Synonymous with the city, theatre company ThisIsPopBaby has been tracing the ups and downs, the grit, glamour and grime of town since 2006, never losing sight of its potential and making sure we stay reminded of our own. To mark all that it has done for Dublin, and all that it has left to do, we go through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole, taking a deep dive into its world.
Co-Directors, Phillip McMahon and Jennifer Jennings on their formative years and what they led to, the power of the dancefloor, and the state of the city today.
“We’re returning again and again to the power of community, the power of the dancefloor and of the glorious outsider to change the world.”
“We’ve always talked about creating a dynamic city that’s a good place to come home to, and we’ve always been interested in making work that makes home a better place to be in.” At a time when Dublin feels like it’s sitting on an existential brink, at a precipice beyond which things feel unknown but certainly different, this is welcome reassurance from Phillip McMahon, for anyone who worries for the future and the welfare of the capital.
Dublin has been jostled into its current dysfunctional position – socially, culturally and politically – by the irreconcilable differences of market forces and human need; the innate tension between the two at times producing violent outcomes for city and citizen alike. Big questions hang heavy, casting shadows and asking of the place and its inhabitants: what it is, what it wants to be, and who it is for?
These grand questions are hardly new. McMahon and his co-director, Jennifer Jennings know that well. Taking the city as their set, star and source text, they’ve interrogated identity, belonging, community, the past and the present, and the idea of ‘progress’ and who it’s really for, since founding ThisIsPopBaby in 2006. When Dublin seems to be losing its heart, in ‘boom’ times or in bust, they’ve helped find a pulse.
“Dublin has been a central character in all of ThisIsPopBaby‘s work. All that it does feeds into and has been a response to the city,” says Jennings. “It’s not just important to us as citizens, it’s vital to us a theatre company. But it’s in a pretty disastrous place at the moment. You can feel that the city wants to find its groove again and we’re determined to be part of that conversation.”
As apocryphal as it may sound, the pair would only meet after a series of near misses throughout the nineties and early noughties: as members of Dublin Youth Theatre; as ravers in the same clubs; and as emigrants living in the same suburb of the same city in Australia. “It was going to happen one way or another,” says McMahon.
Prior to that, Jennings had been “going along one particular route in life before a massive disruption during my teenage years spun me out of the mainstream.” She would leave home while she was still in school, rediscovering that home, and “the beginnings of my whole life philosophy on the dancefloors of extraordinary clubs like Elevator, run by Tonie Walsh and Niall Sweeney.”
Meanwhile, McMahon applied to drama school in England, going through the motions but with limited success. Returning to Dublin, an “apprenticeship of sorts” saw him “hanging around the fringes of bigger companies and doing small parts in the Abbey.” Frustrated with the “lack of agency” a young actor has over their career, he took control, saying: “If people won’t give us the main parts then I’ll write ourselves into the main parts.”
The result was Danny and Chantelle (Still Here), a story about friendship set over one night of clubbing in Dublin, starring himself and Georgina McKevitt, which premiered in 2006 at the Dublin Fringe. Jennings, fresh from a master’s in UCD was keen to find a type of theatre missing in Dublin. Specifically, she says, one which occupied a “creative space between underground culture, with excellent standards of high art, alongside elements of pop-culture and counter-culture.” She found it in McMahon’s play, and McMahon and Jennings finally found each other.
With the pair now working together, it became apparent that Jennings wasn’t the only one who was looking for what Danny and Chantelle (Still Here) represented. Born in the nightclubs, a nascent community soon emerged around ThisIsPopBaby, drawn to, and rallying around a shared ambition to test and challenge what theatre can be, do and say. “We’ve maintained that spirit of meeting someone on the dancefloor at 2am, where you say, ‘Yeah, I”m going to call you tomorrow even though we’ve just met,’” McMahon says.
“Many of us found each other because we were suburban rats, escaping our whatever lives,” he continues. “Whether there was trauma there, or if it was just downright banal, we were all escaping into the city centre to discover this underbelly of Dublin. We were looking to make work that reflected our own lives in an atmosphere that we felt was stuffy and elitist, where there was no room for us at the party. We made our own party.” Club culture oozed into theatre and, arguably, the Dublin landscape hasn’t been the same since.
Inflected with a queer sensibility, the essence and vision of ThisIsPopBaby seems utopian, given the worlds it imagines and makes feel possible. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to suggest that there’s never been a more pressing need for its approach to storytelling, and of holding the mirror up. “As we go on, we realise that, in every endeavour that we embark on, we’re returning again and again to the power of community, the power of the dancefloor and of the glorious outsider to change the world,” says Jennings.
With the Dublin theatre scene ‘all changed, changed utterly’ by McMahon and Jennings’ coming together, finding themselves in Yeats’s own Abbey Theatre to stage an electro-pop musical marked a shift-change for ThisIsPopBaby, in terms of how it does what it does, what it could be and where it could go. In 2012, Alice in Funderland was the first musical to appear on that stage in twenty years. At once reverent and irreverent, its brief was to celebrate Irishness in a lewd, bawdy and different way, McMahon recalls.
The Director of the Abbey at the time originally wanted to put it on the Peacock Stage, McMahon explains: “We told him that wasn’t our ambition for it. It’s a musical about breaking out of walls and the Peacock was too small for us. He rang us the next day to say he’d put it on the Abbey stage. We called his bluff.” It’s this chancer kind of quality – backed up with graft and vision – that has helped lead ThisIsPopBaby to where it is today.
“We completely took over the run of the Abbey, and it felt like the whole city was gunning for us,” says Jennings. “There was something about that show that people took full ownership of, and the regular rules of the theatre no longer applied,” McMahon adds. From the bar staff having to pick up cans of Dutch Gold, to a couple on a first date necking half a yoke at the interval, as a more traditional pearl-clutching theatre set looked on, Alice in Funderland opened both the Abbey and ThisIsPopBaby up to whole new audiences, an effect later replicated by the bells-and-whistles, internationally-touring, Riot.
If Alice in Funderland was about feeling lost and searching for a home in Dublin, who do McMahon and Jennings see the city as being a home for today? Both take an extended pause. “Because the market dictates how property moves, club spaces and cultural spaces are disappearing. We’re attracting tourists and people who work in the tech industry because Dublin is attractive to them; because of our deep cultural history, because of the craic and the ceol, right? If all of that is eradicated, then suddenly you have a theme park without the rides. And we’re the rides,” McMahon starts.
Jennings continues: “We’re really hoping that there is some kind of break, or disruption, or correction that would mean that things can grow here again. The entire arts sector is far more stretched than people realise. People are too stretched to even make noise about it. We’re in this machine, and compelled to keep going and try and do the things that we do, but it feels at some kind of breaking point.” She suggests we look beyond our understanding of ‘town’ as something within a two kilometre radius and instead consider “new possibilities on a different cultural map of the city.”
McMahon looks back to the Dublin of the ‘90s, “where things were cheap and possibility was in the air.” Ever since, he says, we’ve been trying to figure out how to live here. A monument to the changing fortunes of Dublin, the city and its culture, specifically its nightlife – and formative to the stories of McMahon, Jennings and ThisIsPopBaby – stands three storeys high on the corner of Harcourt Street and Hatch Street. The former POD nightclub, the legendary institution run by the late John Reynolds, and the site where McMahon first staged Danny and Chantelle (Still Here) back in 2006. POD’s life and death is a poignant reference point for ThisIsPopBaby journey, and Dublin’s too.
“POD was in this amazing sweet spot where the venue was outrageously brilliant and John Reynolds believed in the point at which art and clubbing meet, says McMahon”. “[He] was a massive influence on ThisIsPopBaby, whether before Philly and I met, in the iconic Powder Bubble club, or for the nights where we almost met on the dancefloor, or in our collaboration at Electric Picnic,” says Jennings. Far from maudlin sentimentality or misty–eyed nostalgia, these reflections are motivating; reminders of the city’s potential to entertain, nurture raw creativity, facilitate connection and offer escape.
They also imply a belief in the power of like-minded individuals to come together to achieve such ends, in the absence of any kind of higher will: “Depending on the day, and depending on which way the light hits it and the wind is blowing, you can have a totally different opinion on Dublin. But it certainly feels entirely stretched at the moment, like there is no leadership about how we might live in the future,” McMahon says.
“It’s the systems which are failing us as citizens, and we’re determined not to let systemic failures be our downfall,” Jennings goes on to say. “The people are still here. You can’t underestimate them.” The people certainly are still here, and ThisIsPopBaby has found 80 of them, bringing them together in the Project Arts Centre this March for its biannual Where We Live festival.
The ten-day festival is ThisIsPopBaby doing what it does best: taking its lead from the city and bringing some of the best and brightest together in a way that only it can, to facilitate, incubate and provoke as required. Compared to its previous outing in 2018, it’s likely that Where We Live will be approached with far more urgency than before by both punter and performer. While our problems aren’t new, how we feel them seems more acute than two years ago.
When Dublin feels fragmented and indecipherable, we should all take advantage of being offered a space in which to pick up the city’s pieces; toy with them, examine them, and arrange them into configurations that might just make more sense for more people.
Ultimately, McMahon and Jennings remain hopeful. They may not have seen it all yet, but they’ve seen enough. Jennings has the last word: “Things happen in cycles. And, in a small country like Ireland, change is possible. Elsewhere, there isn’t that compulsion to just do fun things. Here, people wake up and they want to make great things happen, and you can do things and get things done a lot easier than in other places. With enough people power, and ideas, we can change things. It’s coming.”
Words: Stephen Moloney
Feature Image: WERK by Fiona Morgan
*** **** Following an Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s announcement on public gatherings, ThisisPopBaby has announced that Where We Live will no longer go ahead. Updates here.