Capturing courage

Since autumn, I have been quietly turning to an artistic practice that firmly situates my identity and value as an insider to the work.

A yearning to locate my cultural stories and find the tools and languages to articulate them has been simmering for aeons. As a traveller across South Africa for seven years in a research capacity, I have been guided by scholars and practitioners sharing their methodologies for tackling sociolinguistic, cultural and epistemological biases in performance-making. My current postdoc project set me on a path of a more tangible type of reciprocity, where a synthesis of my learnings are being reinterpreted and negotiated by South African performance makers. As I come to the end of this project, I feel energised by friendships across South Africa, knowing that they will accumulate moments of creativity and storytelling far into the future. Yet, it is not healthy nor sustainable for one to be entirely surrounded by others’ stories, particularly when one’s own are far from reconciled. This is where my life across borders meets my next play: Courage songs. The synopsis goes like this:

Courage songs are the songs that have energised moments of catharsis to become tipping points for change. Like bagpipes before battle, music gives us transformational moments of reflection, providing clarity on previously consuming dilemmas. This documentary play follows the curiosity and benevolence of my Irish grandaunt, Elizabeth O’Hanlon as she asks her peers about their courage songs. Songs from the Australian diaspora provide the rhythm and the language of the play. Stories of Australian migration and movement across half a century are told from suburban Perth. The play opens with The Dubliner’s version of Dirty old town in the wake of her brother and my grandfather, autumn 2021. We learn of Elizabeth’s tendency to tell her story through her community. We see how this post-war baby; youngest of six; a (cis) woman whose language and culture were colonised; migrant and octogenarian might have cheekily stood in the shadows to do things her way.

Courage songs is a play about migration, family and cultural sharing. It is the outcome of two accumulative truths resonating in my recent practice and research: The capacity of songs to be a meaningful and culturally safe mode of storytelling that avoid re-traumatising individuals to tell one particular story of conflict, or in this case, migration; and the unique opportunities for multilingualism that come through sharing songs, providing introductions to cultures and languages that are otherwise hidden. Courage songs is also a personal memoir and an ode to my grandfather whose resilience prepared our Irish migrant family with fearlessness, fairness and dignity.

Photo: My grandfather’s image at Clancy’s Fish Pub, Fremantle (Perth) where he has a spot dedicated to him named ‘Paddy’s Corner’.

Video: The Dubliner’s version of Dirty Old Town at my grandfather’s wake. In the company of family at Clancy’s Fish Pub: Far left, Lyla, one of my nieces, then aunties Lorraine and Janny, seated, and aunties Ann and Gemma, dancing.

I am currently in the early stages of writing Courage songs, meeting with my grandaunt and listening closely. My own body in interaction with Elizabeth’s will be initially written into the script and I will grapple with dramaturgies that signal the echoes of our border crossings across different times (and with different degrees of agency). Research-wise, I have re-entered migration studies and human rights discourses. I am looking at representing the complexity of the underrepresented cis female migration story. It’s a transformational and, at times, overwhelming research endeavour as I still await/seek/ponder my next city/country/hemisphere to call home.

The play’s story could go in many directions and I am sure that much of the above narrative will become redundant with time; however, I am trialling a new approach to blog writing which shares the uneven and meandering nature of performance processes. I imagine that sharing myself in this form is also symbolic of sharing myself in artistic practice. Perhaps this blog post is a rehearsal for vulnerability and claims to selfhood. Perhaps I am learning to capture my courage in the stride of the Frenches that have walked before me.

Feature photo: My grandaunt, Elizabeth O’Hanlon (far right) with her Mammy, brother and sister (right to left).

Claire French is a performance maker and researcher, specialising in multilingual, applied and autobiographical performance.