It is quite something that an amateur drama group in a small town in County Cavan, Ireland, have recently created The Pilgrims of Slieve, one of the very, very few full-length Zoom Dramas ever made in the long history of the world!
So – apart from the obvious ….. switch on the laptop and click on the link …. how exactly should the viewer watch such an event? Well, the general advice for watching any online theatre event applied to this collaborative community production which I was privileged to direct for Aisteoirí Muinchille (Cootehill Payers) in March 2021.
My friend Paul Hayes, Director of An Táin Arts Centre in Dundalk, says that when he and his actor wife Leah Rossiter sit down to watch theatre online, they make certain preparations. “We might rearrange the furniture; dim the lighting to create a more theatre-type environment; have drinks prepared in advance. Above all, we switch off mobile phones, just as we would in a real theatre.”
And that is the key: “Just like in a real theatre!” You would not bring a barking dog with you to the Abbey. Is there somewhere the dog could go for 90 minutes while you watch your play online at home?
But then, why should you go to these lengths to watch a play when you often sit comfortably through a feature film on Netflix without any such fuss? That is what this article sets out to explore.
As someone who not only works in theatre, but loves attending plays, I can say two things with absolute conviction.
Firstly, in any situation and in any normal time, going to the theatre is different to taking in a movie or going to a concert.
Secondly, there is really no such thing as “online theatre”! Like theatre itself, the whole thing is a pretence, and it require the audience to take part in the pretence.
When I assert that theatre is different to taking in a film, I’m not saying it’s any better than cinema or live gigs, (although personally I prefer theatre). But in obvious ways, it is different.
You arrive in good time; you do not eat popcorn; there are no ads or trailers; you sit among your neighbours or complete strangers pre-curtain and sense the unique communal anticipation; you absolutely turn off your mobile phone! In short, even for a light, local comedy, you prepare to zone in and concentrate. When the first actor finally takes the stage you lean forward to listen. If (as is usually the case) the actor is talented and trained, you embark with her or him upon a journey that takes place partly in front of you but partly in your own imagination.
Great theatre leaves a lot to the imagination – largely because, unlike film, it cannot show you everything. We rely on the power of the text and the physicality of the actors mainly to create the sense of place, time and context.
What is the online equivalent of that unique contract of the imagination? Well, quite simply, there is NO equivalent on your laptop! It does not exist. The audience is at home, not in a darkened auditorium. The dog is barking; there are people coming and going…. the actors are not at all impressive in their physicality, existing only on a small, very flat, two-dimensional screen. …. Unless…
Unless a different “contract” is negotiated, suited to the time and circumstances of this odd period in world history.
When Aisteoirí Muinchille contacted me last November and asked if I might lead some kind of drama process with them online during the pandemic, I agreed, but on condition that they would travel with me on a mutual learning journey. With extraordinary courage and enthusiasm they said, “Yes!”. Every Monday night Zoom workshop after that was an experiment (16 weeks in total!). Not only would the usual values of community-engaged devising apply: inclusiveness; good humour; gender equality and so on – but we would dedicate time to road-testing totally new ideas. How could we create a new play that might engage the audience’s imagination on little computers?
You cannot have choreography in the normal sense of the actor’s physical presence, but what is the effect of ten heads all turning simultaneously to look up at an aeroplane? What is the effect of having eleven actors in black tops speak verse against a virtual black background? When is enough and when is too much of poetic speaking or of black t-shirts against black backdrops? And so on.
In the 16 weeks of rehearsals, 20 hours of filming and one intensive week of editing to whittle it all down to a 90 minute drama, it was my instinct as a theatre director – not a film-maker; not a film-editor – that guided my choices. We were very clear that we had made a piece of theatre! Although I have only ever met one of the actors face to face; although the play was performed by the actors sitting at their laptops in their 12 separate, isolated home locations, we had created a community play not a Zoom conference. It looks like theatre; it almost smells like theatre….
But to complete the arc of the journey, we needed the audience to agree to take part with us in a final imaginative process. We needed them to pretend they were at a theatre of some kind!
Theatre is often described as “the willing suspension of disbelief”. Like children playing in the garden, the audience undertakes to believe the deception of theatre: the man in the wire mask is a great horse; the Greek woman describing a massacre is actually seeing it, and so on. The design of the auditorium facilitates this: the curtain rises; the house lights go down; the stage lights come up. Silence falls. The actor moves or speaks. We move with her.
But now, in a new, emergency situation for theatre, we ask that the “online theatre” audience undertakes this “suspension of disbelief without the aid of the dimming lights, the community in the room, the physical presence of the actors.
In short, we ask that the audience comes at the work prepared.
At home we do not often prepare. We flop down in front of the telly; we grab lunch as we move around the house; we flick through Whatsapp messages almost unconsciously. But we do prepare for some things! We prepare to go out for a special occasion, with make up and perfumes or a clean shave and a fresh shirt. We prepare for the arrival of visitors by digging out the good crystal, laying the table, cleaning up the place a bit.
So we unashamedly asked the audience to prepare! While they might well enjoy “The Pilgrims of Slieve” on your mobile phone as they shuffled around tidying the kitchen, it was unlikely! Having paid good money to have us in their homes., we wanted them to get full value from us: to think of us as visitors, arriving, bearing gifts.
Get your house and your head ready, we said! Prepare to relax! Prepare to travel with us on a journey of the imagination.
Precisely what might this involve? A list of simple, practical tips to achieve it was published on a resource page accompanying the show. It applies to most online theatre experiences. You can read it here.
Welcome to the “News & Views” section of the website. None of the articles below have been edited since they were first published, so they represent shifting viewpoints over a decade. I have linked only to opinion pieces and personal essays (omitting old announcements). Some articles are short, others quite long. Enjoy!
In Ireland when I was growing up, hugging was not a thing. As a boy you hugged your Mammy, but that stopped at around 9 years of age. I probably hugged my Dad but I don’t remember it. That would have stopped even younger.
While some of the trendy teenage girls in Monaghan in the 1970s probably hugged each other on meeting, I don’t recall it being done in the presence of boys. I don’t recall ever being hugged as a teenager, except as part of my terribly awkward courtship efforts with equally awkward girls. I never hugged a boy. Professional footballers were beginning to do that on the television, but in St. Macartan’s school for boys, to hug a fellow would not have been a wise idea.
I may have hugged my Mother goodbye when I left home to move to Dublin at 17. If I did, it would have been a stiff and perfunctory gesture. In Dublin, I dropped out of teacher training college after a few weeks and went to work in a rather dull office job with Dublin Corporation. Some of the people there were remarkably modern and free thinking – philosophers and a few philanderers – but still no hugging. A manly handshake maybe, at a moment of achievement or a formal occasion. No hug.
Then I left and went to France for a long Summer. “Je t’embrace!”, relative strangers would say, and they would hug you. I liked it, although I was initially confused. The middle-aged farmer woman who was my employer hugged me. Is this OK? I wondered momentarily. But I understood intuitively that it was no more than a more “expressive” way of saying “Good Evening, the dinner is laid out!” At home, on the streets and via British television, we would have said “The French are very expressive!”, with just a little hint of sexual innuendo. For we knew no better.
Then I moved to Germany and everybody was hugging – at least all the young people were. Big bears of men welcomed me into their friendship circles with a hug. The Turkish men on the assembly line where I worked hugged each other. I befriended an Algerian man and the first time he hugged me, I felt safe in his companionship. I met and fell in love with a young German woman. Her girlfriends became my women friends and they always hugged me. I went on anti-nuclear marches and gay rights protests and everybody hugged everybody. I grew to love a good hug.
Meanwhile in Ireland it was the mid 1980s, and hugging was becoming more evident – perhaps with migrants returning, perhaps in tandem with the liberalisation of secular society. I moved from Munich to back to Dublin in 1984 and went to Trinity College where I joined the Players drama society where much hugging went on, and the Modern Languages Society which had a more mixed membership, from arty bohemians to earnest young academics, but hugs were acceptable there too. My German girlfriend could not settle in Ireland and left for home. My new life began. I joined the theatre and became involved in left wing protest politics. Gradually, invisibly, across society and age groups, hugging became common. My mother died young of cancer, at 62. I held her in my arms the day of her terminal diagnosis and we wept together.
I have been missing hugs. We hug at home, but for four months I have not hugged anyone outside my household. On March 12th, I attended the funeral of my dear old friend Gerry Morgan, who died – like my mother – too young, from cancer. It was the day before Lockdown and social distancing was being phased in. All the old pals, most of them theatre people and inveterate huggers, went around touching off each other, elbow to elbow in a strange new dance, while we still thought that such an aloof but proximate gesture was safe. At least we were there to see Gerry off in a moving ceremony.
Since then, I have lost a further four people who were either very dear to me or who were significant figures in my professional life. I have mourned their deaths alone at home: Larry McCluskey, an older man who loomed large at various points of my career – not an intimate friend but a man I held in some esteem and at whose funeral I would have met many dear friends; Liam O’Neill an ex-colleague I had warmly loved, who died of COVID 19; Mary McPartlan the singer, my mentor and beloved friend for a short period a decade ago when I worked at NUI Galway – another woman who died too young of cancer; Phil Taylor, exactly my age, a noted theorist and Head of the Educational Drama school at New York University who I grew to know after I began to work with their Dublin Study Abroad program in 2006; others in my local community I might not have known well, but were my good neighbours.
Last night I lay alone awhile in my bedroom listening to a beautiful recording of Mary McPartlan singing a song of loss. Mary was a woman who gave a good, powerful hug. I missed her hug. It occurred to me that I had not hugged anybody in the mourning of her untimely death – no former colleagues, none of the artists who worked with Mary and me those two years in Galway, none of the former students with whom I have stayed in touch; no member of her family. I felt a new kind of loneliness and loss.
We need to greet. We need to grieve in community. I need a hug, not a “virtual hug” – they don’t cut it. I went back to work outside the home for just one day this week, into a rehearsal room with fabulous colleagues, for a play reading. It was good to see them all again and to hear their voices echo in real airspace and not on headphones. But the smiles and coy waves on arrival, across our socially distanced work table, were as awkward to me as a hug was when I was 14. I look forward to the day when a hug is a thing again.
VIDEO: Mary McPartlan in performance. Courtesy of TG4.
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.