Interview: Tara Flynn on “Not a Funny Word” – Mick Lally Theatre May 19th
On Saturday, May 5th I had the pleasure of chatting to Tara Flynn, actor, comedian and activist, about her show Not a Funny Word, coming to the Mick Lally Theatre on Saturday May 19th. Created by THISISPOPBABY! in conjunction with the Abbey Theatre, the show chronicles her account of travelling out of Ireland for an abortion and is, “a deeply personal and bravely funny testimony” told, “with searing honesty”. It examines the status quo through her journey and some originals songs to boot. We discussed the show, its context and what she hopes it can achieve. See the full transcript of our chat below. After introductions and chats about the weather, I asked Tara to give me some context of the show:
T – I suppose the main thing to say upfront about the show is it’s not part of the campaign – we were writing it before there was even a Referendum! When I was in the room with Philly [MacMahon] and submitting bits I thought that could go into it, we very carefully took out anything that was from a campaign standpoint. That was something that Philly would say to me – “I know you campaign and it’s so important and become such a part of your life, but this just has to be the story, unembellished in any way.” Even from a creative point of view, we started from that standpoint – that it was just my story, told my way, without telling people how to think or feel. Or even how I think or feel sometimes, apart from what is actually happening in the show at the time. It’s a separate thing from the campaign as it wouldn’t have any campaign messaging in it or anything like that. Now that the campaign has started it’s outside of that – that’s one of the other reasons we haven’t done it as much maybe as we might have, because we didn’t want it to get confused with the campaign. But by the same token it’s very important to do it now. Because it is just one story and it gives people the space to think.
M – Yeah, I always find the very personal stories, they tend to be the more universal in the end.
T – Yeah that’s it! It really is – we hear a lot in the campaign because they’re very urgent stories, about the exceptions; rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality. But they’re not the majority. And there’s something about giving a voice to the majority that lets people in, in a way that you don’t get to do in an interview or at a campaign event. It becomes more political then. This is not speaking for anybody. It’s just laying the story out. It’s a bit of look at Irish history and hypocrisy and all that, but with a few jokes!
M – I suppose you can see it if you go to any comment section on a post on Facebook, whether it’s a Yes or a No, there’s such a back and forth and it gets heated so quickly. At least with theatre, you’re given the space to have an hour on stage so you can tell the story and people can discuss it afterwards. But there’s time there that you have just to tell the story.
T – Well, it sort of takes people through my own deliberation. I think it gives them a perspective of, even though it’s something that when you retell it ten years later it can seem very straight forward, it’s not straight forward at all. It’s always a deliberation – there’s always a back and forth with yourself. And I would say very few people don’t have that process. It seems to resonate with people and particularly people who have travelled. But also with people who are undecided. They’ve said they appreciate not being lectured. Which, to be honest with you I don’t think many people do appreciate. You can often hear people who haven’t gone to meetings before taking up that press narrative of ‘both sides and it’s all very strident’. Actually, when you go to meetings it’s people sharing their stories and there is a lot of space to think. Most meetings will lay out at the top what their own standpoint is, so then you know if it’s a meeting for you or not. And if you’re undecided, it’s good to go to both I think. Get a feel for both and see what both have to say. But in general, and I don’t think this is a radical thing to say anymore, the YES side is where you’re gonna get your facts. And that’s not an opinion – when the mainstream press can write that it’s just bonkers! But yet both sides are being treated equally in terms of equal time and space. Look, of course everyone must have their say and that’s what a democracy is, that’s what the referendum will be, but it’s very frustrating when we’re working so hard to lay our private lives there to tell the truth, to learn. Like we’ve all had to become constitutional, medical, legal experts even though we’re not – I’m a comedian! But the onus is on us to have as many facts as possible, but it’s not on them. They’re just allowed to say what they want. There’s this hangover of deference from priestly times, the parish priest got the excess of respect in the town and its exactly like that.
M – . Yeah exactly! I think I saw some tweet recently that said something along the lines of, “Don’t you hate it when two things that have nothing in common are given the same importance” and it had a link to an article titled, “Doctors and priests disagree on the 8th amendment”. And it’s like, yes, of course they do! What about it? It’s mad that that still even exists. It’s even funny in terms of something like the Marriage Referendum, some people would say, “it’s how half of Ireland was raised, you can’t hold that against them”, but that vote proved you can never even tell with people. Assuming peoples backgrounds and that have nothing to do with it anymore.
T – No, it’s nothing to do with it anyway! And this is the thing, lots of people of faith access abortion care. And lots of people who don’t have faith are anti-choice. It’s something that you can’t assume on people. We’ve only had one set of views pushed at us here, and it was pushed at us. Everything else was suppressed. That’s a fact, that’s a historical fact. So it’s very hard for people unless you’ve had to do the work yourself because you’re faced with a crisis pregnancy, or unless you wanted to do the work to really examine how you actually felt. Indoctrination was very prevalent here and what we know, what we think we already know is comfortable, and people don’t want to be uncomfortable.
M – And it’s the fact as well that if a No vote were to happen, it would be a case of the status quo remaining and nothing actually changes, so there’s nothing to lose there. But like you said with the Yes campaign, that’s personal and private. That’s coming out into the public, there’s so much at stake for people that have spoken about it.
T – Well the problem is it’s been proven now. The Joint Oireacthas committee and the Citizens’ Assembly agreed that the status quo is broken, it doesn’t work. The 8th amendment, which is what people are fighting for, doesn’t prevent abortion. It prevents nothing, it just adds hardship. That’s be proven! So what we’re being asked to vote on now, and this is the crux of it, are we happy to leave things as they are and continue to lie and are we to continue to have a dishonest society?
But anyway, that’s campaign Tara! Fun Tara can’t wait to start writing some new things again come maybe July cos I’m probably going to have to sleep for June! I’ve addressed everything else I’ve ever wanted to with comedy, whether it be through books or stand up, and I love storytelling. This is my biggest and most important, I suppose to other people, story, and I can’t do it publicly. I can’t address it the way I want to address it, which is with humour! It’s easier for me to do the show than to do a talk. It’s in my realm, I know how to make it easier for me to say which makes it easier for people to hear, so I can break any tension. Whereas in a talk, breaking tension can seem a bit glib or something? Even though I try to keep my personality in the talks. It’s important to remind people that the people that this happens to are just people. They’re not from a campaign, they’re just people you know. They can be eejits, they can be messy and they’re just doing their best! And that’s what I hope the show does.
M – And have you found in doing it in a theatre space or on a stage that, you feel it gives it something more? Rather than if you were to film that and disseminate it let’s say. It would get wider with film distribution, but is there something in the intimacy in theatre that you think helps?
T – Always I think theatre is so magic for that and I think it would lose something in being filmed or streamed, but I’m not ruling that out. Because I want to address stigma. Even after the 25th – there’s something in global abortion stigma. I mean Iowa passed the most restrictive abortion law in the states*, they’ll have laws as restrictive as ours. So people will have to travel out of state to access care. So it’s going to be very similar. You think of the size of their states and it is going to be the same; people with money will travel and people who don’t will resort to their own methods or continue a pregnancy with which they can’t cope. I think there’s something in busting abortion stigma. It’s not just an Irish story, so I think it would be useful to film it. But you’re right, part of the power of the show is when you just tell your story and you’re not asking for a particular reaction, people are processing emotionally right there together, and that electricity in the room is something I’m incredibly grateful for and incredibly moved by myself when it happens in the room. One of the reasons that different parts of the show catch me every night! Different parts will catch me emotionally and I kind of have to work quite hard to control that emotion in myself to move on to the next bit. But it’s one of the other reasons that I put jokes in to punctuate every now and again. There’s a line where, in the moment I really reveal to people how I’m feeling, I go there and it’s very emotional for me, but then I say I don’t want to Ireland’s newest criminal, even if does come with an apartment in Spain! It doesn’t get a big guffaw, but just in that moment, it gives us all a moment to breathe out! I don’t overload people, I give them the hard stuff, but I give them a chance to punctuate it too, so that it’s not emotional vomit. You’re not just unloading on people, you’re letting them know how you felt.
M – It’s great that it has that structure, that you can put that story into. With any theatre show it’s going to be something repeatable, you’re going to be doing it over and over, so you have to find some way to make that more manageable for yourself and for an audience.
T – That’s it – and devices like playing characters or songs are very structured set pieces that helps to take me out of it. But it’s very important to share with people! But there are moments that I just have to treat like an actor. I have to find all the emotion, go there like an actor would, as if it weren’t my story. It’s a very weird balancing act, and that’s why certain bits grab me differently every night.
M – Yeah it reminds me of Sonya Kelly, her show How To Keep An Alien – I saw it a few years ago and there was a Q&A afterwards, and someone asked something to the effect, “I know it’s you performing you, but does your outfit/costume change every night?” And she said, “nope, this is the costume, this is costume Sonya Kelly, this is just me performing me, the version of me I’m presenting to you.” Have you found in doing this show, that it’s the performing Tara rather than the real Tara?
T – Yeah absolutely. That’s another thing – humour adds a little bit of distance. Humour implies distance. You can’t laugh about something until you’ve had a minute to think about it. And I’m not laughing at the experience as people will see when they see the show, the experience gets the full weight. But all the hypocrisy around it, or my own messiness, not being a perfect person, that gets it full on! Self deprecation is a useful thing, and it also makes people feel comfortable. But it’s also very relatable! People think, “Shit that could have been me!”. That’s what I suppose the power of my own story is in the whole discussion, the it-could-have-me-ness. It’s a very unexceptional story.
M – Yeah absolutely. I’ve seen it in some of the posters and ads for the campaign, I can’t fully remember which ones, but it is this thing of if could be your daughter, your niece. It’s great that with your own show it’s your particular story. It doesn’t have to these related to someone to take it seriously, it’s just you.
T – Yeah, and you bring up a great point actually. I often say that just to remind people that it could be your sister, could be your aunt, could be you. But why do we need to know someone to say that they deserve their rights? As I say I use that reference all the time because I think it is really important that people understand it. That makes it real and brings it close, as people often think about this theoretically. Somebody actually tweeted recently that they were talking to a guy and he said he had no skin in the game either way. I mean, what a luxury position to be in that it doesn’t affect him and he doesn’t care and sure, he’ll weigh it all up and have a think about it and see how it goes. But honestly if you have no skin in the game, just vote yes because it won’t affect you either way. If you really feel you have no skin in the game, then as the intellectual powerhouse you are, you know that voting yes is the correct intellectual stance because you’re giving someone else the freedom of conscience! And if you don’t believe in freedom of conscience, I don’t think that’s the kind of intellectual I want to hangout with! It’s getting to that stage now where, I say it again and again, but I hope what my show does is it shows it’s not about a side. It’s about the fact that this happens and that it happens to eejits like me and eejits like me are sometimes funny. It’s a reclaiming of myself really, that’s what the show is. It’s therapy! It’s me getting to be fully me, not just part of the campaign. Not just one story! And here is a thing that has happened when I go to do an interview about a different bit of work, and of course most of my work is comedy. They’ll either go, “We’re going to bring up you-know-what, is that okay?” when the person I’m here representing might not be happy with that, they might not want it tied into that. But then it’s being treated almost salaciously, like gossip. Or they’ll say, “don’t even mention that at all.” And it’s always one or the other. One of the reasons I think it’s going to be so important to bust stigma is because it’s just one thing that happens to people and it doesn’t define them. At the moment I’m having to talk a lot about it I’m looking forward to talking about it less! But I will always talk about the stigma and shame. Even the fact that there is a hierarchy of worth in terms of the exceptional cases getting more sympathy, people will say “oh I’m okay with these circumstances”. But the truth is that’s actually a very judgemental stance which says if you got pregnant a certain way, I don’t judge you – if you got pregnant with the intent of being pregnant then I don’t judge you. But it turns out the procedure for wherever you’re at for all those cases is the same. So it’s not the procedure they oppose. And if it’s not the procedure they oppose, then let the person who is having the procedure weigh up their morals and conscience and make the decision with their doctor. That’s what I mean by stigma. My story I suppose is something very everyday, not an everyday decision to have to make, but it is something that happens everyday. For the most ridiculous reasons and the most ridiculous pieces of furniture involved – no spoilers!
M – What a promo for the show! Have you found in doing the show so many times that it has helped? Just as you’ve mentioned it being a part of therapy for yourself – does it help you to do it?
T – Yeah it’s very healing for me to do the show, tell the story wholly and fully, exactly how I want to tell it, the way I think it’s really important to tell it and to have people coming up to me. One person tweeted afterwards and she said, “You feel like Ireland has changed when you come out [of the theatre], you feel like the whole world has changed.” I just tried to shift perspective on it. We’ve always been told that abortions are bad, and people who have them are bad or irresponsible or uncaring in some way. But to bring back the caring and the full deliberation, there is a responsible person in the centre of it, there is a caring person at the heart. And that is, I believe, the majority. After the show sometimes people, and especially people who maybe have been through the procedure, I don’t know I don’t ask them to disclose, but some people do say afterwards, “oh I took the Luas home and I told my friend”. Holding in a secret, it’s not about privacy, because the privacy thing should be within our power and that’s another thing the eighth amendments takes away. But if you feel you need to disclose to somebody, a trusted friend, it should be possible without you feeling like it could be the end of the relationship. It will in some cases, but you know sometimes seeing the show together helps people to talk. There is a little piece in the show that’s about my grandad and something that happened to him and I tried to share that with everybody. If that could work for him maybe that could work for all of us. It’s just something that gives people a different way of thinking about things. So it definitely helps me but it’s just so lovely when people say it helps them.
M – Yeah and Ireland has that history of, you know, people spying out from behind the net curtain seeing what’s going on in the community. So even in doing your show, it’s declarative. It’s you are up there sharing your story. Hopefully you’re bringing those people out from behind the net curtain out into the real world, saying these things happen and it’s just a part of life and will talk about it and not be ashamed.
T – There is the difference between feeling ashamed and being shamed as well. Shame is a tool of oppression. Shame is, “don’t talk about is I don’t want to know about this”. But you know, it’s my experience and so many other peoples experience and the fact that you’re uncomfortable about that won’t make it go away. Talk about it and get it out in the open and deal with it realistically. And guess what? The byproduct of that is, in terms of those people who feel uncomfortable, it will go away again. It can go back into the private realm, so win-win everybody gets with they what! People are getting the care they need and you are getting not hear about it any more!
M – Yeah you can just go back behind your curtain, it’s fine!
T – No one wants your curtain! No one’s taking your curtain! In fact, close it! Just don’t try and extend the curtain beyond your own backyard!
M – Just as you were saying there about the humour as well, the use of humour in these situations, it really does help people to have a bit of a communal laugh and a bit of a share about it.
T – Well it relieves tension and that helps people to digest. Particularly Irish people. We don’t really sit down with a mate and have a straight, long conversation about anything big without some humour. Dark humour. Dark, dark humour! But there actually isn’t even that much dark humour in my show, a lot of it is self-deprecation or its about hypocrisy. But it’s very much about accepting other peoples’ beliefs as well. It’s not about us versus them, there is none of that in there. I don’t believe that either, I don’t believe the two sides narrative! I’m the biggest user of inverted commas on Twitter, it’s just pathetic, but I’ll say things like, “sides” and have to put it in inverted commas because it’s not my feeling! I will say it for a shorthand, but I really don’t see it as sides. But I really do see Yes voters as people going, “it’s really none of my business. It’s your life, body and future. I am not an expert on your life. I can’t comment, so how could I impose?” That’s a Yes vote for me, and that’s where discussions happen. I think that’s very useful to remember, that the discussions happen in the nuances. It’s all nuance for me so it can’t be a side. There is no us versus them in my show. In fact, I hope there is a real bringing back together of people of faith, people who’ve moved away from the Catholic Church maybe. I do try to mention all that in the show because that’s my context. I was brought up Catholic. I was 14 when the 8th Amendment came in, almost an adult really. You’re still a child but almost an adult. That indoctrination, I received too. It hasn’t been easy for me to reappraise. It’s been necessary though. You know most people in Ireland don’t pop out pro-choice! It takes works to unpack what we’ve always ever heard. What we’ve always ever heard has only been one perspective. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I do believe leaving people to make their own decisions is right. But one perspective is only one prospective and it’s all we’ve examined so far.
M – Well I think I’ve covered everything there with you Tara! I really appreciate you giving us your time talk to talk about the show! T – I’ve worn the ear off ya! Thank you for covering it! We’ve found this really difficult, even now trying to look into venues for Dublin, maybe even some unusual venues. People are not willing to book us so I’m just so grateful to the Mick Lally as well! So close to the referendum people are thinking it’s going to be political, but the lads have, “no, we get what it is, we get it” and I’ve been so grateful for that. Because it is just my story, told in a theatrical way! Perfect for a theatre and perfect for a break from the hubbub. And I’m not saying for just Yes voters necessarily! If there’s any No’s or undecideds who would like to come I think it’ll give them a nice break from the referendum hubbub! And for No voters to get to see what an idiot I am, they’re always saying it online anyway, they might as well see me saying it myself!
M – Straight from the horse’s mouth! One last thing I might ask you Tara – from what I remember, when the Repeal jumpers even came out first, you were one of the first people wearing them, have you found being a known figure in the referendum, not marked you out, but put you as a target?
T – I’ve become what I call a CP, a controversial person, through just related my story. Because I’ve never verbally abused anybody else. You know, there are some people who I’ve told to piss off maybe when they’ve been needling me and they’ve gone, “see she is abusive!”. And I’ll be like, “No, but I will say it again. PISS OFF”. Because you’re allowed when someone is attacking or needling you to turn around and stand up for yourself. If you were in a pub, you’d say, “I’m gonna move” and if they follow you, you’re allowed to ask the bartender, “is he going to leave or do I have to leave, but one of us has to not be in each other’s space”. So I think people are entitled to step up and say that to other people. Especially if it’s not going to be a productive or constructive conversation. It’s poisonous then! Being prominent has marked me out in two ways. 1, for abuse. I’m sort of able for that. If it’s someone in power, then I’ll call it out. If it’s just some eejit, I try to ignore it, because it doesn’t matter. They can think what they want to think. It doesn’t change my support network. I’ve got my wonderful husband, my mum, my sister, those are the people that count. What’s been trickier has been, those little controversies, generated by other people and abuse they’ve thrown my way have made me seem like less of a bookable performer. So I think there’ll have to be a period of reinvention, rest first of all, and then reminding people of what I actually do. I’m not a politician, I’m not an elected rep and I’m not defined by this one experience. I’m a performer, I’m a storyteller and I can’t wait to do more of that! We had one review for the show in the Irish Times, and he really got it which was faaaab. He just said, “this is not what you think”. And people always go, “I don’t know what I thought it would be, but it wasn’t what I thought”. So that’s really interesting to me as a theatre-maker! It’s great to confound expectation and have people leaving saying, “that was so much fun!”. And that’s the main compliment for me. That is gives people the space to think, and yes it has a political element in that the personal is political now, but they have a fun time! I always talk about the one guy who was at our Q&A when it was a work-in-progress at The Peacock. He was much older and his hand went straight up and I thought okay let’s get a hard one out of the way. But me being ageist and assuming, he went, “I thought that was going to be really declamatory and strident and shouty, but it was so much fun!” And I said, “A. Thank you! And I’m glad you had a good night, and B. now we need to talk about why the narrative is out that there that made you think it was going to be those things.”