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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.

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The Gift of Gerry McCann

Gerry McCann with Ciaran Kenny and John Finnegan in Hades (Upstate 2006)
Gerry McCann with Ciaran Kenny and John Finnegan in Hades (Upstate 2006)

I first recall seeing Gerry McCann in a play directed by John Breen at the City Arts Centre in the early 1990s. Just home from training in Manchester, he was mesmerising to watch. I met him afterwards and learned he was from Dundalk, my mother’s country, where I had spent some time in my adolescence. We kept in touch.

When I went to Drogheda in 1996 to run some workshops with a view to establishing Upstate Theatre Project, he was the first professional actor I contacted for support. He immediately bought into the idea of a professional community-based theatre company for County Louth. At those early workshops, kicking our local adaptation of Hauptmann’s big blockbuster classic The Weavers around a room, he was outstanding. Behind me on my study wall as I write is a framed photo of Gerry in the eventual 1997 production, Upstate’s first, as Whiddy, a demented angry revolutionary raising a wooden half-barrel about to smash in the door of a capitalist manufacturer’s house. He was terrifying in the part – AND – he was equally terrifying doubling up in the part of Driver, the manufacturer on the other side of the door!

Sj McArdle and Gerry McCann in The Weavers
Sj McArdle and Gerry McCann in The Weavers

On that inaugural production we also experimented with a mentoring scheme, enabling younger local actors to gain additional on-the-job training. While well-intentioned, some aspects of the scheme were perhaps not fully thought through. But Gerry McCann made it work. He turned out to be a natural mentor. One night I returned to the rehearsal room to collect something I’d forgotten and to my astonishment he was there with six young actors taking them through an exacting physical exercise. Nobody asked him to do it. He had discreetly suggested it and they had all bought in. I left them to it and later we all had a pint and a laugh in Clarkes.

I worked with him a number of times. One that I had almost forgotten came back to me in recent days. In the Summer of 2007 when Upstate brought a group of visiting NYU students to the summit of the Cooley Mountains, Gerry accompanied us and led the students in a beautiful exercise, creating a symphony of sounds of wind and water and ancient spirits in a site-responsive improv around a bog puddle. Earlier on our hike he had appeared as if from nowhere from behind a cairn of stones and performed a riveting scene with actress Sarah Gilbert, playing a Cooley farmer bankrupted by the enforced cull of livestock in 2001. A master actor who adapted to every situation, it is sometimes forgotten that he was also an educator in his heart.

I left Upstate in 2010 and had only occasional contact with Gerry in the past few years. When he was reported missing last week, my heart sank. Over the ensuing days of waiting and hoping, I dwelt constantly in that decade when Gerry was in my life, always as a force for positivity. I became part of a community of several thousand people who connected through Facebook and on the streets and beaches in the search to find him. On Monday, I drove around North County Dublin, putting up posters with his handsome face on them. I had run out of printer ink and the Axis community arts centre in Ballymun stepped in and ran off 70 colour posters for me at zero notice. The nation was gripped by Gerry’s story. Everywhere I went, people knew about him and were praying for him and his distraught family. One shop I went into could not take the poster as they were closing down that afternoon – a family-owned ‘Gala’ store in Balrothery. Old customers stood about offering sympathy to the staff. Another place I went to was already gone – The Wise Owl in Balbriggan where I used to buy my children’s schoolbooks. The towns seem hollowed out in places. There was evidence everywhere of the decline in Ireland which is perhaps part of the dis-ease that has led so many men (and also many women) to places of irrevocable despair in the past five years. But I also saw another side.

At Loughshinny harbour near my home there is a fabulous ramshackle seafront house, gaily painted in reds and pinks and purples by the remarkable man who lives there alone. He sits by night over an open brazier facing out to sea and his purple garden wall has the painted inscription in rough handwriting “Happy Ireland 2013”. He spotted me flyposting the bright red and yellow container across from this house that serves as the lifeguard’s hut and called me over to ask what I was up to. He had heard about Gerry on the news. “I’d say he has depression that lad,” he said, “in my day there was very little understanding of that.” And he promised to watch out through the night for my lost friend.

On the morning after it became clear that Gerry’s body had been found, I went into Tesco in Rush village to ask the customer service lady to remove the poster she had so kindly placed on their big glass front door. “Was he found?” she asked. I broke down and began to cry. She came out from behind the counter and held me. I wish so hard that Gerry could have lived to see not only the love that abided for him among the hundreds and hundreds of those he touched down the years who came out to help when he went missing, but also the compassion and earthy mindfulness that survives in the communities, like an indestructible weed refusing to die in the hidden corners of this alien, strange new country.

May you rest in peace, Gerry McCann. May your lovely wife and children and wider family find some solace in the years to come from the remembrance that in your life you inspired respect and love and in your death you helped us to rediscover our lost capacity for community and solidarity.

Weavers 2

The Road to Hell has been great fun!!!

The work explores the hidden histories usually omitted when The Battle of the Boyne is commemorated (and 'celebrated'!). Here a mother tries to comfort her embittered sone, former sporting hero Jack, now permanently disabled by his war injuries.
Rehearsing ‘The Road to Hell’ A mother cares for her war-wounded son.  The work presents the unwritten stories behind this iconic battle, one of a number of brutal historical events which are still  ‘celebrated’ in Ireland.

The Road to Hell (The Story of the Battle of the Boyne) is the title of an original script devised and written by members of Creative Spark drama and creative writing group in Dundalk.  The members will give a platform presentation in the Oriel Centre, Dundalk Gaol at 6pm, this Sunday May 19th. Facilitator/Director is Kwasie Boyce: while I have been Resident Writer/Script Supervisor.

A ‘platform presentation’ is something a bit more than a staged reading but a bit less than a full-blooded, costumed production.  The aim of the event is to share with the public the outcomes of this 12-week introductory community drama and local history programme.  Our hope is that the performance will be entertaining of itself and will give friends and interested guests an insight into an intensive process which brought together a fabulously diverse group of people of varying ages and backgrounds from the communities of Dundalk.

The script was devised, written and rehearsed by the participants over the 3-month period during which they received basic drama and creative writing training.  The group attended a one-day workshop on the history of the Battle of the Boyne, facilitated by local historian Sean Collins, which included a guided tour of The Battle of the Boyne site at Oldbridge House.  Following this, the participants began to improvise scenarios and movement set pieces, facilitated by Kwasie, and then to write scenes. Kwasie and I have now collaborated with the members on finalising a script structure and performance method.

All involved, including the facilitating artists, the organisers and the participants themselves, have greatly enjoyed the experience.  The project has illustrated how the creative arts can foster friendships across cultures; open up dialogue about disputed histories and ensure that the vital process of lifelong learning is one of excitement and fun.

I urge anyone living in or near Dundalk, and those further afield with an interest in community-engaged art, to get along on Sunday to witness this uplifting event.  The Road to Hell is a grim title and the Battle of the Boyne (and even more so the subsequent and seldom remembered Battle of Aughrim) are grim events whose repercussions are still felt, 300 years later on our fraught small island – but the work itself is full of life and zest and even some sardonic humour – and the making of it has been a tremendous joy!

UPDATE:  The showing promoted above went ahead and was a great success.  The project was revived and the play further developed in 2014 and then toured to Orange Halls and a Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland.  That remarkable trip is mentioned in my end-of-year reflection for 2014.  You can read it here.

The Hijabi Monologues (Ireland)

The Hijabi Monolgoues
The Hijabi Monolgoues

A retrospective entry…   I was delighted to direct The Hijabi Monologues, Ireland recently.  This project was co-hosted by the British Council, the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) and Axis Community Arts Centre in Ballymun where the event premiered. The show ran in Dublin in March and was seen again in October at the Belfast Festival and most recently, in abridged form, at the WOW (Women of the World) festival as part of Derry/Londonderry City of Culture 2013.

The Hijabi Monologues Ireland is a licensed production of the US ‘Hijabi Monologues’, which has been touring in the United States to critical acclaim and great success for the past six years. For this version, Muslim women in Ireland were invited to submit personal and true stories. The writers worked with playwright Deirdre Kinehan and their testimonies were woven into a performance which also included several of the original American monologues by Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah, founder of the program, as well as other American Muslim writers. The piece transcended boundaries, and the stories which ranged from the humorous to the poignant were accessible to all and universal in their reach.

When I was asked to come in and work on the final phase of the show (which had been 18 months in development), I knew a little but not a lot about Muslims in Ireland and internationally.  The purpose of the project was to focus on the woman not the apparel about which there has been much debate in recent times – a great deal of it misinformed. I learned an awful lot in a short period about this complex subject, but mainly I was reminded that cultural differences are usually simply that – cultural differences, not fundamental differences.  I met brilliant people from Ireland, Britain, Pakistan, Holland, Iraq and many other places.  I worked with a terrific cast – Maeve Fitzgerald, Yameema Mitha and Orla McGovern and a great producer, Niamh NiChonchubhair (as well as the fabulous Marella and Joe in production). 

Ireland was chosen as the first European country to host its own version of this global project. Versions will soon be presented in the Netherlands and in Britain with British Council support. It was an unexpected privilege to work on this particular project. I didn’t know in January this year I would be directing this show – I am now the richer for doing it!

The British Council commissioned a short film documenting aspects of the process and their website has a link to this record.

Hilary Fannin writing in The Irish Times in April about her thoughts on the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath made very positive mention of the Ballymun production.  Here is a link to her article.

CONNECT / MAKE MAGIC – How to Book

CONNECT / MAKE MAGIC – How to Book

With Declan Gorman

Booking is still open for the Weekend Drama workshop at The Barbican Centre, Drogheda this Friday & Saturday 9th and 10th Feb (10.30 – 5.30 daily – but with some flexibility if needed)

All you need to do is confirm by texting or phoning me (086-3615585) or by e-mail (declangorman@yahoo.co.uk) or find me on facebook and message me there, giving your name and indicating if you will be paying the full 60 euro or if you are eligible for the concession (50 euro – OAP/Job-Seeker/Student).  Booking remains open until Friday 8th at 12.00 noon, but confirmation before that is greatly appreciated as it helps in planning.

Please wear loose comfortable clothing (ideally tracksuit / ski-pants etc., type of gear) and suitable footwear (runners, soft shoes etc), as there will be a some moving around involved!

Offering friendly advice...
See? Magic?  An invisible conductor’s baton!!!

A REMINDER OF WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT:

 Aimed at non-professionals and professionals alike: (actors, writers, directors, teachers – aspiring, mid-career, enthusiast – pick your label….) and open to serious newcomers – this 2013 workshop series is aimed at all who love to perform, to create and make meaning together through theatre.

Over two intensive days, you can expect to:

– Connect with a diverse group of like-minded theatre-makers

– Learn new performing skills, exercises, games etc

– Improvise and devise scenes through dialogue and movement

– Engage in creative writing

– Develop skills in creating character and narrative

– Create new work

Declan Gorman to return to the stage? … No … Not possible…

The rumours are true… I shall return to the stage after an absence of …. some… years this July. Bachelors Walk Productions are planning to present my new one-man show The Dubliners Dilemma, adapted from James Joyce, as a lunchtime event, opening July 2nd. ,

The venue will be the new City Arts premises, No 15 Bachelors Walk. Watch out for Facebook postings, text alerts etc re info and booking details. For now, make a mental note …

…I MUST GO AND SEE DECLAN’S JOYCE SHOW DURING JULY.

For more information, go to http://www.bachelorswalk.wordpress.com