The Monthly interviews Mary Moynihan, Writer, Theatre and Film-Maker, CEO and Artistic Director, Smashing Times  International Centre for the Arts and Equality – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

Is what you do, Community Arts?

That is an interesting question because it goes to the heart of how the arts are viewed, the distinctions between professional theatre, community theatre and what is known as amateur theatre.

I see myself as a professional artist as I work full-time in the industry.  Smashing Times is a professional arts organisation using the arts to promote equality and human rights.  We employ professional artists and when we take our work out to local communities we see it very much as a partnership approach, we are professional artists working in partnership with local communities of place and interest. While we do work in professional arts spaces, we have always been dedicated to taking the arts out of the traditional spaces and to engage with a wide range of people and communities.  We see our role as passing on skills which are part of breaking down the barriers between the artists and the communities. We are trying to make the artists accessible, to increase access to the arts, and that is a vital component of what we are aiming to do.  It can be difficult to define what exactly is community theatre or theatre in the community however I believe that rather than coming  up with exact definitions it is important to define the ethos that underpins the work, the ethos of what we are trying to do is crucial.  Theatre, whether it is professional or community,  is about empowering people and bringing communities together and as part of our work we are promoting collaboration, inclusion and participation.

As we worked with different communities,  we came across people who were working in the area of community development. I found it interesting the similarities between the principles of their work and the principles behind what we were doing particularly in relation to empowerment and participation. We found that those principles were very similar to what we were aiming to bring to communities as artists working with the mediums of theatre and film. At the core of the work is collaboration, participation and empowerment and bringing people together. However, as an artist, the artform itself is always central to my work and my focus is always on the artistic quality and honouring the artform while at the same time using the arts to promote equality and human rights.

That sounds very similar to the defining elements of Community Arts?

Yes, as I think the ethos or principles that underpin the work are important. I remember in the past, as an organisation we were asked by a funding body to separate out more clearly the different components of our work, to put professional in one box and community in another box. We  didn’t think that was a useful approach as it was more important to develop an integrated approach, to not worry about blurring the lines.  There are many different ways of working with communities. For example, I can create a piece of work in a community context and the ownership of that work rests with the community or I can choose to work as an artist creating my own work in partnership with a local community however the work is artist-led rather than community led. What is important is to be open and transparent  about what processes you are using  and to have ongoing creative conversations around issues such as ownership over the end product. And when working with local communities the process itself is equally important to the end-product.  

I think that Professional Theatre can learn from Community Theatre and vice versa. For too long work in the community is seen as the poor relation of professional arts and I think that is very problematic. Things have improved but there is still a long way to go. For example, we need to keep working to ensure that we can move beyond elitism in the arts,  to value artists who want to make art differently and who choose to work with local communities of place and interest  and to constantly think about the many different processes we can use in making and participating in the arts.

Regarding the question of Human Rights, how is that approached?

I have worked with many different communities over the years, in areas designated as hard to reach or disadvantaged, with refugees and asylum seekers, with women and youth groups and on a range of issues including racism, sectarianism, positive mental health and so on. As an artist I believe in freedom of expression and when you come across sensitive, difficult or contentious issues, the question always emerges of how to  find a way of exploring those issue in a safe, inclusive and constructive way.  I find the arts are a powerful medium to enable dialogue as well as self and group expression to take place  in a very powerful way regardless of how difficult, dark or sensitive the issue may be.

I think I always had a social conscious because of my background and things that happened to me as I was growing up. As artists we did not start out defining our work as being about ‘human rights’, that came later, however from the beginning we had a focus on challenging elitism in the arts, on making the work more accessible, on creating more work for women artists and on using the arts to perhaps make the world a better place. I worked in Northern Ireland since before the ceasefires and when you are using your work in a conflict or post-conflict society then key questions will arise and you are using your artform to shine a light on the issues in a way that is inclusive of everybody and we are all learning in these contexts, there is a constant form of self and group development that is taking place and which is very interesting and powerful.

Our approach is never to be didactic or political with a big P. It is much more about the human condition and exploring the stories and a sense of humanity in the work and ways in which we can explore and promote dignity and respect.   For myself human rights are about promoting dignity and respect for all people equally and over the years the focus on human rights has become more central to my work as an artist and human being.  For example, I am currently working on a short film inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals which impacts on all our lives. I believe there needs to be a stronger focus on putting culture on an even level with economic, political and social concerns in society today.

The arts are an integral part of a healthy society and  provide entertainment, creativity,  inspiration, imagination and self-expression.  The arts can build confidence and self-esteem and in times of adversity can provide hope and solace. The arts can take us deep inside ourselves and encourage self-reflection and transformation. There are many commonalities between the arts and human rights. Both are concerned with exploring the world we live in,  questioning identities, looking at human relationships and human dignity. The arts and human rights are both concerned with developing the individual and society and the idea of transformation, with a view to creating new visions for the future, especially one that is based on equality, diversity and peace.

With regards to the themes of our work, they are chosen in different ways. When working with communities, the themes are primarily chosen by the communities themselves, when working on artist led projects we are drawn to themes that resonant with us as artists and people. I have often found that the work we do tends to ‘evolve’ organically in response to what is happening in our own lives as artists and citizens and in response to the places and communities we work with.  When it comes to issue-based work, the  approach of Smashing Times is always to work on a partnership basis with ‘experts’ or people who are knowledgeable in the particular issue we are exploring.  While the artists in Smashing Times, myself included,  have now developed a strong knowledge of human rights we always come to the work as part of a team, we are the artists and creatives and we work with people knowledgeable in the particular issue. A project in peacebuilding will involve community relations facilitators who work with the artists, a project in positive mental health and well-being will involve qualified counselling psychotherapists who work with the artists, and so on.   So, what we are doing is bringing artists together with Human Rights experts and we work in partnership with a range of individuals and organisations. The artist is combining the creative process with the issue to create new forms of artistic expression and the artist has the space to ensure the creative elements and artistic process itself is never impinge on or diluted in any way.   In my experience, the more you ensure the artistic integrity of the work, the more successful you will be in using your art to explore and express human rights.

Imagined re-creation of moments from the lives of women in WWII – By Deirdre Kinahan, Mary Moynihan, Fiona Bawn Thompson and Paul Kennedy
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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.