Plenty going upstairs: a hub of experimentation
TWO YEARS AGO Theatre Upstairs at the Plough in Dublin closed its doors abruptly. The independent, nonfunded space established by Karl Shiels and Paul Walker brought countless new plays, actors, directors and writers to audiences. Shiels has resurrected the space in Lanigan’s pub, around the corner from Abbey Street on Eden Quay.
“It’s taken two years to get my head around doing it again,” Shiels says, on a humid overcast morning outside the pub.
Over black coffee and cigarettes he’s remarkably cheery and enthusiastic about the new venture, despite the crutch at his side, a consequence of injuring himself in an on stage fight scene.
“I had to get the space right. We like the relationship we have with the gang here,” he says, motioning towards the bar. “We’ve got a lovely little space here, a gallery, our own separate entrance, a box office. It’s a friendly type of space and a handier space to get to.”
Upstairs, from the photos of Abbey actors on the walls (Shiels enthuses about the support its Abbey neighbours have given) to the Green Room Gallery, there’s a nice buzz about the place.
Shiels, who’s currently acting in Tom Murphy’s The House at the Abbey, explains the philosophy of the project: “The whole ethos of the space is, if you have an idea, and you want to try it or do something, or you’ve got a new play, we’ll read it. If there’s something in it, we’ll have a look at it, and we’ll sit down with you and talk about it.”
It also aims to offer people the chance to diversify. “There are a lot of actors out there who want to direct, so what we’re doing is we’re trying to encourage the crossover. We’ve also got, for instance, Aisling Mooney – she’s production manager at the Abbey Theatre. She’s directing a show for us and it’s her first time directing a show.
“The idea is to create a hub where people can experiment, and a safety net where people can fail as well – although we’ll try to steer clear of that.”
The renewed enthusiasm for creativity in theatre is not something Shiels is working on in isolation. Newer, smaller companies are cropping up; younger writers are becoming more urgent and experimental; and there’s a feeling of liveliness across the Irish theatre landscape.
But, he says, it’s still scene that has its limitations. “I don’t know what theatre you can approach and say, ‘I have an idea.’ In fairness, I approached Michael Colgan with an idea of a reworking of a play and he gave me the Lab for a week. . . That was something very rare, but at least he did it, you know? But I don’t know any other theatre out there you could approach saying, ‘I have an idea, here’s a play, see what you think of it.’ ”