By Shannon Sickels (Yee)

13 February 2020 - 12:30

Shannon Sickels reading a book
'In trying to find community, we can become obsessed with being part of an in-crowd. But everybody is somebody else’s other. We can learn to accept that'. Photo ©

Redcap Productions 

As Northern Ireland celebrates its first same-sex marriage, playwright and activist Shannon Sickels (Yee) tells us about identity and its role in learning.

You use lots of words to describe yourself, including immigrant, queer and parent. Why do you make that choice?

Since my partner, Grainne and I had the first civil partnership in the UK in 2005, I've had to respond to the question ‘So, who are you?’

All those descriptions are related to my activism and sense of community. I use them as a shorthand way of introducing myself, especially in my work.

They don’t reveal my nuances. I’m actually a very private person.

Can it be limiting to use a single word, like immigrant or biracial, to describe a complex experience? 

Yes, but I think it’s a start. It helps me find safety and solidarity.

Humans are pack animals. We need a group to survive. Our daughter is almost four, and we see that in her socialisation with her young peers.

It’s hard to watch her navigate, but it’s a powerful reminder of who we are.

In trying to find community, we can become obsessed with being part of an in-crowd. But everybody is somebody else’s other. We can learn to accept that. 

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You’re an educator – what is the connection between identity and the way we learn?

We want to be seen, we want to be heard, we want to be safe and we want to be supported. That's why I feel strongly about diversity in storytelling.

If you don’t see yourself in the world around you, you’re invisible. That’s just a horrible place to be as a human being.

I also believe that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need (a pyramid created by the psychologist Abraham Maslow) illustrates what students need to perform to their fullest potential.

Fundamental needs like safety, food, shelter and sleep form the base of the pyramid. 

He argues that only when these basic needs are met, can we start to work to towards self-actualisation at the top of the pyramid. If a child feels safe in their teaching environment, they may feel safe and secure in their identity.

If they don’t see themselves reflected in their teaching environment, they will not have a sense of safety in which they can thrive.

Does an actor's sense of identity affect the way they interpret a character, or connect with an audience while on stage?

Performers are people with human emotions. Those emotions are the worst of us – the really horrible ugly bits. They are also the most beautiful, generous parts of who we are.

Good performers use those emotions and gain emotional responses from audiences.

The role of theatre and literature is to connect with your audience and take them on an emotional journey. Through that, you build connection.

Read Shannon's essay Tectonic Plates and Pressure Cookers in the new publication Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined

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