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'Writing was a painful process, but my truth has set me free'

Gilly Campbell's play Father the Father was born out of her search and discovery of her father after over 45 years of not knowing him


Gilly Campbell with Abigail McGibbon, who stars in Father the Father

Gilly Campbell with Abigail McGibbon, who stars in Father the Father

Gilly Campbell with Abigail McGibbon, who stars in Father the Father

Award-winning Belfast actress Abigail McGibbon stars in this one-woman play developed by Prime Cut Productions and the MAC in Belfast. Gilly's deeply personal story can be watched online from home from April 8. Here, Gilly, who is Head of Community Arts & Education for Arts Council Northern Ireland, explains her desire to write about her life.

How does it feel to be working on a play you've written as opposed to reading another's script?

The rehearsal room has been a brilliant learning experience for me, as a new writer. The last time I was in a rehearsal room was many, many years ago when I was an actor. Prime Cut productions director, Emma Jordan, has helped me shape it, develop the story more theatrically. Watching her at work has been a real treat - Emma is an award-winning director who I've always had a professional and personal respect for.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

I've been working from home for a year now, sharing a dining table with my husband - which hasn't always been an easy task! Also, home schooling our nine-year-old daughter (rather badly!).

I think like other colleagues I've adapted well to working from home; in some ways I've created a better work-life balance as a full-time worker and mother, but I would be lying if I said that it hasn't been challenging. I also know how lucky that I have been able to work from home, the pandemic has been much harder for many others, particularly those who have lost their employment.

I'm very proud of the arts sector in NI for responding to the challenges of the pandemic, adapting, pivoting to learn new ways of making work for audiences and keeping freelance artists employed.

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The sector is one of the most impacted sectors, it's held up by mainly freelance workers, many of whom were already working in an industry that has weathered chronic underfunding compared to other parts of these islands.

How comfortable do you feel in sharing your story in Father the Father? Is it easier to have it based on your life?

It's not been comfortable. But then life isn't always comfortable, art isn't always comfortable. I know that the sharing of it is important for me, and I think it may connect and resonate with others, other families. The play deals with several themes - identity, religion, secrecy, shame. It's also a story of discovering who my father is, through a DNA test. There's a line in the play 'I found you in my spit'.

This is a story of this place, Northern Ireland, Ireland. My story is but one version, one journey of many children who were born to Irish women, single, unmarried women.

This story is about removing the shame from me, from my mother. My mother has no forgiveness to ask for. But maybe society should seek forgiveness from women like my mother. My mother is my hero. She is utterly amazing.

Was it more difficult or easier to write than you expected?

Difficult. This has been a painful process, but also one of joy, of clarity and resolution.

I've enjoyed being creative again. There's something in the saying the truth will set you free, my truth has set me free. This isn't a sentimental play. It's truthful.

What do you hope audiences will get out of watching?

Understanding and empathy for the experience of a child who feels a sense of shame about their existence and understanding about how silence can have such a corrosive impact. Understanding and empathy for my mother, for women. Women who have carried judgment, unfair and cruel judgment for decades.

It offers another perspective to the ongoing discussion around illegitimacy, unmarried mothers and babies and how the church and the state treated us. This play contributes to that discussion. The term illegitimacy and its usage is the ultimate discrimination of humanity.

What does Abigail bring to the role?

I always had Abby in mind when I was writing it. Abby is amazing to watch, she's an intelligent actor.

We were enormously lucky to get her, as she is in much demand as one of Ireland's leading contemporary actors, working across theatre, TV and film.

Father the Father will be available online from the Mac, April 8-17. Tickets from £8. See themaclive.com for more details

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