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Maria Kerin-Walsh, third from left of Playback Theatre, based in North Clare, with Nadia Shvachova, fourth from left, founder and facilitator, with her daughter Luba. They are photographed with fellow Playback players, left to right, Yuliia Arkhypova, Dmytro Arkhypov, Lililia Ushakova and Maryna Zymytska. Photograph by John Kelly

Theatre workshops give New Hope in North Clare

DRAMA is being used to promote integration between the communities of North Clare and those taking refuge from the war on Ukraine. 

An innovative project called ‘New Hope’ has been spearheaded by Mariupol woman Nadia Shvachova, in partnership with Bellharbour native Maria Kerin Walsh. The programme has two stages, the first of which is to gather people to participate in the techniques of Playback Theatre to tell stories about their lives through improvisation. The second stage will see Irish and Ukrainian participants perform with a general audience and develop a “pop-up players”  theatre company

Maria, an independent artist, curator and choreographer, has extensive experience of working overseas. She said the New Hope scheme is a way of keeping community bonds strong as the response to the war on Ukraine becomes a longer-term effort.

“Originally, we were in crisis mode in North Clare and we’re now looking to move beyond that,” she said. Having lived for a time in Estonia, Maria said the importance of non-verbal communication techniques cannot be overstated when it comes to promoting integration.

“I found it quite difficult to learn the language when I was in Estonia, so I know what that challenge feels like,” she said. “Nadia has phenomenal skill as a facilitator and brings non-verbal communication to the fore. That’s a far more universal thing than language and it provides a safe space to break down barriers and to reach understanding.”

The idea for New Hope, which recently brought together ten Irish participants and 14 Ukrainians for a workshop, came about in an effort to reduce isolate for newcomers to North Clare. 

“We were at a Fáilte Isteach, language support session and wondering how we might figure out who is interested in the arts and how they could get involved,” Maria explained.

“It turns out that lots of the Ukrainian community actually have some kind of training in theatre. I got a group together in my house outside Ennistymon, because I’ve had that experience of facilitating arts groups from Estonia. Nadia was there and asked if anyone would like to get involved in Playback Theatre.

“Nadia has Masters degrees in psychology and in the arts, and she has a phenomenal capacity. She worked for four years in Mariupol with displaced women and children and she never dreamed that she herself would end up coming to find refuge in North Clare.

“The session we had with her in Ennistymon was so rich and so inclusive. We really want to put the focus on equality because when someone is being hosted, the power is with the host. A space of equality is really needed and our previous session was incredible. It’s not therapy, but there are certainly great personal benefits for everyone taking part.”

No acting skills are needed and participants in New Hope can come along for just one session or commit to a longer involvement.

“Our bigger plan is that actor Jacinta Sheerin will get a Playback Theatre Company up and running,” Maria explained. “It’s really important that we would take this further and that it’s not just a token effort. That would involve a team of pop-up players to interact with audiences around the county.”

Another goal is to spread the benefits of the New Hope initiative to other venues in Clare. “Clare Local Development Company (CLDC) and other groups are supporting us for 12 weeks of rehearsals in Ennistymon,” Maria said. “If funding can be secured, this is something that would be rolled out at venues including Ennis, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan and Shannon.”

Currently, sessions are running on Wednesday evenings at the Courthouse in Ennistymon from 6.30pm, with efforts being made to get a shuttle bus for participants. 

More details of New Hope are available by contacting Maria by email to kerinmaria@gmail.com.

About Fiona McGarry

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