5 Years of Ardent

As a trustee since Ardent Theatre Company began, it has been incredible to witness the journey of the company, with all its differing highs and lows. The challenge of the artistic landscape Ardent was born into has presented some rocky terrain to navigate but it has also proved the importance of being resilient and well equipped in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. There is no doubt that fundraising for each project occupies an unhealthy amount of time for Mark Sands as Creative Director who constantly seeks to squeeze blood from various funding stones!

Yet, there has also been the joy of finding funding successes via a small but perfectly formed group of charitable donors or trusts that share in Ardent’s ethos and who have been more of a lifeline than perhaps they realise. The company is so grateful to them and through their financial support they have given the company the time and space to create work that tells stories which might otherwise go unheard.

In our regular trustee meetings, we discuss the idea of change and making a difference through the smallest of theatrical ventures right through to our largest grand plans. I have personally found the word change difficult as a means of thinking about our work, wary I suppose of imposing my values onto others. Yet, working with Mark and Andrew has helped me see how the telling of tales, otherwise forgotten or overlooked, might influence a meaningful metamorphosis for those involved, ourselves included. It has illustrated to me why we must also keep our focus on the impact that our projects might have over a longer period of time; as the company moves forward this will surely need to inform our work more and more.

Looking back to Flowers of the Forest and seeing the pathway of work leading to the glorious run of This Island’s Mine has helped me see the company in a new light; one where seminal texts, in danger of getting lost in the current whirligig of events, can find a space of resurrection and breath life again into the theatrical atmosphere. How sad and indeed perilous it would be to have neglected This Island’s Mine which seems as pertinent now as in its initial inception and what a joy it was to see the work also go onto Edinburgh with a different company. I wonder if we might see another version in the next year or so – the reviews of Ardent’s work praised the writing by Philip Osment and do we need reminding as Mrs Rosenblum does in the play, that in turbulent times:

“You must watch.

You must be prepared”. (Osment, 1988)

I have neglected here the joy of watching the Ardent8 perform and the complexity of the new writing which Ardent supports via the work of Andrew Muir but also in projects such as Party Lines but I suspect others will write more of this.

It is a pleasure to be a trustee for the company and Ardent enriches my understanding of the world every time it produces something new. Here’s to the next 5 years!

Becky Hunt, Chair and Trustee, Oct 2019

Rebecca HuntComment
Bringing Outsiders In: The inspiration for the ARDENT8
Andrew Muir with ARDENT8 member Chloe Brown  Photo by Adam Bennett

Andrew Muir with ARDENT8 member Chloe Brown

Photo by Adam Bennett

A few years ago, I was sat in a dark auditorium, watching a group of young drama students rehearsing a new play. They were second year degree students on a Foundation Degree in Contemporary Theatre at a college of Higher Education on the South Coast of England, that has an excellent provision for drama. They were passionate, intelligent and kind. They cared about the product as well as each other, and I totally respected each and every one of them. What were their dreams? Their ambitions? To be famous? To be admired? To be rich? Or simply to survive? It’s difficult to predict anything in a world that currently spins so capriciously.

On that day, whilst sat in the dark auditorium, an ex-student appeared out of nowhere. A student who I remembered from a couple of years ago had proved themselves as an actor of extreme versatility and talent. Their work onstage was outstanding, and had they graduated from RADA a couple of years ago instead of a college of Higher Education somewhere in the middle of Dorset, perhaps they’d have good representation, a character lead in Doctors, a season at the RSC, and an availability check for the National under their belt. But that was not the case. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from the case.

He had found me in the auditorium, to let me know, that despite all their efforts to get to London, and try and get auditions, they just couldn’t carry on. They simply couldn’t afford to carry on. They couldn’t get out of Dorset. They were going to have to stop. It broke my heart.

I met up with Mark not long after that, who I had known in a professional capacity, during my time at Deafinitely Theatre, where I had been working as literary associate and Dramaturg on many of their projects. Mark and I were from similar backgrounds, and the story that had I shared about the ex-student, and which had compelled me to try and do something about it, resonated with both of us. It was during these early conversations about whether or not there was anything we might be able to do in way of making some sort of change, Ardent Theatre was born.

And with the creation of Ardent Theatre, came the Ardent8 programme. This was set up to help support those graduates of performing arts courses based outside of London, the opportunity to access the industry through various workshops, fully funded by Ardent as well as a production in a London venue. Ardent8 was not created to provide a false hope, but rather, an equal opportunity. There is too much talent that is forced to stop because those talented young people simply cannot afford to go to London. As far as both Mark and I are concerned, this is simply not fair. It’s exactly what drama shouldn’t be – an art form that favours the wealthy. It should be an art form that favours anyone who wants to give it a go. As a company, we will never create an atmosphere of false hope, but we will always create an atmosphere of equality.

I am thrilled that we celebrate five years of existence as a company today. I still sit in various auditoriums, watching young people devour a piece of text, and despite not having had much of an effect on the privileged entry pass, we are at least giving some young people, who would consider themselves outsiders, an opportunity to get inside the industry and feel a part of something that their talent more than deserves.

I would like to thank everyone who has supported Ardent in the last few years, without whom, we simply wouldn’t be here now. Our main funders, our family and friends, and to those who don’t know us yet – please keep supporting us, and we will keep finding ways to break through.


Andrew MuirComment
Celebrating 5 years of bringing outsiders in

Five years ago today, 11 actors stepped out onto the intimate stage of Jermyn Street Theatre in London and marked the birth of Ardent Theatre Company. The play was a long forgotten gem by John Van Druten called Flowers of the Forest and the production was directed by the then Artistic Director of the venue, Anthony Biggs.

The idea of setting up a new company emerged from conversations between Andrew Muir and myself across the corner of a desk where we were both working. We shared similar journeys of growing up on the South Coast and were drawn to London as the only means of pursuing artistic careers. We both felt like outsiders in what seemed then an impenetrable city.

The script of Flowers of the Forest lay neglected and gathering dust in a Welsh library, waiting to be discovered by a friend, Jim McCarthy:

“I think, in a volume called Best Plays of 1937, or some such date. Then I tracked down an individual copy but I can't remember how. Did I go to Hay on Wye?? What a great play and what a good account of it you all gave! My very immediate memory of reading that play was that there was no doubt this merited rediscovery but that it had never stopped speaking to our times. It could have moved from 1914 to the 21st Century.”

The script landed in the lap of Anthony Biggs, who also fell in love with it and invited us on board as co-producers; thus giving birth to Ardent Theatre Company.

What an exhilarating, and at times exhausting, roller coaster journey it’s been.

In Party Lines, we crammed 20 artists and more than 80 audience members into the tiny confines of Westminster Reference Library to tear apart party political policies on the day following the 2015 General Election result.

We launched our flagship ARDENT8 project giving young, exceptional talent from outside London the opportunity to take their rightful place in London’s theatre heartland. How proud they made us giving faultless performances in Sacrifice for one hot summer week at Soho Theatre last year; and now we begin again with another talented group of 8 we can’t wait to see perform.

We’ve celebrated the unsung heroes of theatre in our In Conversation events; people who have worked tirelessly to help others at the early stages of their acting careers.

Then this year, we produced the first-ever professional revival in 31 years of Phil Osment’s beautiful and relevant play This Island’s Mine, gaining 4 and 5 star reviews.

And it’s only just beginning.

We’re currently working on plans for the next five years to be launched in 2020. We’re taking our time talking, planning, thinking, consulting and sometimes arguing to ensure we put forward the best possible programme to achieve our mission of making theatre a place where no one feels like an outsider.

Final word though must go to you; the people who have stuck by us, supported us and put their faith in us over the last five years.

As we cut the cake and raise a glass, we give thanks to the actors, writers, directors, stage managers, designers, technicians, costume supervisors, workshop leaders, trustees, funders, participants, venues, companies and organisations that we’ve had the honour to work with.

Last, but not least, we thank the audiences who have turned up to experience the work and share in this journey.

Happy Anniversary from us to you - our Ardent family.

To commemorate five years of bringing outsiders in, we’re delving into the archives over the next few weeks to share some of the highlights of our journey. Make sure you follow us across all 3 social media platforms - Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - to experience the full celebration.

Why not sign up to our monthly email E-Zine and keep up to date with all things Ardent. Click HERE to sign up.

A statement from Mark Sands on behalf of Ardent Theatre Company, the producers of Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine

Thirty-one years ago, when I was 19, Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company toured Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine to my home town of Portsmouth. It was one of those life changing, career-defining moments. I instantly fell in love with the play and the writer behind it.

8 years ago I started emailing Philip and his agent about a possible new production of the play and, after several false starts, we finally did it – the first ever revival of This Island’s Mine opened on the 15th May 2019 at the King’s Head Theatre. The director Philip Wilson and I met up with Philip Osment for the first time only a few months before rehearsals and we hugged like we had been lifelong friends. Such was the warmth and openness of this gentle, generous man.

Philip was taken ill during rehearsals and was unable to drop in, but we maintained email and phone contact throughout. He was planning to attend a performance towards the end of the run but instead made a last minute decision to see the play on opening night. What he witnessed was a sold out audience drinking in his brilliant words and storytelling, some for the first time and others for the second having seen the original production.

On Friday 24th May, news came that Philip Osment had passed away. On the same day, a handwritten postcard from Philip arrived – he’d bought it 30 years prior in case the play was ever revived - thanking us for our hard work and determination in bringing This Island’s Mine back to the stage.

It’s with great sadness that we say goodbye to his talent and his generous soul. Our one comfort is that he was able to see the play and know that 31 years on his work still manages to move and inspire audiences.

Our production is dedicated to the memory of Philip Osment.

Mark Sands

Ardent Theatre Company

Coming out in the 80s

Creative Director Mark Sands talks about coming out in the 80s, Section 28 and seeing the original 1988 production of Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine.

I knew I was gay from a really early age, around 9 years old, maybe younger. I knew I had an attraction to the same sex. Back then, these things get explained away as hero worship; in retrospect, it was because I was gay. I just didn’t have the reference points, the understanding, the language, the role models or the confidence to articulate it. I had a girlfriend, whom I genuinely loved, in my late teens, and my first boyfriend at 17, whom I also loved. It’s an indictment of the times that he is sadly no longer with us.

I know the exact date I came out – it was the 26th May 1989 – and I was 20. My friend and I used to spend our weekends driving from Portsmouth to Southampton in his Robin Reliant to a club called Magnum’s where I became obsessed with someone. After many months of stalking him across the 3 dance floors, we had a date. Not a great one - I was an insecure wreck - but good enough that a second was planned. This time I made my way to Southampton alone by train only to be stood up. Drowning my sorrows in Bicardi and Coke an older lesbian friend drove me back in her yellow Mini ending with me breaking down, drunk in front of my parents. There was a moment of comedy in amongst all the dramatic sobbing because the person who stood me up had the same name as my brother and in blubbing on about him, my parents thought I’d actually been let down by my brother, not my date.

But it happened, that night, in 1989, I came out.

We talk about coming out as something we do to other people, but actually the hardest thing I faced was coming out to myself. I had the best of times in the 80s; but it was also one the harshest of times. Media homophobia was rampant and the introduction of Section 28 caused a genuine unease, not least because if felt like an institutional act of persecution. No one really understood how the policy was to be implemented, leading to a climate of uncertainty about the context in which you were ‘allowed’ to talk openly and positively about being gay and lesbian. If we didn’t already feel like exiles in our own country, Section 28 certainly made sure we were.

In 1988, Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company toured their production of Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine to the Hornpipe Arts Centre in my hometown of Portsmouth. It was the first time I had ever seen a piece of ‘gay theatre’. It was important because two parts of me – my interest in theatre and being gay – suddenly came together in one experience. I remember distinctly the absolute fear and feeling of sickness of having to walk through the door of that venue, not knowing who might see me going in. This was despite having hung out in gay bars and clubs since I was 16 and having the aforementioned yearlong gay relationship. I wasn’t out to my family at this stage; such was the climate of fear and prejudice I grew up in, so it still took a huge amount of courage to be seen attending something so brazen about sexuality.

It was a life changing experience, to be in a room with people just like me, away from the context of a bar or club, and to have something so beautiful and articulate speak about my life in such a positive, warm, humourous, enlightening way. To be celebrated in public was a far cry from being shamed by the media and government. It was an awakening, not just because it made sense of my life to myself, but also because it showed me the power of theatre. At a time when positive LGBT role models were far from visible, when coming out was seen as a career killer for actors, when The Sun newspaper headlines screamed ‘Eastbenders’ across its front page, here was a company, a play and a group of people that were unashamedly positive. And I wanted to be just like them and play my part in promoting that positive vision.

It’s from that moment that I decided – without fuss or fanfare – that I wanted to make theatre that had the potential to change peoples’ lives for the better, and this is something I’ve pretty much dedicated my entire career to.

Now here we are, 31 years on, about to go into rehearsals for the first ever revival of This Island’s Mine since the original back in 1988.

Is it still relevant? Yes. Absolutely. We must never forget our darkest times and what it was like before hard-earned rights were won. I remember clearly the shift that took place with the introduction of Section 28. It empowered and united so many of us, but it also fanned the flames of prejudice by giving legitimacy to homophobia. I see it again, with the rise of far right sentiments and anti-LGBT protests outside schools in Birmingham. As Miss Rosenblum in This Island’s Mine warns her lodger:


It can happen again.

I see the signs, Mr Martin,

They want someone to blame.’

At the same time, there is much to celebrate. We have come a long way and the play is truly a celebration of love, defiance and unity. That’s the power of the play and I hope it has the same liberating, uplifting, life changing impact on others in 2019 as it did for me back in 1988.

This Island’s Mine by Philip Osment runs from 15 May - 8 June at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Mark Sands Comments
Meet Chloe Brown...the 9th member of the ARDENT8

Tell us a bit about your theatre journey so far?

Theatre has always been a part of my life even when I don’t think I’ve realised! I grew up watching musicals and have always loved to go to the theatre. I think my love for working in the industry actually started in school, I was the sound and light technician for Back to the 80’s when I was in year 9 and I loved it more than anything else I was doing in school. From there I started to look at colleges and how I can further my career in the industry. I ended up at The Jellicoe at Bournemouth and Poole College and I can say with hand on heart it has been the best 5 years of my life! I’ve worked on a variety of different shows like musicals, contemporary plays, dance shows and more. And that’s also where I met Andy and I’m so thankful that he found me!

As well as working from a technical point in theatre, I’ve just entered my third year of University. I’m studying for a BA (hons) in Performing arts and love to be on stage surrounded by lights and a company!

Do you prefer acting or stage management? And why?

I get asked this question so much and I’ve always got the same response. I don’t know! I think my heart says stage management. It’s where I have the most creative control and I can do what I love most, which is to help people. Seeing people love the show they’re working on is something so magic to me. It’s where I first started my journey and it now comes so naturally that it’s easy for me to pick up a new script and see it from a technical point of view rather than an actors. I also live my life by making lists, so stage management is dream!

What are some of the barriers you’ve faced in pursuing your career?

A few things come to mind straight away when I hear the word ‘barrier’. Personally, I think my location and age are my biggest setbacks. In personal experience I haven’t been taken seriously just because I’m 20, a lot of people still have the notion that young people in this industry still can’t take the responsibility which is crazy to me! I don’t think we’d be in this position if we couldn’t do it.

Location is a tricky one, whilst there are still opportunities where I live, like local theatres and taking a part time technician job there are still things stopping me. I’d love to be able to move to London and start working in a professional theatre environment.

What was the experience like working on Sacrifice and what did you get out of it?

Working on Sacrifice was incredible. Finally having people who trusted me to do my job in a professional environment was the most liberating experience. Being able to have the opportunity to work in London for 2 weeks and to feel what it’s like to put a show up in a week was thrilling. Finding set, finding props, blocking. The lists were endless! Finally, being able to put my skills to use outside of training in college and university felt like everything started to fall into place.

ME! A 20-year-old from Bournemouth making her way to London to work in the Soho Theatre right in the heart of the West End?! That’s what I took from this experience, that it can happen!! If you put your heart towards a goal and work for it, you’ll get there and people will recognise you. I got to see how a theatre like the Soho works, how they operate, what their technicians are like (which is lovely by the way!) and it makes me so much more determined to carry on thriving in this industry.

Any favourite moments you’d like to share?

There are so many, and I know how cliché that sounds but as well as learning about the industry we had so many laughs. My favourite moment is quite possibly from rehearsals. It was our last rehearsal day and that morning we all needed something to perk us up from doing constant runs all week. Andy, our director, got the actors to do the entire hour piece as over the top as they possibly could. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much! Even Andy was getting involved with the acting! There were people stood on chairs, rolling around on the floor, singing lines, crying, screaming and just having a fun morning and getting ourselves even more excited for the week ahead. I watch the videos from that rehearsal if I ever need a good laugh!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

The scariest question of them all. I really hope to still be in this industry and hope there is a place for me in it. I aim to keep working in it as much as possible. I graduate in 2019 and from there I’m out of 17 years of education which is daunting. In 5 years time I’d love to be working on a tour of a show, or working backstage somewhere in the West End. I don’t think my heart would let me leave this industry so anything to do with theatre you’ll see me there.

What support do you need to get you there?

Programmes and opportunities like Ardent making theatre more accessible to people who live outside of London. Their support has helped boost my confidence and helped me out of my comfort zone. I think that Ardent has such good intention to help artists who aren’t in London, to help them get there or at least give them a taste of what it’s like to work in the City. Having a company that helps me put something like this on my resume lets other people see what I can really do and what I myself am able to achieve. Experience is so important and projects and companies like Ardent are the best way for people to collect the knowledge they need. I can now say I’ve stage managed a show at the Soho Theatre written by Andrew Muir. It’s big, it’s the best support I’ve ever received.

What advice would you give to new people joining the Ardent8 project?

Be kind, be prepared and love what you do. Be able to completely let yourself go and come out of your comfort zone. Ardent8 not only gives you an incredible opportunity in the business, it reminds you of why you started in the first place. Be able to see yourself doing this in 10, 15, 20 years time and Ardent will give you a huge step up to get there. Most importantly enjoy yourself, I can’t wait for the new 8 to experience London just like we have.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I’d like to say thank you! To both Andrew and Mark for letting me have this opportunity and trusting me to do it. There have often been times where I feel I get overlooked as a technician so being asked to take part in Ardent made me realise that I am being recognised and my hard work has paid off. Thank you so much, I can’t wait for the future!

Mark SandsComment
Why we set up the ARDENT8 project.
Photo by Adam Bennett

Photo by Adam Bennett

For the past ten years I have been lucky enough to work on a part-time basis as writer in residence at the Bournemouth & Poole College in Dorset. This role has enabled me to work closely with many talented young people studying on the degree programme in performing arts.

Each academic year, I get the opportunity to create an original piece of work for the new cohort, and each year it’s always so different in terms of story but each year it’s always so similar in terms of the heart of that story – it’s lively, honest and unpredictable. I am always overwhelmed by the standard of performance from the individual and blown away by the enthusiasm and commitment. The problem that I was seeing at the end of the programme was that there was a distinct lack of opportunity for the graduates to continue their learning within the industry.

Every year I would watch the talent disappear into other means of making a living, and before long, the steady flow of a monthly income was enough to suppress the performer. I’m not saying that earning a living is wrong, it’s not, it’s essential, but what I am saying is that with a distinct lack of opportunity for anyone hoping to work in the creative industries as a performer, Dorset is unable to cater for that individual. The only real hope was for any of these graduates was to make the leap to London, and for a lot of these people, that leap was simply too much – for whatever reason, but mainly, the financial implication was beyond their means.

And this was why Mark Sands and myself wanted to create an opportunity for these ‘outsiders’ to access industry professionals through various workshops to be held in London as well as a fully paid opportunity to perform in a new play, written specifically for them and produced at the Soho Theatre. We both felt that these young people deserved an equal opportunity, and this is how we view the ARDENT8 – providing an equal opportunity for those young people who perhaps otherwise would never have had the chance to access an industry that can often overlook some of the regions around the UK.

Click Here to find out more about the ARDENT8 project.

From 12pm Tuesday 27th November to 12pm Tuesday 4th December we are taking part in the Big Give Christmas Challenge to raise money for 8 new young emerging actors to take part in our 2019 ARDENT project. Help us to help them. Click Here to find out more.

Angela Crispim joins our ARDENT8

This month the ARDENT8 project started up again with the next round of 5 workshops leading to a one-week professional performance at Soho Theatre in the Summer. We're sad to say goodbye to Kamilah Hassan who is unfortunately no longer available to take part this year. Hopefully, this won't be the last you'll see of her working with Ardent.

So, it gives us great pleasure to introduce you to new member Angela Crispim.

ARDENT: What was your first reaction when Andrew invited you to be part of the project?

ANGELA: I couldn’t believe my luck, I have wanted to be a part of the project for a long time. I was speechless when it happened. 

ARDENT: What is it you’re hoping to get out it?

ANGELA: I believe Ardent8 is a great platform for networking, so I look forward to meeting lots of new and interesting people. 

ARDENT: Tell us a bit about where you are now on your acting journey?

ANGELA: After completing my degree I hoped to continue to work on creative projects and get involved in community based theatre. But my future is open and I’m so excited for this adventure.

ARDENT: What are some of the most challenging obstacles in wanting to be an actor?

ANGELA: Locally, I feel there are very limited opportunities for aspiring actors, so the most challenging obstacle in my view would be finding professional work locally.

ARDENT: Where do you hope to see yourself in 5 years time?

ANGELA: Ideally I would love to have gained some more experience in both acting and directing before finally returning to university to complete an MA in directing

ARDENT: Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share?

ANGELA: Anything is possible if you want it enough and are willing to work for it.

Jamie Parker joins our ARDENT8

As we bid a sad farewell to Ellie Gocoul, who has gone off to pursue a new, equally exciting direction, we welcome onboard new member Jamie Parker. We caught up with Jamie briefly this week.

ARDENT: What was your first reaction when Andrew invited you to be part of the project?

JAMIE: I was absolutely shocked, I genuinely thought 'seriously ME?!' But I am so happy and grateful to be given this opportunity!

ARDENT: What is it you’re hoping to get out it?

JAMIE: I'm hoping to meet new people who have the same interests as me and build as a performer! Learn new techniques and also grow and mature as a person.

ARDENT: Tell us a bit about where you are now in your acting journey?

JAMIE: I'm currently studying for a BA in musical theatre, and doing a few small things here and there!

ARDENT: What are some of the most challenging obstacles in wanting to be an actor?

JAMIE: Being believable and genuine in a character. Also, the fact that so many people want to do this which makes the bar so high!

ARDENT: Where do you hope to see yourself in 5 years time?

JAMIE: Hopefully being successful in what I love doing, which is performing. I don't care where I am as long as I've got a stage and an audience I'm happy! I also hope to widen my horizons and be welcomed to TV and film.

ARDENT: Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share?

JAMIE: I'm not very wise so I'm not sure if these are words of wisdom! But I'm so glad that working hard has been noticed! So work hard and be nice!

Mark SandsComment
Digging deep in the well of resolve

Three years since first having the idea to set up a new theatre company, Creative Directors Andrew Muir and MARK SANDS reflect back on the journey so far...

MARK: Back in 2014, a friend of mine – Jim McCarthy – found the play Flowers of the Forest by John Van Druten gathering dust in a Swansea library; a beautiful period piece that explores the morality of sending young people to fight in war. I was desperate to produce it and through a few twists and turns the script landed in the lap of Anthony Biggs, the then Artistic Director at Jermyn Street Theatre.

At the same time, across the corner of a desk, Andrew Muir and I were busy exploring the idea of setting up a new theatre company, one that helped aspiring young actors from low-income backgrounds and from outside London.

ANDREW: I've worked in education on a part-time basis for at least a decade now and during that time I have been lucky enough to work with so many talented young people who want to learn more about the creative industry. I have watched as they have learnt, experimented, fucked up and surprised everyone including themselves and I have had the pleasure of seeing them grow in confidence as performers and as people.

As a result of this type of commitment on their behalf I had always wanted to support some of those talented students who for whatever reason have found it so difficult to access London from the relatively quiet seaside towns of Bournemouth and Poole, where I have spent so much of my time as Writer in Residence at the Bournemouth & Poole College, working mainly with students on the Foundation Degree in Performing Arts. 

MARK: The collision of these two things gave birth to Ardent Theatre Company. It took about 2 months to settle on a name that hadn’t already been taken or registered as a website, and the two of us working through lists of words, thesauruses and online searches. We'd had a great success working with Jermyn Street Theatre on Flowers and buoyed by this experience we made an application to the Arts Council England for £15,000 to produce our next project Party Lines; and got it!

ANDREW: Party Lines was our response to the General Election with 21 artists presenting 5 new plays at the Westminster Reference Library for one electric, heady night; a night that marked our official launch as a new, independent theatre company.

MARK: And then we ran aground.

We had ambitious plans and ideas, that we had built enthusiastic momentum behind, and invested an enormous amount of time making endless funding applications. But our appeals were met with a resounding ‘NO’. As a new company, we were not eligible for most grants because we couldn’t produce a full year set of accounts.

So we bided our time and went back to all the same funders after one year and were again met with rejection. This time grant makers wanted to see around 50% of funds in place before considering an application.

ANDREW: It was a bit like a game of dare, where no one wanted to blink first.

MARK: But a few of the smaller grant givers – the Ernest Cook Trust, the D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust, The Grocers’ Charity – did take a punt on us.

It was because of their belief in us that we were able to launch our ARDENT8 project and give 8 exceptionally talented young individuals a 3 month experience of life as an actor in London; something that for most was a distant dream.

ANDREW: By setting up the ARDENT8 company we wanted to make London more accessible and allow some students the chance to not let economics get in the way of their progress in the creative industries, which I believe should be an equal opportunity for all.

MARK: I can’t pretend it has been easy. It hasn’t. At times we’ve been floating above the clouds; at others it’s been like clawing our way out of a mud pit.

We've had numerous false starts and 5 consecutive Arts Council England rejections; we genuinely thought about calling it a day. We’d needed a positive outcome to keep a £15K grant from Cockayne Grants for the Arts and The London Community Foundation that depended on matched funding. We needed that money.

ANDREW: Then Cockayne agreed to award the grant unconditionally on the same day a flourish of other applications came back positive. Suddenly, the game was back on.

MARK: What have I learned from all this? That things take time, and resilience and patience. That you have to dig deep in that well of resolve to keep going. Things do and can turn around, sometimes slowly or, as in our recent funding success, in a few days.

I wouldn’t have made it without my partner in crime Andrew and I’m so grateful for all the talent we’ve had the privilege of working with so far.

ANDREW: I am thrilled to have met Mark who has been instrumental in the creation of our company and I look forward not only to the next few years of funding applications and strife but also to those nights sat in a rehearsal room with a bunch of young people who feel as though they have been given another chance. 

MARK: It definitely feels now as though this is the beginning of something very special, not the end.

ANDREW: Cheers to you.

MARK: Yes, our supporters. We wouldn't be anywhere without you.

Is Theatre worth It? Part II

Gary Donaldson from Anthony Field Associates ponders the question: Is Theatre worth It?

Reading Mark Sands’ blog entry for March 16th, “Is Theatre Worth It?”, I was intrigued by the huge scale of his question. There are so many ways of responding, but I will “dive in” by tackling it firstly from a financial perspective.

As Mark mentioned, his journey to and from the venue, and time around the actual performance gave rise to a number of financial transactions (train, drink, food, etc) that multiplied the financial cost of his “night out” and benefitted a number of associated businesses. This is true for all of us, whether visiting a “room above a pub” theatre or the National Theatre, we may well spend more (often much more) than the ticket price of the event.

So can we actually figure out what this means to the wider economy? A detailed study carried out for NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues ((NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues Economic Impact Assessment 2010-11, ERS (February 2012)) evidenced that

“for every £1 of public subsidy invested in NGCV, an estimated £4.27 return on investment is generated across the North East economy”.

This bears out the findings of earlier research conducted in the 1980s, commissioned by my late colleague Anthony Field who spent 27 years as Finance Director of the Arts Council (from 1957 to 1983), which found that

“for every £1million of public subsidy in the arts and cultural scene the Treasury received back some £3million. These returns come from VAT on the sale of tickets, taxes levied on producing companies, performing artists, technicians and musicians, the returns from those who make up their audiences and the benefits derived from all the accompanying trades such as hotels and transport.”

So here we have solid proof that our local economies are boosted wherever the arts are present. This, therefore, makes the arts potentially more important in times of economic turbulence. One of the unforeseen benefits of the 2008/9 UK financial crisis has been that, in some senses, the arts have been taken back by younger people. By that, I mean that artists, no longer willing to play by the strict confines of the established order, are taking it into their own hands to produce and present theatre. As an example, the very talented actors who form a majority of the Front Of House staff at the Old Vic Theatre, encouraged by their enthusiastic new Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, have created their own company, Theatre 1881, and are putting on shows, learning as they go along and putting their learning into practice by creating the very opportunities which were previously unavailable to them. The 2012 London Olympics also seems to have been a catalyst for much creative work which was partly unfunded and therefore almost totally reliant on voluntary contributions. Again, artists contributed for the greater good and in doing so created new opportunities for experience and learning.

In another huge shift in our technological landscape, the recent explosion in accessible media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and many smaller platforms) have in a way democratised media opportunity. It was interesting to note a very detailed study done by Jane Deitch for Stage UK about UK drama graduate destinations, which highlighted the fact that a growing proportion of graduates are taking unpaid work which is shared via Youtube or similar sites, as ways of getting their CV off the ground, and being seen. A parallel rapid expansion in crowdfunding platforms has meant that anyone can now get involved in supporting a project to achieve a degree of development, with the benefits more broadly defined as perhaps an exchange, or indeed a more altruistic approach in just knowing that you have supported “your” pet projects. So the benefits, the “worth it”s, are many and multi-directional for audiences, supporters, artists and venues. And they are growing every day.

It is also worth remembering what is not always apparent to us in the very selective approach of the big media groups. We have a proliferation of sports TV and web channels and print outlets in the UK, yet the absolute fact remains that more people attend events in the arts and entertainment in any one week than attend sports events in the same period. So once again, it’s official, the arts are bigger than sport, OK? Interesting when we see blanket coverage of Wimbledon and the Euro footie, rapidly followed by the Rio Olympics. Where is all the arts coverage to feed the needs of those who want it? Sky Arts. Is that all there is, people?

So we have examined the financial side, now what are the wider benefits of theatre? Focussing on theatrical productions, let us first examine “benefits” from the audience’s point of view. Buying a theatre ticket is a financial investment in the community arts provision, whether this is subsidised or not. It may also boost business for hotels, restaurants, and public, private and hire transport. Furthermore, theatre can be seen as a social event, often meeting with others to go in a group, or celebrating a special event such as a birthday or anniversary. The fact that a communal experience is being played out can also mean the opportunity to participate in a shared experience and a feeling of community, albeit fleeting, which can reinforce the fabric of social bonds. Businesses often use theatre as a teambuilding event, prestige enhancer or company perk, with proven value (or else it would not happen as often as it does!). Attendance at a venue may give marketing opportunities for exposure to other future events (via flyers, emails etc) in order to grow a future audience. It is good to see marketers learning from other types of organisation, by conducting audience surveys and linking purchases along the line of “if you liked that, you may like this”.

The benefits to the talents who write, produce, direct, act, play and sing are many. As well as to the performers, also for the lighting and sound teams, the stage hands and so many others upon whom the success of the performance may depend in some part. For all these people there may be the chance to earn money, as well as the vital opportunity to learn from the experience of practising their chosen craft. Not to mention the chance to engage with other artists in a communal way which may benefit them in a number of ways, including reinforcing their self-belief and resilience. The chance to be seen and evaluated by audiences, whether they be general public, friends and family, critics or agents is one which can reap many positive -if unquantifiable -benefits.

The arts significantly contribute to the texture and quality of life in ways that no other activities can. The arts can entertain and enlighten us, and in doing so have the ability to provoke every possible reaction from simple joy to thoughtful solemnity to outrage. They can stimulate us to thought, change our mindset, argue important points, shine a light on subjects otherwise thought untouchable, and generally promote a sense of being alive, of being involved in a society of people actively participating in life in all its richness and complexity.

So the bottom lines are these: the arts can pay back four times what they cost, and more people go to experience the arts per week than go to all sports. They also significantly contribute to the quality of life of the nation.

Is Theatre Worth It? Hell, YES!

Related Links:

Anthony Field Associates
NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues, Economic Impact Assessment 2010-11


Is Theatre Worth It?

I was recently asked my view on crowd funding, which is timely since we’ve just started a new campaign. I like the idea of people coming together to make a piece of theatre happen; it appeals to my ‘power of the people’ politics. However, when I view it from a commercial perspective it feels like selling shares. It got me thinking about subsidized theatre compared with the commercial sector.

Theatre costs money to make; there’s no getting round that. And nor should we. The Arts has always been a sector where the expectation to work for nothing – or rather for the sake of art – is commonplace. People should be paid fairly and correctly for what they do.

Which creates a dilemma. Somebody has to pay for it.

Our forthcoming production Euro Lines is a good example. The performance will happen for one night only with audience capacity of around 200. The cost to produce it is £33,000 once you take into account the commission fees, the directors and actors, 4 rehearsal spaces for 5 days, script printing and marketing. To cover our costs we would have to sell tickets at £165 a pop; which would make for a very elitist evening of theatre. 

How do we square this circle? It leaves us with one answer. Subsidy.

Companies like ours can’t make work without the financial goodwill of others, whether this comes from the Arts Council England, trusts and foundations or crowd funding campaigns. We could take a commercial approach and run the show for longer with a fixed, fairly reasonable ticket price. However, even if we sold tickets at £10 we would have to run the production for 2 weeks, which then adds additional costs for the actors, venue hire and marketing, which in turn means extending the run for another week, and so on. It becomes a very vicious circle we’re trying to square.

Which perhaps does lead to a question I was hoping to avoid: is theatre worth it? 

Offering myself as a guinea pig, last Friday night I saw a show. What I also did was buy a return tube ticket, a coffee and sandwich on the walk to the theatre, several (copious) glasses of wine and a bottle of water. The amount I spent as a result of going to the production was more than the ticket price.

The point I’m making is this: as a result of that theatre production, I also gave money to Transport for London, Costa coffee, the theatre bar and a kiosk next to the station. Multiply me by 300 and that’s a lot of additional money spent on other things than the production itself. So in terms of supporting other businesses and local economies, theatre has additional benefits. The flip-side, of course, is it also illustrates the true cost of a night out.

In typing this I’ve come to realise we expect a lot from our audiences financially. It makes us even more determined to push through a policy whereby audiences pay what they can afford to see our work so that there is choice: choice to buy a coffee on the way to the theatre, choice to buy a drink in the bar afterwards and choice to pay what you can for a ticket. It puts audience in the driving seat of how much they want to spend. The risk for us though is the chasm, between the cost to make the work and the income it generates, cracks wide open.

A commercial producer friend of mine told me he rarely accepts complimentary tickets for shows because he knows how much productions rely on that audience investment. He puts enormous value on the importance of audiences. It taught me a great lesson, especially since I’ve been someone who, in the past, has jumped at every chance of a free ticket. So for me, personally, that stops here!

Which brings us full circle to the power of people, or in theatre, the power of audiences. It’s you, dear audience, who hold the life thread of theatre in your hands. It comes down to how much we value our theatre in this country and do we want the diversity of performance that having both a subsidised and commercial model offers?

And this leads us back to the ultimate question and the one I was trying so desperately to avoid: Is theatre worth it? And how much are we willing to pay for it?

It’s a question only you, dear friends, can answer.

Related Links:

Read the Theatre Bubble interview on crowdfunding
Ardent's Euro Lines project


Mark SandsComment
Uncovering One of Ireland’s Hidden Histories - Part 3

The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part III: Gaining and Losing Independence

2016 marks important anniversaries for both Ireland and South Africa. On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, armed Irish rebels attacked British forces, fighting against English rule in Ireland. On 16 June 1976, students in South Africa’s Soweto Township began protesting the government’s unequal education policies that had been formalised after the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. 

Parts I and II of this series are below and explored, respectively, Irish people in South Africa (Dr. James Barry, The Honourable William Porter, Major John MacBride, and Roger Casement) and a South African in Ireland (Nimrod Sejake). Now, in Part III, the discussion is broadened out and presents some historical information regarding each country during the twentieth century.

One noteworthy observation about Ireland and South Africa that as Irish people gained their independence, the independence of black South Africans was steadily eroded. Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising precipitated a formalised pact with England in December 1921 that allowed self-rule. Under the terms of that agreement, referred to as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Saorstat Éireann (the Irish Free State) came into being and was comprised of twenty-six of the island’s southern counties; the other six counties, now known as Northern Ireland, remained part of the United Kingdom. Anti-Treaty forces disagreed over the terms of the Treaty, which did not unify the island. This dispute escalated and in June 1922, when Pro- and Anti-Treaty powers began fighting in Dublin, the result was the Irish Civil War, which ended in May 1923 (see note 1). The country moved forward and in 1937 issued its first Constitution. It was not until 1948, however, that Ireland officially split from the British Commonwealth under the Republic of Ireland Act.

While 1948 may be considered a year of celebration for Irish citizens, the same cannot be said for black South Africans. In 1948, the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party won the General Election. Although blacks had previously experienced unfair treatment in South Africa, the Nationalist Party instituted and enforced strict racial segregation practices in all areas of life: housing, land ownership, education, marriage. The 1950s saw increased resistance to apartheid practices in South Africa and internationally; 1952 was a pivotal year that saw, separately, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States begin supporting the plight of black South Africans.

The mobilisation of black South African resistance culminated in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre (see note 2). The event rallied blacks to demonstrate against pass books (identity cards they were required to carry). In opposition to the law, blacks were encouraged, in large groups, to leave home without their passes, travel to police stations, and turn themselves in for disobeying the pass law. On 21 March 1961, police opened fire on over 5000 blacks who had gathered at Sharpeville’s police station, leaving over sixty dead and nearly 200 seriously injured.  News of the deaths spread, triggering nationwide demonstrations, and garnering increased international attention on apartheid South Africa.

In the meantime, the 1960s saw increased political activity internationally as the oppressed fought against their oppressors—take, for example, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements in America. Northern Ireland also experienced a Civil Rights Movement of its own against the unequal treatment of Catholics in the predominantly Protestant state. A 1968 Civil Rights march in Derry is often considered the tipping point of what is known as Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” (see note 3).

Eight years later, in June 1976, a student demonstration in South Africa against the government’s racist education policies, known as Bantu Education, proved to be a pivotal moment in South African history. The Soweto Uprising, as the event would become known, occurred on 16 June (Bloomsday in Ireland - see note 4) when over 10,000 students protested over the decree that some subjects be taught through Afrikaans, the language of white oppression.  Police violence ensued including the use of tear gas and bullets. Hundreds were arrested while the number of dead remains in dispute with some numbers reaching over 300 in Soweto alone as rioting spread countrywide. As Robert Ross observes, the photo of young schoolchild Hector Pieterson “became one of the icons of apartheid’s brutality”; the picture shows a young man carrying Pieterson, who is either dead or dying, as Pieterson’s sister runs along beside them.  Ross also notes that the Soweto Uprising, now known as National Youth Day, was “the beginning of the end of apartheid” (see note 5).
In 1979, just three years after the Soweto Uprising, the world experienced an international oil crisis and global recession. By 1984, the rate of Irish unemployment was over 15% and emigration was on the rise. 

On 19 July 1984, a warm and sunny day in Dublin, Mary Manning operated her cash register alongside Alma Russell and Karen Gearon, the union shop steward, at Dunnes Stores on Henry Street. In a bid to support the international anti-apartheid movement, Manning’s union, the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union, had issued a directive mandating that union members were not to sell products of South African origin. A woman approached with South African grapefruit, which Manning refused to sell. Manning’s action that day precipitated her suspension and ten of her colleagues walked out with her, initiating what would become known as the Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid Strike.

It is unsurprising, given the bleak economic outlook, that having and keeping a job was extremely important at a time when employment was hard to find. This knowledge makes Mary Manning’s decision on 19 July 1984 seem unwise; by the same token, however, that decision made history for both Ireland and South Africa.

Join Ardent Theatre Company in 2016 for Tracy Ryan’s Strike!, which takes the audience through the tumultuous events of the industrial action that lasted until April 1987, two years and nine months after Manning first refused to sell South African produce.

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.


  1. For more information on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, including a timeline of events, visit the online exhibition hosted by the National Archives of Ireland.
  2. See Tom Lodge’s 2011 book Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and Its Consequences (Oxford University Press) here on GoogleBooks. In particular, information here is culled from Chapter 6 “The Anti-Apartheid Movement”.  Also visit “Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960” here at South African History Online.
  3. The socio-political conflict continued until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April. Officially, the document is called the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement.  Click here for access to a PDF version of the agreement, which is hosted by Ireland’s Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
  4. Bloomsday celebrates the life and work of Irish writer James Joyce. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the central character in Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, which follows Bloom’s exploits in Dublin from 8am on 16 June to the early hours of 17 June. For more information on Joyce and his work, visit the James Joyce Centre’s website here.
  5. Information on the Soweto Uprising was drawn from a number of sources including the BBC’s “On This Day: 1976: Soweto protest turns violent”, and Robert Ross’s A Concise History of South Africa, originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1999.  In particular, see Ross’s discussions in that edition of Bantu Education on pages 121 and 122 and the Soweto Uprising on pages 142 and 143.  See South African Tourism here for information on Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Museum.
Uncovering One of Ireland’s Hidden Histories - Part 2

The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part II: A South African in Ireland

Part I of this series highlighted some interconnections between Ireland and South Africa by providing snapshots of Irish people who were active in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those brief overviews provide a broad historical context for the relationship between the two countries.

Part II continues this examination but concentrates on a particular South African in Ireland by taking as its focus Nimrod Sejake who joined the Dunnes strikers on the picket line in the early days of the strike.  Sejake’s knowledge and experience as a black South African trade union organiser not only educated the strikers about the plight of black South Africans but galvanised the strikers’ efforts.  In 2013, the strikers visited Sejake’s family for the first time while they were in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  The Irish Times reported their visit, and striker Karen Gearon summed up Sejake’s importance to their cause: “We kept going because of Nimrod” (see note 1).

Born in 1920, Nimrod Sejake worked first as a teacher and then as a labour organiser of South Africa’s working classes.  He served as a leader of the Non-European Irish and Steel Workers’ Union, was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and was active in the African National Congress (ANC). On the back of the Freedom Charter, drawn up during the Congress of the People in 1955, the apartheid government instigated a pre-dawn, nationwide raid on the homes of activists and their supporters in December 1956. Sejake was one of over 150 people arrested for high treason, including Nelson Mandela with whom he shared a cell.  After what would become known as the Treason Trial, 1956-1961, Sejake was forced to leave South Africa in 1962, precipitating a thirty year exile from his homeland.  He spent periods of time in Zambia, China, Albania, and Egypt.  In the latter, Sejake lived in poverty while he sought asylum in Europe and, eventually, found it in Ireland (see note 2). Writing just months before the Dunnes Stores strikers walked out, Nimrod Sejake noted that “from my organising work…I can to see the enormous power of the working class….Today it is more clear than ever that the working class can change society…” (see note 3).   Sejake’s words prefigure the eventual, but hard-earned, success of the strikers.

In the same article, Sejake credits James Connolly, co-founder of Ireland’s Labour Party, as an inspiration for South African politics:

Everywhere the working class movement has—must have—two arms: ‘an industrial arm and a political arm’ as the great Irish Marxist…once said. Both these arms are necessary. They go together. The one without the other will not succeed (see note 4).

Sejake refers here to Ireland’s Labour Party (Labour), launched in 1912 by Connolly, James Larkin, and William O’Brien as the political “arm” of the Irish Trade Union Congress.  Labour is historically significant in Ireland for a number of reasons including the fact that it is Ireland’s oldest political party and the only one organised before the formation of the Irish State. James Connolly was a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and one of the rebels executed in the aftermath of that year’s Easter Rising.  Bringing us forward in time, Labour was in a coalition government with Fine Gael from December 1982 to March 1987, nearly the entire length of the Dunnes Stores strike (see note 5).
The importance of Nimrod Sejake to the strikers’ cause is eloquently expressed during a fictionalised exchange between Sejake and Shop Steward Karen Gearon in Tracy Ryan’s 2010 play Strike!  The scene is set well over a year after the strike began at a time when the strikers are experiencing a level of demoralisation and fatigue:

Karen:  We are still here picketing, the supermarkets have withdrawn their voluntary ban and it’s like we’re in stalemate.
Nimrod:  I know. Often we see change as big laws and policies but the greatest change is in how you commit to live your life day to day. Start with yourself, live how you wish the world to be and let it catch up.
Karen:  Yeah.
Nimrod:  My friend, Nelson Mandela and many other comrades have been in prison for years. Nelson, twenty-one years. I have been told whenever one of the prisoners is ill, Mandela and the others will go quietly to their cells and care for them, empty latrine buckets, bring water and food. I’ve seen that unity here.
Karen:  Yeah, that’s what keeps me going.

This brief excerpt exemplifies the cohesiveness of the strikers (in present-day interviews and public addresses individual strikers will refer to “our heart”, “our throat”, illustrating their continued solidarity) and their connection to Sejake. As Veronica (Vonnie) Monroe observed in 2013: “He was even more special to us than Nelson Mandela, because we spent so much time in his company. Mandela is a great man, but I don’t know him like I know Nimrod.” (see note 6)

After the strike ended in April 1987, two more years passed before the fall of apartheid in South Africa.  In 1989, Nimrod Sejake spoke to his family by phone for the first time since his exile in 1962.  In 1991, Sejake returned to a South Africa that was, technically, free from apartheid.  However, his life of activism continued as he sought justice for those whose land had been illegally seized under the apartheid regime.  While there was an overwhelming amount of international press dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Nimrod Sejake died in relative obscurity in 2004.

…[T]hrough the power of the working class it is possible to bring SA to a standstill, and overthrow that powerful regime. What we have to do first is to organise the workers. Then we shall be facing battle from a position of power, where we can tell the employers there are two things existing here - you own the means of production, but we own the labour-power, and if you don't agree, we fold our hands and your industry will be paralysed. (see note 7)
                        —Nimrod Sejake, 1983-1984

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.


  1. Read the 13 December 2013 Irish Times article “‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family” here in its entirety.
  2. Sources: Treason Trial: Jabulani C. Buthelzi’s Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela: An Ecological Study for more information on those arrested as part of the Treason Trials, including a complete list of those arrested, their affiliations, and ages. Biography: (1) Laurence Coates’s 2000 interview with Sejake “South Africa: Interview with Nimrod Sejake ‘The ANC has sold out’ for more information on Sejake’s biography. (2) “Tireless activist who spent thirty years in exile” Irish Times obituary published 19 June 2004
  3. Nimrod Sejake, “Workers’ Power and the crisis of leadership” Inqaba ya Basebenzi: The Journal of the Marxist Workers’s Tendency of the African National Congress. No. 12, Nov. 1983-Feb.1984.
  4. Sejake, “Workers’ Power”
  5. For more detailed information on Ireland’ Labour Party, click here.
  6. Irish Times article “‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family”
  7. Sejake, “Workers’ Power”.

Copyright © Shelley Troupe 2015, All Rights Reserved

Uncovering One of Ireland’s Hidden Histories - Part 1

The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part I: Some Historical Context

Tracy Ryan’s Strike! reveals one of Ireland’s hidden histories, a David and Goliath story that, quite literally, changed the course of history. The commitment of twelve unionised, working class, urban people in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1980s still resonates in post-apartheid South Africa; and the importance of their actions—including great personal losses—cannot be understated.  As a direct result of the strikers’ courage and grit, the Republic of Ireland became the first western country to ban the importation of South African agricultural goods on 1 January 1987.

Ryan’s play first premiered in Dublin in 2010 and is a fictionalised account of the Dunnes Stores strike against apartheid that began on 19 July 1984 and ended nearly three years later on 12 April 1987.  On that Thursday afternoon in July 1984 in the Dunnes Store on Dublin’s Henry Street, a woman approached the cash register operated by Mary Manning.  Among the items in her shopping basket were South African grapefruit, which Ms. Manning’s union, the Irish Administrative and Distributive Trade Union (IADTU, now known as Mandate) had boycotted at its annual meeting earlier that year.  Subsequently, a union directive ordered staff members not to handle South African products.  Following union orders, Ms. Manning refused to sell the produce and was suspended by the supermarket’s management.  When she walked out of the store, however, she did not do so alone; she was joined by ten of her colleagues and, later, a worker from another branch of the store (see note 1).

Told through a series of Brechtian-like scenes, Strike! uses words, images, and movement to tell the story of this small group of young Irish people whose act of defiance evolved into one of Ireland’s most successful union actions (see note 2). That success, though, was hard earned in the face of opposition from the government, the Catholic Church, Dunnes Stores, and, at times, the union itself.  Before providing a more thorough discussion of the strike in a later post, it is necessary to think a little about the relationship between Ireland and South Africa.  A blog post precludes an exhaustive, complete history of the complex connection between the two countries so this exploration focuses on four people at particular moments in time in order to highlight how Irish people previously shaped South African history.  To do so, I will briefly discuss Dr. James Barry, The Honourable William Porter, Major John MacBride, and Roger Casement.

Born in Ireland but raised and educated in Britain, Dr. James Barry (c. 1799-1865), became a very well-respected surgeon who reached the rank of Inspector General and served in the Cape Colony.  In Wild Irish Women, Marian Broderick argues that Barry treated all patients “equally, even non-whites, lepers, and lunatics.  This policy extended to the prison hospitals, including Robben Island” (see note 3).  (Robben Island is the prison where, in the next century, Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, some of those with union organiser, Nimrod Sejake, who walked the picket line with the Dunnes Stores strikers.) Like the strikers’ protest against the apartheid regime, Barry’s personal and professional life was also an act of rebellion.  Barry’s rebellion, though, was fought privately rather than publicly since Barry was born in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley, but lived as a male because, in the early nineteenth century, females were not allowed to study to become doctors.

A Protestant Ulsterman, The Honourable William Porter (1805-1880), was appointed Attorney General of the Cape Colony in 1839 where he served until 1865. J.L. McCracken, in New Light at the Cape of Good Hope, notes that Porter described himself as an Irishman; but he was a Unionist who felt “thankful that I live under the government of the Anglo-Saxon race”.  Even so, Porter sought equality for blacks.  He observed that “[t]his profound contempt of colour, and lofty pride of race contains within it the concentrated essence and active principle of all the tyranny and oppression which white has ever exercised over black” (see note 4).  In 1848, Porter drafted a constitution that allowed male landowners, both white and non-white, to vote.  That equality remained even after the 1910 union of South Africa’s four colonies (the Cape Colony, the South African Republic {aka The Transvaal}, the Orange Free State, and Natal).  The rights of black voters were compromised in 1936, however, with the enactment of the Representation of Natives Act, which removed black voters in the Cape from the common polls and placed them on a separate role of voters.

Major John MacBride (1868-1916), a member of the nationalist group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, moved from Ireland to the Transvaal in the late nineteenth century. Along with another prominent Irish nationalist, Arthur Griffith, MacBride directed celebrations for the one hundredth anniversary of Ireland’s 1798 Rebellion, at which there was prominent Afrikaner participation. At the same time as Ireland’s Celtic Revival movement was flourishing and the Irish people sought Home Rule in reaction to the 1801 Act of Union, the Boers (aka Afrikaners) also sought freedom from Britain.  MacBride led 300 soldiers for the Irish Transvaal Brigade and fought with the Boers against English rule in what would become known as the Anglo-Boer War.  Such actions were tantamount to treason, prompting MacBride’s relocation to Paris after the war where he met Maud Gonne, also an ardent Irish nationalist, who had starred in the title role of W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory’s play, Kathleen Ní Houlihan, which premiered in 1904 at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre.  Following Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, MacBride was tried by court martial and executed.  MacBride’s support of the Boers’s fight for freedom is ironic when considering that the Boers’ Nationalist Party would come into power in 1948, enacting the harsh apartheid laws against blacks that the Dunnes Stores strikers fought to overturn. MacBride and Gonne’s son, Sean (1904-1988), a member of the Irish Republican Army and later an Irish politician who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, publicly supported the Dunnes Stores’ strikers and the strike.

Originally from south County Dublin, Roger Casement (1864-1916) served as British consul in Africa and South America where he publicised the abuses of indigenous people.  Casement, too, was a hero of Irish nationals.  Convicted for treason for his role in the importation of German armaments for Irish rebels around the time of the Easter Rising, Casement was hanged in England in August 1916.  Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, published a biographical novel of Casement, The Dream of the Celt, in 2012.  Vargas Llosa observes that Roger Casement:

lived through the great moments of his time. He was involved in colonisation, decolonisation, and the discovery of the other—the realisation that western civilisation was not the only one and that others deserved to be treated with respect….Casement was one of the first Europeans to realise, through experience and facts, that this [the belief that colonisation brought culture, civilisation, etc. to the rest of the world] was a myth and was not the real reason (see note 5).

Learning “through experience and facts” highlights a link between Casement and the Dunnes Stores strikers. Casement progressed from British civil servant to internationally recognised humanitarian due to his experiences in Africa and South America where he found that the facts of colonisation were at odds with the treatment of human beings.  Likewise, through their experiences on the picket line where they met anti-apartheid activists such as Nimrod Sejake and Marius Schoon, the strikers’ evolved from workers who were following a union directive to people concerned about the facts of apartheid, and emerged as anti-apartheid activists themselves.  The strikers’ Shop Steward, Karen Gearon, recollected this shift in understanding at a 2014 celebration in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s birthday:

In actual fact, we didn’t know how to spell apartheid, that was how little we knew….As we started the strike we began to learn about what was happening in South Africa and what apartheid…actually meant…we believed so much in the workers of South Africa and the ANC calling for a boycott of South African goods so the country would be isolated (see note 6).

In her 2015 contribution to The Moth storytelling series, Gearon singled out Nimrod Sejake, who joined them in July 1984 a few days after the strike began, as the person responsible for the strikers’ apartheid education. Sejake, a black South African union leader and anti-apartheid activist, had been incarcerated with Nelson Mandela in Robben Island before his exile from the country and had been living in Ireland since the late 1960s.  He told the strikers the facts about the black experience in South Africa, likening the oppression of blacks to a pint of Guinness as “the white sat on top of the black” (see note 7).

Part II of this addresses more about the links between the two countries before providing further information about the strike itself.  The short sketches above demonstrate, on a personal level, a few of the ways in which Ireland and South Africa are interconnected.  Tracy Ryan’s Strike!, while a fictionalised account of that historical event, is based on the strikers’ actual experience on the picket line and utilises public and private archival materials such as personal interviews with the strikers, newspaper reports, and union correspondence.  The project, then, finds its voice in the strikers’ real experiences.  Please add your own voice to this story by responding in the comments section with any knowledge you have about the experiences of other Irish people in South Africa, or with stories about South Africans who shaped Irish history. We are also interested in hearing from people such as those who walked the Dublin picket line with the strikers, people who participated in regional responses to the strike outside of Dublin, people outside of Ireland who recall the strike and would like to comment on its importance to the anti-apartheid movement, and people who find inspiration in this story.

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.


  1. See Ms. Manning’s account of the start of the strike here in the YouTube video “Mary Manning - The Dunnes Stores Strike - Nelson Mandela | The Late Late Show”, uploaded by Radio Telefis Eireann, Ireland’s national public service media.
  2. Bertolt Brecht, twentieth century a German theatremaker, worked to ensure that audiences understood that the scenes enacted before them were illusions rather than a “slice of real life”.  Brecht did not want spectators to passively empathise with the characters or action onstage. To achieve that goal, Brecht utilised what he called Verfremdungseffekt (sometimes referred to as the Alienation Effect, the Distancing Effect, or the Estrangement Effect) which served to detatch the audience from the onstage action.  To do so, Brecht might place actors onstage when they were not in character, or include film clips that had nothing to do with the play’s narrative, thus reminding the audience of the play’s artifice.
  3. See page 94 for the quotation used above and visit GoogleBooks here for a preview of Broderick’s Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History.
  4. William Porter quoted in McCracken’s book found on pages 95 and 97, respectively.  See Chapter 8, “Porter in a Multi-Racial Society”, for a thorough account of Porter’s perception of Africans and Afrikaners as well as his thoughts behind drafting the 1848 constitution. A preview of the book is available here on GoogleBooks.
  5. You will find Vargas Llosa’s quotation in Mark Lawson’s 20 June 2012 feature article on The Dream of the Celt here on the We Love This Book website.
  6. See Mandate Trade Union’s YouTube video, “Karen Gearon, Dunnes Stores Striker speaks at ANC Mandela birthday”, of Gearon’s speech here.
  7. Listen here to Karen Gearon’s account of the Dunnes Stores strike and Nimrod Sejake’s role in it on the 17 March 2015 edition of The Moth: True Stories Told Live.
Where are all the working class audiences?

We've been debating a basic principle for Ardent - how to make tickets genuinely affordable to those on low incomes? It's a simple idea: Anyone, no matter what their financial circumstances, should be able to see our work. If we want to do a play about striking shop workers then surely shop workers should be in the audience. When a theatre does a play about cleaners, I wonder how many cleaners actually see it? If they don't, it begs the question who are these stories for? None of us want to preach to the converted, but at least let's not bar the very focus of our play at the door.

How do we prevent theatre being an elitist experience for those who can afford it? There's an argument for taking theatre to the people - to the workplace, to schools, to community centres - which is all valid. But does this set up a two-tiered theatre provision where those with money get one type of experience, those with little get another. Many theatres offer 'pay-what-you-can' which again is valid. But is the motivation more to do with getting people in on a certain night when ticket sales are traditionally low? Are we also segregating our audience by saying one type of person can come on a Tuesday and another Wednesday to Saturday?

There are of course concessions. However, this assumes those who qualify share the same economic circumstances. People on low incomes live in varied, diverse circumstances and a £10-15 ticket for a theatre production might not be top of their agenda when trying to make ends meet.

It's led us to this: is there genuinely a model that responds to individual need, without the stigma of categorising or segregating audiences?

It's a tricky one because we live in a society where price equals quality and if we pay more for something we expect a different service or level of experience than those who have paid less. Commercial theatre depends on high ticket prices because it's the main income for covering the production costs and wages; subsidised theatre also needs to squeeze every last penny out of ticket sales to break-even and secure funding to get it on in the first place.

So, what is the solution? How do we make tickets genuinely affordable to those on low incomes, that responds to individual financial circumstances and offers an equal choice to which night they attend? For me, there seems to be only one possible conclusion:

Ticket price needs to be decided by each individual audience member at the point of sale.

In essence, it's 'pay-what-you-can' any night of the week. It means trusting the audience so that those who can afford more, pay more; those who can afford less, pay a less. In giving the same anonymous mechanism to purchase a ticket at a price each individual can afford, it sets up a level playing field for everyone.

The big BUT is this: a model like this could only be possible if the production is 100% funded and no longer reliant on ticket sales income to make up a budget shortfall. It comes back to the age old problem of how do you fund theatre. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot and turning down potential income that could go into future work?

Also, people just aren't used to it. Most of us want to be clearly guided so we know what we're getting for our money. It would be like walking into a shop and being handed a shopping basket and a pricing gun!

But I have faith in audiences that, given the chance, they will do the right thing. High quality theatre isn't always dependent on the price of a ticket. (I've walked out of some terrible productions that I paid well over £40 for). It's also about creating a new narrative for audiences in how to make a purchase so that those who can afford more, subsidise those who can afford less.

To go back to the question: where are all the working class audiences? They are an untapped audience who are waiting at the door and it's about time we let them in.





Mark SandsComment