I`m back in Derry again as the Galatea tour winds up this week and have savored the feeling of being “home” again. It was while living here in 2010 that I first met Pat Byrne of Sole Purpose Productions, and it’s felt like putting on a favorite pair of old shoes again as I wander along familiar roads, revisit the landmarks of my time here, and reunite with old friends I haven’t seen for a long time.
It’s also been a chance to reflect on what may be the most interesting part of the tour, which has been the visits to a couple of smaller towns in Northern Ireland – Newtownabbey, a largely Protestant community of some 80,000 just north of Belfast, and Strabane, a Catholic border town of 20,000 a short drive south of Derry.
The towns themselves are studies in contrasts that were reflected in the tour. One of the sponsors of the tour is the Rainbow Project, a Northern Ireland organization that provides a variety of services to local gay and lesbian communities. From the start the group has been a strong supporter of the production and tour. I suspect that this is both because the story presents its story of two gay couples in a healthy and positive light – which perhaps is not as commonly available here as one might wish – and also because the project has provided an opportunity for community building over the last year.
Perhaps because of its proximity to Belfast or perhaps because of a fairly conservative hue to its population, Newtownabbey doesn’t seem to have a well organized local gay and lesbian community, and this was reflected in the modest size of the audience that turned out for the show. In contrast, Strabane has a well established local group who were out in force, as was the vice-chairman of the Strabane District Council, all of whom went out of their way to offer me a very warm welcome to their community.
For me, the most profound realization about this production has been the degree to which it has helped to galvanize the community here. One might not have expected this; while I think the play does provide a positive portrayal of gay life to its audiences, it’s hardly an overt political piece. But the community has adopted the show with gusto and I think the production has made a modest contribution to its evolution in return – whether by its simple presence in a town like Newtownabbey or in how it’s inspired some of the audience members I spoke with in Strabane.
I am hopeful for a lasting effect as well. The play itself wraps up at the end of this week here in Derry, but I suspect the community will continue to enrich itself theatrically. Sole Purpose held a writing workshop for the gay and lesbian community, and I can imagine organizers in the future arranging to present the work of local playwrights in the towns we’ve toured. I look forward to being in the audience when that happens!