Creativity within constraints

 

PATRICK SUTTON USES ONE phrase so frequently, a precisely worded sentence balanced somewhere between a mission statement and a sales pitch, that it resembles a personal mantra: “To reinstate for Dublin, Ireland and the world, Dublin’s first theatre of 1662, Smock Alley Theatre.”

For almost 10 years now he has repeated it for various constituencies: the philanthropists whose donations first gave momentum to his project to rebuild the 17th-century theatre; the then Department of Art, Sport and Tourism which committed €3.8 million to the theatre’s rehabilitation in 2006 (the grant was later revised down to €2.2 million); and finally for audience members at the official opening of the theatre last April, this time spoken with some understandable triumph. Reinstating an antique theatre had not been easy.

Listening to the sweep of his rhetoric, with emphasis on the word “first”, you might think that Smock Alley was Dublin’s original theatre. It wasn’t. But Sutton, the director of the Gaiety School of Acting (GSA), the political communications company Communicate (former taoiseach Bertie Ahern was a long-time client), and now Smock Alley Theatre, knows that doesn’t make for a good story.

“What was I going to say to get people interested in it?” he asks. “Help me reinstate Dublin’s second theatre?” Sitting in his new Gaiety School of Acting office, which became the anchor tenant of Smock Alley late last year, Sutton’s conversation is an engaging blend of rich sentiment and blunt business. He will enthuse, wide-eyed, about the ghosts of actors who once graced its stage – David Garrick, Charles Macklin, Peg Woffington, Spranger Barry – or the archaeological detritus discovered on the site (“Thousands of oyster shells, your popcorn of the day”), then draw attention to a fresh €70,000 donation solicited by his personal funding drive.

“I’m both sentimental and pragmatic,” he says, when asked about personality traits necessary to revive a theatre first commissioned by King Charles II and built by his Master of the Revels in Ireland, John Ogilby. “Smock Alley Theatre will only survive on the durable and sensible partnerships that it establishes. One of those is with the Gaiety, the national theatre school of Ireland, who are a tenant.” Given that Sutton is also director of the GSA, one can’t imagine that negotiations between landlord and tenant took long, yet he doesn’t recognise a conflict of interest.

“If I wasn’t director of both, neither would happen,” he says. He points out that the GSA has received no sweetheart deal, but now has better facilities at less cost than its previous base in Meeting House Square. Nor is there any personal gain for him: he earns a salary from the school, a private institution whose income comes from tuition fees, but works for Smock Alley in an entirely voluntary capacity – although he does hope to draw a salary from the theatre one day.

To see Sutton each night at the door of Smock Alley, greeting everyone who arrives and bidding them goodnight when they leave, is to witness a different gain. In some sense it’s a vindication (“I mean, it’s been a massive chunk out of my life”) but Sutton did the same as director of the Wexford Arts Centre.

“You might say my mother brought me up very well, but that is courtesy. Apart from pride in my own children, I have never been more proud so far in my career than in bringing this thing on. I owe it to the punters who decide to come to Smock Alley to make sure that they’re given a warm welcome. The experience of going into Smock Alley is a very beautiful experience. The moment you cross that threshold you’re experiencing not just the performance of the play but you’re actually involved in something that has a mystery and a magic to it.”

First designed on a cocktail napkin by Sutton and Kristian Marken, the director of the new resident company Smock Alley Players, then refined by O’Keeffe Architects, the Smock Alley Theatre is a complex negotiation between a protected structure and the requirements of a contemporary theatre. Its backstage is a curious maze of narrow halls along archaic stonework walls where one doorframe stops abruptly at chest height. The stage is intimate, bordered on three sides by immoveable seating banks for 200 people, each afforded generous sight lines (Sutton was determined nobody should be bothered by the back of another person’s head). Originating in the age of proscenium arch theatres and redesigned in an age of blackbox studios, the new Smock Alley belongs, intriguingly, to neither model. The lovingly exposed masonry might suggest it is in thrall to its past, but pine wood fittings indicate a more disposable present. The seats, Sutton added, bear the same leather found in Ferraris, but the dressing rooms, he conceded, are upholstered by Ikea.

Some of this may be the result of ad hoc development. When the global financial crisis began, Sutton revised his plans and reduced his Government grant request; a prudent move, but the shortfall was exacerbated when, last year, a €300,000 donation fell through and Temple Bar Cultural Trust approved a loan of the same amount to the company and, officially, a guarantee of €350,000 to cover a long-term bank loan. While on holiday in Greece last year, his first in four years, the contractors walked off the site when a cheque did not clear. “That was the low point,” he says.

The development is not yet complete, with plans to develop a bar in the crypt, a staircase, a disabled-access lift and to soundproof windows in the banquet hall.

“There’s a bunch of things that still need to be done. But I wasn’t going to hang around and wait for every piece of the jigsaw to be in place until I opened,” he says.

History can also be inhibiting, physically and psychologically, and I ask about building a theatre within tight constraints. “There’s nothing but restrictions in that building and things that you can’t do,” he admits. “The positives in that are that you know where you’re going, you know what the restrictions are and you make a virtue of that . . . People will create the work in that building that is appropriate for them and the space.”

Being creative within constraints may be Sutton’s forte, even if that’s a carefully designed mantra, and it’s also a characteristic of making of art. He is aware, too, that he has opened a theatre in the depths of a recession, in an area of Dublin with competing venues of comparable size and will depend on outside rentals for income and on Smock Alley Players to produce five productions a year for the venue, including a Shakespeare production and a Christmas show. He focuses on another asset, though, which is harder to define.

“It is made sustainable by getting people to talk about the story of Smock Alley,” he says. “There are many theatres around the country that are quite similar [to each other]. You go into Smock Alley Theatre and there is no other theatre like it. It has an identity and an integrity and a magic that is absolutely its own.”

And here Sutton seems to reconcile his various identities, the pragmatic sentimentalist, the landlord and tenant, the acting school director and new theatre manager. “We’re all in the business of telling a story.”


Smock Alley Players stage Playboy of the Western World, directed by Patrick Sutton, at Smock Alley until August 5th

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