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Interview: Grace Dyas of THEATREclub

I had a chance to talk to Grace Dyas on Friday evening during rehearsals for her show HEROIN, which will be playing at axis, Ballymun from next Thursday (you can get more info here). Grace is a third of the theatre company known as THEATREclub, which she co- founded in November 2008. The group found huge success bringing one of her earlier plays, ROUGH, to Ballymun last year. With HEROIN winning the “Spirit of the Fringe” award at ABSOLUT FRINGE  last year, and Grace picking up the Fishamble New Writing Award for ROUGH the year before, I think it’s safe to say that the company’s energy is only matched by their ability.

I arrive as they’re finishing up rehearsals on Friday. As I join her colleague Shane for a cup of tea, he explains that it’s Grace’s birthday. It’s a measure of her commitment that she’s not only working late on her birthday, but she’s still got an interview ahead of her. If she’s tired or worn out in any way from the day’s work, she doesn’t show it. Indeed, it almost takes more energy than I have to keep with Grace as she talks. Thank God I’m recording this, I think to myself as she’s managed to not only answer the question I asked, but also handle the next three I was going to ask – all before I can catch a breath.

She’s smart and witty and candid, and speaks with experience far beyond her years. I began by asking her about performing in Axis. ROUGH did especially well out there, and I wondered how the company had managed to raise their profile and grab the attention of their audience. “With ROUGH,” she explained, “we managed to get people to see it through one-on-one engagement. It was about getting the audience we wanted to see it to see it – and acknowledging that there’s a notion that theatre is middle class, or boring, or not about them.”

“Theatre in general can be quite alienating,” she remarked as she detailed how the company had given workshops locally, or had gone to the local shopping centre to talk to members of the community. “It’s about acknowledging that there’s an audience out there who don’t exist on the internet, that don’t read newspapers – and how you talk to them. One-on-one workshops are the most effective way of doing it, and we’re lucky to have the resources to do that, in a way.”

The key word for the theatre troupe seems to be “accessible.” Grace suggests that there are all manner of institutional and societal and socio-economic barriers which can lock people out of theatre. “The buildings themselves don’t look accessible,” she told me. There’s also issues with how the plays are sold to audiences. “They’re not advertised in tabloid newspapers. The marketing copy is very dense and heady and artistic.” These all lock people out of the theatre. Grace’s vision of theatre is one that is completely inclusive. “I think the work needs to be about any given number of people who can walk into that room,” she stated, “that it has relevence or significance for any number of people.”

At the age of 21, Grace already has a more-than-formidable collection of work under her belt. She’s been taken on as one of the Abbey New Playwrights and has a huge number of credits to her name. However, she seems reluctant to pigeon-holed as a young writer – age isn’t the only barrier that she’s trying to break down. “For me it’s not just about young people, it’s about loads of different types of people who are excluded from everything.” And HEROIN, the play that the company is staging in Ballymun, perhaps offers a strong illustration of that attitude towards groups marginalised by society.

The genesis of the play can be traced back to before Grace was heavily involved in the Dublin theatre scene, when she used to work on North Earl Street. There she had first hand experience of how heroin users lived, with many frequenting the shop. While there, she came to get to know a few of those involved in the inner city’s drug problems. “I got talking to the addicts and sort of watching them,” she explained.

The impetus for the play came following an altercation at the shop. She wasn’t able to serve one of the local addicts. “He got really angry and he spat at me,” she recalled. She retired to the bathroom to clean up. “When I came out, the other people in the shop were saying things like ‘these people should be rounded up and shot’ or ‘they should be all locked up’… I just had this moment of realising that people really think like this.

“This was after happening to me and I didn’t think that,” she said. “I wasn’t angry with him, I just felt sorry for him. And I was like, ‘now I want to do something about this.’ That kinda stayed in my head.” This wasn’t the only factor which influenced Grace’s decision to tackle the subject of heroin addiction. While rehearsing for another performance, the company worked out of a space in Marlborough Place, with the local area populated with addicts. They walked out on a particularly viscious fight between two addicts one night. “One fella bit off another fella’s ear,” she remembered. “This is the lifestyle. This is what people are subjected to.”

The idea gestated for a while, as Grace discussed the extensive research process – which involved working with the Rialto Community Drug Team long before the play was eventually produced. “We had a relationship with the drug team for two years before we starting writing this.” During that time, she worked closely with addicts within the drug team – interviewing them, and sitting in. “Would you be afraid?” she asked me and I confessed, honestly, “I would be terrified.” She felt the same way, with the lack of knowledge surrounding addiction – she thinks it’s that lack of knowledge which feeds into the marginalisation of the group.

“There’s a disgusting misunderstanding in society at large about drug addiction,” she remarked. “I wanted to provoke a dialogue on it.” It’s almost as if Grace is making challenge to us as a society, on behalf of those who don’t really have a voice. “I am advocating for them,” she assured me, before clarifying, “I’m not defending heroin, but I’m defending addicts.” Over the course of her research into the addiction, she built up a relationship with the addicts. “I didn’t just meet them once, I went back and I talked to them again and again and again, and we became friends”

While working with the addicts, she observed that she now shied from using the word “junkie” to describe those caught in the snare of drug addiction – comparing it, for example, to inflammatory and dehumanising terms like “faggot” or “knacker.” “I would never say it now, and loads of people I work with would never say it now.” Grace suggested that it’s words like that which allow us to disenfranchise entire sections of the community.

She would even go so far as to suggest that Irish society has never really been one cohesive whole. “I think as a country we never had that sense,” she began, “because we were always separating ourselves from other people, we were always fighting against the English and all these other people – if you go back even to the Land League and things like that, it’s always ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Indeed, ‘them’ is a very powerful, very loaded word. “I would never say ‘them’ about other people. It just has a negative connotation. You can allow yourself to be vague or general.” I enquired as to whether that sense of togetherness or community was something she felt the nation had lost over time, or whether we never had it at all. She conceded that there was always a sense of community, but only within well-defined groups. “That sense of community is linked to specific socio-economic groups: there’s an understanding that working class people are going to look after each other, and middle-class people are going to look after each other. What we’ve never had is a collective unity.”

I suggested that perhaps it was ironic that her play about that sense of isolation and social fragmentation should be prepared in such a collaborative method. “It’s not ironic,” she corrected me. “It is a reversal of it.” Indeed, the play is the result of years of collaboration between different parties, all supervised and managed by Grace, who controls the structure of the play. “People always call me a writer,” she remarked, “I don’t feel like I am one.” The play is the result of a whole heap of factors, internal and external to Grace. “Everything is part of it – none of this ‘written’.” And yet it all comes down to her. “There’s no way anyone else could direct this.”

Grace doesn’t necessarily sit and stare at a typewriter dictating stage directions. “There are ways that I make this work that aren’t about text,” she outlines, making it clear that her approach is very much centred around the group dynamic. “It’s become much more about creating structure for people to work within.” In fact, the structure she has imposed on the play is designed to mirror the structure of addiction itself. “That’s what addiction looks like.”

It’s that nature of collaboration that defines the show. The group that Grace worked with at Rialto Community Drug Team were regularly in the rehearsal room. “One of the lads got up beside Barry,” she recalled, “and told him what to say – he fed him lines.” It isn’t the most conventional process, but it works. “I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a playwright,” she confessed. “Text-based theatre is not for me.” It’s a unique process, and – appropriately enough – one built around the spirit of communion and collaboration that Grace would like to see more of in day-to-day Ireland.

Sensing it’s time to wrap up, I thank Grace for her time. “Have we got enough?” Grace asks, somewhat surprised it’s already over. A glance at the timer on my recording device tells me it’s been fifty-two minutes, even though the conversation only felt like it had taken five. It flew by, in the company of a very skilled and insightful author. Perhaps that’s the thing about Grace Dyas. She might not like to be labelled a “playwright”, but she’s a nature-born storyteller.

Check out the THEATREclub website here.

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