In Ballymun, a Team Stands by to Nurture Budding Playwrights

Last summer, Aoife Spillane-Hinks got a call from Mark O’Brien.

O’Brien, the artistic director of Axis Ballymun, asked her how the culture space and theatre could support her as an artist.

“Can I tell you my dream?” she asked him, she says. “I would love to start a literary department at Axis.”

Since then, she has worked with around 25 writers, she says, as the lead artist at the Axis Ballymun’s pop-up literary department.

Some people who come to her have no experience of writing or theatre, but they might have a good idea, says Spillane-Hinks. “People have to be brave to go outside of their comfort zone.”

A Staged Process

At first Sarah Richardson wrote a short version of her latest play. But she knew it needed work, she says.

Then came last spring’s round of restrictions, and a feeling of hopelessness, and she felt her career was falling apart, she says. “Nothing was happening for me or for any artist.”

And Richardson was conscious that she had less experience than many others in the industry.

At one point, she spotted that Axis Ballymun was advertising bursaries – and applied.

She didn’t get awarded any money, but she was offered something else: structured support from the pop-up literary department in Axis.

That meant deadlines, a sounding board and help to finish her script, she says.

Throughout the last nine months, Spillane-Hinks has been with her every step of the way, she says.

“Going back and forth, having Zoom meetings, and going through about five drafts I think,” says Richardson.

The play that came of it, Sun Bear, was shown online recently by Axis Ballymun.

A Play in Progress

Sun Bear is about a young woman stuck in a toxic work environment.

“It is a day in the life of a woman working in an office, and let’s just say she is not having the best time,” says Richardson.

The audience watches the woman unravel. “There is a toxicity that is in play, I’m not going to tell you where,” she says.

There are also awkward moments, says Niamh Ní Chonchubhair, programme manager and soon-to-be interim CEO of Axis Ballymun

“I was holding my breath at certain points,” says Ní Chonchubhair. “That is delicious and dark.”

Richardson says Sun Bear is not finished just yet.

A film version aired recently is “under development”. She’s going to listen to the feedback and polish it further for a big day in the future – a live stage performance once eased restrictions allow.

A Community Resource

Ger Kellett, who filmed Sun Bear, is a videographer with Axis Ballymun.

He’s been involved with Axis since he was 15. He started going to workshops to learn to write rap and poetry, then branched into other parts of the theatre, and started to run workshops himself, and work in the tech department too.

The best experience was facilitating workshops for kids that he knew. “It’s a crazy and incredible feeling,” he says.

Spillane-Hinks says she first came to Axis as an audience member in 2007 and immediately felt it was her kind of venue.

“The kind of place that has humanity and community as well as excellence at its core,” she says.

Usually, if a theatre has a literary department, it works differently to Axis Ballymun’s version.

They would read scripts and then decide which ones are worth pursuing, says Spillane-Hinks.

But at Axis, they talk to everyone who submits work.

“We have to be careful, first and foremost, to acknowledge someone’s work,” says Ní Chonchubhair.

Even if they don’t think the play will work they discuss it with the writer, she says. “Sometimes those conversations go on for years and then all of a sudden something else is drafted.”

It isn’t about people having to measure up to a certain standard, says Spillane-Hinks.

“This department is not about programming work, it is about making space for work to grow.”

If in the end the artist wants to put on the play at Axis Ballymun, that is a conversation with a different department, she says.

She offers a relationship over a number of months where the artist can use her as a sounding board, she says.

Axis Ballymun is a venue but it’s also an arts and community centre, says Ní Chonchubhair. “There is a window for bursaries, but the window for submitting or asking for a chat or a bounce doesn’t close.”

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