Theatre fans attending this year’s Galway Arts Festival will have the opportunity to experience what has been described as a “pioneering” work featuring Galway ensemble Blue Teapot Theatre Company. And having seen the play ‘Sanctuary’ at last year’s Galway Theatre Festival, I can safely add engaging, thought provoking, entertaining and hilarious to that description.
Founded in 1996, Blue Teapot Theatre Company has embedded itself in the local arts community, providing a creative outlet and a means of self-expression for people with an intellectual disability (ID) and producing a number of well-received shows including 2010’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
However, ‘Sanctuary’ marks the company’s most significant work to date and came about when director Petal Pilley commissioned well-known playwright Christian O’Reilly to write a script that explored the topic of sex and relationships for people with ID.
Pilley says that her aim was to “present a living tragedy that demands discussion, awareness and a more enlightened response from our society towards the sexuality and relationships of adults with ID” and O’Reilly reveals that he was instantly drawn to the project.
“It was a subject that I was interested in and the world of intellectual disability was something I knew very little of, so I’m always attracted to new worlds as a writer. That was the starting point that got me involved,” he says.
Over the following weeks, O’Reilly engaged in a collaborative process with the company, including “very frank, very honest” discussions with the cast about their views and experiences of relationships.
The playwright, best known for his work on the film ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ and television series including ‘Casualty’ and ‘Holby City’, says he was afforded an “insider’s view” during this process that added an authenticity to the final script.
“If I’d come at it as an outsider, without any connection, the process would have taken a lot longer, but because Petal had invited me in and she had built up such a strong trust with her group of actors, they, in turn, trusted me and spoke openly with me.”
‘Sanctuary’ tells the story of two young people with ID, Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly), and what happens on a visit to the cinema when, desperate to be alone, they steal away from their group and into the privacy of a hotel room.
With both the narrative and the personalities of the characters inspired by the cast, the result is a charming and funny theatrical experience combined with an intimate examination of the issues facing those with ID, including the fact that it is illegal for someone with an intellectual disability to have sex before marriage.
“They tease each other a lot, they’re very funny so the humour just came naturally to the play. I think when you are dealing with a serious subject on the nose, it can be preachy and tedious so, ideally, you find some way into it that makes it accessible and fun, as well as somehow meaningful to the audience,” says O’Reilly.
“Because it’s performed by actors with intellectual disability, as eight out of the nine characters are, it feels very real. It feels like you’ve got a window into their lives for that two-hour period, it feels very authentic so I think that gives a power to the production that I didn’t maybe expect. The reaction that audiences have had to it has been very powerful and very encouraging. It’s a play I’m really proud of.”
The inclusion of the play in the Galway Arts Festival programme marks a major step for the company, with O’Reilly branding the festival “the Champions League of theatre”.
“I think Blue Teapot are quite a unique company and Petal is a bit of a revolutionary really, a visionary. The purpose of the play was to start a conversation to highlight a lack of human rights among people with intellectual disability on this issue,” he says.
“If a group doesn’t have a voice, how do you give that group a voice without speaking for them? What worked about ‘Sanctuary’ was the voice in the play largely comes from the actors themselves. I know if I tried to write this type of play on my own, I wouldn’t have written anything like this. It wouldn’t have been any good, I’m pretty sure of that!”
Cast member Michael Hayes also reveals that the actors are hugely looking forward to their Galway Arts Festival debut but is keeping schtum about what viewers can expect.
“It’s the first time we’ve done a show about relationships. We’ve never done a show like this before. The two main characters want to have a night away from their family or house parents, to be able to talk to each other, to talk about stuff that they can’t talk to their family or house mates about. If you want to know more about what the show is about, come see it yourself. I don’t want to give too much away!”
‘Sanctuary’ by Blue Teapot Theatre Company runs as part of the Galway Arts Festival from 17 to 27 July at Blue Teapot Theatre on Munster Avenue, with performances at 7pm nightly. Tickets, priced at €12/€15, are available from www.galwayartsfestival.com.