Last night, when I heard Gerry Morgan had died, I could find no suitable words and so I kept away from Facebook. Instead, I went onto YouTube to search for a version of “Mary from Dungloe” that might capture the haunting anguish of actor Niall Murray’s rendering, in Gerry’s debut play “Farewell to Kind Relations” – an event seared in my memory. I couldn’t find one. There are about 100 versions – most pretty awful. Christy Moore does a nice opening verse on a Late Late Show special, but then he is joined onstage by Daniel O’Donnell, and – no disrespect – but it sort of goes downhill from there. Gerry would have loved the irony of my dilemma. As a party piece, he did a wonderful impression of Daniel. He even wrote a song to his beloved mother and performed it in perfect Daniel style.
That was back when we were all young. He was my great companion. We went separate directions in more recent years but kept in touch from time to time in the modern way, by liking or responding to one another’s Facebook posts: he from Carlow; me up here in the North East. I enjoyed his posts: they were the same mix of intelligent mischief and righteous outrage that made him so charming as a young, innovative theatre artist – years ahead of his time. He had a fierce, adult passion for justice. But he had the impish grin of a ten-year old Ballyfermot boy.
He was a walking contradiction. He was the original of the species when it came to devising and improvising in the theatre workshop and on the stage, but he was the least “arty” person I ever met in an arthouse. He could have become a leading theatre director, but he had zero interest in fame or status or hierarchies. He made theatre because he cared about people and their stories.
I was in my first few months of a five-year term at City Arts Centre when I met him. My job, incongruously then, was as Enterprise Officer – allegedly overseeing business aspects of a community arts centre. I only later became theatre programmer. It was 1990-91, and the tiny studio venue was just opened. It was managed by the wonderful Noel McHale who knew everything you could possibly know about the live music scene but, by his own admission, almost nothing at all about theatre. Noel would ask me for advice occasionally, when groups came to hire the space. One day he told me he had a proposal in but didn’t want to waste my time with it. “There is no script; they’ve done nothing before – other than bits in college; there are no actors yet. There’s just a few notes about the Famine”. I had a look. A spiral bound five-page document with a crude drawing of a ship on the front. A proposal to find ten willing actors to research the darkest ancestral pain of our people and come up with their own stories which Gerry Morgan – abetted by his artistic pal Conall O’Connor and co-director Declan Drohan – would weave into an immersive drama. Some deep instinct was stirred. “Look. Maybe we should take a chance,” I suggested, and to Noel’s credit, he did. It was a decision which would change my life in more ways than I could have imagined.
The show, “Farewell to Kind Relations” was terrific. The audience sat on tea chests, as though trapped in the hold of the coffin ship of dreams which he and his collective of largely unknown young actors created. They called themselves Galloping Cat. They were not the first company in Ireland or elsewhere to devise a historical drama; they were not the first to blend monologue and movement; they were not the first to wear their political message on their sleeve. But there was something unique and empowering in the blend. It may have been Gerry’s utter absence of ego and vanity. He was an exceptional facilitating director. He was much more concerned that this should be the actors’ recall of the ancestral story than that it be his. He knew that this act of trust would yield a rich, collective tale – a true communal memorialising and dissection of a communal disaster. In 1990, nobody else was doing this, quite in this way. And the trust was two-way. The actors loved Gerry and gave of their best.
And what actors; what artists in the making! Others will write, I hope, about Galloping Cat’s (and later Theatre of Joy’s) continuing ouvre – plays concerning Cromwell; the Bible; the Shoah; and about the great work they did in association with aFri- Action from Ireland – animating tribal walking paths that were used by Irish famine refugees in different parts of the country, with primal outdoor theatre. And I am sure others will write of Gerry’s more recent career as an influential college teacher and supporter of the arts in Carlow. But what particularly strikes me is just who those actors were, that were drawn in the early 1990s to this small, quiet man’s vision and invitation. Some have gone on to international TV, theatre and film fame; others to campaigning work; others to theatre teaching and facilitating. There are 15-year olds in youth theatres today who are learning techniques and values from facilitators who in turn were trained by facilitators whose first theatre gigs were with Gerry Morgan. His influence is everywhere. I know that my own work draws from things I learned from watching, arguing with and listening to Gerry Morgan. He joined our team at City Arts Centre and we worked together closely and happily for four years.
I befriended many of the Galloping Cat actors and in due course married one of them, Sharon Cromwell. Gerry Morgan was groomsman at our wedding. Sharon is one of the many people who have acknowledged that their own paths – in Sharon’s case as Artistic Director for many years of Droichead Youth Theatre – might have been very different had they not learned from Gerry Morgan. He brought care, compassion and rare humility to bear on his great gift for directing theatre. His influence continues to extend far and down the generations. My thoughts are with his mother Ena and daughter Abaigéal, both of whom he held dear. I hope it may comfort them that he changed our world for the better.
The Arts Council of Ireland /An Chomhairle Ealaíonn published a useful report and set of guiding principles yesterday, Feb 11th 2020, on the matter of the remuneration of artists. A link to the report can be found at the end of this short essay. This is a set of personal reflections on livelihood, politics, the value of networks and the need to take care of ourselves and one another.
Maybe because they value their lives, nobody has offered to pay me in the currency of ‘exposure’ for a long time. I have been lucky and happy this past two years, (after 8 years of struggle before that), to have had a range of artistic projects on the go, from which I earn a modest living: some self-started (solo shows etc), others by invitation, through tendering or awards won; some funded, some self-sufficient; some vividly exciting, some less exciting – gigs to pay the mortgage etc – but all enriching once I got stuck in.
Next year might be barren again – that’s the way this business can be and it is vital as an individual artist to have strategies to engage with this reality. One is to be active and articulate in the politics of arts investment – read and act upon the National Campaign for the Arts manifesto; read blogs by John O’Brien and others who are proposing solutions as well as pointing out the problems; attend election arts hustings, network meetings of colleagues etc.; hang around afterwards to chat; have no truck with entities who think to engage you without proper payment; learn how to influence parliamentary decision-making; protest … all of these.
And where you might consciously volunteer to work for free or for your base expenses (e.g. in a young cooperative or at a showcase), let it be your call with a clear goal and timeline that you have worked through, and absolute transparency from those engaging or collaborating with you. For instance, I will quite happily take part in a few weeks, for the third time, in the Monaghan Arts Network Showcase, where professional and non-professional artists gather monthly with the public, to listen, share, promote and converse about the value of art in a rural county. I know that arising from this, when I come to present my new James Joyce solo show in September at the Garage Theatre, there will be an informed and keen audience for it. I know too, that – far from the cliché of indifference, there are swathes of people in my stomping grounds of Monaghan, Louth and Fingal (and I am sure many other regions) who care a great deal about art. I derive joy from meeting them and performing with and among them in mutually respectful circumstances – like trad musicians who meet every now and again for a session.
I acknowledge that not every artist can work as I have happily done for most of my career – as a jack-of-all-trades ‘public artist’, equally at ease engaging with communities, dropping in and out of schools, working collaboratively with top professionals on productions, writing my own stuff, performing solo shows and so on. Some phenomenal actors I know and respect will only act, and will act only within professional theatre and film/TV settings; some opera singers will perfect their craft and only sing on the top stages; some composers need to be left alone to compose. Others – some happily, some unhappily – will pursue what visual artist Jesse Jones eloquently described, in her stirring speech at the Arts Council report launch yesterday, as a “side hustle” – a part-time job to keep meals on the table. All are part of the mosaic of Irish artistic and cultural life and should have guaranteed opportunities to thrive, pay the rent and, if they so wish, raise families, while pursuing their art and enriching the nation. Future arts provision, from implementing copyright legislation to direct state investment (call it funding if you prefer) needs to take constant cognisance of this imperative.
The new Arts Council principles are a step in the right direction but only a beginning. They address the days you will be working. That’s a good thing. They don’t – and cannot – solve the bigger issues of livelihood, rent exploitation, the decline in employment protection in the world generally, and so on.
And that leads me to another observation: until the world changes for the better, beyond what seems possible right now – there WILL be times and situations where even the finest artists will be without work, stressed with doubt and fear. I personally know actors and directors of the highest calibre who have not had respectable work opportunities for a long time. The destruction of the independent theatre sector by the Arts Council in 2010 was part of this for many of my best friends; the changing emphasis in the Abbey Theatre has impacted on others; the decline in film production – and so on. So personal strategies to face up to societal and industry changes do matter. This is not to say, “get over it” or “get on with it” – I have railed and protested about the disastrous disinvestment in independent theatre consistently since it occurred. Protest and political action, however, are a slow game; we will not change the world overnight. And so I am inclined to ask, what can we do personally to stay strong? Activism is one strategy: it does create community, if we gather to talk and campaign together. And community is a good thing.
Activism …. and whatever else it takes. In your life, in my life; in your home, in my home. Creative artists need to use their creativity to survive, protect their families and also protect one another, while never losing sight of the imperative to make art nor losing sight of their own immense (if under-valued) place in a functioning society. I am talking here about our mental health; I am talking about information-sharing and solidarity. I have been to dark and low places over the past decade. I did not necessarily advertise the fact at the time: one doesn’t. I had supports, from family, colleagues and mentors. I had my own mantras and philosophies. Like many of my enduring friends, I am still here – and it is going well for me, for now.
If anyone I know – or don’t yet know but maybe should – is on that rock or in that hard place where it is not going so well, I would be delighted any time to chat.
I have not been shy to criticise The Arts Council over the past eight years for certain flawed and damaging policy decisions it foisted upon the arts sector in the months and years following the banking collapse. So I am happy now to acknowledge some positive changes.
The new ‘Arts Grants’ scheme, following on from the ‘Strategic Funding’ programme recently rolled out, will help to restore structure and common sense to the financing of the performing arts in Ireland (and other art forms that I know less about).
Arts organisations, as well as individuals proposing collaborative approaches, can apply for funding for programmes of work over 18 months whereas hitherto unfunded bodies could apply only for a single project. And unlike under the ‘Strategic Funding’ strand, there are no requirements to have been the recipient of a recent Arts Council award in order to apply.
In other good news, once off project funding will continue to be offered, running alongside the new Arts Grants. You may apply under one strand or the other, but not both.
What this means is that those artists who have shied away (or turned away in distaste) from the unseemly competitive aspect of the once-off awards can now propose longer, slow-burn, multi-faceted programmes. In short, companies can behave as companies naturally incline to do and hope to be financially supported. They can plan, say two or three shows over an eighteen month period while developing another in the laboratory or commissioning a writer or engaging in some way with a community. They can also anticipate a modest contribution to the overheads of running an active organisation.
Meanwhile, individuals and small collectives that genuinely prefer to meet up for single projects and then scatter again can still apply for Project Awards. Gradually some beneficiaries under both these strands may choose to pitch for Strategic Funding – and so on. A degree of order and progression and continuity is restored.
Of course it is not a simple business. As lucidly explained by Arts Council staff at clinics in Dublin and Cork this week, the application process for Arts Grants is arduous and complex. You don’t just write your three good ideas on a page and sign your name. The density of form-filling, of partner-searching, tax clearance requirements, financial information, verification of additional funding and so on, simply to apply, will deter many individual artists or younger ensembles without the requisite adminstration training and resources. I would safely speculate that a solid proposal could involve the equivalent of five to seven working days on the part of an applicant – with the deadline only six weeks away. That’s five to seven days without any pay (you cannot pay yourself retrospectively even if successful and you certainly cannot if you lose out); five to seven days you will never get back. If you were to hire someone to do the work, even at cut down ‘arts consultancy’ rates, you would need to invest €1000 – 2000. What unfunded artist or ensemble has that to gamble?
Also, the Arts Grants category, like every other Arts Council scheme, by its nature is still highly competitive and exclusive. There will be more applicants than awards, more money sought than is available. It was ever thus and it shall continue to be thus for as long as Ireland remains bottom of the European league in the matter of percentage GDP and GNP invested in culture. To be fair, however, that anomaly is not of the Arts Council’s making – it is a broader political issue. The Council can only work with what it is allocated. My frustration with the Council over recent years has not been because of the level of funding it distributes: I know the blame for that lies elsewhere. It’s been to do with how the Council chose to approach its national investment responsibilities.
For all the drawbacks, I think that this new scheme begins to address a gaping hole that has existed since the cuts of 2009. That fissure has been very problematic for promising young artists at the point of wanting to make serious career choices. Into that crevice also have fallen quite a few mid-career and late-career artists who were unceremoniously cut out in the thoughtless rationalisation of viable companies seven and eight years ago. Some disappeared. Others have fought to survive, making art in new and different and usually unsatisfactory circumstances. Some of these may dare now once again place trust in a system that can recognise quality, respond to the real way in which artists work and provide space for longer term thinking, imagining and relaxing. Not relaxing by the pool on taxpayers’ money, but approaching their work – the development of the world’s new ideas and visions – in a non-stressed-out or less anxious state of creative readiness
The devil will be in the decisions. There are no new funds from Government underwriting this new strand, only a more strategic redistribution of current limited allocations, and therefore there cannot be winners without losers. Also, in the super-politics behind all this, the implications of the new body, Creative Ireland, which does not appear to be part of any dialogue leading to these developments, may queer the pitch. But focusing on the Arts Council as the historic statutory institution for the development of the arts in Ireland, an institution which, in the view of this writer, lost its bearings for a while but is regaining its ballast, today is a good day.
The introduction of structures that seem to reflect the way things organically form rather than trying from on high to rearrange the very way artists and organisations think is surely a step in the right direction.
I would say, with hand on heart, that ‘Frank Pig Says Hello’ was one of the best pieces of theatre with which I was ever associated; a genuine groundbreaking event.
And everything comes back around eventually. These past three weeks I have mainly been preoccupied with producing ‘Frank Pig’ along with ‘The Leaves of Heaven’, the double bill of plays by Pat McCabe at the Dublin Theatre Festival for Co-Motion Media. I don’t produce any more, other than (reluctantly, because nobody else will) my own plays on tour. But this collaboration between Pat and my fellow Co-Motion director, Joe O’Byrne, is rather special. That’s partly because the last time we all collaborated was exactly 25 years ago when the first part of the double bill premiered; ‘Frank Pig Says Hello’, the stage version of Pat’s award-winning novel ‘The Butcher Boy’, but with a different title and a somewhat different take.
I take no artistic credit for the work – my job as producer then, as now, was to confirm bookings, write cheques, ensure posters went up and so on. But to witness Pat, just emerging in 1992 as a soon-to-be superstar of Irish literature, and Joe – a wizard of the stage – collaborate on this magical production was a real privilege.
The show opened at Lombard Street, the original TCD Drama Studies performance space, a former coffin-maker’s workshop. Much of my limited experience of theatre management to that point had consisted of discreetly removing the front row of seats to make the sorrowful numbers look a bit better for actors, in the small independent shows which were all the go by the early 1990s – often quite excellent plays, but definitely minority sports. Suddenly I found myself on box office duty every night with a hit on our hands, gaping down the coffin-maker’s stairs at queues that wound around the corner onto Pearse Street.
Frank Pig was the sensation of the 1992 festival. I recall my heart sinking as I sold the very last ticket on the final night, and then looked down the stairs at the disappointed waiting list only to see the brilliant human rights journalist Mary Holland who I knew and hugely respected. She had no ticket: we had to send her packing. The house was bulging. It helped, of course, that the novel of the same story had appeared a month or two earlier and had suddenly and deservedly been short-listed for the Booker Prize. But there was more to this phenomenon than an opportunistic adaptation of a bestseller.
A THEATRICAL MASTERPIECE
Pat’s tale of the wide-eyed provincial boy whose disappointments become epic and whose innocent confusions charm us all the way to his dreadful murderous deed, is unique in how it succeeded in novel, movie and play form. The play stands out however as a theatrical masterpiece in its own right. We have grown rather accustomed nowadays to the smart two-hander where one or both actors plays multiple roles. In 1992 such clever plays did exist, but none quite like this. The world of Francie Brady, trapped in a pathetic childhood even into early manhood, was conjured up through two extraordinary performances guided by the most subtle direction. To this day, friends who saw the play only once or perhaps twice, still quote from it to me: ‘Ah, the Old Pig Days’, or ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello… helloooo!’ or ‘Am I doin’ good sweepin’, Da, am I doin’ good diggin’?
Two weeks ago I attended the first read-through of the new production by two young actors, one of whom wasn’t even born when the original ‘Frank Pig’ burst onto the scene, and I felt the immense excitement, sorrow, awe and painful laughter that I recall from those days. The current cast are superb, just as the original guys were. And the play is as fresh and immediate as the day it was written. Plus, there is an added bonus. ‘Frank Pig’ is re-presented at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival alongside ‘The Leaves of Heaven’, a new companion work by Pat, and the two will form a unique double bill. Theatre enthusiasts can, of course, choose to see just one or both. But both, being short, is highly recommended. ‘The Leaves of Heaven’ finds Francie Brady 25 years later, preparing to leave Dundrum Mental Hospital for a new facility, reflecting on old ghosts and new visions. A mature and exquisite work of words, images and moments of belly laughter, it enjoyed a brief run in The Complex last year and is now about to be seen by a much wider audience at Draiocht, Blanchardstown and Axis, Ballymun.
THE CRAIC WAS NINETY IN ’92
Returning to 1992, when the Dublin festival eventually ended, I sat down one day with Joe O’Byrne in the old Co-Motion office in a run down building on Thomas Street, discussing what we might do next with this artistic gift entrusted to us. “Let’s call Michael Colgan”, one of us said, and we both chuckled merrily at the absurdity of this idea. Michael Colgan ha ha ha! But why not? We didn’t know Mr. Colgan then, other than by the reputation he had already cultivated for himself as a kind of enigmatic Mr. Big in Irish (and British) theatre. Well, we would be just as big! I tilted back the rickety stool that served as my office chair, put both feet up on the table like a classic movie mogul, and turned the dial – yes it was an old black dial phone. I mentioned Pat McCabe’s name to the receptionist. “Just a moment…” Michael took my call. He bought in and brought his legendary producer’s skills to the work, assisting us along the road to international fame.
At Colgan’s invitation, we revived the show for a week at The Gate, and shortly afterwards returned there for four weeks. My mother, Joan, was in her dying days, losing her long battle with cancer at the young age of 62. She came with my Dad (who lived on to be 94) to the grand opening and was introduced to Gay Byrne among others. She had by now resigned herself to the troubling reality that I was going to work in theatre probably for the rest of my life, and had begun belatedly to warm to some of the weird plays I had performed in or promoted. This was a particularly great night, and she whispered to me that she was proud of me. I accepted her praise, knowing I was basking really in the genius of two other men, but I felt I had her blessing to continue at my chosen trade wherever it might take me. I guess I owe that and a lot more to Pat McCabe.
We went on a national tour, opening amidst tensions, in a hotel ballroom in Pat’s home town of Clones. Mischievous remarks he had made in an ironic newspaper essay had been misconstrued and there were rumours of planned pickets. None materialised. Up to the last day or two, however, booking was slow. A local radio announcer implored the people of County Monaghan to buy their tickets in advance from the Clones shop where they were on sale, because, allegedly, hordes of cultural bargain-hunters were coming over to stockpile from Cavan where the tickets were a pound dearer for the following evening. On the night, the reception in Clones was fantastic – emotional and enthusiastic. A very late session was enjoyed by all in the Busted Sofa. The following afternoon we were all packed into the small van, the crew, the actors Sean Rocks and David Gorry, Pat, Joe and me. As we drove out of town on the short hop to Cootehill, we saw an old man with a black bicycle whacking dirt off his trousers, in an exact re-enactment of a scene in the play. “Me trousers, me trousers! Me trousers is covered in grace!” somebody said, and we almost veered off into a field, the van heaving with so much laughter.
The show sold out all over Ireland and then we went to the Royal Court in London. At the previews, in contrast to the raucous, knowing, tearful laughter that had greeted the work at home, the audience reaction was quite muted, although there was loud applause at the end. Londoners were seeing the darkness in the work but, we worried, not ‘getting’ that odd Irish brand of humour that has seen us historically through so much sorrow. At the premiere, however, one man laughed with great relish from the opening moments and very quickly the audience felt released to laugh with him. We wondered who he might be. None other than the late Dave Allen, mythic comedian. That night was spent in an Irish club in London somewhere, Pat singing humorous songs and banging on an old piano, his great buddy, the late Dermot Healy reciting absurdist limericks and everyone delighting in our success.
The show went on to wide international acclaim and toured to the USA and Australia, but I did not travel beyond London. My new day job at City Arts Centre was calling me back. An unknown emerging playwright called Conor McPherson had a show about to open. I look back at that time with great pleasure – a time before I began to write and direct myself, when my work was largely to do with assisting other artists to get started or make advances. Unlike Michael Colgan, I hadn’t a clue, really, about how the business of theatre worked, but I recognised a great artist when I met one and did what little I could. Pat McCabe was, and remains, one of the greatest. I am pleased now briefly to reconnect with the work which projected him from a promising novelist to an international icon, and to be part of introducing ‘The Leaves of Heaven’ where Pat and Joe rejoin forces with a fantastical new dream play of the great anti-hero of Irish writing, Francie Brady, aka Frank Pig.
I am particularly happy that a new generation will get to experience an hour and a half that changed Irish theatre and my life forever!
The Dublin Theatre Festival season of ‘Frank Pig Says Hello’ and ‘The Leaves of Heaven’ (which can be enjoyed as single plays or as a double bill) will be officially opened on Wed 4th October at Draíocht, Blanchardstown by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD.
The season runs over two weeks at both Draíocht and Axis, Ballymun. Info and booking via Dublin Theatre Festival
Anticipating tomorrow’s Theatre Forum touring debate at Draíocht, (and aware that tourng is only one part of a more complex set of relationships involving artists, arts centres and communities) a few random observations from a self-start, artist-led perspective.
1. Artists/Producers need to be audience aware – the gap between experimental innovation in a niche urban festival and the sensibilities of the audience on a typical wet Wednesday in a rural town is vast. But that does NOT mean create conservative crap! It means think very carefully about what you programme, for what context and when. Modern Irish audiences are sophisticated and diverse and I have never seen an audience reject a truly excellent work, no matter how challenging… once they were persuaded to be there in the first place.
2. Touring without subsidy is nightmarishly difficult: gruelling work for crews, long hours, long drives.
3. Working intelligently with quality venues on fair guarantees, however, a skeleton team of 4 (cast & crew) can travel an unsubsidised show in the regions and expect a basic living wage & per diems. Higher numbers of personnel than this on the road (without subsidy) suggest to me skimping on wages which (on tour in particular) is not cool, or else a remarkable skill at negotiating fees!
4. This math applies of course only if nothing goes wrong – like damage to a hired van; a bad box-office split call etc.. One single mistake can turn a successful tour into a personal disaster when there is no subsidy to fall back on.
5. Unless you are a commercial certainty (eg you are a famous TV comedian) avoid box-office-split-only deals, DO negotiate guarantees and never, ever rent – at least this way, if you control your costs, you have a bottom line.
6. I found tech standards universally high in theatres on my last few outings. As well as their technical proficiency, I found techies (as well as FOH people) welcoming, collegial, calm and appreciative of good forward planning.
7. Finally, touring has saved my soul. When funding as we used to understand it, when the implicit support of Arts Councils and media champions, when so many other old certainties were stolen from us by the collapse of the economy, the regional venues were left standing. I am forever grateful to a group of about 25 venue managers across Ireland who took risks on my two recent ‘comeback’ shows and worked with me to find audiences for the art I wanted to make. Above all I am renewed by those audiences – they came, they laughed, they listened, they fell silent, they applauded, (usually on their feet – although that strange habit alone does not always mean a thing was good!) and they restored my own belief in myself and in the joy of theatre.
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.
Politicians – we are watching! Image of Macnas on parade.
This essay was drafted a few days ago, prior to a historic debate in the Irish parliament on arts policy (Fianna Fáil Private Members’ motion, 22nd June 2016). That debate saw encouraging progress in how politicians across the party spectrum have come around to understanding and outwardly articulating the value of the arts. But there was a conscious refusal from those in power to make any meaningful move to redress the chronic disinvestment in culture in Ireland which is discussed below. ‘Funding increases in line with improvements in the economy’ is not remotely helpful – we already anticipate that. Radical action is needed. Leadership in other words. We watch and wait…
For anyone who may be still struggling to understand just how far things have fallen for arts and culture in Ireland and why it is vital to redress this, here are a few points to consider.
IRELAND IS A PROUD, CULTURED NATION. MOST ‘RIGHT-MINDED’ IRISH PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED AND EVEN ASHAMED IF THEY KNEW THAT FAR FROM THE MEDIA MYTH OF AN ARTISTS’ HAVEN, OUR COUNTRY IS BY FAR THE WORST IN EUROPE WHEN IT COMES TO GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT IN ARTS AND CULTURE.
DID YOU KNOW THAT FOR EVERY ONE EURO OF PUBLIC FINANCE INVESTED ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE, THE IRISH GOVERNMENT INVESTS ONLY 20 CENT (I.E. ONE FIFTH) IN THE PEOPLE’S CULTURE? WHO LOSES? NOT ONLY THOSE ARTISTS WHO NO LONGER CAN EARN A FAIR WAGE FOR THEIR DEDICATED WORK, BUT HUGE POCKETS OF IRISH SOCIETY ROBBED OF THEIR RIGHTS TO ENJOY A THRIVING CULTURAL LIFE – A SOCIAL AND HUMAN NEED AS FUNDAMENTAL AS A CLEAN ENVIRONMENT OR SAFE STREETS.
TO BORROW THE GOVERNMENT’S OWN PHRASE – IT IS TIME TO CORRECT THE PUBLIC FINANCES AND INCREASE IRISH ARTS INVESTMENT VERY SPEEDILY – AT LEAST UP TO THE EU AVERAGE.
For decades, the debate about “arts funding” has been riddled with myth and ignorance, much in the same way that deliberate misinformation for a long time stifled reasoned dialogue on Marriage Equality, climate change, parenting rights and other movements towards a perceived ‘softening’ of the dominant macho, hierarchical and profit-driven culture. Short-changing in state investment in the arts has disinherited a whole society – and denied a right acknowledged worldwide as fundamental.
Here are seven things we might consider when reflecting on the relationship between the State and ‘the Arts’ in Ireland.
Ireland is currently the worst state under the European Cultural Convention when it comes to investing in our culture. Ireland is not the poorest state in Europe by any means, but, of 24 countries studied in the Council of Europe Compendium Project, our Government is the WORST in percentage terms when it comes to the investment of public moneys on arts and culture for the nation. Why do we pay our artists and maintain our cultural infrastructure at a rate lower than even the poorest peripheral states in Europe when culture is constantly acclaimed as one of our greatest assets?
We claim pride in our cultural achievements and yet disinvest in our culture. Ireland is a proud cultured nation. We take pleasure in the achievement of our film-makers, singers, dancers and poets when (as very often) they are hailed overseas, just as we do with our sportswomen and men. We have celebrated when our actors have done well at the Oscars; when Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize; when Riverdance went global and so on. We are proud of our children when they sing at a Feis, perform in a play, make cool videos on their phones, bring home a beautiful painting from school … It is plain wrong in a culturally active country that we invest less than 20% of the European average on developing and sustaining the arts in our nation.
Disinvesting in culture is a form of injustice. These statistics – that we are worst in Europe and invest less than one fifth of the European average – are embarrassing, but it they are much more than that. The failure to invest in the arts represents a deep and hidden injustice in our society. Why? Well, two reasons. It robs us and our children of a healthy, sustainable cultural life – a disenfranchisement as serious as the environmental neglect of lakes or the closing down of playgrounds. Our museums are allowed to run down; our kids have poorer access to instruments in school; community arts centres around the country cannot replace theatre lamps and so on. But – a corollary of this – our living artists are shockingly underpaid. Many live in secret poverty, ashamed to acknowledge it. State policy has systematically removed livelihood opportunities from honest, hard-working artists all over Ireland while at the same time depriving communities of facilities and young people of creative opportunities.
Public investment in arts benefits society regardless of class. It is sometimes misleadingly argued that the question of “arts funding” is a middle-class preoccupation – and that cutting cultural funding is somehow acceptable because the arts are not perceived as a pressing daily concern of rural or urban working class people. This is tantamount to saying that some of our citizens are somehow less entitled to abundant cultural lives than others, because they already suffer other forms of economic or educational exclusion. Quite apart from the obvious class discrimination in this viewpoint, the facts on the ground indicate that it is a dated and inaccurate understanding of what ‘the arts’ is and where cultural activity actually takes place. Every week of every year since the 1970s, from women’s refuges to rural youth projects to children’s creches in inner-city Dublin, children, women and men of all classes and backgrounds have been taking part in community arts programmes, developing their own creativity, often working collaboratively with dedicated professional artists. Resources are scarce and not always fairly distributed, but to suggest that working class people are not interested in the arts in simply untrue and indeed insulting. Do those who claim the arts ‘do not reach’ working class communities not consider – for example – active lone parents’ groups where drama is made, or Youthreach projects with music training, or community creches with dance activities to be part of this working class? Some people it is true – in particular men in certain communities – are still statistically proving to be less drawn to traditional (and often narrow) definitions of the arts such as main-stage drama, opera and galleries. But far more in those communities are intensely creative and engaged in the arts. We need to campaign for the cultural rights of all citizens and ensure fair and intelligent distribution of improved resources to artists, art providers and local creative projects across all of society.
Investing in the arts does not damage your Health budget. It is also misleadingly (and insidiously) argued that increased investment in the arts somehow means decreased allocation for health or other ‘more vital’ public services. This is a discredited and cheap argument peddled occasionally by talk radio hosts or more right-wing, monetarist politicians and commentators who are often against any kind of public spending as a general philosophy. Similar arguments are made against facing our public responsibilities to take in refugees, to protect wildlife or keep up our public parks; and these are rightly rejected by fair-minded people. Abusing and under-paying artists or allowing the heritage of our nation to fall into disrepair does not relieve the health crisis – in fact it compounds it, as arts and access to heritage are proven to improve mental and physical health. Why else would busy cancer hospitals avail of artist-in-residence schemes? Apart from the obvious point that a trebling or quadrupling of the current tiny arts budget would make almost no dent in the overall public finances, including the health budget, there is a more important point which is that this kind of comparison reveals a power mindset that is dismissive of creativity. The government faces a myriad of choices and responsibilities when it comes to the public finances. Nobody argues that a quarter of the army should be laid off, or our state-funded litter wardens forced to volunteer in order to provide more cash for an improved A&E unit somewhere, even though far greater sums could be saved this way, and yet they suggest that it is acceptable to underfund the people’s creativity. Whatever the reason for our low investment in culture, it has nothing to do with hospital beds.
The arts in a modern nation cannot function on amateur volunteering alone. Another outdated argument raises its head occasionally when conversations about cultural investment arise. The jist of it is this: why would you bother paying professional artists when your town has a perfectly fine amateur musical society? By the same argument, why bother paying professional gardeners to keep the herbaceous borders in Stephens Green – aren’t there plenty of hobby gardeners in Ireland growing flowers as it is? Again, the awkward facts come in to play. Most amateur artists when allowed to think about it are the first to see the value of improved arts investment. Contrary to the cheap talk-radio jibe, professionals are not work-shy ‘hobbyists’ looking for money. They are often innovators, highly-trained and intensely hard-working, taking the practice of their artform and the reputation of the nation to outstanding levels and places. Many work directly in and with communities, side-by-side with amateur practitioners: others create work independently that inspires or chronicles the society. They are a necessary part of a complex cultural ecology; not necessarily more gifted, and certainly no more passionate than the best amateurs in theatre, music, dance and so on – but vocationally drawn to work full-time on their craft. The arts needs its professional pioneers and innovators just like science, education and sport. And it is a two-way traffic: working artists in turn recognise that their own practice and the society in which they live benefit from wide community participation. Furthermore, in simple practical terms, even in the current impoverished system, voluntary and amateur arts groups benefit in most counties from subsidised arts centres, cultural festivals, learning environments and public libraries which are managed by arts and literary professionals. Professionalism and volunteering in the arts, just like in sport, are interconnected parts of a continuum.
Our government appears to be fearful of the implications of investment in the arts. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that our politicians are nervous of an expanded arts and cultural life for the society (while paying lip service to artists at every international opportunity.) Why? Perhaps it is a fear of scrutiny, of a widely-educated, enquiring and creative populace, of truly active civic participation which is what the arts engenders? Or maybe it is a simpler, more crude fiscal matter. Perhaps the precedent of acknowledging that we need in percentage terms to make a correction of several fold to meet normal European standards in cultural spending is too alarming? And yet in the past, sudden jumps in spending or a single brave stroke of a pen have seen the introduction of much-needed social reform: free secondary school education; third level grants; a ban on smoking in the workplace; the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
ADDED 24th JUNE: Having attended the Dáil debate on June 22nd (a Private Members’ motion tabled by Fianna Fáil’s arts spokesperson Niamh Smyth), it was heartening to note the improved discourse of the politicians, from the Minister to the backbenchers. Many were more aware than would have been the case 10 years ago of real, quality arts projects in their local constituencies. NOBODY TALKED ABOUT HOSPITAL BEDS, a clear acknowledgment that that is a different day’s work and a whole separate concern. It was mature and momentarily uplifting. They spoke warmly of artists…
But warming words alone are no help. Whether we take proportion of GDP or percentage of pubic expenditure, we are still Europe’s cultural shame story, when we should and could be its champions. On the ground it can all appear solid – our culture survives, albeit on crumbs. Our tourism is built on a magnificent literary and artistic heritage; our poets are no longer only in the garret but on the stages of bars and nightclubs; our dancers are in the studio but also on Grafton Street busking – Ireland is hopelessly cultured and our people are irrepressibly creative, even in desperate times. But that is neither sustainable nor moral for as long as the people’s money is not reinvested in their culture. Artists are active citizens: they have families, mortgages, rents, bus fares to pay: they require to be remunerated fairly for the service they give.
We need to match the nation’s remarkable artistic talent and instinct with a structured, sustainable, resources and livelihood-driven investment model (and not just once-off experiments or commemorations however fabulous). Difficult as it will be for them, our politicians who have now spoken need to act on their fine words with radical new investment and with mechanisms to distribute cultural funds fairly and intelligently across the nation and into the pay-packets of artists.
I am delighted to be working with my old composer friend and creative partner Colin Blakey and two terrific young actors, Gerard Adlum and Cillian O’Gairbhi to bring my new show, The Big Fellow to the stage this May. Based on Frank O’Connor’s biography of Michael Collins it is co-produced by The Drogheda Arts Festival and Co-Motion Media. The script has been developed with some support from the Abbey Theatre and most of the fundraising so far has been by my own Bachelors Walk Productions. Read more about the show on the Bachelors Walk website here.
I first became conscious of the sexist tendency in public life and the need proactively to counter it, through political and community activism in the late 1980s, when, along with many other theatre and arts colleagues I took part in the Miscarriages of Justice Campaign planning the Parade of Innocence (1989-90). This human rights project was led mainly by women; it was conscious of family realities and of the need in large public meetings, at the selection process for committees, at the nomination of spokespersons and so on, to be aware of bias and inequity. Justice would not be achieved in the outside world if it was not fundamental to the working practices of the movement. A simple and helpful guideline.
Later, as programmer of the theatre at City Arts Centre, my role in promoting the vibrant community drama movement of the time brought me into local halls and rehearsal rooms peopled mainly mainly by women, whose capacity to achieve and create art for change within collective, listening environments impressed me deeply and informed my own later working practices as a director. In the same period City Arts Centre hosted a number of shows and events by Glasshouse Productions (Caroline Williams, Katy Hayes, Clare Dowling and Sian Quill) which was dedicated to promoting and campaigning for women writers in theatre. Their ideas and public meetings anticipated this month’s revolution by two decades. When I accepted an invitation from Carol Coulter to submit an article about the Abbey to the Irish Times in 1994 (see below), I had no hesitation in consulting with colleagues in the community sector and in women’s campaigns as part of my 24-hour turnaround time, and any credit for my ‘fiery article’ as Brendan Kennelly labelled it, must be shared with those who added to my own observations before I leapt in.
#WakingTheFeminists – a historical precedent
“The failure to address women’s work is another scandal in the Abbey’s recent history. Two Irish women’s plays have been staged in [the last] five years, only one by a living author. […] The Abbey should make reparation for the systematic exclusion of women from the writer’s library. If Rough Magic can do it with a £5,000 awards initiative, surely the National Theatre can.”
This is from an article I submitted to the Irish Times (by invitation) which was published not this week but in June 1994, twenty-one years ago. Some months later, I was one of several panelists of mixed genders invited to take part in “The Abbey Debate”, a generous attempt by Artistic Director Patrick Mason and the Abbey board of the day to respond to those who had called the theatre’s policies and practices into question. (I was one of dozens in that crisis year, and the issues under discussion included not only gender but social exclusion, disability access, the closure of the education programme and a general sense that the Abbey had become isolated from the wider theatre).
At the public debate, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, whose play ‘Dún na mBan Trí Thine’ had recently run at the Peacock, stated, “The complaints directed against theatre in general and the Abbey in particular for its neglect of women playwrights are so commonplace that I hardly need to reiterate them.” Eilis went on to give a reasoned analysis of why women in past times might have shyed away from the ‘masculine’ public world of theatre writing, but noted however that “times are changing. A lot of women have been writing for the theatre for more than twenty years. Why do we see so few plays by women in the National Theatre?” She concluded, “Over the next ten years, one of the Abbey’s main tasks will be to risk taking on board the feminine voice. If it neglects to do this, the National Theatre will write itself out of the history of European drama in the twentieth century”.
Karin McCully then presented some salient statistics, looking back over her first year working within the Abbey script department. “On average, only fifteen per cent of all the unsolicited scripts received by the Abbey have been by women. Roughly fifteen per cent of of all the plays ever produced by the Abbey have been by women. In other words if we were to produce more plays by women now, we would be practising positive discrimination, and we would rather practice no discrimination.” Responding, Eilis stated, “I could not bear the idea of being positively discriminated against. It is as bad as being discriminated against negatively, worse in fact. But as far as women and plays are concerned, there probably is a case for nurturing them. I think women need to be drawn into the world of plays.. […] I would never myself have thought of writing a play if someone had not approached me.”
Earlier, Éilís had commented that “drama only exists in performance, and playwriting skills can best be learned by working in the theatre. Women writing alone in the corners of kitchens, where they have for centuries written their poems, short stories and novels, cannot create plays.”
That was in 1994. In 1995, the Arts Council stepped in and initiated “The Review of Theatre in Ireland”, a year-long research and consultation process which helped to realign overall national theatre policy and address some of the fundamental inequities raised in the 1994 debates – but, as history has shown us, not the gender inequities. I have written elsewhere that the promise of the Theatre Review and most of the reforms it did appear to bring were squandered anyway in the decimation of the independent sector in 2008-9. So in many ways we are back where we were in 1994, with one difference. There are now considerably more professional women embedded within the Irish theatre and thousands of others at home and abroad who have risen together and who will not allow this situation to repeat or continue any longer.
I have written a second essay this week, contemplating what forward movement might look like after #WakingTheFeminists – but I am holding it back as I suspect it will add nothing to the intelligence that will emerge from tomorrow’s public meeting at the Abbey. For now, I stand in solidarity outside the Abbey with the women who have gone in to change it.
In 1995 I took up a position for one year with The Arts Council as Coordinator of the “Review of Theatre in Ireland”, a research and consultation process intended to inform future policy in the matter of funding and provision for theatre in Ireland. It was an intelligently designed and genuinely open process of listening and learning. The immediate preceding context was a raging debate in the media about the Abbey Theatre: in light of the mushrooming of independent professional theatre organisations and venues all around the country, could the National Theatre continue to lay claim to the lion’s share of state funding with the rest receiving crumbs off the table? Did the concept of a National Theatre hold up at all? Were we dealing with a new movement, as important and radical now as the Abbey had been in the founding years of the State, a movement referred to by Prof. Ciaran Benson, the Arts Council Chairman as “Theatre of the Nation”? I was sufficiently fired up by these questions to leave my exciting post as theatre programmer at the City Arts Centre in Dublin and take on the job of facilitating what was shaping up to be a national conversation.
The Abbey board was initially suspicious of the Review and indeed of my own involvement in it. I had, after all, been a critic of the status quo and also of aspects of the Abbey institution itself. But such was the open and fair nature of the Review that the board and Artistic Director of the Abbey, once reassured, played a central part in it and indeed, thereafter, through the good offices of Patrick Mason, led the initiative that became Theatre Forum. They were persuaded that this would not be a simplistic Abbey v. The Rest tussle as some in the media might have wished, but something much more far-reaching. The early ‘90s was the era of national arts planning. The State seemed on the point of embracing and supporting the arts as a fundamental staple of national identity and consciousness, rather than a flouncy add-on. Theatre would be the first artform to enjoy a process of research, international benchmarking, genuine national consultation and in due course a national policy. Nobody was under any illusion that the resources required to provide in a genuine way for a “theatre of the nation” would suddenly drop from Heaven. The point was that at least the value of such an ideal would be investigated and costed, and long term strategies would be put in place to move from a position of general ignorance and impoverishment in the matter of contemporary theatre practice in Ireland to one of knowledge and the beginnings of strategic investment.
It was a heady time of hope and genuine change. The public reports and internal papers of that year stand as the most comprehensive analysis ever assembled of how theatre comes to be produced in Ireland, with chapters on community, youth, amateur, educational and commercial theatre as well as the main spine on how the Abbey and the bulwark of independent professional companies and regional venues might co-exist. The slim policy document “Going On” which emerged at the end of the Review lacked specifics and was inevitably compromised, but nonetheless represented a massive step forward from the ad-hoc and piecemeal distribution of funding that had preceded it. I had no hand personally in the “Going On” document: I had already moved on, the research now done, but I welcomed it. I understood the new policy to be a blueprint that would guarantee for decades to come that independent companies could settle, grow and receive modest public funding on an annual basis for those aspects of their artistic programming that could be defined as “public” or “civic” – be it producing stimulating new theatre for local audiences; touring; community-engagement; niche specialisation in areas such as clown, physical theatre, translated works, children’s theatre, street spectacle or whatever.
By the end of that year, the Arts Council had embraced the mantle “national development agency for the arts in Ireland” – not quite a national provider but a State agency with a clear and confident sense of national mission. We appeared to be on the cusp of new era. And for a period it seemed that the promise of “Going On” was actually falling into place, albeit haphazardly. Companies in Sligo, Limerick, Waterford and Clonmel found themselves enjoying a new, more secure status and in some cases even saw substantial hikes in annual funding. (This tended to be the haphazard element!) Companies in Dublin and Cork became adroit at defining their niche or community value and were funded well or modestly accordingly. I, myself, undertook research into establishing a community-engaged theatre enterprise in Drogheda and in due course, when a board of directors was appointed, I took up a full-time position as Artistic Director of Upstate Theatre Project, an exemplary model of a regional company which quickly earned funding for its community and artistic programmes in equal measure from the Arts Council and various European and regional bodies.
But in all of this I had profoundly misunderstood one fundamental thing. Policy is not law: neither is it forever.
To be fair to myself and my peers, we did appreciate that policy is not a fixed entity: it must be fluid, responding to social, cultural and demographic change. In the subsequent years many of us continued to campaign and advocate for developments and improvements. As Ireland became a multicultural nation we argued for interculturalism to permeate policy. As transparency and accountability became increasingly the norm in other sectors, I developed an argument for a radical change in how funding should be sought and distributed, proposing that companies should tender (as distinct from apply) for the funds they received. This latter argument became central to my thinking. Theatre organisations were providing a form of public service, it seemed to me. We were making available to the public at affordable cost, quality artistic events and engagement opportunities that could not be provided commercially and could not be provided directly by any arm of the state itself. The public value of our work was self-evident: we were helping to define our nation as a cultured society with its own indigenous rhythms, beats and sounds, and not just a remote market for imported mass-produced artefacts. I believed (and continue to believe) that this service to the nation was as vital as environmental protection, law and order, education and other public services. I was increasingly uneasy with the cap-in-hand image that still hung over our sector and I contended that a simple inversion of the funding equation would resolve this matter. The State needs art and cultural diversity to define itself as modern, civilised and mentally healthy. We are the providers of art. The State needs us. The state, via the Arts Council, should therefore invite organisations to tender for contracts of defined duration, renewable or to be terminated by future tender. We should be fully accountable to the taxpayer, yes, but once shown to be efficient, duly governed and dedicated, we should be left alone to make art in the public realm.
Instead, the public need and value of theatre was never formally acknowledged, and a slight whiff of the old stigma remained, namely that we were “dependent”: self-indulgent artists being helped along to “do our own thing”, simply because art is in some ill-defined way “special” but cannot pay its way. Far from disabusing the media and public of this view, the Arts Council began to slip back into using terms like “high levels of dependency” in its reports, addressing the sector sometimes as though it were a problem rather than the national asset it had once set out to support and regulate. We would continue to be required to submit annual applications for the gift of funding. New personalities came in time to replace those within the Arts Council who had overseen the Theatre Review. A power-play was at work wherein the artist was not seen after all as an equal contributor but rather a dependent. It was a dynamic which left me increasingly uneasy.
Notwithstanding this regression in attitudes, I continued to believe that the essential principles enshrined in the “Going On” document were now embedded. I thought that if policy were ever again to change radically, it could only be on foot of a further national consultation and evidence of changed demographics and production patterns. This was exceptionally naive of me, I can now see. In 2008-2009 the prevailing theatre policy was suddenly and unilaterally abandoned by the Arts Council. I and many of my peers were deeply shocked that this could happen, that by decree of a couple of internal Arts Council meetings, everything we had built, all of our investment and – for many – our very livelihoods could be taken away. Of course the background context was drastic. The economy had imploded. Radical responses were needed from every sector of society including the humble theatre. But we were never asked for our response – not in any meaningful way. There was no proper consultation, only briefings. Decisions were handed to us from on high in the form of cuts, closures and resulting redundancies, and in a blinding flash, many of us came to understand the folly of our belief in a system which had remained top-down and had never had statutory or contractual foundation.
Apart from the global financial crisis there was another niggling difficulty at work by 2008. Even before the economy collapsed, the system of annually-repeating revenue funding to companies was coming under strain. More and more theatre artists were graduating from college as youth and community art flourished and artistic career paths and training became socially acceptable and no longer exotic. With no consistent recruitment or intake mechanisms built in to the existing funded organisations, these newly emerging artists did what others before them had always done. They formed yet more companies and arrived at the same doorstep on Merrion Square with their valid applications also to be funded. Initially, the Once-Off Projects funding scheme seemed to absorb the best of this new wave, but eventually the twenty-two year old graduates turned thirty and their legitimate claims to sustainable careers and a place in this ‘public service’ of artistic provision could not be met from an already overstretched revenue funding pot. The absence of a national tendering system combined with the Arts Council’s drift back towards a patronage philosophy exacerbated this problem. Younger practitioners were left with little option but to call for the unseating of longer serving companies to make room now for them. There were dark and usually unwarranted mutterings about “dead wood” and “over-funded companies” who had allegedly “reached their sell-by dates”. In more responsible conversations, Theatre Forum had begun to acknowledge the very real issue of the exclusion of new talent, but nobody as yet had any bright solutions other than the unstructured Darwinian overthrow which would make nonsense of the notion of sustainable provision or personal career paths for which the previous generation had fought so hard.
It was especially galling, therefore, when the economic collapse hit, that this genuine dialogue within the sector was used by the Arts Council as an excuse for some of its miserable funding decisions. At a Theatre Forum meeting in Limerick, Council representatives insisted that the forthcoming cuts arose from what they called “blue skies thinking” which would see parts of the old guard disinherited in order to make room for the new. Some months later, at a tense meeting at the National Concert Hall when the first and worst round of cuts had been implemented, the same line was trotted out and I recall having a heated argument with a much-respected younger colleague in the corridor where he argued that the removal of revenue funding from “tired” companies was a good thing. I did not get into the question of who determines who is “tired” or by what accountable yardstick. It was too late for that. I countered simply that the Council’s new approach placed all of us now in a vacuum wherein a career in independent theatre for any individual artist, or a relationship between a town’s population and an indigenous theatre company, could never again be built. And I predicted that no new organisation would come to be revenue funded to replace the allegedly “tired” ones now dumped overboard. This of course has been borne out.
So my mistake, my misunderstanding, was to believe that arts policy was a charter that would be referred to in times not only of growth but of contraction; a logical set of rules that would offer protection to those it covered, as laws or contracts do. The Arts Council tore up the policy. In fairness, they were under unimaginable pressure from Government to find savings overnight. And in truth, they did nothing wrong (in the legal sense) in tearing up the policy. It was written on sand. It was already fraying anyway as new personalities with new ideologies and preferences took up position on the politically appointed council. It was their entitlement. The mistake was on our side, my side – to believe that just because a thing had been written down based on consultation, vision and logic it had any real standing when a gale would blow.
So where are we left now, five years on from those traumatic days of cuts and redundancies? The 1995-96 Theatre Review appeared for a time to promise an infrastructure along the lines eloquently proposed by playwright John McArdle at one of its public meetings; one where each catchment population might have a serviced venue; an embedded professional production company; access to educational and children’s theatre, participative youth and community drama of quality and a nurturing environment for the amateur sector. In my more optimistic moments back then, I imagined that the “hard” (buildings) and “soft” (people and ideas) infrastructure of the performing arts would come in time to be funded like schools and health centres within communities in every corner of the land. There would be permanence on one hand but constant innovation on another. That dream has died. Also dead is my long held understanding that the Arts Council is a national agency for the arts in Ireland, for without a national infrastructure and concomitant investment, there can be no truly ‘national’ agency. Rather, the Arts Council nowadays provides limited amounts of ongoing funding to a restricted number of solid institutions, mainly concentrated in the capital with a few scattered sporadically elsewhere around the country. It has expressed the desire to reduce further the number of these funded bodies. It otherwise runs prize-giving competitions in the form of once-off award schemes and talks constantly about ‘a highly competitive environment’ and the need for artists to ‘make a compelling case’ in order to be “deserving” of funding. A far cry from a provision agency for a nation.
For all of this disappointment, I do not and we should not despair. The State is less than one hundred years old and is part of a global financial system in which it is beholden to banks, bondholders, the IMF and other external masters. We have not quite emerged yet as a true republic. It is less than fifty years since free secondary education was introduced in Ireland and less than two decades since the grip of the Catholic Church was loosened on public affairs generally. The State has had an ambivalent relationship with the arts from Day 1. We were the first in the world to fund a national theatre and our founding parliament had a cabinet minister for the arts. This early open-mindedness gave way quickly to the censorship of publications era which ended only in the 1980s. If the State seemed on the brink of a radical embracing of the arts in the early ‘90s with the restoration of an arts ministry, the first national arts plan and then a working policy for theatre provision across the country, we should not be surprised that it rowed back when the banks collapsed and our sovereignty was conceded.
On our side of the table, artists have neither died out nor gone away. The soul, drive, imagination and courage of the artist are powerful forces that can survive bruised hopes or governments which continue to pay lipservice to art and public but fail adequately to provide for either. Artists will continue to make great art and to connect with communities. The most enterprising among them will find new side-routes to funding and earned income until such time as intelligence and courage return at government and Arts Council level and the idea of a citizen-centred arts provision on a national basis is revisited. New campaigns will ignite in the future and succeed at the very least in realigning and improving the current inadequate system of theatre funding, even if the dream of a sustainable national infrastructure has melted away for now. Next time, however, I would hope to see the livelihoods of artists and their families as well as the cultural growth of communities protected in something more robust than a flimsy policy paper that is subject to the whims of the changing personalities appointed to passing Arts Councils.