On January 6th 1982, a young Irish emigrant borrows an English language book from a library in Munich. He reads it over one evening. The course of his life is changed…. Forty years later, he walks onto a stage to recreate the magic of that night and perform one of the greatest short stories ever written in the English language.
Declan Gorman mixes memoir and the magic of live theatre to bring to life James Joyce’s much-loved January classic, “The Dead” in this warm and moving performance.
“A compelling performer” Irish Theatre Magazine
The early development of this play and initial Work-in-Progress presentations (December 2018) were made possible with generous bursary support from Fingal County Council and The Arts Council.
My very occasional blogs are usually about my practice and observations as an artist. The link between this article and my work is tenuous in that it does not arise from a particular ongoing project. But it speaks to a theme as embedded in my psyche and my creative output as family and self: the balance between Hope and Despair in my native country – or more pin-pointed – in the disputed territory that is Northern Ireland
While Artistic Director of Upstate, (1996-2010),I spent many enriching years as a playwright, director and public artist engaging with communities, audiences and fellow-artists in Northern Ireland and in my home ground just south of the border. I would define that era as a time of peace building.
I continued this “engagement” work, but with less urgency, in a freelance capacity from 2011 to 2015, when peace appeared finally to have settled. Then, in 2016, Brexit hit us, confusing, incongruous and potentially lethal as any ticking bomb might have been, post-Omagh.
In 2018, when I was appointed Theatre Artist in Residence for County Monaghan, I made a few efforts to engage with this new reality through artistic work, but drew back from the enormity of it. While I have avoided it in my work, through all this time, I have journaled obsessively – but never published – my turbulant thoughts on the implicatons of Brexit.
This year, Northern Ireland is 100 years old. In recent days, controversy has gathered around President Michael D Higgins’ decision not to attend a church service which set out to mark the partitioning of Ireland in 1921. Some commentators have stated that his decision was retrogressive. Did we not, after all, relinquish our claim to Northern Ireland when we voted to remove Articles 2 and 3 from the Irish Constitution in 1998? Can we not move on and let bygones be bygones? That particular remark has caused me to return to a journal entry I wrote some weeks ago, before the Higgins controversy erupted, and finally publish my personal views.
I hope this essay (1400 words) might find a few readers and stimulate some honest reflection on the irreparable damage Brexit has done and the subtle way it has changed (utterly!) the context of all talk of peace and reconciliation.
Above all, I hope that the finest and most imaginative minds on this island and beyond might begin to think up new pathways out of the brewing disaster we are living in but failing to name. Certainly tinkering with a trading protocol and providing reactionary forces with phantom causes will do no more than postpone a looming tragedy …
WHAT HOPE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND?
One of the reasons so many people in Ireland were, and remain, appalled by the Brexit Referendum is that no political event in our lifetime better illustrates the failure of a people (the people of Britain) to understand or learn lessons from their own history.
In 1998 voters in both parts of the partitioned island of Ireland collectively set aside centuries of enmity and polled in favour of the Good Friday Agreement.
By an even greater majority, the people of the Republic voted to repeal Articles 2 and 3 of a constitution that had staked claim to disputed northern territory which had remained in Britain’s keep for almost 80 years after their occupation of the southern regions of Ireland ended.
While this momentous 1998 peace accord is usually analysed in terms of its impact within Ireland, it is helpful to reflect on the gift that the Good Friday Agreement was to the people of Britain.
After centuries of sporadic warring between the two nations, and bitter strife locally between British colonisers and their descendants on one hand and indigenous Irish people on the other, Irish voters agreed, en-masse and for the sake of peace, to allow Britain retain dominion in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement also allowed one million ethnic Britons with by-now deep roots in Irish soil to live and look ahead without further fear of armed rebellion.
The key condition was that Irish identity would be recognised as wholly equal in what would remain a British territory but be reinvented as a shared society.
Underpinning or – perhaps more accurately – overarching this concept of a shared society was the relatively new 20th century context of a peaceful and largely borders-free Europe, where Britain and Ireland co-existed as equal members of the European Union. It was a sensible modern-day compromise and an apparent conclusion to a centuries-old history of colonisation and land theft too embedded by now to be reversed, but until modern times ever-raw and ever-oppressive.
And then, no sooner was accommodation reached but, within 18 short years, this generation of British political leaders, and so many of their unthinking followers in England in particular, threw the gift of the Good Friday Agreement back in the faces not only of Irish people and their European allies, but of their own fellow British-identifying people in Northern Ireland.
In extracting themselves permanently from the European Union, Britain removed overnight the only context within which ethnic and national identities on these islands might evolve outside of the historically exclusive tenets of territorial ownership. In simple language, the Brits took back the North. The people of England reclaimed Northern Ireland as exclusively British, and no longer shared-European. Ignorant British voters may not have known – but their leaders most certainly did – that it has never been, and never will be, possible to live at ease in an exclusively British part of Ireland and identify freely and equally as Irish.
The reality, therefore, is that the Good Friday Agreement is to all intents and purposes dead in the water. Irish and European negotiators are currently struggling to protect some of the economic and bureaucratic structures enshrined in the accord which are now in disarray. But nobody appears to be acknowledging that the Agreement itself has no basis anymore. That ship has sailed and with it the only apparent hope of a mutually acceptable accommodation.
If the people of a disputed territory can no longer be “British, Irish or both” as the generous dispensation of shared EU membership allowed, then it follows that Northern Ireland and her people officially can only be one or the other: British or Irish.
Northern Ireland is currently exclusively British once again. You can hold an Irish passport and enjoy rights just as Indian or Dutch people in Belfast may hold Indian or Dutch passports and be entitled to certain rights. But you have no ownership. You cannot be loyal to the only recognised governing polity. You are once again a foreigner in your own land.
While there have been disturbances and the young journalist Lyra McKee had her life taken away in one such catastrophic incident, by and large nobody has taken to armed warfare about this just yet. Sinn Féin, however, are pushing for a poll that would – they anticipate – swing things so that Northern Ireland would secede from the United Kingdom and be “re-united” into a new all-island Irish Republic. If that happened, then Northern Ireland would become exclusively Irish. Republican advocates of this strategy tell us with blithe confidence they are certain one million ethic Britons will accept this four-hundred year reversal and welcome the economic benefits of a future United Ireland.
As if economics has ever had anything to do with identity in Ireland.
While some romantic ideal of a United Ireland may appeal to the naïve among us as well as to more belligerent Republicans, anyone who has ever studied Northern Irish history will know that it can never come about without bloodshed, counter revolution and a different kind of counter repression. Consider Unionist and Loyalist reaction to every perceived threat, however minor, to the Union with Great Britain, from Home Rule to the Civil Rights movement to Sunningdale to the lowering of Union flags over certain public buildings. Every such move has been greeted with mob mobilisation and violence up to the level of murderous pogroms and random assasinations of nationalist Catholics.
Perhaps the reason so few people are facing the reality that the shared identity solution is now off the table is that eternal warfare seems the only corollary, and it is simply too terrible to contemplate. So, politicians tinker around the edges, seeking to salvage or undermine this Protocol or that Annex designed to preserve institutions and trade corridors that were viable only in the brief time of our shared EU history.
It is almost impossible to see how the safeguard of European Union membership can be replaced in the future with any framework that could allow Northern Ireland to be neither one thing predominantly nor the other.
The only possible hope may lie not in an overarching, protective super-national community but through radical new investment in the concept of community at the most local level.
Unless and until the peace-preferring people of Northern Ireland can turn respectively to London, Dublin, Brussels and their own enslaving dominant politicians and say, “Step away for a while and leave us to talk and figure out a way of our own”, the hovering menace of renewed division and suppressed violence will fester until it once again explodes, as it has done cyclically over the past 100 years and for centuries before that.
In short, extreme devolution in tandem with meaningful cross community local dialogue and empowerment may be the last and only hope. But right now, the only people with the means to do this, the power-greedy politicians leading the dominant parties within Northern Ireland, are offering no hope. No real talking, no honest acknowledgment of the true problem – just position-taking and subtle, incremental incitement to violence.
There is some light – it peeps in, in little chinks. While violence has simmered, it has not yet ignited. There is much talk of new identities – gender, intercultural, ability and so on. Young people in a global world, we are told, are ahead of and bored with all that old national identity politics.
But we thought that to be the case too in the heady, progressive 1960s when Protestant and Catholic marched together for Civil Rights, and look what happened. One bomb, one sectarian assassination, one deadly riot, one Twelfth march that turns violent, one street of houses set alight. That is what it takes to drive the well-meaning in a society without safe structures back behind barricades as the old warmongers reclaim the streets. Without structural support and great acts of letting go by current power-holders, young people with all their new ideas and identities will not make it alone. Enmity, hatred and hurt have long memories.
It is pitiful, five years after Brexit, to see politicians still playing games that stir up divisive sentiment. It took just 18 years for Britain, true to form, to unravel the only apparent basis for peace in Ireland. It may take 18 years and more for Ireland to experience the worst consequences. But if things continue as they are, with bad faith now a badge of honour in Downing Street, misguided band-aid approaches from Europe and incendiary cynicism the main currency in local Ulster politics, those consequences will eventually play out.
It would suit all concerned better to prevent this: to speak honestly to the insecurities and ancient fears of the “other” in this still bi-polar society rather than play to their own gallery just now. Ah but that takes local leadership! And where, oh where, will that come from?
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, for this “online theatre event” we unashamedly ask the audience to prepare!
While they might well enjoy “The Pilgrims of Slieve” on a 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 below:
THE PILGRIMS OF SLIEVE
TOP TIPS FOR VIEWING:
Watching a 90-minute online play is very different to just flopping down to watch a TV show.
Here are 10 top tips to make the most of your Ten Euro Ticket.
We recommend that you:
1. “Arrive on time and ready”: Don’t find yourself running around after the play starts, looking for speaker cables or whatever. Once you sit down, sit down!
2. Watch on a laptop rather than a phone. (You can also watch on a Smart TV, but the medium scale of the laptop gives the best picture).
3. Arrange the viewing room so you can sit comfortably in front of the laptop.
4. Dim the lighting in the viewing room, even if you don’t normally do this for TV. This is theatre, not television.
5. Use external speakers, if you have them! Sound is important. The better the speakers, the better the experience.
6. TURN OFF ALL MOBILE PHONES!!!!!
7. You might like to pour yourself a drink: maybe even indulge in a box of chocolates! But have it all ready in advance. Don’t be getting up mid-way through to go to the fridge or the loo.
8. Think of anything else that might disturb your viewing, and do your best to deal with it beforehand: the barking dog; the roasting dinner; the children’s bedtime. We know that every home has its own circumstances and some interruptions are inevitable. YOU know what is best in your “home theatre”!
10. ONE FINAL INSIDER TIP! You can (and preferably should) watch the full 90 minute drama in one sitting. But if you really need to step away, you can of course pause it after 35 minutes (End of Act 1) or 70 minutes (End of Act 2)!
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.