2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Dublin Theatre Festival, what’s considered the oldest specialised theatre festival in Europe. Rachel Donnelly spoke to festival artist Sean Dunne about Rapids, a documentary theatre piece with Talking Shop Ensemble to learn more about the themes the work deals with, and their approach to making it.
As a gay person, when you start to have sex and you’re a hypochondriac like me, it’s in the shadow of your mind all the time
Disclosure generally is a particularly Irish problem. If you’re talking about HIV, there are very few people who live publicly with it in this country. You have to search it out and that’s totally connected to Ireland’s relationship to sex and stigma, which unfortunately is real.
A particularly socially conscious work, Rapids by Shaun Dunne and Talking Shop Ensemble (who are Aisling Byrne and Lisa Walsh, along with Shaun) is a new documentary theatre piece that wants to address and in some way undo the secrecy and shame surrounding being HIV positive in Ireland. Shaun has spent the last two years speaking to people from the Irish HIV community, listening to their stories, and then taking these testimonies and (confidentially) shaping them into a live performance.
What I’ve been doing now for a couple of years is meeting with people and gathering insights and experiences. And hearing what people want to be heard from within that community. And then I’ve tried to find a way to stylise that truth.
Shaun experienced first-hand the complexity of disclosing a HIV positive status when his ex-boyfriend Robbie Lawlor revealed he had HIV; Robbie is an activist who now works in the area of HIV and acted as consultant during the making of the show. It was this experience coupled with his social background that drove Shaun to make Rapids.
I’m a young gay man from a working class area. Historically in Dublin there were working class areas that experienced a lot of deaths through addiction and intravenous drug use. As a gay person, when you start to have sex and you’re a hypochondriac like me, it’s in the shadow of your mind all the time… As I’ve grown up a lot of my friends have become HIV+, but I wasn’t seeing a lot of public discourse around it.
Something that was important in the research was speaking to people who were HIV+ but from a diverse set of circumstances. It was difficult to find HIV+ women in particular, who are essentially a marginalised group within an already marginalised group; unlike gay men, they do not have an immediately obvious community to look to for empathy and support.
People don’t associate HIV with women and if they do it’s with migrant women from Africa. People don’t assume there are Irish women living with HIV, people don’t assume there are older people… it’s very much associated with young gay men. If you’re a woman from rural Ireland who’s HIV positive suddenly, where do you find your access? That community in particular are very stigmatised, because they don’t relate to it – even in their own perception of it, they think it’s a gay person’s thing. It’s queering – it makes them feel queer.
For Shaun and the company, it’s important that the form used in the work reflects the subject – they’re taking the act of disclosure as a device to help shape the piece. Rapids is a series of disclosures, from performer to performer, and from performer to audience. There’s something too in the act of transmission, a word obviously associated with infectious disease, but which has another meaning in the context of the show.
What we’ve been looking at inside disclosure is transmission, how things spread. These people have HIV, they tell me their story, I tell the story to the actors, the actors tell the story to the audience – that motion is something I’m trying to allow to influence how I write the text – so it’s readable but the stories spread and move through all of us. It influences how people read particular stories – so if there’s a story that’s about a 27-year-old man from Wexford but it for a moment passes through the body of Lisa Walsh [actor in the show], who’s a 30-year-old middle class blonde woman from Dublin, it means something different for that moment and it opens the subject up and it kind of blows it up a little bit.
Rapids plays in the Project Arts Centre (Cube) from Tuesday October 10 to Saturday October 14 at 7.45pm. Matinee performance on Saturday (2.45pm). Tickets €14-€20
Words – Rachel Donnelly