Ireland, abortion and the eighth amendment with Yokes Night writer Scott Lyons

SoHo Playhouse (New York) and Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 favourite Yokes Night electrified and shocked audiences with an anarchic misadventure of a night out in Dublin where an Irish law blunder resulted in a loophole where all drugs were legal for 24 hours. Confronting the social obstacles of the broke and bored Irish youth and the severe impact of the current abortion laws, Yokes Night returns with a revamped reboot of the production from 28th-31st March at Gerry’s Studio, Theatre Royal Stratford East. We caught up with writer and performer Scott Lyons to find out the craic.

The best ideas are usually the ones that are “so stupid, it just might work”.

Scott, tell us a bit about what inspired you to write Yokes Night?

In my second year of drama school we were encouraged to write a play to submit to Debut Festival, a new writing festival we create in our third year to produce and direct ourselves. Like a mini-Edinburgh Fringe, some of the work from this festival has gone to theatres like The Bush, Almeida Theatre, and Soho Theatre. For us it was viewed as the pinnacle of our training. The way I saw it was that if I was to write a play, it had to be the play that I’ve always wanted to see but never have.

Yokes Night started off as a poem that I wrote after a night out in Dublin. “And I'm mashed. A Yellow Xbox, and two Apples. Five Hackenburgs and the keys of Dublin.” was the first line written. You can imagine the kinda night it was. Then out of nowhere, the actual Yokes Night happened in real life, and drugs were actually legalised for 48 hours in Ireland. Like - how could they possibly mess that up? You read about those crazy, hedonistic parties during James Joyce’s times that could never possibly happen again - and I felt this night captured that spirit. Blindboy Boatclub of The Rubberbandits described it as an “absurdist intervention - the spirit of Flann O’Brien is alive and well”. I thought that it was the perfect setting to depict the socio-political obstacles of what it is to be young, broke and bored in modern Ireland. I ended up creating Yokes Night around that poem, which I guess is why it has such a rhythmic base to it.

Do you feel that growing up in Ireland played a big part in your pursuing a career as a theatre maker?

I’ve been accused of projecting nationalism within my work, but it’s not crime to have a want to explore your culture and heritage through art. As much as my work promotes Ireland, it also points out exactly what’s wrong with the place.

Ireland also has such a rich history of theatre, and it’s amazing to see how much a lively Fringe scene it has going these days. As a writer, the Irish vocabulary is deadly. It comes from our “bog latin”, or so they say. I think it’s because through colonialism, the Irish were forced to speak a language that wasn’t ours, and that wasn’t in sync with mind-set and mannerisms of the Irish people. So naturally, the Irish messed around with the grammar, phrases, and words. Maybe in an act of rebellion, I don’t know. But the point is that this is what produced giants like Beckett, and Wilde (yes, you’ll find that Wilde was actually Irish). Ireland has numerous dialects. Drive down the road for ten minutes and you’ll find a completely different accent. Growing up in a small village, you can’t help but lap up all the small witticisms and phrases that are unique that place. This is what I like to write.

When I came to study in London, the BA Acting & Contemporary Theatre course was geared to generate theatre makers creating their own original work. The work I was seeing coming from the graduates of the course have been generally British, with some international work - but never anything full-blown out bam kapow = Irish. They say ‘write what ye know’. And that’s what I done.

How are you finding living and working in London?

Grand. I’ve been here over five years. I love it. It’s one of the best cities in the world. There’s a lot of opportunity here. Most of the people I’ve trained with and want to work with are here. I can see some of the best theatre in the world made here. I recently moved back to Ireland to see what it would be like to have my career there. I found Dublin more expensive to live in than London, just with not as many opportunities. I think there’s a lot of great work being made in Dublin and the rest of the country, it’s just a shame I can’t personally afford to be there whilst doing everything that I want to do. Having said that, I am doing my best to make an effort for my projects to span over both countries simultaneously. I think the secret is being thrifty. I definitely miss the pints back home though! The Guinness doesn’t quite cut it here.

Tell us about your theatre company Stay Up Late Collective, how did it start?

Stay Up Late is the name of a Talking Heads song. Then I stole that name for the company that stands today in order to produce the original Yokes Night for Debut Festival. I never thought about cultivating a company for long-term sake. Then, I wanted to take the production to Edinburgh. I got Isabella Javor to join the team as the producer, and after many hours of sleep lost working, we were lucky enough to get the show into the Pleasance Edinburgh and it really took off from there. Then we landed our Off-Broadway transfer to SoHo Playhouse in New York, which was just an insanely good gig! It’s a crazy town to produce theatre in. We were there during a boiling point as well... right as Trump was elected.

As the company stands today, our main goal is making sure we sustain momentum over a long-term basis. I don’t really care about trying to project an image around the company; I just want people to enjoy our work. Too many young artists/companies get more excitement and satisfaction out of instagramming their progress rather than making decent and thorough work. I know that marketing is part of the game, but the satisfaction should come out of creativity.

Are there any struggles you’ve encountered in the process of making your own work?

Trusting your voice and not playing to the choir. It’s easy to fall into making work that is safe and will technically work and people will like, that might even get a standing ovation and some whooping at the end - but ultimately is lacking in anything nourishing. I’ve definitely ignored ideas or the niggling lil voices in my head saying ‘don’t do it’ because I thought this isn’t what the cool elite theatre club people will like. Then you’re just compromising with yourself, and offering nothing to people. You’re trying to be something you’re not. The best ideas are usually the ones that are “so stupid, it just might work”. Those ideas can be hard to convince people of, but when they pull off - it’s great. Like the rise of hipster culture, there’s far too much cool theatre being made these days that says nothing under the vague guise of ‘high art’. Or even some well-established theatre makers that take in the crowds, and the millions from the arts council; but make work that is ultimately complacent and lacklustre. I need to be entertained. Listen to the stupid voices in your head.

Yokes Night has been going for a while, why do you think it’s important for audiences to see today?

The production hasn’t dated. In fact, I think it’s more relevant now than ever before. The issues and themes around lost youth and abortion haven’t been resolved; they’ve actually become worse. With the rise in awareness of things like Brexit, Trump and nationalism, my generation are getting angry and they’re doing something about it. The more it goes on, the more we want to go out and take the action offline. In the hedonistic ‘sesh’ spirit of the Irish, we wanna go ‘out out’ on the town and have a ‘durty’ rave. Party culture in itself is a political statement. Which is what Yokes Night is about. The other theme the play deals with is around the laws on abortion in Ireland, with the upcoming referendum in May the time for ‘Yokes Night’ couldn’t be any more current. I think from speaking to people here in the UK, the very idea of abortion being illegal is so alien to them; when literally just across the pond it has such a huge impact on so many lives. We need people from all around the world to inform themselves on the situation and show support for those in Ireland.

The more we continue to work on the upcoming production of Yokes Night, the more I have to pinch myself. The show keeps getting better and better. I’m very grateful to work with such a talented and passionate crew of people, Natasha Hyman is an excellent director and Sarah Hanly, who is also another writer/performer (check out her Limerick set tale Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks, yurt!).

Any truly memorable moments along the way?

The very first preview of the show at the Old Red Lion Theatre was incredible. Prior to it, I had a lot of doubt in myself as an artist and with the show. The day of the show I was a nervous wreck, nothing was going right. Then just a minute before the show - I thought ‘screw it, just do the job’.

Loads of people ended up showing up with no tickets. We pulled a blinder on the ushers, and smuggled a lot in. We ended up breaking so many fire safety regulations in the theatre by over-capacitating the audience by 20% over the allowance. People were sitting on the aisles/floors/rafters. The air-con was broken. It was the sweatiest show I’ve ever done. And everything went right with it. Start to finish, all the work fell into place and it was a sick show.

You perform as Harry in Yokes Night. Jumping from writer to actor, how has your relationship with the character developed?

Originally I wasn’t going to be Harry. At my drama school, no one could do an Irish accent. British people have a pretty funny perception of how the Irish sound. Naturally, I had to step up to the part. My course head Uri Roodner claimed writing yourself into the lead part was naff. Seeing as so many excellent writer/performers have come out of that course, I pretty sure he disagrees with that now.

What I learnt from doing the role is that for me, writing and acting all roots from the same place. The acting is an extension of the writing, and vice versa. As for being Harry, he’s kinda become a bit of alter-ego for me because I’ve performed as him so many times. He’s like everything I want to be and everything I’d hate to become. I use many parts of my own personality as an actor to bring to the character. Most westernised actor training teaches you that the character is a separate entity to the actor, and blah blah blah. That’s boring. I want to see someone that is real, open and vulnerable. No tricks or masks. This is what I try to do.

What do you do when you’re preparing to go onstage? Any rituals?

I generally always do an hour of stretching/vocal warm ups, then some breathing exercises right before going on stage in order to get the blood going for the performance. I also make an effort to avoid smelling my costume from the night before...

In regard to the upcoming abortion referendum in Ireland, what do you think will happen?

The local church in my village had anti-abortion campaign posters with disturbing cheap-trick images outside the gates to scare parishioners as they entered for Sunday mass. Like most referendums and elections today (Brexit/Trump), it’s a vote that is split between generations. I think the majority of young people will vote pro-choice, but it’s up to us to convince our parents and our grandparent’s generation. While attendance to the Catholic Church in Ireland has decreased, that mind-set still hangs over. It might even be a case that a lot of people just won’t vote because they won’t want any part in the say. I hope those in doubt about the referendum will really enter it with an open mind, and discuss the issue at hand as we get closer to the vote. I know I will be flying home for the vote. I’ve friends who are flying home that can’t vote, but want to protest in support.

Two of my close friends are actively leading organisations and networks creating change and awareness: Lauren Crully who runs the Scottish Irish Abortions Rights Campaign, and Jenna Hodgins who is running Drogheda Abortion Rights Campaign. It’s amazing to see them taking off. It’s these efforts that have made such a difference to the Repeal The Eighth movement. We’re actually having a referendum now, it’s incredible. Someone pointed out the other day that in 1918, women were shouting ‘Votes for Women!’. Now in 2018, they’re shouting ‘Votes for Repeal!’. To support the cause, Stay Up Late will be collecting donations at the end of the show in support of the Repeal The Eighth campaign - so please bring change to the show!

Last question: apart from repealing the eighth amendment, if you could change or instate a law in Ireland, what would it be?

High tech firms need to pay taxes. With Brexit happening, the Irish government is giving tax breaks to wealthy entrepreneurs and companies like Google and Facebook to encourage growth in the country. Typically, the cost is put to the worker. There is a devastating amount of homelessness and inequality in education and health care. The country is doing so well, yet so many are in poverty. The problem could easily be fixed, but the government are afraid of getting pay-cuts, and afraid of these companies leaving again. We’re making the same mistakes again; it’s all getting too expensive again. There’s a bubble growing - and it’s going to burst before we know it. All my mates are emigrating yet again, and I look at my nephew and nieces wondering if it is going to be the same craic when they grow up.

Yokes Night is running 28th-31st March at Gerry’s Studio, Theatre Royal Stratford East. £12 (£10), http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/yokes-night

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