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Interview: From Picket Line To Stage

Writer Tracy Ryan on Strike!

Stike! tells the true story of the Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid Strike which took place in Dublin from 1984 to 1987. It is incredible to believe how one small act of defiance could become something so much bigger, but that is exactly what happened. And now the story is coming to the stage at Southwark Playhouse via the pen of Tracy Ryan.

As if the story itself wasn’t enough to grab our interest, the show is from Ardent Theatre Company, who we have championed in the past for the work in supporting emerging actors. It really meant we couldn’t not let this one pass us by without grabbing some time with Tracy to find out more.

What is it that made you write a play about an Irish strike?

I heard one of the Strikers, Mary Manning, on RTE Radio, and I was curious to learn more. I was aware of apartheid and anti-apartheid movements in England and elsewhere. Still, the Dunnes Store Strike was new to me. As I read more, I knew I wanted to create a piece of theatre about their action.

My first call was to Mandate the Union. They said I should contact Brendan Archbold, the Union Organiser for the Strike. It took a while to find Brendan, but when I did, we agreed to meet. He was great in setting the context of the Strike, sharing his archive material and introducing me to the Strikers. I felt then, as I do now, that what they did was inspirational as a group of young working-class shop workers. They stood up to their bosses, the Church and the Government in their refusal to handle South African goods and in doing so contributed to the banning of South African goods in Ireland. Their solidarity as a group and with others many thousand miles away in South Africa demonstrated the power of collective action not only in Dublin but also across the world to challenge power and end injustice.

The story is quite incredible and had repercussions around the world. Still, it is also about the bravery of a handful of shop workers – so what do you focus your play upon then when there are clearly so many options available?

I have focused on the journey of the Strikers through their initial walkout in line with the Union directive to not handle SA goods, where they admit their motivation was to annoy the bosses to their growing political awareness of the vicious apartheid system in South Africa. On this journey, I was fascinated by their relationship with Nimrod Sejake (who was in exile in Ireland and had been active in the freedom movement in his country). This relationship, along with others they met on the line and their growing confidence in their action ultimately changed them forever.

The play has been around since 2010, but this is the first full production, did you ever think it would get to the stage after so long, or did you have times you almost gave up on it?

It was first staged in Dublin for a short run in 2010 (produced by Helen Ryan); however, it has evolved and significantly changed over the years. When Ardent took an interest in the play in late 2015, they offered space and funding to work on the text through dramaturgical support with Shelley Troupe, then Andrew Muir from Ardent, workshops and readings, which has been invaluable in developing the play to its current form. It was envisaged the production may happen in 2020, but obviously, we all know what happened. Through coivid, Ardent and I continued to work on the play, and we are now only a few weeks away from opening.

And what made you want to work with Ardent Theatre in bringing it to the stage at last?

I greatly respect Ardent’s work and mission to ‘bring outsiders in.’ They have been incredibly enthusiastic about the story of the Strikers and keen to tell their story. They were committed to the large cast and never asked me to cut down on cast size, which would have meant losing some of the Strikers. I felt strongly they should all be represented as they all walked the line on Henry Street Dublin for nearly three years. Ardent supported this throughout, and it is incredible that the company has fund-raised and is staging the show with such a large cast.

You have mentioned speaking to some of the strikers, what have their reactions been to seeing their story portrayed in the play?

I have from the beginning. Firstly Brendan Archbold who was hugely generous and supportive. I interviewed the Strikers early on; they also saw the first staging and have contributed to readings, spoken with actors and been amazingly supportive of every sharing. They will all be at the Press Night with Brendan’s family, as Brendan passed away in 2015.

The play has had a number of staged readings; did these allow you to work on the script further?

When you hear a play read, it is so informative for the writer. Even as we have gotten it up with our fantastic cast and director, Kirsty Patrick Ward, there are changes and edits.

So how does it feel to finally be seeing this play staged after so long? Is there going to be a real sense of completion come the opening night?

It is great, and although I have been with the play for a long time, I am still incredibly moved and inspired by the action the Strikers took and honoured to tell their story.

And finally, are there plans to take the play over to Ireland at all?

Yes, next year is the 40th anniversary of the Strike, and Ardent has already begun to connect with Unions, including Mandate (the Strikers Union), venues, and others, to see if this can happen.

Our thanks to Tracy for chatting to us. Strike! comes to Southwark Playhouse from 13 April to 6 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.

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