Blog

Taking on The Big Fellow

I am delighted to be working with my old composer friend and creative partner Colin Blakey and two terrific young actors, Gerard Adlum and Cillian O’Gairbhi to bring my new show, The Big Fellow to the stage this May.  Based on Frank O’Connor’s biography of Michael Collins it is co-produced by The Drogheda Arts Festival and Co-Motion Media.  The script has been developed with some support from the Abbey Theatre and most of the fundraising so far has been by my own Bachelors Walk Productions.  Read more about the show on the Bachelors Walk website here.

Big Fellow 1
Cillain O’Gairbhi as Collins and Gerard Adlum as O’Connor in The Big Fellow
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#WakingTheFeminists – Looking Back as we Look Forward

The Abbey Debate 1994
The Abbey Debate 1994

Introduction

I first became conscious of the sexist tendency in public life and the need proactively to counter it, through political and community activism in the late 1980s, when, along with many other theatre and arts colleagues I took part in the Miscarriages of Justice Campaign planning the Parade of Innocence (1989-90). This human rights project was led mainly by women; it was conscious of family realities and of the need in large public meetings, at the selection process for committees, at the nomination of spokespersons and so on, to be aware of bias and inequity. Justice would not be achieved in the outside world if it was not fundamental to the working practices of the movement. A simple and helpful guideline.

Later, as programmer of the theatre at City Arts Centre, my role in promoting the vibrant community drama movement of the time brought me into local halls and rehearsal rooms peopled mainly mainly by women, whose capacity to achieve and create art for change within collective, listening environments impressed me deeply and informed my own later working practices as a director. In the same period City Arts Centre hosted a number of shows and events by Glasshouse Productions (Caroline Williams, Katy Hayes, Clare Dowling and Sian Quill) which was dedicated to promoting and campaigning for women writers in theatre. Their ideas and public meetings anticipated this month’s revolution by two decades. When I accepted an invitation from Carol Coulter to submit an article about the Abbey to the Irish Times in 1994 (see below), I had no hesitation in consulting with colleagues in the community sector and in women’s campaigns as part of my 24-hour turnaround time, and any credit for my ‘fiery article’ as Brendan Kennelly labelled it, must be shared with those who added to my own observations before I leapt in.

#WakingTheFeminists – a historical precedent

“The failure to address women’s work is another scandal in the Abbey’s recent history. Two Irish women’s plays have been staged in [the last] five years, only one by a living author. […] The Abbey should make reparation for the systematic exclusion of women from the writer’s library. If Rough Magic can do it with a £5,000 awards initiative, surely the National Theatre can.”

This is from an article I submitted to the Irish Times (by invitation) which was published not this week but in June 1994, twenty-one years ago. Some months later, I was one of several panelists of mixed genders invited to take part in “The Abbey Debate”, a generous attempt by Artistic Director Patrick Mason and the Abbey board of the day to respond to those who had called the theatre’s policies and practices into question. (I was one of dozens in that crisis year, and the issues under discussion included not only gender but social exclusion, disability access, the closure of the education programme and a general sense that the Abbey had become isolated from the wider theatre).

At the public debate, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, whose play ‘Dún na mBan Trí Thine’ had recently run at the Peacock, stated, “The complaints directed against theatre in general and the Abbey in particular for its neglect of women playwrights are so commonplace that I hardly need to reiterate them.” Eilis went on to give a reasoned analysis of why women in past times might have shyed away from the ‘masculine’ public world of theatre writing, but noted however that “times are changing. A lot of women have been writing for the theatre for more than twenty years. Why do we see so few plays by women in the National Theatre?” She concluded, “Over the next ten years, one of the Abbey’s main tasks will be to risk taking on board the feminine voice. If it neglects to do this, the National Theatre will write itself out of the history of European drama in the twentieth century”.

Karin McCully then presented some salient statistics, looking back over her first year working within the Abbey script department. “On average, only fifteen per cent of all the unsolicited scripts received by the Abbey have been by women. Roughly fifteen per cent of of all the plays ever produced by the Abbey have been by women. In other words if we were to produce more plays by women now, we would be practising positive discrimination, and we would rather practice no discrimination.” Responding, Eilis stated, “I could not bear the idea of being positively discriminated against. It is as bad as being discriminated against negatively, worse in fact. But as far as women and plays are concerned, there probably is a case for nurturing them. I think women need to be drawn into the world of plays.. […] I would never myself have thought of writing a play if someone had not approached me.”

Earlier, Éilís had commented that “drama only exists in performance, and playwriting skills can best be learned by working in the theatre. Women writing alone in the corners of kitchens, where they have for centuries written their poems, short stories and novels, cannot create plays.”

That was in 1994. In 1995, the Arts Council stepped in and initiated “The Review of Theatre in Ireland”, a year-long research and consultation process which helped to realign overall national theatre policy and address some of the fundamental inequities raised in the 1994 debates – but, as history has shown us, not the gender inequities. I have written elsewhere that the promise of the Theatre Review and most of the reforms it did appear to bring were squandered anyway in the decimation of the independent sector in 2008-9. So in many ways we are back where we were in 1994, with one difference. There are now considerably more professional women embedded within the Irish theatre and thousands of others at home and abroad who have risen together and who will not allow this situation to repeat or continue any longer.

I have written a second essay this week, contemplating what forward movement might look like after #WakingTheFeminists – but I am holding it back as I suspect it will add nothing to the intelligence that will emerge from tomorrow’s public meeting at the Abbey. For now, I stand in solidarity outside the Abbey with the women who have gone in to change it.

WHAT I MISUNDERSTOOD (or why there is no longer a national policy for theatre in Ireland)

What I Misunderstood

A personal essay on a matter of arts policy

Theatre of the Nation? A community theatre workshop at Creative Spark, Dundalk 2013
Theatre of the Nation? A community theatre workshop at Creative Spark, Dundalk 2013

In 1995 I took up a position for one year with The Arts Council as Coordinator of the “Review of Theatre in Ireland”, a research and consultation process intended to inform future policy in the matter of funding and provision for theatre in Ireland.  It was an intelligently designed and genuinely open process of listening and learning.  The immediate preceding context was a raging debate in the media about the Abbey Theatre: in light of the mushrooming of independent professional theatre organisations and venues all around the country, could the National Theatre continue to lay claim to the lion’s share of state funding with the rest receiving crumbs off the table?  Did the concept of a National Theatre hold up at all?  Were we dealing with a new movement, as important and radical now as the Abbey had been in the founding years of the State, a movement referred to by Prof. Ciaran Benson, the Arts Council Chairman as “Theatre of the Nation”? I was sufficiently fired up by these questions to leave my exciting post as theatre programmer at the City Arts Centre in Dublin and take on the job of facilitating what was shaping up to be a national conversation.

The Abbey board was initially suspicious of the Review and indeed of my own involvement in it.  I had, after all, been a critic of the status quo and also of aspects of the Abbey institution itself.  But such was the open and fair nature of the Review that the board and Artistic Director of the Abbey, once reassured, played a central part in it and indeed, thereafter, through the good offices of Patrick Mason, led the initiative that became Theatre Forum.  They were persuaded that this would not be a simplistic Abbey v. The Rest tussle as some in the media might have wished, but something much more far-reaching.  The early ‘90s was the era of national arts planning.  The State seemed on the point of embracing and supporting the arts as a fundamental staple of national identity and consciousness, rather than a flouncy add-on.  Theatre would be the first artform to enjoy a process of research, international benchmarking, genuine national consultation and in due course a national policy.  Nobody was under any illusion that the resources required to provide in a genuine way for a “theatre of the nation” would suddenly drop from Heaven.  The point was that at least the value of such an ideal would be investigated and costed, and long term strategies would be put in place to move from a position of general ignorance and impoverishment in the matter of contemporary theatre practice in Ireland to one of knowledge and the beginnings of strategic investment.

It was a heady time of hope and genuine change.  The public reports and internal papers of that year stand as the most comprehensive analysis ever assembled of how theatre comes to be produced in Ireland, with chapters on community, youth, amateur, educational and commercial theatre as well as the main spine on how the Abbey and the bulwark of independent professional companies and regional venues might co-exist.  The slim policy document “Going On” which emerged at the end of the Review lacked specifics and was inevitably compromised, but nonetheless represented a massive step forward from the ad-hoc and piecemeal distribution of funding that had preceded it.  I had no  hand personally in the “Going On” document: I had already moved on, the research now done, but I welcomed it.  I understood the new policy to be a blueprint that would guarantee for decades to come that independent companies could settle, grow and receive modest public funding on an annual basis for those aspects of their artistic programming that could be defined as “public” or “civic” – be it producing stimulating new theatre for local audiences; touring; community-engagement; niche specialisation in areas such as clown, physical theatre, translated works, children’s theatre, street spectacle or whatever.

By the end of that year, the Arts Council had embraced the mantle “national development agency for the arts in Ireland” – not quite a national provider but a State agency with a clear and confident sense of national mission.  We appeared to be on the cusp of new era.  And for a period it seemed that the promise of “Going On” was actually falling into place, albeit haphazardly.  Companies in Sligo, Limerick, Waterford and Clonmel found themselves enjoying a new, more secure status and in some cases even saw substantial hikes in annual funding.  (This tended to be the haphazard element!)  Companies in Dublin and Cork became adroit at defining their niche or community value and were funded well or modestly accordingly.  I, myself, undertook research into establishing a community-engaged theatre enterprise in Drogheda and in due course, when a board of directors was appointed, I took up a full-time position as Artistic Director of Upstate Theatre Project, an exemplary model of a regional company which quickly earned funding for its community and artistic programmes in equal measure from the Arts Council and various European and regional bodies.

But in all of this I had profoundly misunderstood one fundamental thing.  Policy is not law: neither is it forever.

To be fair to myself and my peers, we did appreciate that policy is not a fixed entity: it must be fluid, responding to social, cultural and demographic change.  In the subsequent years many of us continued to campaign and advocate for developments and improvements.  As Ireland became a multicultural nation we argued for interculturalism to permeate policy.  As transparency and accountability became increasingly the norm in other sectors, I developed an argument for a radical change in how funding should be sought and distributed, proposing that companies should tender (as distinct from apply) for the funds they received.  This latter argument became central to my thinking.  Theatre organisations were providing a form of public service, it seemed to me.  We were making available to the public at affordable cost, quality artistic events and engagement opportunities that could not be provided commercially and could not be provided directly by any arm of the state itself.  The public value of our work was self-evident: we were helping to define our nation as a cultured society with its own indigenous rhythms, beats and sounds, and not just a remote market for imported mass-produced artefacts.  I believed (and continue to believe) that this service to the nation was as vital as environmental protection, law and order, education and other public services.  I was increasingly uneasy with the cap-in-hand image that still hung over our sector and I contended that a simple inversion of the funding equation would resolve this matter.  The State needs art and cultural diversity to define itself as modern, civilised and mentally healthy.  We are the providers of art.  The State needs us.  The state, via the Arts Council, should therefore invite organisations to tender for contracts of defined duration, renewable or to be terminated by future tender.  We should be fully accountable to the taxpayer, yes, but once shown to be efficient, duly governed and dedicated, we should be left alone to make art in the public realm.

Instead, the public need and value of theatre was never formally acknowledged, and a slight whiff of the old stigma remained, namely that we were “dependent”: self-indulgent artists being helped along to “do our own thing”, simply because art is in some ill-defined way “special” but cannot pay its way.  Far from disabusing the media and public of this view, the Arts Council began to slip back into using terms like “high levels of dependency” in its reports, addressing the sector sometimes as though it were a problem rather than the national asset it had once set out to support and regulate.  We would continue to be required to submit annual applications for the gift of funding.  New personalities came in time to replace those within the Arts Council who had overseen the Theatre Review. A power-play was at work wherein the artist was not seen after all as an equal contributor but rather a dependent.  It was a dynamic which left me increasingly uneasy.

Notwithstanding this regression in attitudes, I continued to believe that the essential principles enshrined in the “Going On” document were now embedded.  I thought that if policy were ever again to change radically, it could only be on foot of a further national consultation and evidence of changed demographics and production patterns.  This was exceptionally naive of me, I can now see.  In 2008-2009 the prevailing theatre policy was suddenly and unilaterally abandoned by the Arts Council.  I and many of my peers were deeply shocked that this could happen, that by decree of a couple of internal Arts Council meetings, everything we had built, all of our investment and – for many – our very livelihoods could be taken away.  Of course the background context was drastic.  The economy had imploded.  Radical responses were needed from every sector of society including the humble theatre.  But we were never asked for our response – not in any meaningful way.  There was no proper consultation, only briefings.  Decisions were handed to us from on high in the form of cuts, closures and resulting redundancies, and in a blinding flash, many of us came to understand the folly of our belief in a system which had remained top-down and had never had statutory or contractual foundation.

Apart from the global financial crisis there was another niggling difficulty at work by 2008.  Even before the economy collapsed, the system of annually-repeating revenue funding to companies was coming under strain.  More and more theatre artists were graduating from college as youth and community art flourished and artistic career paths and training became socially acceptable and no longer exotic.  With no consistent recruitment or intake mechanisms built in to the existing funded organisations, these newly emerging artists did what others before them had always done.  They formed yet more companies and arrived at the same doorstep on Merrion Square with their valid applications also to be funded.  Initially, the Once-Off Projects funding scheme seemed to absorb the best of this new wave, but eventually the twenty-two year old graduates turned thirty and their legitimate claims to sustainable careers and a place in this ‘public service’ of artistic provision could not be met from an already overstretched revenue funding pot.  The absence of a national tendering system combined with the Arts Council’s drift back towards a patronage philosophy exacerbated this problem.  Younger practitioners were left with little option but to call for the unseating of longer serving companies to make room now for them.   There were dark and usually unwarranted mutterings about “dead wood” and “over-funded companies” who had allegedly “reached their sell-by dates”.  In more responsible conversations, Theatre Forum had begun to acknowledge the very real issue of the exclusion of new talent, but nobody as yet had any bright solutions other than the unstructured Darwinian overthrow which would make nonsense of the notion of sustainable provision or personal career paths for which the previous generation had fought so hard.

It was especially galling, therefore, when the economic collapse hit, that this genuine dialogue within the sector was used by the Arts Council as an excuse for some of its miserable funding decisions.  At a Theatre Forum meeting in Limerick, Council representatives insisted that the forthcoming cuts arose from what they called “blue skies thinking” which would see parts of the old guard disinherited in order to make room for the new.  Some months later, at a tense meeting at the National Concert Hall when the first and worst round of cuts had been implemented, the same line was trotted out and I recall having a heated argument with a much-respected younger colleague in the corridor where he argued that the removal of revenue funding from “tired” companies was a good thing.  I did not get into the question of who determines who is “tired” or by what accountable yardstick.  It was too late for that.  I countered simply that the Council’s new approach placed all of us now in a vacuum wherein a career in independent theatre for any individual artist, or a relationship between a town’s population and an indigenous theatre company, could never again be built.  And I predicted that no new organisation would come to be revenue funded to replace the allegedly “tired” ones now dumped overboard.  This of course has been borne out.

So my mistake, my misunderstanding, was to believe that arts policy was a charter that would be referred to in times not only of growth but of contraction; a logical set of rules that would offer protection to those it covered, as laws or contracts do.  The Arts Council tore up the policy.  In fairness, they were under unimaginable pressure from Government to find savings overnight.  And in truth, they did nothing wrong (in the legal sense) in tearing up the policy.  It was written on sand.  It was already fraying anyway as new personalities with new ideologies and preferences took up position on the politically appointed council.  It was their entitlement.  The mistake was on our side, my side – to believe that just because a thing had been written down based on consultation, vision and logic it had any real standing when a gale would blow.

So where are we left now, five years on from those traumatic days of cuts and redundancies?  The 1995-96 Theatre Review appeared for a time to promise an infrastructure along the lines eloquently proposed by playwright John McArdle at one of its public meetings; one where each catchment population might have a serviced venue; an embedded professional production company; access to educational and children’s theatre, participative youth and community drama of quality and a nurturing environment for the amateur sector.  In my more optimistic moments back then, I imagined that the “hard” (buildings) and “soft” (people and ideas) infrastructure of the performing arts would come in time to be funded like schools and health centres within communities in every corner of the land.  There would be permanence on one hand but constant innovation on another.  That dream has died.  Also dead is my long held understanding that the Arts Council is a national agency for the arts in Ireland, for without a national infrastructure and concomitant investment, there can be no truly ‘national’ agency.  Rather, the Arts Council nowadays provides limited amounts of ongoing funding to a restricted number of solid institutions, mainly concentrated in the capital with a few scattered sporadically elsewhere around the country.  It has expressed the desire to reduce further the number of these funded bodies.  It otherwise runs prize-giving competitions in the form of once-off award schemes and talks constantly about ‘a highly competitive environment’ and the need for artists to ‘make a compelling case’ in order to be “deserving” of funding.  A far cry from a provision agency for a nation.

For all of this disappointment, I do not and we should not despair.  The State is less than one hundred years old and is part of a global financial system in which it is beholden to banks, bondholders, the IMF and other external masters.  We have not quite emerged yet as a true republic.  It is less than fifty years since free secondary education was introduced in Ireland and less than two decades since the grip of the Catholic Church was loosened on public affairs generally. The State has had an ambivalent relationship with the arts from Day 1.  We were the first in the world to fund a national theatre and our founding parliament had a cabinet minister for the arts.  This early open-mindedness gave way quickly to the censorship of publications era which ended only in the 1980s.  If the State seemed on the brink of a radical embracing of the arts in the early ‘90s with the restoration of an arts ministry, the first national arts plan and then a working policy for theatre provision across the country, we should not be surprised that it rowed back when the banks collapsed and our sovereignty was conceded.

On our side of the table, artists have neither died out nor gone away.  The soul, drive, imagination and courage of the artist are powerful forces that can survive bruised hopes or governments which continue to pay lipservice to art and public but fail adequately to provide for either.  Artists will continue to make great art and to connect with communities.  The most enterprising among them will find new side-routes to funding and earned income until such time as intelligence and courage return at government and Arts Council level and the idea of a citizen-centred arts provision on a national basis is revisited.  New campaigns will ignite in the future and succeed at the very least in realigning and improving the current inadequate system of theatre funding, even if the dream of a sustainable national infrastructure has melted away for now.  Next time, however, I would hope to see the livelihoods of artists and their families as well as the cultural growth of communities protected in something more robust than a flimsy policy paper that is subject to the whims of the changing personalities appointed to passing Arts Councils.

THE DOGS OF PEACE: a personal reflection arising from the Theatre of War symposium at the Abbey Theatre

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Photo taken from The Abbey Theatre Facebook page

Bear with me as I work through a clumsy metaphor.

Driving home this afternoon after two and a half days at the Theatre of War Symposium at the Abbey I found myself incongruously thinking about a dog I saw once on a tram, over thirty years ago. Although I was 21, I knew very little about dogs. We’d never had one at home. I had just arrived in Munich, a nervous emigrant boy, fresh off the boat and train. An elderly woman boarded the tram accompanied by a gigantic male German Shepherd. I felt momentarily uneasy. My understanding of Alsatians was that they are innately violent, bred as working dogs for the security industry, the police and armies. I’d seen them in old war movies, assisting bloodthirsty Nazi officers to sniff out and shred apart escaped prisoners. But the dog lay down at my feet, whimpered gently and placed its head between its front paws. I sensed that it was saying something very directly to me: “I am a gentle dog,” it said. “I care for an old lady. Don’t presume, don’t judge, don’t condemn…”

I couldn’t retrace the precise sequence of thoughts that had taken me from listening to Marina Carr quoting Aeschylus in a hushed Abbey auditorium to a long forgotten Bavarian dog. But it had to do with instinct versus influence. I had arrived at the Abbey conference slightly late on Thursday afternoon, with a queston in my head about wars. What is it that drives some men to visit violence upon other men, women and children? For most wars, as we know, are planned and fought by men. On Day 2 of the symposium, Rwandan artist Hope Azeda posed an even more dreadful question, ‘What makes a man kill a baby at close quarters?’ At the end of the third day of electrifying testimony from artists who live and work in war zones or in post-conflict situations around the world, I was no closer to an answer but had formulated some additional questions. Are men innately violent? Is there a need in human society periodically to allow men release innate rage through war and atrocity, as one psychologist quoted by Marina Carr suggested?

Carr’s concluding paper had contextualised the contemporary war narratives with an evocative journey through the long history of political conflict, right back to the roots of Western civilisation in ancient Greek history and myth. Men have gone to war and sent other men to war forever. But if mass slaughter and acts of intimate brutality are indeed a cyclical inevitability in human history, and if men are truly driven by violent urges, what is it then that prevents so many of us from violent inclination or actions? Are we, like the German Shepherd, the product of training and influence? I came later to learn that Alsatians are neither innately vicious nor kindly. They can be trained to kill or to care. They can do either equally well. Is this the way with men? Am I and my five brothers and my old Dad and all of the good men that I know, simply the beneficiaries of conditioning: strong mothers, comparatively stable politics, comparatively affluent times and location on the globe? I am fortunate in that, to my knowledge, nobody in my close circle has ever committed a bloody act, although a few distant relatives and ancestors certainly took up arms for Ireland. But could I as easily have been a violent man? Could I have gone into politics or become a military leader wilfully sending young men out to die and kill? Would I have taken up the sniper’s rifle or loaded up the car bomb to kick back as a young man if my own home community in Monaghan had been attacked systematically rather than in just one notorious car bombing incident? In extremis, in some given set of circumstances, would I have killed a child simply because demented humans under orders do that kind of thing, because it became my turn, my duty, my providence in the terrible lottery of history?

These were undoubtedly the what-ifs of an over-stimulated consciousness, exercised by three days of unsettling witness at the conference, where we were bombarded with words, figures, maps and images. The fact is that unambiguously I abhor violence. But I was more ambivalent about it in my youth.

In the same month that I enountered the dog in Munich, IRA volunteer Bobby Sands died back home on hunger strike. Germans would ask me my views on the IRA and I would carefully explain about British occupation, Bloody Sunday, Thatcher’s obduracy, Loyalist supremacy, the Monaghan and Dublin bombs and all the wrongs and injustices done daily to the Nationalist people of Northern Ireland, among them members of my own extended family. “But do you agree with the violence?” my new girlfriend and her friends would ask. They were all pacifists. I went on my first ever demonstration with them, to protest against Perishing and Cuise missiles. “I disagree with State violence,” I would answer evasively, “How would you feel if your kid sister was killed by a British army plastic bullet?”

But even then I was privately confused and already uncertain of the righteousness of the defenders from “my side”, even though I understood (as I still believe) that an ingrained official culture of oppression, discrimination and brutal suppression of peaceful protest had created the conditions out of which the modern IRA had arisen. Home for Christmas, I bought Bobby Sands’ books and other publications selected randomly from left wing shops to improve my consciousness; ‘Beyond Orange and Green’ by Belinda Probert; Tim Pat Coogan’s history of the IRA; James Connolly’s pamphlets. Back in Germany I worked by day building car engines in a BMW workshop where all the other men were either Turkish or Yugos (as they were known then). They nicknamed me ‘Belfast’ or ‘Bobby Sands’ because that was all they knew about my country. In the evenings I joined my German girlfriend’s student pals in yet more peace marches; anti-nuclear rallies; a feminist ‘Reclaim the Streets’ event; a gay pride parade. At the same time, I bought an old Volkswagen Combi and drove late nights to remote areas of the parklands along with an Algerian workmate to smoke dope, speak French, listen alternatively to Arabic music or Van Morrisson. We talked revolution. “Play Belfast, play Belfast,” he would say, meaning put on the Van cassette. “Gadaffi, il est fort!”, he would announce, and I would smile and tell him how the Colonel had supplied arms to the anti-imperial comrades in Northern Ireland, daftly unaware of the irony of spouting such Republican blather to the mellow tones of a Belfast Protestant gospel singer. The next day I would be out and about with my trendy German friends again with a pacifist t-shirt on me.

A few years later, back in Dublin, I joined Socialist Worker for a period, read politics in a more cohesive order and began finally to make sense of the confusing history of modern Ireland. I reflected particularly on the dubious strategic value, whatever the morality, of the permanent IRA campaign, with its regular fuck-ups; Australian tourists shot dead in a botched shooting in Holland; a baby killed in an ambush on a British soldier’s car in Germany. What must my by now ex-girlfriend and her pacifist friends back in Munich think? And yet what were the Nationalist people in the North to do in the face of indiscriminate Loyalist murder campaigns and the incitement to hatred and sectarianism of the demagogic leaders of Unionism? When my detached middle class Dublin friends blithely condemned the IRA, often in the same breath expressing contempt for nationalists and Northerners generally, I bristled at their smug moralising and reverted to contextualising, if not quite justifying, a campaign that I believed deep down to be futile, counter-productive and self-perpetuating, but also morally inexcusable.

The Parade of Innocence (Photo Derek Speirs) front cover of Irish Actors Equity quarterly
The Parade of Innocence (Photo Derek Speirs) front cover of Irish Actors Equity quarterly

I had gone back to college and joined the theatre by this stage. My political turning point was The Parade of Innocence. I left Socialist Worker amicably, eighteen months after joining. I stood over everything I had learned there. I had written articles for their tabloid, spoken at meetings, read Marx and the contemporary revolutionary writers, but I knew that I was too much of a reformist at heart to make a true revolutionary. I had come, almost ashamedly, to believe in democracy. The Parade of Innocence was a massive street demonstration and artistic spectacle to demand justice for certain men imprisoned by the British for terrorist bombings of which they were patently innocent. Hundreds of artists and thousands of citizens got behind the event. I played a small role along with dozens of others in bringing it to fruition. It changed the face of protest forever in Ireland and by a year later, there had been several Parade events, notably one that took place in sixty cities around the globe on one day to demand the release of the Birmingham Six. We were non-violent people campaigning on behalf of non-violent men who had been beaten up by the British police and wrongly jailed by a corrupt judiciary as part of the machinery of British warfare in Ireland. We had gone the international human rights route. We were passionate artists working in a coalition with brilliant, strategic justice campaigners. When the prisoners were released and welcomed home in 1991, we felt that we had made a difference, bringing final momentum to the seventeen year campaign of the prisoners’ families and dedicated people of conscience. Reformist peaceful methods had won out.

"I pulled over outside an off-licence to listen as American senator George Mitchell declared peace in Ireland. I turned off the ignition and began to cry. I cried and cried."
“I pulled over outside an off-licence to listen as American senator George Mitchell declared peace in Ireland. I turned off the ignition and began to cry. I cried and cried.”

Three years later the IRA declared a historic ceasefire. Gerry Adams and his people were proposing peace. Solid old John Hume, a conservative Social Democrat had been working secretly with Adams towards this moment. It was a good day, but the ceasefire broke down more than once. And appalling murders continued to be carried out by Loyalists. But peace talk was now constantly in the air. A leader called David Ervine emerged from the Loyalist smoke and he talked eloquently about his own personal journey into violence as a younger man, ruminating now on the futility of it all. Gusty Spence, the prototype Loyalist killer gathered his men into a press conference and expressed his abject shame and apologies in old age at the wrongs he and his followers had done in their youth. Presidents and prime ministers flew in for talks and suddenly on Good Friday in 1998, a peace accord was signed, an imperfect treaty that would probably cement sectarian differences into the future, but a signed accord nonetheless. I was driving through Drogheda alone, on my way home from rehearsals, when it was announced on live radio. We had been waiting for several days to see if the non-stop talks would yield an agreement. I pulled over outside an off-licence to listen as American senator George Mitchell declared peace in Ireland. I turned off the ignition and began to cry. I cried and cried.

I cried again today. To my own astonishment, saying goodbye to a Dublin symposium delegate who I barely know, I welled up and could not answer her question, “What did you make of it all?”. I tried to articulate the questions forming in my mind about men and war and nature v. nurture, but could not quite express myself. After she left, I hung about saying goodbye to other colleagues and new acquaintances. The five women profiled in Project Ariadne gathered in the Abbey foyer for the first photo ever taken of them together. These are five artists located in separate parts of the world making meaningful theatre in the midst of wars. I stood apart from everyone else and watched that quiet moment of history. I had heard four of them speak and I admired them all.

I went over after the photo and spoke briefly to Frédérique leComte who works in Congo and Burundi with ex-child soldiers, war-rape survivors, bereaved persons, torture survivors and their torturers. I thanked her for the powerful images she had shown us of the artistic work and the honesty with which she had addressed the ethics of working within the “Peace Industry”. She had described the problematic reality of accepting a peacekeeper’s job and wage from the same governments which overty or covertly profit from arms sales to warzones. I thought about some of my own cross border and cross community theatre work in Ireland, funded as it has been from European Union funds; British Council funds; Irish Arts Council funds – when the parliaments behind these entities are complicit in the perpetuation of global wars, whether by selling arms or allowing warplanes to land and refuel. I said to Frédérique that I believe her work is vital nonetheless because it helps to reverse the tide of violence; it assists the hurt to heal; it enables some of the men previously caught up in wrongdoing to reflect on the self-destructive consequences of carrying out evil orders. She listened and took my hand graciously and I fought back tears again. I felt that I was saying goodbye to an inspirational sister that I didn’t know I had.

Leaving the Abbey I felt I was departing after a huge family gathering, one of those reunions where you only get to say a fleeting hello to half the relatives and wish you’d had more time to meet them all. The best of people. The best of artists. Ashtar Theatre, the Palestinian company making art with children in a Gaza schoolyard last Summer while American rockets were falling from Israeli planes overhead; Stacey Gregg the young Belfast woman who has written an astounding play about that Northern Irish oxymoron that is called the Peace Wall; the Belarus Free Theatre who meet members of their audience on street corners by secret rendezvous and walk them to the backstreet locations of their proscribed performances; Hope Azeda who charmed the Irish audience with her comic banter before setting out the horrors that her company addresses daily in their post-genocide healing work in Rwanda; the quiet man who sat beside me one afternoon and told me about his work among young drug users in a provincial midlands town in Ireland; and many other colleagues already known to me who make theatre that makes a small difference here and there which all adds up in the global project of fighting back peacefully; countering the worst tendencies of our species and gently tipping the balance away from violence, misogyny, hatred and self-destruction.

Tonight, some hours later, exhausted and inspired, I am back home and find myself reflecting on what? A dog in Germany in 1981. Maybe we are indeed like dogs, but if so, the dogs I met this week are the the good dogs, the guide dogs. Some of us are incorrigibly gentle by the nature of our pedigree; others are susceptible to snarling violence but have been lucky enough in our influences and training not to have been programmed for the dirty work; most of us are probably happy-go-lucky mongrels gamboling about the Dublin streets, mercifully spared the moral dilemmas of immediate conflict. Some of the artists I listened to this weekend said that they could not afford the luxury of pretending that armed resistance or insurrection in their communities is inevitably wrong. Or that art can stop the violence or stop the other side’s bombs from raining down. But all were working independently to effect positive human change by means other than violence. I sensed that most of the artists present, in the small ways that they connect with one man here, one woman there, a mass audience now and again, have already deflected and prevented future acts of violence. Let us respect and celebrate that.

I lay my head between my paws.

I am a gentle dog. I mean you no harm.

I work for good; my good and your good.

Meet me. Do like me.

Your head upon your paws.

Do not make me bark.

Do not cause me to leap in defence of my charge,

For I can be frightening when provoked.

Scratch something into the gravel with me.

Rise and sniff around me.

My head is between my paws.

Play with me.

Peace.

HOLY SHOW – Rites, rituals and skirmishes with religion – a year in a freelance theatre life

O, pa! Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….”

Performing at 'The Garden of Genius' festival, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia
Performing at ‘The Garden of Genius’ festival, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia

One of the most powerful moments in James Joyce’s writing translates into a visceral moment in the live performance of “The Dubliners Dilemma”. I find myself, a tiny boy, cowering on my knees, avoiding vicious blows from the invisible belt of the drunken father I have been portraying until just three seconds ago. As the beating subsides and the music of the papal knight, Count John McCormack filters in – because I am an actor and this is not real – one part of my mind is wondering what on earth the Russian audience has made of this evocation of a nineteenth century Irish Catholic childhood. I change a costume item onstage to morph into a new character and pick up a completely different storyline, and note that the silence is such that I might have heard a pin had anyone dropped one onto the grass of the outdoor arena. It is the same shocked reaction I might get on any good night in a theatre in Ireland. And then, a moment later they are chuckling again, albeit slightly delayed, as the razor-sharp translator relays the monologue of the pathetic character Lenehan into their wireless earphones. Five minutes later, they are on their feet applauding and it is all over. As we pack up the gear, men and women drift over to thank me and stage manager Bern, and express their appreciation of Joyce, of live performance and of this fabulous ‘Garden of Genius’ festival at the ancestral home of their own literary giant, Leo Tolstoy.

The next day we find ourselves as tourists in an almost deserted Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, marvelling at a sung Mass. Two elderly women incant the prayers in harmony; the celebrant responds. There is incense. Nine or ten, mainly elderly, worshippers stand in devotion. The church interior is a dizzying set of frescoes and murals and gold altars. I glance at Bern and recall the image of him standing in silence by the unmarked graveside of Leo Tolstoy the previous morning; Tolstoy, who renounced pomp and rites and asked to be buried simply at a place of personal significance from his boyhood. We slip out of the church, go uptown and have an afternoon beer. The tour is over.

Bern contemplates the unmarked grave of Tolstoy
Bern contemplates the unmarked grave of Tolstoy

My theatre work in 2014 seemed to bring an unusual number of encounters with rite, ritual and altars of one kind or another. At just about the opposite end of the glamour spectrum, our tour of “The Dubliners Dilemma” also found us one night in the Birr Arts Centre in a converted church in the Irish midlands where a congregation even smaller than the few genuine worshippers we saw in Moscow turned out to enjoy the stories of Joyce. The tour took us from Galway to Belfast to Limerick to Belmullet, several places in between and back home to the Bloomsday Festival in Dublin where we were one of the attractions at the James Joyce Centre. Premiered in 2012, the show has become part of my life now and already it has been invited to Oslo for Bloomsday 2015, so yet another short Irish tour may be in the offing in May.

The life of a freelance theatre artist is fraught with insecurity, money worries and periods of disconnection, but there are consolations, and variety is the main one. The year just ended was rich in diversity. In August, along with Kwasi Boyce, Sophie Coyle and other key organisers, I went with a Dundalk-based community theatre group into the Westbourne Presbyterian Church in East Belfast where the amateur cast gave a terrific performance to an appreciative audience. Another altar, another show. This time, however, the church is still active as a place of worship, the minister a prominent and outspoken Orange leader, Rev. Mervyn Gibson. The invitation to a culturally diverse group made up of Southern Irish, African, Asian and Canadian performers, to share our version of the Battle of the Boyne story in their house of worship, was a generous gesture of glasnost, Northern Irish style. We reach out, a little bit at a time, although too often we scurry back then to our old positions.

Fun on the Altar: post show selfies at the Westbourne Church (with permission from the chuckling pastor!)
Fun on the Altar: post show selfies at the Westbourne Church (with permission from the chuckling pastor!)

The churches are not innocent in this depressing equation, any more than they were innocent of the social problems besetting Ireland when Joyce aimed his slings at the anti-social, anti-sexual Catholicism of the Ireland of his day. The streets outside the Westbourne Church, like the streets and the very skies above Newtownards where we played the following week, were bedecked with flags and banners reminding us of the sectarian nature of the repressed conflict in which we were playing a tiny healing role. It felt intimidating, even still, years after the war proper had ended, to walk those strange roads. I wondered if a normal, religion-free and emblem-free polity might ever descend on the North or would these towns and city enclaves remain intimidating to and unwelcoming of visitors (from anywhere) for another generation. If the public realm felt hostile, however, the same cannot be said of the people who hosted our performances nor of the audiences who packed them out. The play was written by our international cast and took a universal anti-war view. The debates after each performance, all in Unionist ‘stronghold’ areas, were open and reasoned. Signs of hope. And it was great to tour with such a talented intercultural group. Artistically and culturally they represented their home town and community of Dundalk with great honour.

Dylan Quinn and community dance troupe perform at Killesher Open Art Day
Dylan Quinn and community dance troupe perform at Killesher Open Art Day

I also spent some time in rural Fermanagh this Summer, collaborating with farmers, geologists, historians and community workers across the same (but infinitely less overt) sectarian ‘divide’. Our task was to prepare the ground for a shared public art installation where no tradition of such artistic innovation exists. A highlight of my year was a Midsummer Arts Day at the  Larganess Centre, home of the Killesher Community Development Association near Florencecourt village, the culmination of this local consultation and engagement process. I came away with the view that Fermanagh rocks! The connections to ancient land and neighbourly tradition, recorded in the past by the renowned anthropologist Henry Glassie, are re-forming in new post-conflict ways through community development, local history, archaeology and now the arts. I spent several good days in Killesher Parish and felt very encouraged for the future. If more places could look to the laid-back Killesher-Florencecourt model of society, things might begin to move on – although even there, the segregation of children into religious-ethos schools of differing denominations reminds one of the wider difficulties. That said, there are several joint-school initiatives underway, and our Art Open Day saw enthusiastic input from teachers, parents and children on all sides.

With all these religious influences swirling around me, one might ask if in 2014, I saw the light and joined up somewhere. I did not. I did, however, officiate at a non-religious wedding in the late Autumn. As noted above, the life of the theatre artist is varied if nothing else. I was charmed and honoured to accept the unusual invitation and lead a beautiful ceremony at a hotel in County Louth for a young couple to whom I was referred by a mutual friend who could not undertake the role. There was rite and ritual involved but in a secular sense, no less sincere or symbolic for that. It was a reminder of the great changes that have occurred in Ireland since Mr Joyce walked out on us. In many new ways, people are “doing it for themselves”, finding their own rituals and moral roadmaps without the divisive or oppressive oversight of the organised faiths that so often let their parents and grandparents down.

My final visit to a church in 2014 was among theatre colleagues once again, but this time for the deeply sad and dignified occasion of the funeral of Phelim Donlon. Phelim was Drama Officer at the Arts Council for the greater part of my twenty years working within the State-subsidised independent theatre. I also travelled side-by-side with him around the nation when I took on the role of Coordinator of the Arts Council’s “Review of Theatre in Ireland 1995-’96”. He was a generous mentor not only to me but to a generation of theatre makers in Ireland, a fiercely just and fair man, a lover of life, a man of roguish humour and a great friend. We mourn his loss and extend our condolences to his family. One colleague described his passing as the end of an era, even though Phelim was already retired from official duty a few years. In this, she echoed my own sentiments precisely.

Eras end. Years end. I have been out of the subsidised arts sector now almost five years , looking on in dismay at the damage done to the field by kneejerk cuts and short-term thinking.  Simple survival as a freelancer is a constant struggle, but the thrill of the unknown is a powerful counteractive drug. I mainly write in isolation at home nowadays – I recently completed a draft of a novel four years in the making – but I am constantly drawn back to the theatre and the broad areas of public and community arts, not because there is a sustainable livelihood in them (there quite simply isn’t) but for the collaboration, the society and the communion. Did I just say “communion”? There I go again! Is theatre the new church? Although this is a centuries-old question, I first heard it posed by the actor Tom Baker (the fourth Dr Who), in a 1980s newspaper interview which I read at an impressionable age. It is a question that is constantly with me. Maybe we shall discover the answer in 2015.

Declan Gorman

December 31st 2014

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CREDITS:

‘The Dubliners Dilemma’ – produced by Bachelors Walk Productions, Dublin www.bachelorswalkdublin.com

‘The Garden of Geniuses Festival’ – Yasnaya Polyana – estate of the Leo Tolstoy http://ypmuseum.ru/en/2011-04-13-17-30-44/2011-04-16-08-25-38/49–l-r.html

‘The Road to the Battle’ – produced by Creative Spark, Dundalk – with support from the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation:   http://creativespark.ie/index.php/the-road-to-the-battle-2/

‘Killesher Public Art Project’ – an initiative of Killesher Community Development Association, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland under the ‘Building Peace through the Arts – Re-imaging Communities’ programme      http://www.artscouncil-ni.org/the-arts/visual-arts1/re-imaging-communities

Special thanks to Sharon Cromwell for personal support through 2014

THE PARADE OF INNOCENCE: 25 YEARS ON

 

Actors on the Beat
Actors on the Beat

Twenty five years ago today, on December 9th 1989, a public event took place in Dublin that has resonated since. In my own life, it introduced me to new approaches and colleagues that would shape much of my work for two decades afterwards. For others the impact was much deeper than that. Men and women wrongly imprisoned were reunited with their families; police forces were discredited; parliaments were humbled into apology.

“The Parade of Innocence” was a protest to highlight the prolonged incarceration of the Birminghman Six, the Guildford Four (who had just been released on appeal), Judith Ward and a number of other Irish people wrongfully imprisoned in Britain. It was the result of a collaboration among justice and human rights campaigners, prisoners’ families, trade union activists and artists. It combined artistic street spectacle with intelligent political advocacy and mass community action, changing the nature of protest in Dublin and radicalising a generation of theatre, film, musical and visual artists. A number of follow-on events of similar ambition took place until the Birmingham Six were eventually released, 15 months later, in March of 1991.

As a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Miscarriages of Justice Campaign, and the affiliated group of artists known simply as Parade, part of my role at the time was to write about the campaign in various journals. I recently uncovered some of those articles and artefacts and have made copies available to Dr. Charlotte McIvor of NUI Galway who is carrying out ongoing academic research into the role of the arts in political advocacy and change in modern Ireland. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, I am reproducing some of them here out of historical interest.

They include

– a short article first published in the Independent Theatre Association’s newsletter and then reprinted in “Cues“, the magazine of Irish Actors’ Equity. This article also has quotes from a number of artists who took part;

– a later in-depth piece from “The Irish Reporter, a current affairs journal edited by Carol Coulter, (1991).  This takes up the story at the point where the artists’ group, now acting independently, made a submission to the committee charged with overseeing the official 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the 1916 Rising. That committee blocked the proposal outright (a leaked minute described it as “an attack on our democracy”).  The article goes on to recall further detail and descriptions of the 1989 Parade of Innocence.

– detail from an advocacy pack designed by Charlie O’Neill for the Miscarriages of Justice Campaign.

Most, if not all, of the pictures on these scanned pages are by the renowned photo-journalist Derek Speirs whose images of Ireland in that period are of immense historical value. Bear in mind these are reproductions of reproductions and do not do full justice to Derek’s work.  I’ve copied the scans here large-size so that not only can the photos be discerned, but hopefully some people may read the texts. I hope that others involved may also write this week of their recollections of that historic period.

The prisoners at the centre of this movement came in time to be vindicated and the corrupt justice system that had kept them locked away for fifteen years exposed. For many of them, the nightmare did not end with their release from prison or even their exoneration. The psychological and social damage of wrongful imprisonment lasts a lifetime. It is important that we remember them and their families at times like this, while also cherishing a moment when artists and community activists united and protest made a true difference.

"Cues" article, P1
“Cues” article, P1
"Cues" P2
“Cues” P2
Irish Reporter 1
Irish Reporter 1
Irish Reporter 2
Irish Reporter 2
Irish Reporter 3
Irish Reporter 3
Detail of Campaign Folder (graphic Charlie O'Neill)
Detail of Campaign Folder (graphic Charlie O’Neill)

In memory of Gerry Conlon and Richard McIlkenny

MUCH ADO ABOUT THE WRONG THING? an essay on the state of debate in Irish theatre

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Debating at the Abbey. Photo courtesy of Mike Finn

The theatre world is understandably exercised by the recent Irish Times decision to print documents from an ongoing Arts Council evaluation of Abbey Theatre productions. The materials were published under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. This essay acknowledges that this affair has been a source of embarrassment, clumsily handled by all the parties concerned, but that more important questions about theatre and cultural provision in Ireland are not being addressed.

Front page headlines. Dramatic revelations from a redacted State document. A full page expose in the Weekend Supplement. Who died? Who was kidnapped? Who swindled the State? Nobody. Let us therefore retain some perspective.

Three men were selected from our neighbouring island in an opaque process, to fly in and out of Dublin, keep an eye on our national theatre and tell the Arts Council if it is or is not ‘world class’ as it likes to claim. They pronounced that sometimes it isn’t, although sometimes it is. In the course of excavating and publishing this story, the Irish Times has managed to do little more than highlight certain things that are well known in arts circles and in so doing hurt and offend a number of hard-working freelance theatre professionals whose only crime was to get up in the morning and go to work – the odd time such work was available.

What is known in arts circles is roughly as follows. The Abbey struggles still, as it has done for most of its one hundred and ten years, to live up to the ‘high ambition’ of its idealistic founders. In this, it very accurately reflects the Irish nation. Every now and again it does something quite outstanding, such as Annabel Comyn’s production of Tom Murphy’s ‘The House’, Owen McCafferty’s gripping drama ‘Quietly’ directed by Jimmy Fay or last weekend’s stimulating ‘Theatre and Memory’ symposium. Mostly, it produces good quality Irish theatre on its main stage, provides paid contract opportunities to freelance practitioners in a sector ravaged by cutbacks and unemployment, and gets on with the business of competing for audiences, publicity and funding. It is advantaged over most theatre organisations in its large share of the meagre national subisdy, but we generally understand that this is how it must be, as it is the national theatre, it does pay proper wages and so on, and it is poorly funded in comparison with – say – German state theatres.

We also know that its relationship with the Arts Council, like that of many of the Council’s clients, is characterised by occasional tensions and misunderstandings.

Another widely held wisdom is that the Arts Council has become a less than effective body, albeit not entirely through its own failures. It has lost much of the logic and idealism it held in the 1990s when the first arts ministry was established, research and consultation with artists were central to its evolving ethos and genuine efforts were made to establish a national infrastructure of regional arts centres, funded companies and community-centred practice. The current failings are explained, in part at least, by the fact that it has seen its budgets slashed by over 40% in recent years at the same time as its constituency has continued to expand. There are more theatre artists and initiatives now but proportionately less money to sustain their work.

Youth drama, improved third level arts formation, the growth of the Dublin Fringe and other street level cultural phenomena have created a new atmosphere where entering an arts career is no longer as exotic or outrageous as it once was. Ironically, this is partly the outcome of progressive Arts Council policies of the past. It must be galling to be a good public servant in the arts arena, see this growth and know that post-bailout it is impossible to support the infrastucture or invest in youth. Quite the contrary, the Arts Council has systematically dismantled the infrastructure for theatre, seeking instead to consolidate a reduced core of favoured organisations while meantime running various prize-giving schemes to provide some comfort to those outside the citadel. Occasionally its spokespersons will acknowledge that the Arts Council was compelled into this mindset by the economic realities of the 2008 – 2011 period. Too often, however, in keeping with political and public sector pursekeepers elsewhere, they have invented absurd rationales to excuse the inexcusable. Most organisations who have had sight of Arts Council assessments of their work have been baffled by at least some of the commentary.

Into this absurd drama fly our three wise men. It appears the Abbey and the Arts Council had a difference of opinion – in this instance over the definition of that reductive marketing label, ‘world class’ – and that both parties agreed to gamble on the views of outside adjudicators to prove them right or wrong. Many will decry the opacity of this process. Others may query the costs involved; others the ignominy of such an X-Factor approach, wherein the ancient art of theatre and the legacy of Yeats, Gregory and Synge are reduced to receiving marks out of five from three judges. Yet others have commented on the demographic make-up of the all male, Anglocentric delegation. To me it is no more than a further dereliction of common sense which has been evident in arts provision for a number of years; in simple terms, a focussing on the wrong questions and the application of a questionable evaluation methodology. And inevitably when you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers and sometimes people get hurt.

Did it occur to the Arts Council to warn the eminent assessors that we have a Freedom of Information culture in this country and that their critiques might one day become as public as those of Simon Cowell? Did the men who accepted positions on this dubious inspectorate pause to consider the impact of some of their comment on the non-combatant freelance workers caught in the crossfire of the Arts Council / Abbey standoff? Feelings and professional pride, not egoes, have been hurt in this debacle, as excellent, giving artists have woken up to see their endeavours publicy disrespected in the newspapers in subjective and often opposing responses from critics they did not even know were at work. But grown-up theatre professionals are accustomed to taking the hits – from critics, casting processes, under-funding and official ignorance of the arts. They will recover.

Shame nonetheless on the Irish Times for the manner of its coverage of this affair, not for igniting debate about the Abbey and its work (hardly a new phenomenon); not for revealing the inadequate methodologies and language applied by the Arts Council in the matter of evaluating our main public theatre; but for making such a big deal out of it when it is in fact a comparatively minor matter, playing out in the dreary context of a strained Arts Council / client relationship. No misdemeanour is under review here other than that some people don’t think the plays are as good as they could be sometimes.

While the wrong questions are being posed real scandals in the theatre remain outside the scope of any review. These are the recurring crises of neglect and exclusion; of failed governance; of opaque decision-making and absence of long-term policy. The sense has emerged that there is no vision and scant accountability where the arts at national level are concerned. And this leads to a regrettable culture of powerlessness punctuated by episodes of outcry and even witch-hunt wherein every crisis is conflated. Yesterday it was the Abbey evaluation, today the banning of a play by Newtownabbey Council, before that Limerick City of Culture. Social media ignites daily with some new indignation but nobody talks to anybody that matters and nothing really changes.

Exactly twenty years ago in 1994 I wrote an article in the Irish Times in response to a public call from the then Abbey Artistic Director Patrick Mason for increased subsidy. I critiqued the national theatre severely on that occasion, not for its artistic work which was generally of a high standard then as it is now, but over ethical and structural matters. Echoing discussions in the public realm at the time, I noted that women playwrights were exluded from its repertoire; it had closed down its education department; it declined to tour nationally, it excluded people with disabilities and had no apparent interest in connecting with the wider independent theatre sector. Shorty afterwards Patrick Mason commenced what became known as ‘The Abbey Debate’ a generous invitation to its critics and supporters to engage with the Abbey in its identity development. The Arts Council subsequently established its ‘Review of Theatre in Ireland 1995-1996’, a nationwide research and consultation process (on which I worked). Thereafter the Abbey moved to set up an Outreach Education Programme, was instrumental in establishing Theatre Forum as a national inclusive organisation for the sector and began a process of internal reforms.

By five years ago, however, women were still hopelessly under-represented among the Abbey writers; the building remained inaccessible and the Outreach Education Department had been discontinued. The Arts Council in the meantime followed the logic of its Review by investing in the already burgeoning infrastructure of independent companies nationwide and providing modest funding towards inclusive particpatory arts initiatives in theatre as in other forms. But then they turned around five years ago without meaningful consultaton and began unilaterally to decimate what it had taken decades to build.

Ironically, now that the Abbey under Fiach MacConghail has begun to re-address some fundamental issues by reinvigorating its education department, making its building at least partially accessible and placing new writing by women higher on its agenda, it is suddenly subjected to a Rate-my-National-Theatre humiliation in the matter of its production values. Yes, it appears to have walked itself naively into this mess, but now that the matter has come to light it is time for all of us to drop it, move on and focus on some residual real issues.

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Theatre of the Nation? Young people in Dundalk explore contested histories as they create a new play about The Battle of the Boyne: Project managed by Creative Spark: Facilitated by Kwasie Boyce and Declan Gorman

A new debate is needed on theatre and on the wider question of arts and culture in Ireland. Young ensembles in Dublin, Cork and elsewhere are once again snapping at the heels of the sedate older theatres, connecting directly with marginalised communities and staging visceral events in failed housing projects, abandoned tenements and back alley venues. But the idea of longevity or staged development from this exciting point is more elusive now than ever. The network of regional arts centres remains open for business but the strain of finding and funding quality programing with half the theatre companies gone by the wayside is too great. Many established artists: actors, directors and writers are fighting battles with frustration, anxiety and – let us name it – poverty, unable in mid-life with families to feed simply to go back to the 1980s way of doing it for free while campaiging for change. While women are more established in theatre than twenty years ago, including as writers, they remain inexplicably excluded from certain key platforms. The disability activist Rosaleen McDonagh in a series of Facebook postings this week, reminds us that efforts to make the national theatre accessible are still too little and too late. In recent weeks, regional organisations engaged in long-term, sustainable participatory arts and intercultural programmes have had their Arts Council grant aid severely cut in order to shore up ephemeral and short-term project schemes. Standing over all of this is a ministry and various cabals with apparently limited understanding of how the arts function in a contemporary society – witness in particular the Limerick City of Culture debacle. And bracketing all of this is the failure of politics, the broken economy and the imploding society about which official Ireland is either in deep denial or active blackout.

There have been some rumbles in the online jungle and talk of public meetings at which these questions may be aired. Ironically the recent Abbey symposium on Theatre and Memory, which concluded just as the embarrassing Irish Times story was breaking, was a helpful beginning in a new kind of mature dialogue, albeit somewhat hiberno-centric. Shortly before that, a half-day Theatre Forum meeting at Smock Alley in September heard a powerful critique by playwright Deirdre Kinehan about the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ system of bestowing, now cemented into theatre policy in Ireland. It was stirring stuff in the presence of Arts Council representatives.

A new phase is about to commence at the Arts Council with the appointment of the next Chairperson and the replacement of some retiring members. If they are to have any credibility coming out of this most recent folly, they might now move to listen and re-engage creatively with their constituency. Just as in 1995, the best hope may be to open up a new consultation among artists and the public. As in 1995, this can include contributions from overseas commentators, but commentators given a sensible not a foolish brief. The Abbey is just one, albeit significant part of this. By legacy it is our national theatre. Most intelligent observers, including the Abbey’s own personnel, have long since abandoned the view that its historical designation isolates it or elevates it above other theatres in the nation. It is not the centre of the universe but a critical part of our ecology and a vital national cultural institution. The quality of its work is of public interest and would be a legitimate subject in a new 21st century “Review of Theatre in Ireland”.

But such a review must look holistically at theatre in Ireland, referencing international practice but foremost looking at the local cultural context; the question of excellence of production standards yes, but also questions of regional balance; the equal inclusion of minority voices and bodies; the unspoken issue of career prospects for artists; the breaking of silence on a matter courageously raised by actor Will O’Connell at the aforementioned September Theatre Forum, namely the isolation and fear of mid-career actors for whom the phone has stopped ringing.

The quality of any nation’s theatre including that of its national flagship is hard to evaluate and even harder to underwrite when politics, economic models and understandings of social and cultural rights are all askew as is currently the case in Ireland. It is certainly an infinitely more complex conundrum than can be measured by grading main stage productions or mischievous journalism. Last weekend’s Theatre and Memory Symposium reminded us that artists have something vital to say to Irish society and are ready and equipped to engage in debate. Society, through its parliament, its cultural provision mechanisms and its arts media needs to respond, not in the failed practices and patronising attitudes that have been so nakedly exposed this bizarre January of 2014, but through new and respectful efforts once and for all to understand what art in a society actually means.