diverse cultures and ethnicities;
- to develop a methodology that allowed participants to be part of an ambitious theatrical project in a way that met their personal capacity over a range of months.
- To support non-professional artists through a development process, rehearsals and production, using a loose Theory of Change based on following principles:
- Individuals demonstrating more confidence in intrapersonal interactions and in performance
- Increased empowerment (the cathartic effect) of ‘telling one’s own story’.
- Greater group cohesion between the participants and disintegration of differentiation between members of one community and another.
The project aimed to tell a complex story of the contradiction of Ireland’s identity as a place many have been exiled from, and a place that offers refuge to others from oppression in their own homes. Placing the migrant’s voice at the centre of the work, and working collaboratively with a community of asylum seekers, the ambition was to allow the dual lens of ‘Irish outside of Ireland’ and ‘asylum seeker within Ireland’ to become a source of productive tension, of collaboration between several communities, and formally between music, sound design, verbatim text and choreography.
Ultimately conceived as a highly visual musical performance – a theatrical concept album – The Mouth of a Shark would episodically explore common experiences of oppression, violence, loneliness, familial betrayal, journey to a safe place, and the experience of being Other in a new country.
The early stages of the project involved bi-weekly meet-ups with the Identity community, which generally took the form of storytelling and drama workshops. The members attending were fairly consistent in numbers but there would often be new attendances and so it was important to keep the process playful and open, creating a rapport, a shared ownership of the project and developing a way of being with one another that felt equitable and empowering of each individual.
From this stage, the community was invited to take part in the later stages, with some agreeing to take part in a formal interview, and others preferring to take part in the rehearsals for the community choir (and some both). The interviews took place, face-to-face, and were usually about one hour long. Usually, something of the interviewee’s stories was known, because of informal sharing that had taken place in the early stages, and so the interviews were often piecing together narratives and events and the inner life of the individual in response.
The verbatim text then became the source material for composer Maeve Stone and sound artist Frank Sweeney. During this process, individuals were invited into the room to respond to a song that had been inspired by their story. Rehearsals also began around this time for the community choir where the Identity members were joined by a wider community of immigrants to Ireland for workshops led by Maeve Stone, to learn music and sing together. Facilitating 26 non-professional singers to learn songs, often in four-part harmonies presented a challenging and engaging practice, the aim of which was to use music as a means to connect people. Singing together and working towards a shared collective goal allowed the community to develop strong bonds and become friends and allies with one another.
In February of 2018, rehearsals began with the four main performers, a diverse cast including LGBTQ asylum seekers with experience of direct provision. This led to a performance in March as part of Where We Live, at the Complex Dublin.
The project produced a theatrical performance that reached a total of 650 audience members during Where We Live, with nightly sold-out shows.
The Theory of Change outcomes were evaluated through participant observation and verbal feedback. It was possible to observe outcomes throughout the process and collate testimonials from both participants and external groups, i.e. the audience. The show sold-out across all the nights of the performances, with word-of-mouth spreading and social media testimonials of its power as a piece of art.
The Theory of Change outcomes identified in the project conception can be observed successfully in testimonials such as:
“After my interview, when Oonagh and Maeve shared the music they had created based on my experience, it was emotional but at the same time, I felt freedom, a sense of liberation sharing my story. I now feel like I belong, I have a community who understands me, that is totally different to back home”.
“The performance took me back, the events back home, how I got here, like a movie being played. I was thinking “Wow, I’m strong, I did all that”. It was encouraging. After the show people would come to me and would say “Thank you for sharing your story, for being true to who you are.” And I thought “Wow we all did that”. It was a beautiful experience. I am now a storyteller. I don’t have to hide myself. The project gave people home, other asylum seekers, other LGBT people. It was educating, raising awareness”.
Other outcomes are as follows:
- Identity have continued to meet regularly. The show has raised the community’s profile as an LGBTQ Support Group, so that other organisations are now reaching out and seeking to collaborate with them.
- Members of the community have connected with artistic collectives, such as Fried Plantains Collective, which focuses on highlighting art and music from the African community in Ireland.
Documentation & Dissemination