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The goals of the Charabanc Theatre Company were to write plays for and from the community, ''to commission new Irish writing; and to introduce and reinterpret existing texts'' (Sullivan, 148)

May 15, 1983 (date of 1st production) - July, 1995

The Charabanc Theatre Company was a Belfast touring company founded by Eleanor Methven, (Sarah) Marie Jones, Carol Scanlan (Moore), Brenda Winter, and Maureen McAuley, five actresses who were frustrated with the dearth of women's roles, and especially of satisfying women's roles, in theater at the time. When approached by them to write a play focussing on women, playwright Martin Lynch encouraged them to write their own play and helped them write the first. The company initially planned to produce only the one work.

Their first collaborative play established the pattern for the rest of their collaborative writings. They would intensively research the subject matter, conducting interviews and digging through archival data for many months. Collecting everything together, they would then meet for several weeks to review the material and discuss the story:

.... We were talking to people, not just about working in mills or being involved in the 1949 election, but about the attitude of the time. We spoke to teachers, doctors, ministers, and people from all walks of life to get a clear idea. We had all these tapes and interviews.... {Then} we go away to a place called Annaghmakerrig, which is Tyrone Guthrie's house... we actually sit down with all those tapes and listen to them again.... We generally have an idea of what the play is going to be about. We talk about it and try to put in the story line. We talk about the characters - where they come from and who they are. Then we try to work out a story board and work the characters into the scenes. (Byrne, quoting Carol Scanlan, 69)

Then, Marie Jones would write the actual play, and they would come together again and collaboratively edit it. Martin Lynch left the writing process of the second play, explaining that he found it too intensive and time consuming.

They decided from the beginning that they would pursue launching the company as professionally and realistically as possible, which included paying the performers and stage crew. The first production was funded by £1000 loaned to the company for production costs by Ian McElhinney (a member of the company's Board of Directors), and a small grant from the Belfast City Council. In order to fund salaries for the actual performances (stage crew and actors), they approached ACE (Action for Community Employment) on the suggestion of Alex Clarke (their Equity Secretary). Janet McIvar of ACE ''helped the company qualify for a scheme which finances small businesses hiring the unemployed.'' (Harris, 106) One unexpected side effect of this was that the early plays could not find male actors who fit the ACE requirement (i.e., a certain minimum term of unemployment) who also wanted to be part of the company. Therefore, in the early plays, all of the roles were performed by the women. This would change as, according to Carol Harris ''they became convinced by criticism that they were not really bona fide actors if they were not playing a single, sustained character.'' (110)

The productions were popular and the company toured the productions in a variety of venues, both rural and urban, and also brought them to a range of class demographics. The first production, Lay Up Your Ends a story of striking linen mill workers, opened May 15, 1983 at the Arts Theatre (Belfast). By October 22 it had run for a tremendous 96 performances in 59 different venues.

Charabanc's efforts to both source their material in the community, and then return with their end product to those sources, were seen as groundbreaking: the company's newly devised extraordinary touring circuit, encompassing community centers and halls in both Protestant and Catholic areas, was reported to have brought live theatre to many people in their own areas for the first time. (Byrne, State of Play, 70)

However, by 1988 the company was getting tired, and money issues were becoming serious enough to limit their ability to tour locally, even as they were invited to international venues. Furthermore, the company was paid for performance work only, and none of their research or writing time was funded by the Arts Council.

To offset this, they began looking for scripts from outside writers, ''ideally featuring different cultural backgrounds pertinent to their own.'' (71) Also, as they diversified, the members also spent more time focussing on individual projects. They began bringing in outside actors to perform with the core company, as well.

Brenda Winter left the company after Lay Up Your Ends closed in '83, to return briefly in '84 for the Russian tour of the same play. Maureen McCauley left the company after the close of Oul Delf and False Teeth and the Russian tour. Marie Jones officially left the company in 1990. Remaining Artistic Directors Methven and Moore announced disbanding due to financial reasons (largely caused by mismanagement by the new manager) in July, 1995, after the successful run of A Wife, a Dog, and a Maple Tree.

Critical eye:
According to Claudia Harris, critically, Charabanc's original works were received at first patronizingly (as if amazed that five women could come up with something so effective as Lay Up Your Ends) and then more and more dismissively from critics who were reluctant to examine the merits of the work and its innovations.

The work was dismissed as written by committee. It did not seem to matter whether it was good, bad, or indifferent, it was just, well, 'It is not really a play, is it?' Because it had not been written by a person sitting at a typewriter. I mean, obviously somebody wrote down the dialogue {usually, Marie Jones}, but the early drafts of our scripts have at least four or five people's handwriting in them because we did whatever we had to do to get them finished... But we were continously dismissed in that vein. And it was also the accent, and I mean that, not just literally, but as the cultural base from which we were coming. We did very much concentrate in the early days on an urban Belfast working-class approach and style of language for the productions. Again, that was almost denigrated. (Harris, quoting Methven, 111)

Harris goes on to mention Victoria White's belief that it was the ''women-focused content'' which may have led to this dismissal and lack of respect from influential critics of the time. Harris also explains that Charabanc was operating from ''unconscious'' feminism, that its practical feminism was not a deliberate political stance. This is as opposed to the quite overt political stance on other social issues evident in the plays.

When Charabanc started, it was from a very pragmatic economic base and was completely actor-led... It was not a theoretical base. We really didn't come at it from an academic point of view... We didn't think of it in any feminist terms - it was an unconcious feminism, if you like. It was really strange where the coincidence was our gender. The five of us were women actors. The other coincidence was that we were all from this place, not necessarily specifically Belfast but from the six counties. And it was in the eighties, and the six counties were undergoing what this {entity} had been undergoing for the past, well-nigh, twenty-five years... It was interesting to watch the other companies that were coming up, Field Day, of course {was} formed before Charabanc, but only slightly before, and on a very different basis, on an academic basis, on an inspiration of making a statement. Very, very interesting work. We came along, almost contemporaneously, from completely the other end of the spectrum. They had academic and literary heavyweights on their board, and we had local trade union leaders and anybody who had been nice to us along the way. And it worked. It certainly did work. But we were always praised for the rawness and the energy. There was just a slight edge of patronisation there. (Harris, quoting Methven, 114)

The importance of Charabanc was not so much that women wrote the plays, according to Harris, but that the perspectives in the plays are women's. Discussing Laura Mulvey and the idea of ''woman as image'' and ''man as the bearer of the look,'' Harris notes that the Charabanc productions were particularly successful at approaching ''woman'' as the ''bearer of the look:''

Nonetheless, Charabanc's work with its pervasive focus - from research through writing to production - on the female perspective came close to a female gaze, especially when the female actors played male characters as they saw them. In fact, this concept of eye could explain why some plays written and/or directed by men were less satisfying to Charabanc and their audiences. When working with Charabanc, Peter Sheridan was one of their more successful male directors in his ability to enter into their unique female perspective, a reason, perhaps, why they worked with him several times and usually expressed pleasure in the experience. (117)

Another interesting view towards Charabanc's works which is discussed by Imelda Foley was that they also contain a deliberate response to Field Day, whose founding and years of operation, 1980-1995, coincided closely with Charabanc's. (Consider the Methven quotation above)

The Girls in the Big Picture could be read as a feminist antidote to Field Day's masculinity. The clever ambiguity of the title replaces the 'boys' of the big picture of Ulster theatre and, textually, women replace men as the real social activists. The setting of Cloughmartin is as Ulster and fundamentally Protestant as Friel's Ballybeg is Irish and Catholic. Field Day's intellectualism and ideology are contested by the dominant work ethic that informs The Girls in the Big Picture. And it is the women who slave away while Sidney slides out of his duties, chasing girls and fame as a country-and-western singer. There is a stunning parallel with the cameo love scene between Maire and Yolland in Translations and between Margaret and Paul in The Girls in the Big Picture. Where the former couple communicate without language, through gesture and intuition, the latter engage in a dual of dialogue and verbal innuendo, with Margaret winning the day. Friel's nostalgia for lost tradition in Translations is paralleled by generational contiguity in The Girls in the Big Picture. The values of one generation are passed to the next, while cultural changes ... are purely superficial. (Foley, 40)

Much of the criticism focuses on Charabanc and feminist theory. In the course of researching the company, however, I have come to believe that gender issues are concomitant to the class and social issues explored in the plays. The works are about disenfranchised voices, and they are not voiceless just because they are women. These are the stories which interested the company, and which they chose to present with as much authenticity as possible. Authenticity is a loaded term, and I use it here to mean that they attempted to portray what was emotionally real and convey truthful experiences even if their methods were not strictly realistic, such as the women portraying the mens' roles. The plays1 appear to be primarily positive, and the early work had a signature fast pace and humorous tenor while dealing with serious and dear matters. Despite the outward failure of the linen mill strike in Lay Up Your Ends the characters change their understanding of their roles in their lives, and thus assume a degree of power and dignity.

In this way, Charabanc documented the lives of the people and stories they researched, portraying history through art. Thus, they did not just give the disenfranchised characters within their plays voice, but also the disenfranchised within the community, by creating works to tell their stories.

1 Which I only know through the criticism as all but one have not been published

Productions: (Harris, 105-108. Byrne, 72-73. )

Lay Up Your Ends (1983) Co-written with Martin Lynch, dir. Pam Brighton
Oul Delf and False Teeth (1984) by Marie Jones, dir. Pam Brighton
Now You're Talkin' (1985) by Marie Jones, dir. Pam Brighton
Gold in the Street (1986) by Marie Jones
The Girls in the Big Picture (1987) by Marie Jones
Somewhere Over the Balcony (1988) by Marie Jones
The Terrible Twins' Crazy Christmas (1989) by Marie Jones, commissioned by the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine
Cauterised (1989) by Neill Speers
The Stick Wife (1989) by Darragh Cloud
The Blind Fiddler (1990) by Marie Jones
Weddins, Weeins, and Wakes (1990) by Marie Jones
The Hamster Wheel (1990) by Marie Jones, written and produced collaboratively like the early Charabanc works, and presented by the whole company.
Me and My Friend (1991) by Gillian Plowman
Frontline Cafe (1991) by Thomas McLaughlin
Bondagers (1991) by Sue Glover
Skirmishes (1992) by Catherine Hayes
October Song (1992) by Andy Hinds
The Illusion (1993) by Pierre Corneille, adapted by Peter Sheridan
The House of Bernarda Alba (1993) by Federico García Lorca, adapted and directed by Lynne Parker
Iron May Sparkle (1994) by Thomas McLaughlin
The Vinegar Fly (1994) by Nick Perry
A Wife, a Dog, and a Maple Tree (1995) by Carol Moore and Sue Ashby, as a result of a major research project like early Charabanc productions.


  • Byrne, Ophelia, State of Play: The Theatre and Cultural Identity in 20th Century Ulster, the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, 2001.
  • Byrne, Ophelia, The Stage in Ulster from the Eighteenth Century, the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, 1997.
  • Foley, Imelda, The Girls in the Big Picture: Gender in Contemporary Ulster Theatre, The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2003.
  • Harris, Claudia W., ''Reinventing Women: Charabanc Theatre Company'' in The State of Play: Irish Theatre in the 'Nineties, Eberhard Bort ed., Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1996: 104-123.
  • Sullivan, Megan M., Gendered States: Literature, Film, and Theatre in Northern Ireland, doctoral dissertation, University of Rhode Island, 1995.

Programs from the Charabanc productions of Oul Delf and False Teeth, The Girls in the Big Picture, Somewhere Over the Balcony, The Hamster Wheel, Me and My Friend, Bondagers, October Song, Iron May Sparkle, The Vinegar Fly, A Wife, a Dog, and a Maple Tree and their ''10th Celebratory Year'' are in the University of Delaware archives.: www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/findaids/mckenna.htm

None of the scripts have been published except for The Hamster Wheel (anthologized). The scripts are in The Linen Hall Library archives, Belfast. www.linenhall.com

Material from a presentation for a class on Irish Drama, presented fall, 2004.

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