In this interview Tony Fegan talks about his extensive experience in participatory arts projects with young people (often with very diverse cultural backgrounds) and people with disabilities in Tallaght. This Irish town is situated in the South Dublin County. The art projects of Tallaght Community Arts not seldom carry a message about social inclusion and hope as a vital force in generating social change. They tackle urgent, sensitive subjects that are often difficult to discuss openly, such as homelessness and mental health. According to Fegan art is all about being bold, testing and uncomfortable.
“Tallaght Community Arts is a participatory arts organisation, so we work with professional artists and what I call ‘communities of locality’, which are geographically specific groups of people. Or we also create work with ‘communities of interests’, a group of people who we bring together in their shared interests. We’re set in South Dublin County, which is a relatively new municipality. It was set up in the eighties, because of the overspill people who lived in the inner city and were moved out of the inner city when they were going to develop the inner city. They appropriated the houses and then businesses took them over. The usual stories of what happened in a lot of European cities in the last 40 or 50 years. For a long time this area was part of Dublin City Council, but it was too far away from the centre of the city. So there was a lot of social action and political action to create a municipality that could look after the people here. There are more than 80 000 people in Tallaght now, but Tallaght started as a village with 300 people, just down the road. Tallaght Community Art started here in 1996. I wasn’t here then. It all began in an old farmhouse that got renovated. When the first people came to Tallaght, there were houses, but there were no schools, there was no hospital, no other services. There was only a bus that came to the village from Dublin. So children still had to go to school to the city, etcetera. After a while, of course, there were a lot of people that got agitated to get doctors, hospitals, and schools. Tallaght Community Art came to be at the end of that social action period.
“The organisations and institutions that work on a grassroots level very often get the smallest amounts of money. No surprise there.”
Artists, encouraged by the local council, started Tallaght Community Art. It was also funded with money that came from the government in order to employ artists who could not get employment. That was 1996. However I would say, in the late nineties, the arts council has grown to kind of believe that we needed to professionalise the arts world more. So they started to write to organisations and asked them to get more professional artists, because they would get more money from the arts council. So artists got more money for their work instead of living on the edge of society. Until 2007, this worked very well. But then the bottom fell out of everything and many artists where back in the same dilemma where they were. In the professional arts world here in Ireland, there has been a two-tier system. One is the top layer of theatres and music and opera – that is what I call ‘the heritage arts’ – and they get a lot of money. The organisations and institutions that work on a grassroots level very often get the smallest amounts of money. No surprise there.
So in 2005, the council decided to build this building. The idea was that this building would complement the city theatre, but that it would be a building where communities and artists would come and work together. My organisation was one of the people who had been in the big consultation process to make this building happen. But it was built during the economical crash and opened in 2009. Most buildings that were built here at that time ended up empty. A lot of the local dreams had to be put on hold.
“Ireland is becoming very culturally diverse and we were a very white society twenty years ago. [Thus, we’ve developed] a strand of our work that pays attention to that changing cultural demography.”
In the last 10 years we positioned ourselves and our professional interface to have connections to the professional arts world and a variety of arts. We create opportunities for those artists and people to interface and work with all sorts of people who might want to work in the arts, might be interested and engaged in the arts, perhaps don’t even know that the arts exist for them. I believe it is an entitlement for everybody. A lot of what we do is engage people in the beginning of a process and that could be very young children or people in their sixties who didn’t had any of opportunities here in Ireland when they were young. But I suppose we made a huge commitment, a long the side of all the people, to work with young people. Because we have a big population of young people in Tallaght. We have the largest population of under 25 outside of Limerick. And the other commitment we’ve made is with people with disabilities. Ireland is becoming very culturally diverse and we were a very white society twenty years ago. The third commitment we’ve made is to develop a strand of our work that pays attention to that changing cultural demography, for example we run a hip-hop academy in a place a few kilometers from here, where there is no provision for young people. We’ve managed to assemble 80 young people there, the majority are young people of African descent.
So we are funded by the Republic, we get a quarter of our money from the local authority, the municipality, we get half of the money from the arts council and the other quarter of our money comes from a combination of social funds. So for example the Ministry of Justice gave us money to work around the idea of cultural integration and social cohesion and we used it for a project we did with Roma women in the summer and a second project that was for families with different cultural backgrounds. There are not many places in Ireland where you can apply for money. We also have 70 artists who attend and pay a small fee every time they come here. And that contributes to paying the artists who work with them, and it contributes to the rent. Basically, financially, we live on an edge. We survived the crash, came out on the other end and it’s a bit better. This level is where we we are, like many publically funded organisations in this country with us.
“I think we are part of what I call a ‘cultural ecology’ around here. But I think we can’t do it on our own. We are part of a network.”
The situation now is much better for professional artists than it was before, though. There are much more options and opportunities. We believe that Tallaght Community Arts contributed in that. I think we are part of what I call a ‘cultural ecology’ around here. But I think we can’t do it on our own. We are part of a network. There was a Polish woman, who came here earlier today, because I work for the intercultural dropping centre, which is for people who arrive, no questions asked and help people with their English. She is a graphic artist in Poland, but can’t seem to get any connections here with people in the arts.
We used to work with teenagers on things called ‘Battle of the Bands’. We also used to bring young kids together with visual artists and host an international residency for artists. The work was very much in a community arts context, where local people were participants in making the work. And some of the work often served to carry a message about some social change that needed to take place, either locally or nationally and sometimes internationally.
“We were approached by the civilians of five catholic churches to create a performance installation in the churches around the topic of homelessness. Interestingly enough, there was an incredible response of people who wanted to do it and a dreadful response from the clergy who didn’t want to promote it.”
There is a big crisis of homelessness in Ireland and Jenny for example brought people together who could tell their story, under the name ‘Walk In My Shoes‘. We were approached by the civilians in five catholic churches to create a performance installation in the churches around the topic of homelessness. Interestingly enough, there was an incredible response of people who wanted to do it and a dreadful response from the clergy who didn’t want to promote it. In the end, very few people came. You know, there is a lot of people around here on grassroots level, on the ground, many of them connected the civilians in the churches, not the clergy, with homelessness and things like suicide. But the problem is that we have this old establishment of which the clergy are part of and who have a different set of views and values that don’t take cognisance of that. So it became internally a very political charged conversation about that.
What TCA does is not specifically like any training course, but it gives you the opportunity to experience a broader spectrum of theatre. Usually people focus on stage, but we also open the door to music, movement, all other aspects of theatre. There is no such thing as an emphasis. One of the projects was Act-Up. People think that the artistic world is kind of isolated, that it doesn’t have a broader reach such as sports. But what Act-Up does, is it goes into ordinary schools and it gives regular students, that don’t come from an acting background, the opportunity to entirely perform their own productions. They just hand them the script and they let them do what they want. So that shows that the broader reach is not always put into the light.
“TCA is one of those places that has helped bringing people together and kept them away from all the badness that happens.”
The Tallaght area knows a lot of troubles. It’s in the news all the time. There are troubled kids and troubled adults. I know a few kids, who have neighbours who are abusive or are very disruptive and a lot of that brings kids into the bad areas, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or getting in with the wrong crowd. And places like TCA especially have given them classes to go to, to get off the streets for a while, a couple hours a day. Even this building itself can be a salvation: somebody can sit, have a cup of tea with people and you can always get involved with new people. So I find that TCA is one of those places that has helped bringing people together and kept them away from all the badness that happens. Bad things happen everywhere, in every country, I just find this for me, socially and political as well: the art helps people to get off the streets. People can turn very bad very quickly. But this here, it’s communal, it’s open to who you are, what race, what gender. It’s accessible for everybody.
We are labelled, in my professional experience, to be some kind of alternative shelter. And that’s not a nice label to have, because I think we should be the mainstream. You are also shut out from a lot of people who could be engaged with you, but they say that ‘that’s for those funny people over there’. So I try to make the access to our work here really big for people to come through and be as normative and as mainstream as possible. I’d say we are however an antidote to some of the other mess that is going on, both locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
“[S]ometimes we can ask for a scrap of money for a project with the homeless. But it’s just a tiny Band-Aid on a huge gaping wound and it doesn’t deal with the roots of te problem.”
The idea that community arts often flourish under neo-liberal times because they fill a lack in governmental social services, while covering for the same lack so the government doesn’t look bad, is a just critique, no doubt about that. Our homeless situation is appalling, for example, and sometimes we can ask for a scrap of money for a project with the homeless. But it’s just a tiny Band-Aid on a huge gaping wound and it doesn’t deal with the roots of the problem.
What’s very important about the arts and particularly about theatre is that sometimes you contribute to a broader campaign, for example gay rights, can often be quite subtle in contrary to storming the barricades. Because I had that experience and that only works to a certain extend. Sometimes you have to come out and do that, but other times you just have to be consistent and have a kind of philosophy and a way of working that’s inclusive and that has a very big door and welcomes everybody in. When you are in the space we create for you, but you don’t share the values the space is constructed with, then please, leave the space. So you give the people lots of time and space to accommodate themselves to a set of values that they not have experienced previously. That’s very important I think, then people can think and make up their own minds.
“That’s what I like about the arts: it’s testing, it’s bold, and it’s not comfortable.”
In Ireland we’re not very good as a culture to talk about our feelings. Especially with mental health as well, and rape. Today, there are some amazing pieces out there that have to do with mental health. That’s what I like about the arts: it’s testing, it’s bald, and it’s not comfortable. These are the things I was told about when I was studying in college: if you are comfortable on a stage, something is wrong. You should be uncomfortable and pushing the boundaries. You should be out there telling something that means something. All across the world we’ve become sensitive and we’ve become afraid to talk. That’s what true theatre, true film, true song, true writing should be about, I feel. We should be able to express it there, whether that is rape, mental illnesses, and refugees. A lot of people didn’t want to talk about refugees and wanted to let them do their own thing and be done with it. That is what I feel that we, as a country, aren’t developing enough. I find with the arts it is getting out there, it is brought into light. If you talk about stuff people don’t want to talk about in theatre, you force people to empathise, which is something that is avoided in political debate. People get to explore individual situations instead of the abstract level all the time. Sometimes highlighting those individual stories, can be more powerful than to sit down and talk about it from an abstract academic point
“I always link the word ‘consistency’ with hope. You have to be in this stuff for the long haul.”
I always link the word ‘consistency’ with hope. You have to be in this stuff for the long haul. I happen to come from a generation that grew up in the late 60s and we though we were going to change to world. And we did and we didn’t. Socially amazing changes took place, but politically and economically… Our belief system contributed to neo-liberalism and created the Googles and Facebooks and the monsters in the world, and the individual libertarian came out of that. That was the downside. I think that if you want to change things, you have to have hope. Otherwise you couldn’t get up. I think you have to be consistent, even if you experience both good and bad times. You have to dog it. That is something very unfashionable these days.”
Interview by Furia, Hart boven Hard & Victoria Deluxe
Photos by Maria Little