Theatre, feminism and learning technology – a personal story

Theatre is a collaborative, experiential space where we share and create stories, mapping the personal onto the political and vice versa. It is a transformation of individuals into an assemblage of audience, actors, space and, mostly but not always, text.

It is a form of expression and Dublin Youth Theatre embodies this, upholding artistic excellence in performance while giving young people a voice, bringing together people from every part of society. I was lucky to join DYT as a 16 year old and it challenged my (middle-class) assumptions about the purpose of the arts, who could make it and who it was for. While still at school, criticality and inclusion were instilled and role-modeled to me by a number of amazing theatre professionals who volunteered as leaders in DYT. I knew I was never going to be an actor, but I started to write plays and direct them. I did an arts degree in English Literature, while keeping up my extracurricular work in theatre (my grades may have suffer admittedly). In university I was introduced to (very dry) critical, feminist and postcolonial theory, while my other life was seeking creative expressions of authenticity and empowerment. I think the rest of my life has been a slow entanglement of these two things. I started to see the inequalities surrounding and controlling me. As another DYT member casually remarked in conversation, “What hope have we got when this state doesn’t recognise rape within marriage?” It felt like there was not just one, but whole range of mountains to climb to overcome inequality in both Irish legislation and societal perceptions. I joined campaigns. I went on marches. Some school friends stopped talking to me.

After university I worked as a theatre technician for a number of years – stage management, lighting and sound technician. As you can imagine, there were times when people passed comments on a perceived dissonance between my role and my gender, but not often. Flash forward a few years and I was directing plays and running my own theatre company. Again, the people I worked directly with, the actors, the designers, the technicians, had no difficulty in working under me as the creative authority. Then I hit a glass ceiling and my career shattered. I had been appointed as a staff director at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre – basically the biggest gig in the country for a young director. I was the first woman to hold the position and I was told that was why they were interested in appointing me at my ‘interview’. For 18 months I was put on the shelf and consistently overlooked for directing jobs within the theatre, even though I was spawning projects on contemporary European plays and overhauling the audition system. I directed readings, but the head of the theatre never came to one of them. Through I casual conversation with a male colleague in the same role I discovered that I was paid £7,000 less than him. I went to the (then named) Equality Authority and the theatre agreed to give me a lump sum, but no shows to direct and no extension of my contract. I had effectively ended my very hard-won career by calling them out. A few years ago I revisited this all again during the #wakingthefeminists uprising where women in Irish theatre started to share stories of their experience of discrimination and sexism. I was shocked to realise that much has not changed, but their tireless campaigning is hopefully putting an end to this. During #wakingthefeminists, many people I worked with sent me lovely messages and I know that there are many actors, many women in theatre now, to whom I gave a ‘leg up’ when I had the power to do so. I no longer blame myself for what happened. This was an important lesson for me. I know I was an excellent director.

After the Abbey Theatre, I left my country and career behind and indulged my interest in computing with an MSc in the University of Glasgow. This led, by way of revisiting my Old and Middle English Literature roots, to elearning. Much like theatre, working in learning technology requires a mixture of creativity, technical understanding and, above all, collaboration with a range of people. It was a good fit for me. After working on a very successful project in one university, we needed to extend our team and recruited another learning technologist from within the university. It turns out that this other (male) learning technologist was being paid £5,000 more than I was, so I got a raise. I’m not sure it ever occurred to me to ask for back pay.

As time passed, I could see that my knowledge and expertise in both pedagogy and technology were not being recognised and used. Decisions were being made about university policies and systems and I was never asked to be at the table, yet I had to work with the outcomes. So, to extend myself beyond my comfort zone, and in an effort to ‘legitimise’ my knowledge, I started looking for a PhD. And I found one. It was a brilliant experience and a studentship meant I could focus on just that for a few years: a real luxury.

In parallel with my careers, there is the backdrop of a political narrative, particularly in relation to Ireland. As an undergraduate I campaigned for ‘legalisation of homosexual acts’ (we still had British Victorian laws on the statute books) and the repeal of prohibition of abortion. It is with great joy that I celebrated the decisive referendum results to reverse the eight amendment this year and the introduction of marriage equality in 2015. The country in which I grew-up is very different now. When I stood up about these things when I was an undergraduate, some people stopped speaking to me. I know that wouldn’t be the case now. Ireland has re-found the power of personal stories to move people to a more progressive, open outlook. Above all, I have benefited personally and professionally from those who share their experiences.

How else otherwise would we know that we are not alone?

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