Counter Culture

According to a study undertaken by One4All, three quarters of people spend €1,000 on clothes and accessories each year. The study also revealed that 39% of people shop for new clothes and accessories once a month, whilst one fifth of people are shopping ever week.

Spending this much time in department stores and retail outlets, it wouldn’t be considered alien for relationships to develop between the customer and the sales assistant but how often do you stop to have a brief conversation with the person behind the till? Do you know their name? Would you be able to recognise them outside of their uniform?

The role of the shop assistant can be a thankless one. Behind the facade of the Cheshire cat grin, you can often feel invisible whilst simultaneously trying to assist difficult customers and demanding management.

This week, the exceptionally talented Katie O’Kelly takes to The Axis stage to explore the darker side of the retail domain in her brilliant play ‘Counter Culture’. I had the great fortune of speaking with Katie about her own experiences of working in retail and the influence of the 1913 Lockout in her performance.

How did you first get involved in theatre?

My dad, Donal O’Kelly, is an actor and a playwright so I’ve grown up with theatre and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been around a stage or a set. In a strange series of events, my Dad is the director for ‘Counter Culture’ too, but when I was younger I went to an amazing drama school, Ann Kavanagh’s Drama Class and really got the bug for it from there.

After the Leaving Cert, when it came to CAO applications, drama was the one area which I seemed to really enjoy doing so I thought I’d give it a go and I was accepted into Drama and Theatre Studies in Trinity which was brilliant and as part of that course, I spent the third year of my degree studying in Goldsmith’s College in London. Goldsmith’s was much more physical approach to learning in terms of course content whereas Trinity was very much theoretical-based.

When you were choosing to explore theatre as a career, did you feel any pressure or that you had a certain reputation to live up to due to the fact that your father was already established as both a playwright and an actor in the same field?

It was scary, I had a big shadow to fill but because of my Dad’s involvement in theatre, I never saw it through rose-tinted glasses. I had no aspirations that as soon as I would leave college I would see my name in lights, I knew the challenges of the career, but I loved it and really wanted to pursue it and it’s been amazing so far.

Has working with your dad in a professional capacity altered your relationship?

At the very beginning, we had to decide – particularly because he was directing me – to leave the personal elements of our relationship at the door and be entirely professional as the most important thing is making the show the best that it can be. It did help too as we both understood each other so well, throughout the process we had an almost shorthand way of communicating that the other could decipher which really brought a lot to the process.

Where did the drive come from to write such a focused piece about the retail industry?

A year ago, I found a picture of my granny when she was on strike, standing outside of Clery’s on O’Connell Street in 1983. When I was younger, I worked in retail myself along with many of my friends and have always wanted to write a play about that experience, the crazy customers who come in asking mad questions and the challenges of the work. However, I really wanted the play to be about something so when I found this photo of my granny, it was something that I never really knew about my granny and really gave me a new angle to explore for the play.

The piece is structured around four characters, without giving too much away; could you give me an insight into each of them?

The main character Bridie is modeled mostly on my granny; she’s 64 years old and retiring on the day which the play is set (The play spans one day in the department store). Then there’s her granddaughter Gemma, who is heavily pregnant and is sent to work within the store’s soft furnishings department – management no longer believe she’s able to pull off the costumes and clothes that’s needed to sell ladieswear. Gemma is not based on me – I promise!

The third character is Simon; he’s a ladder-climbing, assistant manager who is trying to implement zero-hour contracts, which are being brought in by the store’s senior management on the day the play is set. Finally, there’s Jonathan who is a happy-go-lucky Dublin security guard. His character offers a light-release from the tensions of the play and the chaos that ensues when the zero-hour contracts are introduced. I wrote the play last year, at the time of when these zero-hour contracts were first implemented in Ireland last year and I wanted to discuss the difficulties these conditions and legalities had on employees, particularly because last year was the centenary of the Dublin Lockout.  

The statue of Jim Larkin has a physical presence in the piece but was it important to you that he was referenced within the play?

When I visited Clery’s, as research for the play, one of the things that struck me was Jim Larkin’s statue shadowing the building just outside the door and thought it would be interesting to transform the statue into a character of sorts, like Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ in style, watching the mayhem unfurling within the department store. I must mention that in the play, the store Mackens is fictional but inspired by Clery’s.

How does the retail domain which you’ve constructed for Counter Culture compare to the real one?

The play takes the hierarchical structures found within your typical department store and uses them for dramatic effect. In a sense, I wanted to create a modern fairytale with almost magical characters coming on and off stages and whilst the play is set over one day in the department store, the audience are offered breaks in the action with training video excerpts which I remember very vividly from working in retail. In my day, they were over-heightened American videos reminding you of titbits such as ‘Always fluff and fold’ and ‘Always smile’ – lots of nonsense but I wanted to incorporate that part of my retail experience into the piece too. 

Delving into the darker side of retail, behind the façade of the cash desk smiles, has creating and performing this piece altered your customer experience of retail?

It has actually, you notice far more – especially when you realise that most of the people working in these shops are the lowest paid workers and they’re now being asked to take on these new contracts that offer them so little job security. It’s so unfair that these are the people who have to bear the brunt of the economic downturn. Plus, you often see some of these people working on the shop floors having a tough time, either from a challenging customer or management and working on this play really affected how I reacted to those behind the tills or stocking shelves. You see retail in a whole new light!

What is the one talking point you want to emerge from ‘Counter Culture’?

I would love for people to emerge from the performance talking about the zero-hour contracts and to have them keep in mind that standing up for workers’ rights is not something that belongs in 1913 but is just as relevant today and we need action to change that. 

You can read more about ‘Counter Culture’ at The Axis here whilst tickets are available for the two performances of June 12th and 13th here. This is one piece of theatre you should definitely in 2014.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.