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.’”
His moment of panic was over. He announced in an interview that he was going to pack out the theatre for the first hundred nights of his reign.
He took out display advertisements in The Irish Times – something no subsidised theatre did in those days. The plays were not especially exciting – no Polish secret policemen in the basement but Hugh Leonard, Alan Ackybourn, Oscar Wilde in slick, well designed, beautifully packaged productions. He wanted those full houses and he got them as if by sheer personal willpower. He sensed that middle-class audiences could be enticed to the depressed and crime-ridden northside of Dublin only if they felt both safe and excited – safe in the hands of plays that were not too demanding, excited by the sheer chutzpah of his sweeping declarations of success. The theatre was full in large part because he said with such conviction that it was going to be full.
He had 157 full houses on the trot. “I was untouchable. I was Caesar in Rome.” By the summer of 1984, the job was looking almost too easy. And then he went home and there was a message on his answering machine from Cheri Lunghi asking him to call. He had persuaded her to take the title role in Hedda Gabler – his first big flirtation with movie star casting. Her husband Roland Joffé had just got the job of directing Robert de Niro in The Mission. “And she said rather disparagingly ‘You know, as Roland says, why would you be in Dublin doing Ibsen in November when you could be going around the world touring with him?’ Fuck you, Roland.”
His star vehicle had lost its fuel. He recast the show and thought it was fine but “on the opening night – four of five times this has happened in the 30 years – the production sat down. That can happen: great on the previews, but on the opening night it sat down and died. It just decided to expire. My soufflé collapsed.”
In the theatre, even Caesar gets stabbed. What is unusual is that Michael Colgan had made the knife himself. He had lived up to his own grandiose predictions, making success look easy. Within a short time of taking up the job, he established two highly dubious propositions as unassailable truths. One was that a single person could run every aspect of a theatre. The other was that full houses could be more or less guaranteed.
The first of these has meant that, although Colgan has surrounded himself with astutely chosen, highly capable, usually female assistants, the Gate belongs to him even more thoroughly than it did to its founders.
If not quite a one-man show, no one is in any doubt about who the ringmaster is. He may have been acutely aware at the start of his reign of his lack of authority as a judge of what a playwright was up to, but sheer longevity has given him whatever confidence he lacked.
“I remember my son being born in the Rotunda and the gynaecologist saying how great everything was and the nurse saying something was wrong. The baby felt floppy in her hands. It turned out she was right. She in her modesty put it down to the fact that she was an older maternity nurse and she’d held many another baby. I say this by way of example: you can do things, not necessarily because you’re smart but you become good at them because you have done them so often and there has to be some benefit to that.”
Once he has appointed a director, he says, he honours his or her authority. “It is like the business of government – you vote for the politician who gets up and says something stupid – you really can’t get him out of office. You just have to wait and not vote for him again. Similarly a director who you think is miscast or makes a mess of it, you don’t do it again. They know that so it does give you an influence.”
The same is true for actors. Colgan says he has a negative veto over the choice of actors for a cast, but not a positive power to enforce his preferences.
“I can say no in casting, I can say ‘not in a million years’ but I can’t say yes. I can’t say ‘this is the person you have to hire’ and I never have.” He says he has only directly said “no” three times in 30 years. But he knows and acknowledges that this massively understates his influence: most directors want, and some directors need, to please him: “I suppose I’ve said ‘no’ indirectly 50 times. The director goes ‘What about him?’ and I go (he raises his eyebrows silently) and she says ‘I was only throwing it out there’. So there is a responsibility of being this all-powerful artistic director/ managing director. It is a sort of phony humility in other theatres where they just have the artistic director nodding away to the general manager or something like that. You know there’s always one boss whether you like it or not.”
Has he ever used his position as boss to fire anyone?
He had to intervene, he says, in one case where an actress insisted on using a different version of a Chekhov play to everyone else. “So we had a preposterous situation in preview where somebody would say, you know, “Did you love your mother?’ to which this girl would answer ‘Wednesday’. ‘Oh, what was it about her that you loved so much?’ ‘3.30’.” The director refused to fire the actor, so Colgan did so himself.
He did the same, while the show was actually playing in previews, to a designer whose set differed radically from the model they had mutually agreed: “I just said to him ‘I am changing the set’ so he said ‘You can’t’. I said ‘I can’, so that was a tough one. I brought in a new designer.”
These, he says, are untypical incidents: normally, he says, his style is “collegiate and Socratic”. He can’t be entirely wrong about this: 30 years at the helm of any Irish institution implies at the very least an ability to manage conflict successfully.
Colgan’s other great hostage to fortune was the promise of full houses. It has created a great paradox: Michael Colgan is wholly in charge of the Gate, but the Gate is also in charge of Michael Colgan. He owns the place, but it does not fully reflect his own tastes.
When he ran the Dublin Theatre Festival, Colgan was a theatrical radical, willing to stun audiences with forms of theatre the city had never seen before. He told himself when he went into the Gate that “I thought the way I would do it was that the first thing that theatre needed was people and I thought that if I could get them into the habit of coming and if I could build that relationship, I could move gently quietly towards pushing, whatever that awful phrase is, the envelope more and more.” He imagined the fare at the Gate becoming “more and more risky” so that “by 1988 I’d be doing plays in, you know, Serbo-Croatian. I would be doing whatever I wanted: new work, everything. But it didn’t work out like that. There were other dynamics going on” – like the need to cope with relatively low levels of public subsidy by keeping the box office busy. “It became a much tougher job than my honeymoon period had suggested it would be.”
As a result, not everything the Gate does is to his own taste. He has suggested to me that, if I ran the Gate, it would be empty. I put it to him that the same is actually true of himself – his personal instincts are much more severe than the theatre’s normal repertoire would suggest. He agrees. He puts it in musical terms: “I don’t like Mozart and I don’t like Strauss. I am immersed in Schubert and immersed in Bartok and immersed in Janacek. But if I was running the Concert Hall, I’d put on lots of Mozart and Strauss. So, yes, I’d empty the theatre and do so gloriously, but I am not going to ’cause I don’t think that’s my job.”
What has saved him from cynicism is that, over the decades, he developed relationships with three living writers who became his touchstones: Brian Friel, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. The three, he says, were united by an ability to fuse language and narrative and, above all, by a “searing integrity”. And, perhaps, though he does not say by being also, like all writers, showmen who desperately wanted their work to be seen and recognised that Colgan could make this happen. Perhaps they too wanted bums on seats and their plays on the stage.
Michael Colgan talks lovingly of going to see Beckett in Paris, of the hotel receptionist giving him a message to call “Monsieur Buckett ce soir”, of discussing with him the Barry McGovern one-man show I’ll Go On that was the Gate’s first venture into the writer’s stark and strange territory. He remembers Beckett struggling to remember the name of his own most famous play: “He was saying ‘When you do em, Michael, when you do, em . . . ’ And he started laughing, his shoulders went up almost uncontrollably. I said ‘What is it Sam?’ He said ‘When you do – Godot, that’s it.’ He said ‘It’s taken me 40 years to forget the name of that play.’ He was delighted.”
Just as you’re savouring this evidence of Beckett’s unworldliness, though, the story takes a twist that even Colgan seems unsure of. As the conversation went on, Colgan “got in a bit of a state” and said to Beckett that he’d like to put on more of his plays. Which plays, asked Beckett? “And I said I’d like to do them all. Whatever way I said it, he said, and I don’t know whether it was him being glick or not, he said ‘You can’t be serious’ and it was one point two seconds after he said ‘You can’t be serious’ that I said ‘I am’.”
The tough-minded producer was caught in a rather beautiful trap: a mad and wonderful commitment to stage all of Beckett’s plays – a commitment he kept. It is nice to think that, in that moment, Michael Colgan was being gently and brilliantly manipulated, not just by an artist he adores, but by his own wilder ambitions.
SIX OF THE BEST . . . MICHAEL COLGAN’S TOP GATE PRODUCTIONS
Choosing these six has been much more difficult than I would have ever imagined. Sophie’s Choice comes to mind. Or having to put one of your children up for adoption. Anyway, here goes:
1. Juno and the Paycock, 1986
2. Salomé, 1988
3. The Beckett Festival, 1991
4. The Pinter Festivals, 1994/1997
5. Faith Healer, 2006/2009
6. The Threepenny Opera, 2013
On the subs bench would be Three Sisters with the three Cusack sisters, Krapp’s Last Tape with John Hurt and A Streetcar Named Desire with Lia Williams. But if I was given nine, I’d have wanted 12.
AND ANOTHER SIX OF THE BEST . . . FINTAN O’TOOLE’S FAVOURITE GATE PRODUCTIONS
1. I’ll Go On (Barry McGovern’s adaptation of Beckett) 1985
2. Juno and the Paycock (Joe Dowling’s searing production with Donal McCann and John Kavanagh) 1986
3. Crestfall (Garry Hynes’s production of Mark O’Rowe’s play) 2003
4. No Man’s Land (Michael Gambon and David Bradley give breathtaking performances in Pinter’s play) 2008
5. Krapp’s Last Tape (with Michael Gambon) 2010
6. A Streetcar Named Desire with Lia Williams 2013