Summer Service Grant: Cultivating Tension and Conflict on the Irish Stage​

This summer Irina Gavrilova (Yale ’17) spent time in Dublin, Ireland, studying the role of Irish theatre in shaping the country’s conception of nationhood. With the #WakingTheFeminists movement for gender equality in Irish theatre as her case study, Irina spent a month in Dublin researching and interviewing students, artists, managers, and designers to learn more about this unique intersection between art and politics.

As a theatre director with a keen interest in politics, I am fascinated by the connection between the two, which I set out to investigate this summer. With a focus on the #WakingTheFeminists movement for gender equality in Irish theatre, the goal of my project was to make a case that knowledge and skills acquired through theatre can and do produce an impact on the political stage. The material I gathered during this project will serve as research for an original play I plan to present at Yale next spring.

The All Performing Arts Conference in Galway where many members of #WakingTheFeminists participated as panel speakers

Irish theatre and nationalism have gone hand in hand since before the country’s independence from Britain; the electrifying synergy between the theatre and its public inspired people to interrogate their national identity, initiating a struggle for independence. It has always been the place where, as scholar Martin Esslin puts it, the nation “thinks in front of itself”— a statement that rings especially true this year. On Wednesday, October 28, 2015, the National Theatre announced its season in celebration of the Rising’s centenary. Under the tagline “Waking the Nation,” it featured ten plays, only three of which had a female director and one a female writer. The announcement inspired massive backlash on social media, inspiring local designers, producers, and administrators to start the #WakingTheFeminists movement. Since then, they have been working tirelessly to engage with Ireland’s major stages, attracting national and international attention with its rallying cry for gender parity in Irish theatre and inspiring other sectors to work toward the same goal.

I spent the first month of my summer living in Dublin where I interviewed as many members of the movement as I could. They shared stories about what it was like when it first erupted, reflected on its progress, and pondered the ways in which it has impacted Ireland’s politics in general. In conversation with them, I learned more about equality than I ever imagined I would. While #WakingTheFeminists is far from the first group to call out gender imbalance, they are one of the few to investigate its systemic roots and analyze its impact on their industry. Thanks to them, I was able to better assess my own biases in selecting plays and making casting decisions as a director; following their example, I am now much more equipped to address inequality in theatre and am significantly more prepared to make decisions that are meant to target and reduce it. However, I also learned that the idea of gender equality is much more complex than it is often portrayed: it demands discussion and merits debate – an Irish practice American theatre makers can and should certainly embrace.

#WakingTheFeminists has a self-imposed one-year deadline: in November, it will, regardless of their progress, disintegrate. Whether or not they will achieve all their goals by then, the movement’s ripple effects will long be felt both on a national and international level. By the time I left Dublin, the movement had held personal meetings with all major Irish theatres and the Arts Council, organized and conducted three public events, hosted a gathering in New York City, attended countless conferences and educational workshops, and became the first international organization to win the Lilly Award honoring the work of women in theatre. All that was possible because a group of gifted designers, producers, and managers did what they knew best: joined ranks to make a difference with their art.

I am deeply grateful to QuestBridge for making this experience possible and for continuing to teach me about the meaning and value of service.