The Gate Keeper
For 30 years Michael Colgan has been the dominant figure behind the Gate Theatre, combining business acumen, a taste for avant garde drama and the instincts of a brazen and irrepressible showman
Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre. Photographs: Cyril Byrne
Michael Colgan at work in the Gate Theatre.
One morning 30 years ago Michael Colgan woke in a panic at four o’clock. He was, then as now, a man of what he himself calls “divine self-confidence”. But he found himself sitting bolt upright, sweating profusely. “You know when your neck gets wet from terror?” He is sitting, the picture of professional ease, in his large office across the road from the Gate Theatre, an institution he has run with an haughty sense of command for the 30 years since.
You feel like saying: no, Michael, I don’t know. Of all the necks in Dublin, yours is perhaps the one I can least imagine wet with terror. Two years before this panic attack, he had taken over the Dublin Theatre Festival, which had been perennially in crisis, and made a huge success of the job. He was already imperious. He smoked cigars. He made sweeping statements about how Irish theatre wasn’t really all that good. He mocked the Arts Council for “gross ignorance”.
Even more shockingly, he combined exotic tastes for non-traditional theatre with the instincts of a brazen showman. “I love selling”, he said in 1982, “and I love getting publicity.”
Just very occasionally, if you watched him closely, you could sense some traces of self-doubt. I remember seeing him in the Gate Theatre on the opening night of a show in the 1981 festival, his first as artistic director. The play, presented by an avant garde Polish company was like nothing Dublin audiences had seen before. The audience was on the stage; the actors in the auditorium. We were taken down into the bowels of the old Rotunda next door, where sinister secret policemen in leather gloves lurked about. But the most unexpected thing about the evening was the sight of Michael Colgan looking slightly nervous. He wanted to unsettle the audience but he also wanted a hit. He pulled it off, of course, but there were moments when it looked like it might fail. That, you could see on his face, would be almost unbearable for him. But he didn’t have to bear it. His combination of calculated risk-taking and hard-headed business nous brought the success that kept any doubts at bay.
By 1983, when he was at the tricky age for a messiah of 33, he became restless. He had, he now admits, elbowed his way to the top of the Dublin Theatre Festival, having been brought in initially as an organiser, serving under the festival’s founder Brendan Smith and programme director Hugh Leonard: “I eventually dislodged everybody – Leonard, Smith, the lot.” But, having made a success of the job, he was finding that it could scarcely contain his ambitions. “I was beginning to die at it slightly”. He looks back with a hint of ruefulness: “It’s youth, you know? That business of saying ‘I am bigger than you’. When you start putting your ego in front of the job you’re in real trouble.”
His ego, though, got him the job he wanted. The Gate had been dwindling gradually throughout the 1970s. It was a classic case of an organisation built around its charismatic founders – Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards – and struggling to survive their demise. Everyone knew that it had to change or die. There was a plan, agreed between the Gate’s board (headed by the architect Michael Scott) and the Arts Council. And it did not involve Michael Colgan.
Four directors – Garry Hynes, Patrick Mason, Sean McCarthy and Pat Laffan – would programme the theatre for three months each every year. Douglas Kennedy – now an internationally successful novelist, then manager of the Peacock Theatre – would be the “co-ordinator”.
Almost everyone in the arts world thought this was a good plan. Until Pat Laffan met Michael Colgan in the Royal Dublin hotel and asked him what he thought. “I said ‘You’re quite crazy, Pat. It’s not going to work’. I said ‘Douglas Kennedy is fine, he’s a smart boy, but what is a coordinator? It’s a nonsense. The person who is going to coordinate will by default become in charge of the entire thing, because he or she will have all the information. It will take three or four years for that to happen and that will be a very, very fallow four years. So if you want to invest four years of absolute shit, then you go that route.’”
Colgan then met Michael Scott at a party in Mike Murphy’s house and told him the same thing. Scott offered Colgan the job as “coordinator” of the new Gate. Colgan’s counter-offer was breathtakingly arrogant: he would not become a coordinator. He would become artistic director, managing director, company secretary and a member of the board. In effect, the Gate would become Michael Colgan’s theatre. Scott offered him the job. Colgan then insisted that the job offer be rescinded so he could be interviewed properly by the Gate board. They obeyed: he was already in charge.
And then he woke up at 4 am, sitting bolt upright, his neck wet with terror, realising just how far his ego had carried him beyond all sensible norms. “I realised that I was taking over from two people. Michael and Hilton, I know they were lovers, but they needed two people to run the theatre. And then I worked out that the Abbey had a manager and an artistic director and then I worked out the Royal Court and everybody else had too and I just said ‘What sort of stupidity is it to to take this place over on my own?’”
He decided there and then to call Joe Dowling, former artistic director of the Abbey, and ask him to take on the same role at the Gate.
“I’d step aside and be the managing director and there was no doubt that was where my forte was, in administration. That was where I felt myself most confident. I certainly would not have felt too confident in discussing a play with an author to the point of having him or her change it, which I can happily do now.”
He went back to sleep, no longer facing the prospect of running the Gate on his own. Later that morning, he met the actor Barbara Brennan for coffee. “I said ‘I’m going to take over the Gate on December 1st.’ and she said ‘Yes, I have heard about that’. ‘And if I do will you act in plays there?’ She said ‘Yes’. ‘Will you?’ and she said ‘Yes, really, I promise’. I said ‘Great, let me get these coffees’. She said ‘Where are you going?’ I said ‘That’s all I wanted to know.’”