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Belfast theatre company to celebrate its 25

Aug 31, 2023

Patricia Downey, founder of Spanner In The Works Theatre Company

Louise Parker and Elaine Duncan in a scene from Mind Games, performed for high-security prisoners and police recruits in the US

Some of the young police recruits in the US watching Mind Games

Patricia Downey, founder of Spanner In The Works Theatre Company

Patricia Downey broke the mould when she set up Northern Ireland’s first all-female theatre company 25 years ago.

Going against the grain to create plays in which the majority of roles were for women was just the start of what has been a ground-breaking career devoted to bringing the arts to marginalised communities.

Her award-winning theatre company, Spanner In The Works, has more than lived up to its name, forging a unique style of hard-hitting contemporary theatre that aims to challenge, provoke and engage audiences.

Patricia takes the most controversial issues of the day (drugs, human trafficking and domestic violence) and brings them to the stage in such a moving way that they have had a lasting impact, even helping to shape social policy at the Department of Justice.

Some of the young police recruits in the US watching Mind Games

An accomplished director and writer, Patricia’s focus has been — and remains — on working with women, young people, schools, prisoners and people with disabilities to explore social concerns through the medium of drama.

Using drama workshops and devised pieces, the theatre company develops productions examining these contemporary social issues.

And to celebrate its 25-year anniversary, Patricia’s latest play, Life Goes On, which explores mental health, is set to debut at the Lyric Theatre in September.

As with all of her productions, Life Goes On will then embark on a tour of 10 community venues, giving free access for people who can’t afford to go to the theatre.

As Patricia (63) looks back on 25 years and all that she’s achieved, it has been an organic process of simply following her heart.

Patricia Downey, founder of Spanner In The Works Theatre Company

She recalls how it all started: “I thought initially I wanted to go into acting and David Grant had just set up the Drama Studio again and I started there.

“I soon realised that every production had more male parts than female parts and I wanted to address this imbalance, so I decided to throw a spanner in the works and open a theatre company that was all female — and that’s what I did and how the name came about.

“We never put on a production that had more male parts than female parts, but I found it hard to find good plays with female parts, so I just thought: ‘To hell with it, I will write my own.’

“I am working class and was aware that the arts was not getting into these communities in 1998.

“I just knew there was a need for it. At the very start I was going into places no one would go to.

“Yes, we had peace, but the legacy of that peace was that our young people were suffering because of drugs and alcohol abuse.

“I was going up the Falls Road and the Shankill Road — it has always been non-political — talking about issues that were important to everyone and then creating plays to deal with what was happening.

“We took the plays into the community to women’s groups and schools, and we would hold workshops afterwards, debating the issues. I would go and speak to women and children struggling with the issues and get them to come to see the plays.

“We have addressed a whole range of things, including dementia, domestic violence, binge drinking, internet safety, human trafficking, racism and legal highs.”

Writing and directing plays, as well as devising and running workshops, Patricia’s work has been recognised globally.

In 2016 she was awarded a residency at internationally renowned Hedgebrook outside Seattle, Washington, which supports visionary women writers.

She was also highly commended in the Community Impact Award category by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Louise Parker and Elaine Duncan in a scene from Mind Games, performed for high-security prisoners and police recruits in the US

In 2021, her moving play Buttercup — the story of three women growing up in Andersonstown, west Belfast, through the Troubles to the present day — won Best Production at the renowned Buxton International Festival and received a Thrive Audience Delight Award.

The following year, another play written and directed by Patricia — the hard-hitting Runny Honey, which looked at what happens to women when they get out of prison in Northern Ireland — was also named Best Production at the Buxton International Festival.

This play was applauded by the then justice minister David Ford and has helped shape new policy on how women are treated when they leave the prison system.

Patricia is also the writer and director of the internationally acclaimed Diablo, which tackles the subject of human trafficking and which has been performed in some of the United States’ top-security prisons.

She says: “I remember when I did the play 11 years ago and the message was that human trafficking could be happening next door to you, people said that was rubbish and didn’t believe that it was happening in Northern Ireland.

“We toured it in Newfoundland in Canada, where they were on top of the human trafficking problem, and we performed it in wee houses in Belfast to show people it was real.

“I have just written about whatever it is I hear is happening at the moment.

“Our play Mind Games, which explores domestic violence and the shortcomings of the legal system, was spotted on the internet by a man in America whose sister had died because of domestic violence.

“He was running an awareness campaign and wanted to bring the play over to prisons in Boston and Philadelphia.

“We brought it into eight high-security prisons and it was performed to hundreds of prisoners, both men and women.

“We also performed it for police cadets.

“We then went on to record some domestic violence clips featuring every scenario — from a girl hitting her boyfriend to a mother hitting her daughter, from a fella hitting his mother to same-sex abuse — and they were used as part of a 12-day online awareness campaign by the Department of Justice.”

What drives Patricia when writing her critically acclaimed plays is how the audiences connect with the productions: “I just want the audiences to fall in love with them, because they are ordinary people and I am writing about ordinary people.”

Now, those same audiences are in for a treat as Patricia launches Life Goes On at the Lyric Theatre from September 19-23 in honour of Spanner In The Works’ 25-year journey.

“It’s a hard-hitting play that shows the human side of mental health, as well as [delivering] the message that you can learn to live with it,” explains Patricia.

“It urges people not to be afraid to speak up.

“If someone asks you, ‘Are you all right?’ it is OK to say no.”

Life Goes On centres on main character Michael, a young man with love in his heart and troubles on his mind.

When Michael has a chance meeting with Christine at the local park, sparks fly and romance starts to blossom. But the course of true love never runs smoothly, and especially not for Michael and Christine.

The story looks at why Michael’s mother, Kathleen, is so dead set against them getting together and audiences are kept guessing whether true love will win the day — or will a ‘big secret’ keep these young lovers apart?

Ultimately it tackles, in a witty, touching and sometimes sad way, the often ‘secret’ issue of mental illness by exploring one person’s struggle to live a full and happy life with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Life Goes On, written and directed by Patricia Downey, is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from September 19-23. Tickets (£10) are available from [email protected] or by phoning 028 9592 2824

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