Derry’s 'Sunlit Absence' in virtual theatre

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1972 was Derry-Londonderry’s worst year of The Troubles, and the city’s Playhouse is using the year’s story to herald the theatre's new virtual future.

That year, the year of Bloody Sunday, there were almost 500 killings in Northern Ireland, 10,000 shootings, 2,000 explosions and nearly 5,000 people injured.

Anything Can Happen 1972: Voices from the heart of the Troubles, is a play by the Irish poet Damian Gorman that uses the inside stories of those affected by that year, stories that have hitherto been unheard. The play will open with a socially-distancing cast on September 16.

But the 150-seat theatre will only be able to accommodate an audience 20 people because of Covid distancing rules, so as part of the production those affected by the events of both that year and the current pandemic are being asked contribute items connected to loved ones lost, to be placed in the empty chairs which will be specially lit. It echoes County Derry-born Seamus Heaney’s famous work Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication, in which he describes “a sunlit absence” in memory of his mother.

"The empty chair is a very powerful symbol of loss and grief” Gorman says. “Somebody defined grief to me as 'love which has nowhere to go'. Rather than having all these empty chairs that would be housing absence, we would be housing something of significance. If all of that makes sense to you, please get in touch with us here at the Playhouse."

The production is part of plans announced today for reopening the award-winning theatre after lock-down- provided the Northern Ireland administration sticks to its intention to allow live indoor performances with restrictions from later this month. It is to begin a new season of live performances that will also be broadcast live, free to subscribers to the Playhouse’s YouTube channel . It reopens on August 28 with Proud to Be, a new play written during lockdown by the poet and performer Mel Bradley and director Kieran Smyth exploring the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community during the period.

The Playhouse, founded in 1992, has been a central part of Derry, the UK’s city of culture in 2013, as a theatre and arts centre. Firmly rooted in the community, offering arts training and creating touring production, the Playhouse has pioneered new types of theatre, including the world’s first play to be performed both live on stage and inside the Minecraft video game, broadcast to a global audience of a million people.

Anything Can Happen 1972 is being produced as part of the Playhouse’s EU-funded PEACE IV Programme’s Theatre and Peacebuilding Academy, designed to support peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border region and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).

Like a low-laying fog, grief has sat amongst us all this year. It’s grey, feels impossible to lift and kicking it sees it rise around us” said the Playhouse’s producer/director Kieran Griffiths. “Our plan is to honour that grief and to fight through with resilience and creativity to simply try and make something move.

“Fear of inertia was the catalyst and our mission to bring art to all will continue. Anything Can Happen 1972 is an act of love, of courage and its ‘sunlit absence’ is our way of spotlighting our missing audiences but also our theatre community in mourning.”

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