Boundaries: Respecting Authenticating Limits in the Production of a Play on Trans Marginality

Mac Cathmhaoill, Dónall (2022). Boundaries: Respecting Authenticating Limits in the Production of a Play on Trans Marginality. Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts, 16(1) pp. 111–117.



Presented as part of a mini-season of new Irish theatre at the Omnibus Theatre, London in 2018, Boundaries was developed through a project with the LGBTQ+ community in northern Ireland. The performance text was created from participants’ personal experiences of hate crimes. First performed in workshop settings, then as part of an immersive theatre event in Belfast in 2017, it was substantially rewritten for performance at the Omnibus, and offers an insight into the perils, pitfalls and possibilities of authorship in advocacy theatre. This paper examines the ways in which the theatre makers used the limiting potential of ‘authenticating conventions’ (Burns, 1972) to ensure fidelity to the accounts of the participants whose stories contributed to the performance text.

The work of theatre professionals in applied theatre projects has often used the single author model to create work that claims to speak for the participants in a project. However, this model is problematic. It operates on a model of altero-advocacy, where the trained professional speaks for the mute participant using a process that sociologist Sherry Arnstein (1969) characterises as ‘tokenism’, where participants are not in control of the material. Authorship is a variant form of authority: in the exercise of authorial power, the professional theatre worker exercises authority, both in the sense of control, and as the performance of expertise. However other approaches to authorship are possible.

With Boundaries the remounting of the play for different audiences created a crisis of authenticity. The logistical and aesthetic difficulties for a small northern Irish company playing to a London audience with a location-specific account of hate crimes against a trans woman created layers of difficulty. In response, the production sought to return to the limitations inherent in the original process, by rewriting and restructuring the production in collaboration with trans participants.

This article suggests that the purpose of advocacy demands a specific kind of fidelity to the authorial voice of the originator, noting the relation of ‘authenticity’ to ‘author’ and ‘authority’. In creating Boundaries, the stories of the original participants allowed for authorship of a text that advocated for the trans community. The limiting potential of authenticating conventions used for the London performances restored authority to that community, and thereby enabled the work to function effectively in the different rhetorical context examined here.

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