A conversation between Watergate Theatre Director Joanna Cunningham and Monkeyshine Theatre Company (Artists in Residence at the Watergate) founder and director Kareen Pennefather and co-director Jim Jobson on the importance of the relationship between
professional artists and their local funded arts centre. Monkeyshine was founded in 1999.
My first introduction to Kilkenny based professional theatre company, Monkeyshine, was a meeting with Kareen Pennefather and Jim Jobson at the Watergate Theatre in early 2018. Kareen and Jim were amongst a number of Kilkenny based professional theatre
artists who wished to grow a relationship with their local funded arts centre. This relationship is a crucial collaboration in the support of professional theatre makers. During this meeting I was immediately struck by their gentle dynamism and innovative,
creative thinking style. The seeds of partnership were sown and I was energised by the prospect of the Watergate’s involvement in this work which was ground breaking in both the literal and figurative senses. I was struck by how Monkeyshine’s work
tapped into unconscious and conscious human experience and therefore evolution and discovery. This conversation focuses on how Monkeyshine’s work has developed over the past years as well as how their local funded arts centre has supported this.
Joanna: How has Monkeyshine’s work lead you into an
exploration of the human relationship with the natural world, and essentially,
what it is to be a human being in an interconnected ecological system?
Kareen & Jim: We became fascinated by the importance of connection for the health and wellbeing of all beings. As artists and theatre makers we feel we have an important role to play in creating space for exploration, expression and celebration,
where we can all build deeper connection with ourselves, with each other and with our planet.
Kareen: My roots are firmly in rural life and so are Jim’s who grew up in the Wicklow mountains. I grew up in the remote north Pennines in England so we share a passion for nature. We try to bring together writers, artists, musicians, performers
and designers who also have skills and knowledge in farming, organic gardening, geology, anthropology and nature connection education. This makes for a lively and exciting creative process which often takes us in unexpected directions.
Joanna: In 2020 Monkeyshine Theatre Company
embarked upon a project called Story in
Our Time, which explored the role story plays in connecting human beings
with the natural world. Through Story in
Our Time you explored the roots of story, asking, ‘what is story? what is
the human relationship to story? Can you tell us about how you believe
stories limit us and how can they support us to grow and flourish?
Kareen: The first lockdown happened just a couple of months into the first Story project and so our plans had to radically change. We weren’t able to do the participatory explorations and investigations we had hoped to. However, as everything
came to a standstill and people began to notice the natural world in ways they hadn’t for a long time, we saw the opportunity to explore a deeper and perhaps more spiritual relationship with story. We created, Myth Maker, a piece inspired
by the ancestral roots of story and began to realize the important role that ritual and myth have always played in the process of people’s understanding of themselves and their relationship to our world. We invited a group of artists and musicians
to join us in exploring the question, ‘What story is
the Earth telling you?’ Through this we began to dive into the world of deep ecology and indigenous thinking.
We asked questions like, ‘Could story be the key to humanity rebuilding a healthy relationship with the earth?’ we asked people to consider not just the narrative stories that we tell and are told but the spiralling, circling stories that we live within
and live within us.
Joanna: Like any important art the
questions that you [Monkeyshine] were drawn to explore may have existed in the
collective unconscious. The artist often discovers this kind of shared wondering
before others do and present it in their work. How do you feel asking these
shared questions through art helps to bridge the unconscious to the conscious
for the onlooker, participant or audience?
Jim: In our second year  of partnership with you at the Watergate our energy began to turn outward. We wanted to collaborate with our fellow human beings – or audience/participants - as we continued our journey into story and the impact it
can have on our relationship with the earth. We are passionate about healing the disconnect between humans and the earth. We are aware that as artists we can’t change the world alone, but we believe that art can help release us all from numbness and
stagnation. Art can open up opportunities for flow and connection and add energy and hope to the worldwide movement towards positive change in the spirit of flow and connection.
Joanna: Onwards to 2022 - Monkeyshine will take their
work a step further with a project entitled More
Than Human. This will again be supported through a year-long residency with
us at the Watergate Theatre. You will bring together artists, ecologists,
researchers, children, adults and woodland to explore how we might live as
equals with the more than human beings that we share our planet with. Can you
tell us a little more about your plans?
Kareen: Our collaboration with a woodland in Kilkenny is at the centre of this work. We will work under the mentorship of renowned author and ecologist Dr Stephan Harding, and will build a collaborative creative relationship with the beings that
make up the woodland. We will open our minds to the possibilities of a shift in paradigm towards that of an animate Earth where we as human beings are not separate from nature but play an equally important role to our fellow beings, as part of our
larger ‘earth body’.
Joanna: This work brings up some big questions
about the shape of society and culture. How will you be exploring these
Jim: We will work with children in Kilkenny and Tallaght under the mentorship of Hamburg based artist and cultural researcher Dr Sibylle Peters whose work has inspired us for many years and like her, we will be bringing artists, scientists and
children together to work as equals to playfully explore, question and challenging our perception of how we relate to our fellow beings.
The project will itself, be part of a piece of research led by T.U Dublin and The Civic, Tallaght exploring the agency of the child within the artistic process.
Joanna: 2022 marks Monkeyshine’s third year of residency
with Watergate Theatre. How has this relationship impacted on your work?
Kareen & Jim: As our local funded arts centre our relationship with the Watergate is very important to us. It has provided us not only with space to explore, test and present our work but crucially with support - including financial - and guidance
as we have navigated our way through the global pandemic and of course to follow our artistic and creative instincts.
The Watergate's willingness to support our work beyond the walls of the theatre has allowed us to expand our practice and reach. Our company has become both digitally, physically and geographically more agile and this has opened up many new creative possibilities.
This year we will be setting out with The Nomad, our mobile living arts space, inviting people to participate in our work.
More Than Human is supported by The Watergate Theatre, The Civic Theatre, The Butler Gallery and UCD. Ongoing relationships with each of these organisations provide an important anchor point for Monkeyshine to reach out into the community, supporting
us to build relationships and reach a wider and more diverse audience.
Watergate Theatre is funded by Kilkenny County Council
and the Arts Council of Ireland.