I’m standing inside at the glassed-in apex of one The LAB’s ground floor galleries, per the instructions of director Louise Lowe. Actor Dee Burke charges towards the glass and knocks on it. Hard. A group of neighborhood kids passing by joins in. She motions for me to come outside and I choose to follow, Louise hanging back a little with a slight, satisfied grin on her face. ‘I’m a watcher,’ Dee tells me, ‘that’s what I do.’ And she’s off like a shot in the other direction. I follow Dee around a corner into the Liberty Corner Flats and she immediately gets in my face: ‘What’d yah follow me for, yah fuckin’ stupid? It’s dangerous ‘round here.’
Dee is playing Harriet Butler in ANU Productions' revival of World’s End Lane, originally staged during the 2010 Absolut Fringe and receiving an encore this year during the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival’s ‘Reviewed’ showcase. I’ve been lucky enough to take part in a street-side rehearsal. Dee, still in performance mode, explains in a whirlwind of past and present tenses that she’s just an actress standing in for Harriet Butler, an unfortunate denizen of Monto, Dublin’s notorious red light district. Dee/Harriet Butler points to a spot on the footpath and tells me to stand there. I do. ‘That’s where I/She was shot in the face,’ Dee/Harriet tells me.
This sense of an overlapping past and present is crucial to understanding both the ground we’re standing on and Louise Lowe’s strategy in staging what is essentially a theatrical haunting in Foley Street. She and an ensemble of artists, dancers, and performers are working to generate what she terms a ‘geographical response’ to four very different and very conscious regenerations of the Foley Street area over the course of a century. World’s End Lane is concerned with the life and death of Monto, once reputed to be Europe’s largest red light district, closed down in 1925 during the course of one night by Frank Duff’s Legion of Mary.
The demolition of Monto made way for the expansion of the Magdalene Laundry connected to the local convent, offering some refuge to the women made homeless by Monto’s demise. Though the laundries have long since been knocked down, the adjoining chapel is the site of ANU’s latest production, Laundry. The Corporation Buildings, a social housing project otherwise known as the Cage, were also built on the ashes of Monto, only to be torn down again in the 1970s to make room for Liberty House, which was in turn decimated by poverty and heroin addiction in the 1980s. The latest incarnation of the area includes the Liberty Corner flats, the hollow remains of the laundry (closed in 1996) and The LAB, Dublin City Council's arts office and artists' incubation space. It’s here Louise Lowe and company have been ensconced on and off for two years attempting to create a four part project which deals with the interrelated temporality of these different regenerations.
Lowe’s interest in the area is historical and artistic, but it’s also personal: four generations of her family have lived here. Lowe remembers very clearly visiting the laundry as a child, oblivious to the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries that would be exposed years later. ‘We would travel there with the pram and brought heavy things like blankets and curtains, and got it back in beautiful brown paper with string and it was always really nice,’ says Lowe. ‘But I never thought more about it, other than that’s where you went to get your clothes washed, because we didn’t own a washing machine. Or threats that were constantly given to me by my parents, saying that was where I came from, and that’s where I was going if I was bold.’
Neither World’s End Lane or Laundry, which makes its debut at this year’s Theatre Festival, could be described as historical reenactments or dramatisations. There is no attempt at a central, fictional narrative that tries to sensationalize the past. Rather, the pieces focus on the minor players of local history, some of whom are barely footnotes in the official record. There’s also no attempt to create the illusion that the audience is being transported to another decade: when an audience member asks the performers what year it is, they’re flatly told it’s 2011. Instead, the project is after the historical residue that’s been left behind rather than the staging of a definitive reenactment of time and place. Performers wear contemporary clothing that subliminally suggests the historical person they’re standing in for. A local madam of the period named May Oblong is portrayed as a near-motionless figure dressed in a business suit and gripping a knife. The only lines she speaks are those attributed to the historical Oblong: ‘Little piggies have big ears.’ According to Lowe, ‘a fictionalised account of what we think might’ve happened would be a travesty in my head, because we’re working onsite forensically. We’re working with the street, we’re working with a geography, we’re working with a space and a community, so I think to do that would be really wrong.’
Lowe’s approach to this kind of work has been continually evolving. From abandoned Ballymun towerblocks in the 2005 Tumbledowntown, to her own childhood home in 2009’s Basin, Lowe has been consistently reshaping and honing the ways in which she approaches a found space and utilizes the untold stories buried there. For the current project, the ensemble has collected an expansive amount of research on the Foley Street area, in addition to generating more abstract reactions in the forms of movement and visual art. Most important, though, is that the work being created is based firmly on an honest reaction to the space and community that the performance takes place in. And in the case of World’s End Lane and Laundry, a relationship with the community is vital to how these pieces are developed and staged. Local historian and Foley Street native Terry Fagan, who’s written extensively on the area, has served as a major resource for the project.
For Laundry, a local launderette that sits in the shadow of the convent has been volunteered as a performance space. Some community involvement can also appear unexpectedly during the course of actual performances. ‘There’s a gang of local girls between the ages of eight and twelve who’ve got to know us now pretty well,’ says Lowe, ‘and they decided to join in and hijack us on occasions. I think it’s great when they do it.’ As I experienced during rehearsal, neighborhood kids will join Dee Burke in knocking on the glass of The LAB to get the attention of audience members, or will sing a skipping song outside along with the actors. If the show is to be a genuine reaction to the community history around them, then it makes perfect sense for the ensemble to happily incorporate the surrounding elements that find their way into performance.
Lowe also cites the opportunity for individual audience members to choose how the event unfolds for them as crucial to the success of this kind of performance. ‘I was really curious about making a piece that challenged that communion between audience member and performer, in which the audience member felt they had a choice,’ she says. There’s a measure of responsibility placed on the audience in choosing whether to respond to an actor’s direct questioning or, as in my case, deciding whether or not to follow a character down the street and around a corner to God knows where. However, that level of participation is ultimately up to the audience member: they can choose whether or not to respond actively to what they’re seeing. ‘And it has to be fine not to respond,’ says Lowe. ‘They have to be able to just watch. It’s about creating the environment from which those exchanges can happen, if that audience member chooses them to happen.’
After Laundry, the next part of the project will be The Boys From Foley Street, which focuses on the lives of four boys from the area that were featured in a 1975 RTÉ interview. Lowe is working on the incorporation of augmented reality to add another dimension to performance, where audience members can use smart phone technology to view geographically exact images from the past laid over present locations. The fourth and last part of the project will be about the current reality of Foley Street, while simultaneously drawing on inspiration from the Romany gypsy ancestors of one of Lowe’s childhood friends who settled in Monto in the 1920s. ‘My wish,’ says Lowe, ‘is to do them altogether, so you could effectively watch a hundred year history fold on to itself.’ While this could be a revelatory site-specific experience, it could also prove daunting, practically speaking. Lowe is undeterred: ‘I’m thrilled by working that way. I spent my whole life looking at buildings and imagining what could be there... I just love spaces. I love the stories they have to tell us.’
Jesse Weaver was recently awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.