Stage struck: curtain rises on 2014

What can 2013 tell us about the year ahead in theatre? That we can expect more of the same

Flying it: Rough Magic performers Cormac Lawlor and Sarah Shine (left and right) flank James Hunt, Director of Sky Arts, Fergus Shiels, Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre Company and Lynne Parker, Artistic Director of Rough Magic at the announcement of  Sky Arts’ €230,000  funding to Rough Magic. Photograph: Alan Betson

Flying it: Rough Magic performers Cormac Lawlor and Sarah Shine (left and right) flank James Hunt, Director of Sky Arts, Fergus Shiels, Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre Company and Lynne Parker, Artistic Director of Rough Magic at the announcement of Sky Arts’ €230,000 funding to Rough Magic. Photograph: Alan Betson

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 11:28

Just as prophecies on stage are either wildly misapprehended or blithely ignored, making predictions about theatre is a mug’s game. Still, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say Irish theatre in 2014 will probably look a lot like Irish theatre in 2013. That’s not a hugely enticing prospect.

We’re already off to a bad start. With State subsidy down 7 per cent for 2014 to €56 million, arts organisations discover this week whether they are still in operation, or how much more reliant on philanthropy, crowd funding or commercial sponsorship they will have to become. Inevitably, this changes the nature of the work they produce.

While older companies go back to the drawing board, a social-network-savvy upstart can scrape together a budget through Fundit and discover that anxious venues will happily take their calls. Many of these shows will be mediocre, further blurring the distinction between amateur and professional theatre.

Yet talent always rises. Companies such as Collapsing Horse emerged in this new dispensation by making up in intelligence and ingenuity what they lacked in frills. We’ll see more of their like – and theatre-makers will seem to be getting younger.

In one of the few good news stories for the arts last year, Rough Magic won the Sky Arts Ignition award (worth €230,000) for a co-production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Opera Theatre Company, to be staged in April. Conceived as an immersive event in the Olympia, it allows both groups to work on an otherwise unachievable scale, but raises questions about corporate partnerships and compromise. The idea is inherently theatrical, but the digital channel expects to broadcast it – and you gotta dance with the one who brung ya.

Tellingly, in a difficult December for ticket sales, Assassins, Ronan Phelan’s production for Rough Magic’s Seeds director showcase, was a notable success. But why would a young director want to prove he could handle the mechanics of an essentially commercial product? Perhaps because there’s more life in it.

While other excellent shows struggled for audiences in December, the Gate ended its 85th year in business with what was reportedly its fastest ever selling show, Pride and Prejudice, while the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre broke box office records with Wicked. People are still willing to spend money if they are assured a good night out.

So where does this leave room for the lifeblood of theatre – the new, the ambitious, the path-
breaking? It still comes through, as Dead Centre’s Lippy, Brokentalker’s preview of Futureproof, Dylan Coburn Gray’s Boys and Girls, and TheatreClub’s History reminded us. And when it does, it stands head and shoulders above the fodder.

There are expectations for a new play by an established writer at the Peacock. But, by their nature, a good surprise is always hard to predict. Whether it’s last year, this year or in years to come, the only thing we can safely say is that we’ll know ’em when we see ’em.

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