Christopher Owens in conversation with Beano Niblock about an artistic project he has worked on.
I came across this poster on Twitter the other day. Seems like an interesting night for a discussion and so, I contacted Robert 'Beano' Niblock (author of plays such as 'A Reason to Believe' and 'Tartan') to ask him about the upcoming event.
BN: About three years ago, Etcetera theatre company was approached by a former Greenfinch who was part of a group of former UDR/RIR personnel who now suffer from varying degrees of PTSD. Basically they wanted to tell their story and thought that a piece of drama was the best medium.
Over a period of some months the extended group, up to 15 in some cases, met for workshops with myself and facilitated by William Mitchell (artistic director of Etcetera and current director of the ACT Initiative). It was during these sessions that they covered their personal narratives relating to their time as soldiers, part time or otherwise.
Over the next few months I created a full length drama which we endeavoured to obtain funding for. Unfortunately, we failed and the project was shelved for a couple of years. The play was recently revisited in an effort to give the veterans something for their input and we came up with an idea to reduce the play to a 30 minute two hander with all of the issues intact.
This is the result of that. The play will be staged-in front of selected and invited audiences over 3 nights next week at small venues in Carrickfergus, East Belfast and Shankill Road.
CO: Speaking to those involved in the workshop, what impressions did you get of how they coped when they saw that people they had traditionally regarded as the enemy (e.g. Sinn Fein) enter and begin to dominate mainstream politics, so much so that they have been accused of rewriting history?
BN: The workshops were a number of extended sessions over a number of months and many things were discussed and issues raised. Most of these issues were around collective abandonment, of feeling second class, of not being worthy, betrayal. The blame was aimed at the establishment and the perceived disinterest from many unionist politicians and some parties. Like many other unionists or loyalists though, they raised deep concerns that Sinn Fein have been allowed, basically unchallenged, for many years to re-write the conflict.
CO: I see that ACT Initiative are involved with the play and, as an organisation, they seem very eager to promote art within the loyalist community. Last time we spoke, you said that they were "currently looking towards new initiatives to encourage former combatants to participate in a range of activities based around encouraging the narratives..." How important have ACT been towards artists like yourself?
BN: In recent years I have worked closely with ACT, either central, or at times with the outlying branches in a range of creative activities. They certainly encourage me and others to further cultivate that creative side and incorporate it into loyalist thinking and roles. This is something I personally feel is important but sadly lacking.
CO: In recent times I have worked many times with the ACT Initiative to encourage those within our strand of loyalism to become involved in creative story telling. Longkeshinsideout, Post Scriptum, poetry readings, open mic nights, oral archiving and handicraft workshops are all examples of this. ACT will continue in this vein and I see them and EpIc and the Open Door project as pivotal in perpetuating creativity within loyalism and in particular amongst ex-combatants including prisoners.
CO: With these upcoming shows, what are you hoping for in terms of conversation and reactions?
BN: We are hoping to gauge the accuracy of the piece and, through post show discussions, examine the content and relevant issues contained.
Reactions at this stage aren’t an issue, I feel, because the piece is being performed by and large to critical friends really to ascertain if we have a project that is worth expanding again to the original format in the hope that we can offer it to the mainstream theatres. We had interest a couple of years back from the Lyric but couldn’t find the money then to have it produced.
CO: Will there be further shows after this initial run?
BN: This short run is being done on the back of a very small amount of money but the answer is: if we can find the funding to produce further shows, then we would try to take it on the road (even in its present form).
CO: What is it about the medium of plays that are so appealing to yourself, and does said medium have an edge over the likes of poetry?
BN: From my own perspective, I think the immediacy of drama and the intimacy of live theatre is appealing: it’s the sound and smells, things that you don’t get from reading, that works for me. Having said that I prefer writing poems/prose. I find it less stressful than writing plays and certainly more relaxing and therapeutic.
I can jot down some lines and leave them before revisiting them when it suits with poetry but find that I always seem to be pressured into long sessions and finishing things when I write drama.
CO: Although there seems to be a ready audience for tales such as this, is there much/any interest in mainstream funders, in your opinion?
BN: It becomes increasingly difficult to obtain mainstream funding and I feel there is a couple of reasons for this. In recent times the pot is getting smaller and more people/groups are looking into it. I also personally think that the established writers/groups are favoured. This of course is regrettable and a major hurdle but we (small groups like Etcetera) have to look at other ways around this.
I feel there is an audience for the theatre that we are prepared to put forward. A while back I was of the opinion, like many others, that the Protestant working class refrained from theatre here, in the belief that it was only for “the middles class and fenians”. However in a meeting with Ross Hussey, then director at GOH in Belfast assured us (Etcetera) that their mailing list for plays was dominated by Protestant working class post codes. This was a surprise to me. Frustrating as it is in the attempt to woo loyalists not only to write but to take part in the full process, it is something I will continue to do.
CO: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
BN: Sadly I am one of those people who never seem to complete things and always have stuff lying around part finished or pages full of ideas scattered about the place.
I have been working for years on a play based on the life of Davy Ervine, "The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary." In fact, over the years, parts of it have been staged at various events so really that should be my next thing to finish. It’s a pet project I suppose and I feel there would be a market for it if I ever get round to completing.
I always try to get some poetry down as I go along and I have been working on two sets of poems over the past couple of years. Personal Reflections. One set is from my early years growing up in east Belfast. The second set covers the years 1969 (when I was 14) to 1973 and charts those days when I was a young gang member and subsequently a teenage paramilitary and young prisoner.
That collection is called Troubles Curriculum and Other Poems - and a booklet containing 15 poems is due for release on Wednesday 6th November in the ACT Initiative building on the Shankill.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.