BEHIND THE BIOGRAPHY – a personal essay
My induction into the Irish theatre began in Munich, West Germany, in March 1984. I had been three years working in a car factory, blissfully unaware that there existed an active expatriate Irish community in the city. A group of them ran an informal cultural project. They hosted touring musicians from home, ran pub trad sessions and – each St. Patrick’s Day – presented a drama from the Irish repertoire. I received an introduction and joined the troupe as prompter. within weeks I was not so much invited as ordered to direct a play. They knew something that I still did not: that there was something productive I could maybe do. And so began a career…
Back home later that year, I entered Trinity College as a mature student where I became active in the drama and modern languages societies and took every academic Theatre Studies option available. I won a scholarship to return to Germany, to the Freie Universitaet Berlin, where I researched modern interpretations of classic German dramas while training part-time in dance performance. I began work on a translation of Hauptmann’s ‘The Weavers’ which was finally produced ten years later. Somewhere in there I began directing plays in German at Trinity College and met Joe O’Byrne who was likewise directing German language drama at UCD, and over a beer at a party we decided to form a professional theatre troupe.
And so I ran away from college shortly before graduating to join my own company. It was called Co-Motion and within three years it had become a minor legend in Dublin, presenting a diverse programme of plays, mainly translated German Expressionist works and cabaret-style performances, in cafes, galleries and eventually the Project Arts Centre. Joe began writing his own plays, grand spectacles drawing from the physical and visual traditions of Central Europe. I acted and produced, and picked up a couple of good reviews for my comic performances. Our work was quite political, but above all, under Joe’s direction it was robustly physical. We made a lot of noise and – although we did not know it at the time – we influenced the work of a number of young writers and directors emerging just behind us.
It was the late 1980s, a time of remarkable social and political ferment. I spent two years in the Socialist Workers’ Movement, contributing occasionally to their newspaper, standing in solidarity on picket lines for striking college cleaners and glassblowers, and speaking out at earnest if poorly-attended meetings about the British miners, the Iran-Iraq War, the Dunnes Stores strike and other class issues of the day. In 1989 I left SWM to pursue more immediate ‘reformist’ protest activism. I joined with theatre friends Charlie O’Neill, Donal O’Kelly, film-makers Breda Walsh, Pat Murphy and ultimately hundreds of others
to form the artists’ wing of The Miscarriages of Justice Campaign. We joined human rights activists, trade unionists and community groups campaigning for the release of Irish and British prisoners wrongfully imprisoned on trumped-up terrorism charges. We created huge, vivid street theatre spectacles, altering the hitherto dull nature of street demonstrations and contributing to a groundswell that culminated in the release of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, and the exoneration of the Maguire Family, Nicky Kelly and others. For a year I was coordinator of the overall campaign group and I learned the value of collaboration with so-called ‘non-artists’. One highlight of that year was addressing a group of British parliamentarians at Westminster along with fellow-campaigners, as guests of a courteous and knowledgeable young MP called Jeremy Corbyn.
I was also drawn into the beginnings of arts policy advoacy in Ireland and was deeply involved in the Independent Theatre Association, a brief precursor of the more sophisticated Theatre Forum of later years. In 1990 I took up a job at City Arts Centre. I became Theatre Programmer, and for five fabulous years I had the privilege of running one of the most influential theatre development crucibles in Europe. Almost every director and playwright of note to have emerged in the second wave of independent theatre-making in Ireland during the 1990s, as well as scores of now-famous actors, made their professional debuts in the intimate confines of the 65-seater studio in the old ships’ chandlers premises on City Quay. City Arts ironically was never intended as an incubation space for professional theatre. It was first and foremost a community arts centre. But along with director Sandy Fitzgerald, gallery manager Tom Weir and other key staff members, we argued that allowing the spaces to be used equally and simultaneously for participatory local arts, disability arts and laboratory professional practice, we might help break down old and unhelpful barriers that saw one kind of creative process as superior or more worthy than another. In small ways, we persuaded emerging arts graduates to look beyond the academic and institutional limits and see how their work might connect with the realities of the inner-city, the suburbs and the wider society in which they were about to practice.
I pursued a few freelance projects during my City Arts Centre years, most enjoyable being directing the Dublin Disability Pride Parade. I began to speak out at arts conferences and write articles, one in particular in response to what I thought an isolationist position that had been adopted by the Abbey Theatre. Out of the blue, I received an invitation from the Arts Council to play an active part in the Review of Theatre in Ireland 1995-96, a year-long undertaking that would research and advise upon the diverse ways and places in which theatre in Ireland was now being made. From this flowed a new Arts Council policy that seemed to endorse and secure the role of independent theatre-making, children’s theatre, T.I.E, youth and community arts and so on, complementing the work of the Abbey, Gate and other institutions.
I freelanced around for a short while and then went to the Director of the Droichead Arts Centre, Paul O’Hanrahan with a proposal to research and in due course establish a professional, community-engaged theatre company in the large town of Drogheda in the border county of Louth. Paul somehow raised £1000 for my project research and from that, for a second time in my life, I formed an independent theatre company that would come in time to make a difference. Upstate Theatre Project was incorporated in 1997 by a Board of Directors comprising local activists and theatre people from Northern Ireland and the Republic. I was appointed Artistic Director. Declan Mallon became Community and Education Officer. Mary Scally was General Manager and we set out to reinvent the regional theatre model.
I finally had a platform to write and direct for the stage, not in the disconnected way I might have done had I gone straight from school to the arts, but rather in a collaborative approach. From the outset we worked with community groups, devising professional actors, designers and others committed, as I guess I was, to ideals of justice, peace, equality and so on. The timing was perfect. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement heralded the beginning of a new post-conflict era, and the challenges of peace-making became a key theme in our work. I hail originally from Monaghan. The border and the Troubles in Northern Ireland had haunted me personally and cast shadows over my home community all my life. Here was real work to be done.
My first full-length stage play ‘Hades’ was set in a mythical border town in the days and months following the signing of the Belfast Agreement. It won a Stewart Parker Award. ‘Hades’ toured all over Ireland culminating in a historic performance at the OMAC in Belfast on the first anniversary of the Agreement, as local and world politicians down the street wrestled with the collapsing peace process. It was later seen in Brussels. My follow-up play ‘Epic’ also toured North and South and transferred to Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. I dusted down and directed my own translation of Hauptmann’s blockbuster classic of uprising and aftermath, ‘The Weavers’; and also a version of ‘Macbeth’ that featured a groovy remote control spotlamp in the role of a British Army helicopter training its futile light beam from on high on the murder of Banquo. Ex-Waterboys composer Colin Blakey was a regular collaborator and artist Maureen Finn designed our costumes, earning an Irish Times Award nomination for her work.
At the same time, Declan Mallon and I along with other hired-in artists worked year-round with community drama groups that we had helped to form, along the border counties, under the Crossover Theatre banner. And we pioneered new ways for existing community groups to create vivid dramas of their own invention, some directly political, but often simply concerned with liberating creativity and fostering community cohesion. Among these was an acclaimed work called ‘Zoo Station’, developed with Termonfeckin Macra, a rural organisation, which became the first ever such community play to feature on the Dublin Fringe programme.
In the mid-2000s we were joined by artist and manager Paul Hayes who brought new ideas and energy to our work. We had turned our attention to intercultural work, responding to the radically changing demographic of the town and region, and ‘Journey from Babel’ stands as a particular highlight. This was a promenade performance in a disused garment warehouse at Drogheda Port, tracing the history of migration, devised and performed by fifteen local residents of eight nationalities. The project became the subject of an academic study by Dr. Charlotte McIvor of NUI Galway. In the meantime, the company had been selected as a field partner by New York University for its annual Applied and Community-Engaged Theater programme at Trinity College. Through all these years, the Arts Council part-funded the company’s work, matched by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. The Arts Council however was less convinced than the universities, the European Union or the borderlands communities themselves of the value of our work, and in 2008 it suddenly reduced our funding following one problematic production.
‘At Peace’, a tri-lingual drama developed with members of the Nigerian and Latvian communities in counties Louth and Dublin, and with a professional cast drawn from Lagos, London, Riga and Dublin, failed to please the critics at the 2007 Dublin Fringe Festival. It was under-rehearsed, beset by internal tensions and – doubtless – under-written. The subsequent public spat with the Arts Council was unseemly and hurtful. We appealed their decision to reduce our grant, won the appeal chaired by an independent expert, but were still refused a restoration of the funds. But that same year the economy collapsed and dozens of our fellow companies around the country had their funding radically reduced also – or cut completely. The independent theatre movement as we had known it, fought for it and secured with policy and funding caved in almost overnight. It was devastating.
I took some time out to reflect and pursued a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Trinity College, retaining a part-time role with Upstate but preparing the company and myself for an amicable split which came in 2010 after 13 great years. Re-designated following talks with the Arts Council as a Participatory Arts organisation – but no longer a producing theatre company – Upstate has continued to survive and innovate under Declan Mallon’s direction.
And I entered the curious wilderness of the unsubsidised freelance arts for the first time in 25 years. It took a while to adjust. I gained exciting employment initially, spending two consecutive Winter semesters as Creative Director on the Applied Film, Writing and Performance course at NUI Galway until it was discontinued. I began a novel, only recently completed and now doing the rounds of publishers, and I finished out my time on a long-term public art project I had already begun with Iontas Arts Centre in County Monaghan. But then in 2012, I arrived home one day and found no job offers, nothing in the post from the Arts Council but rejection notes from the prize-giving schemes that were its new substitute for sustainable funding, and a heap of debt.
I wrote a short play for solo performance based on James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, mainly to keep sane. My intention was to find an actor to play it. I would direct the work. But one morning I came to the curious view that I should perform it myself. I had not stood on a stage for 22 years, but was excited and magnetised by the idea of performing Joyce. With help from actor/stage manager Bern Deegan and director Gerard Lee as well as dozens of old friends who came out in support, ‘The Dubliners Dilemma’ took off. I self-produced it, forming yet another theatre company, Bachelors Walk, this time with zero subsidy. The show has toured to almost every major venue in Ireland, played literary and arts festivals at home as well as overseas in Moscow and Oslo. Four years on, I still perform it occasionally by invitation. Adapting and performing Joyce helped me to fall in love again with the theatre; to see that while art may be hindered or helped, it is not defined by funders or policy-makers but rather by artists and their relationships with the public.
Over the past few years, I have been engaged on a variety of freelance projects – some marvelous and stimulating, some quirky and ‘left-field’. A highlight was The Road to the Battle project with Louth Craftmark, a devised drama with an intercultural community cast, responding to the contested history of the Battle of the Boyne. Another was a public art development process in the rural district of Killesher/Florencecourt in County Fermanagh. I also directed the European premiere of The Hijabi Monolgues for Axis Ballymun, working closely with producer Niamh Ní Chonchubair, which brought me into contact with the growing Muslim community in Ireland. These freelance opportunities have kept me connected to communities and the collaborative practice that is a key part of my preferred way of working.
But I like to temper my freelance and community-engaged work with artistic projects that derive from my own imagination and compulsions. In 2012 I bought and read a tattered second-hand book at Balrothery flea market. It was written in 1937 by an author I had largely overlooked, about a political figure I had always viewed as the figurehead of a political tendency for which I had little sympathy. Something about the book seized me, compelled me to reconsider my received understandings, caused me to think deeply once again about violence, conflict and reparation – and in 2014 I began working on a new play, ‘The Big Fellow’, based on Frank O’Connor’s biography of Michael Collins.
In 2015 I reconnected with Joe O’Byrne and we formed Co-Motion Media, an echo of the original 1980s company but naturally different in outlook. It is a supportive platform to encourage artists to pursue their innovative projects in a still largely unfunded environment. Joe’s plays ‘The Rising’, ‘The Aran Islands’ (after Synge) and ‘Nighttown’ (Joyce) were produced in 2015-16. And then, in May 2016, in a co-production with Drogheda Arts Festival, I directed the premiere of ‘The Big Fellow’. It has played to excellent critical notices and healthy houses on its first tour and returns for a full national tour in 2017. As well as the two terrific actors Gerard Adlum and Cillian O Gairbhi and lighting designer Cillian McNamara, the team included my old collaborative partners from the glory days of Upstate, Colin Blakey and Maureen Finn.
Producing your own work without either subsidy or a cohesive national infrastructure is stressful, but the imperative to make theatre, to collaborate with excellent artists, to engage with diverse publics and with the themes of our times and of history, does not stop because of failed policy priorities and fiscal rectitude. A platform of peers is helpful, but the workload and the economic anxiety of making a full-scale show, self-producing it, self-designing it, building a set, driving through the night from tour venues to your home and starting out again the next morning, is unsustainable. Two guys end up doing the work that teams of seven or eight did through most of our careers. It is a strange vocation, this theatre-making, this compulsion to engage with society, to connect with community to be part of change through the performing arts. But it is the only profession, in different variations, that I have known since leaving the BMW assembly line in the early 1980s. The applause, the laughter, the deep listening, the animated post show conversations all around the country provide reassurance when money is low. And things are changing again gradually, as political pressure to reinstate and reorganise arts funding intensifies. For now, there is work to be done and we get on with it.