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theatre Ireland

Andy Field’s blog in the Guardian about the National Theatre is provoking lively debate, much of it because the subbed headline Why We Should Really Demolish the National Theatre is, according to Andy, not what he means at all.  The main thrust of his argument is that a national theatre should not be chained to a concrete mass.  His desire for the National to work across England, free of buildings, is the latest expression of the current theatrical vogue for producing theatre outside of conventional spaces and for encouraging the audience to become more active players.

In fact, the National has pioneered national engagement with its work with NT Live which reaches a new and broader audience throughout Britain and overseas.  This will deliver wider and more far reaching  benefits than packing up the NT shows and touring them throughout the land.

Andy is also a fan of the new models for national theatres, in particular The National Theatre of Scotland which is not boxed in by bricks and mortar, and the National Theatre of Wales which launches this year.  But, to make an obvious point, England is not Scotland.  There is the issue of scale.  Scotland does not have the mega regional producing venues of Leeds, Manchester and the like.  At 5m, the population of Scotland is just less than that of the North West of England.

NToS was initiated by the Scottish Government at the behest of the theatre community, to work with it in partnership and not to compete with it.  And we didn’t need another building, as we have lots already.  This model is not without its problems as the very success of NToS  means that it can hoover up talent, attention and resources but the success of NToS is highly dependent on a healthy Scottish theatre sector.

Scotland is a small country where the national theatre is a crucial expression of cultural identity and is then more similar to other small nations where the national theatre,  of whatever model, has a particularly significant role as a national cultural institution.  In Ireland, the current proposals to re-house the Abbey in the GPO building rather than in a new one reflects its primary importance as a cultural institution.

The Royal National Theatre has a greater role than as a national theatre of England and it has responsibilities  as a national cultural institution.  It has a perfectly serviceable building and does a great job .  Yes theatre should take place everywhere, but sending the National out all over England when there are so many other major players cant really make sense.

Daniel Liebeskind's Grand Canal Theatre: from Pallotron's Flickr photostream

From different angles, two new theatres in Dublin and Dallas are opening up  new possibilities for artistic and commercial theatrical success.  After three centuries of boxed theatre, from  chocolate boxes to black boxes,  and a focus on preservation and conservation, its time to lift the lid for exploration and collaboration.

In Dublin, the opening in March of Daniel Liebeskind’s iconic Grand Canal Theatre will open up a much wider set of programming possibilities for the city and may begin to establish a more sustainable ecology.  The Grand Canal Theatre, which opens in Dublin’s Docklands in March is part of the major Dublin Docklands development  which you can get to by crossing the Liffey over the latest in the great artist bridges  the Samuel Becket bridge. With 2100 seats, the theatre is state of the art technically and architecturally, taking all the know-how of theatre engineers, acousticians and designers to create a great theatre space.   The possibilities it opens up are enormous, not only in programming international dance, opera, musicals and theatre but also by creating the space for development of a greater commercial sector in Ireland.   The theatre community is suffering from the prospect of further cuts in public expenditure.  But the skills and talents of theatre companies and individual producers have produced commercial success on Broadway and elsewhere and they will have their eye on the potential of this new space.

In Dallas, Joshua-Prince Ramus has turned the whole process of theatre architecture on its head,  The fly-tower in the new Wyly Theatre is a tower which flies,  with not only the roof raising but the walls too, literally opening up the theatre.  The potential for artistic invention and community collaboration is enormous and blows away the conventions of the last century, putting the artistic inventor in the lead with the architecture following. As Ramus says, “you can watch Becket against the Dallas skyline”.

Both of these developments were enabled by corporate philanthropy and interventions.  In Dublin,  the developer Harry Crosbie and the Docklands Corporation and in Dallas AT& T and the Wylys created an environment where such risks could be taken.

Here in the UK Leicester’s Curve may be our last example of innovatory theatre architecture for some time.  Now we are boxed in. Our theatres are all built and refurbished with public money in a climate which has become increasingly resistant to risk of any sort.  The Arts Lottery funded some great new buildings and some refurbishments but often on the basis on minimising risk, ensuring that every pound of public expenditure would lever the ‘best value’ return.   

 For those buildings not refurbished during the Lottery largesse there are residual problems.  The Kings in Edinburgh presents world class theatre particularly during the Edinburgh Festival, in a building which is woeful in its conditions.  The City Council will not fund a major refurbishment so the theatre will need to struggle on.

 As we batten down the hatches, we need  to keep an eye on possibilities for opening up theatres and not being a slave to the old buildings.  Some of our chocolate box theatres, like Frank Matcham’s must be preserved as our national heritage and ideally animated as local live performance spaces.   But we need to move on and free theatre from the restrictions of old buildings. And look for ways to raise the roof and open the walls.

Parma Farnesiano

The time has come to dismantle some of the machinery we have created in the UK and in Ireland to support our arts infrastructure. We need to face some unpalatable truths about  the impact of the way that the arts and cultural venues have been subsidised over the last period. Change is demanded by our current economic situation as well as exponential changes in the way we can collaborate and communicate through the internet.  The subsidised arts world is amongst the most resistant to change.  We have created a proliferation of machinery which is convoluted and which is preventing the flow of creative experiences in some areas, with money tied up in buildings and overheads and energy tied up in administrative processes.

In Ireland now artists are debating this challenge. In  an article in the Irish Times today , Sean Love asks artists for their insights on how to lead Ireland ‘out of the abyss’ taking as a starting point Seamus Heaney: “We are disposed to believe that the work of artists helps to create our future . . . that the effort of creative individuals can promote a new order of understanding in the common mind.”

The filmmaker Alan Gilsenan highlights the importance of art and artists in social, political and idealogical change.

“I think we imagine our world out of our past, our hopes, our dreams, out of our mythologies. When we look back to the origins of the state, to the 1916 Proclamation, that rebellion was a work of art. As a military rebellion it was a disaster, but they were primarily artists making statements. They knew the value of symbols. What seemed to happen was that people like Pearse, McDonagh (minor writers with a revolutionary aspiration) and people like Yeats (major artists with a minor interest in politics) looked at our past and our cultural inheritance, and they invented this idea. The Ireland that we live in was imagined by our artists, and those artists included the signatories of the Proclamation.

To a large degree, we achieved that future, at least in practical terms. If you think of what people in the early 20th century were hoping for, a lot of that came true – confidence (veering into over-confidence, but that’s another story), prosperity, autonomy, a sense of ourselves in the world, a sense that we are the equal of any nation.

Unfortunately, for all the progress we made, a lot of that progress was one dimensional.

Meanwhile, at the Abbey Theatre, Tom Murphy’s brilliant play, the Last Days of  Reluctant Tryant powerfully and dramatically tells the story of that single pursuit of prosperity and its devastating effects. This is great art with a great playwright writing the story before we knew it was a story, in the way that great playwrights do.

But how many people will see this play?  Not enough. Its a big show and is currently planned to play only in Dublin.  It should be playing throughout Ireland, with debate around it. But in recent years the  Abbey has tended to stay in Dublin and not to tour and theatre provision in Ireland has been more diverse, with the Arts Council funding a rich mix of companies, big and small.

This week the Arts Council published its discussion document Examining new ways to fund the production and presentation of theatre in which it fundamentally challenges the impact of its own increased investment in theatre over the last 4 years – in the context of the major cuts to its grant in the current recession.

The available resources are neither sufficient to meet adequately the requirements of those in receipt of funding nor to provide for potential new artists and practitioners.

The increased investment in theatre production and for the programming of local venues has not translated into a corresponding increase in the availability of professional theatre for regional venues. This fundamental disconnection must be addressed, and maybe a redistribution of how resources are provided for the production and presentation of theatre is required

It points out that unpalatable truth which many of us resist because it threatens our jobs and our ability to make the work we want to, paid for by the state.  Years of increased investment in the arts haven’t necessarily created better work for more audiences.  We can also add this: All the years of investment in audience development, marketing professionals and agencies, in the UK more than in Ireland,  have neither expanded the market for theatre nor diversified the audience.

The vast majority of English adults have no encounters with theatre, street arts or circus; and those who do attend tend to do so relatively infrequently. Also those taking part in amateur theatre represent a very small minority .. there are many persisting socio-demographic inequalities in the levels of engagement.

Arts Council of England Taking Part Survey findings

So its time to challenge what, how much and how theatre is subsidised.    Increasing supply does not increase demand. Increased investment has not increased audiences. Increased investment has increased the quality of theatre in pockets – the National Theatre of Scotland being a shining example – but it has not delivered a sustained improvement across the board.

We need our theatre to be stimulating and engaging, loved and attended!  And that may mean LESS and not more.  This means challenging historical patterns of subsidy.  In the UK, much of this is driven by theatre buildings, built in the 20th and 19th centuries and preserved by the state.  In Ireland, the history is different and the investment over the last four years in production companies is what is being challenged.

We need to support our theatre artists to create great work which contributes to the national conversation and stimulates ideas and debate. That great work should be available across the nation.

And here is another unpalatable truth. For most audiences, brand and reputation are important and in small nations, the national theatre brand is particularly important.  The challenge we have is how to invest the state’s resources for maximum benefit. The Arts Council in Ireland offers some suggestions and there will be more around dismantling the theatre machinery and facing the unpalatable truths about how we have invested over the next months.