If Ireland has changed so much, why hasn't theatre kept pace?

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

CULTURE SHOCK:LAST WEEK I took part in a symposium at the Peacock on the “futures” of Irish theatre. As one of the other panellists, Willie White of Dublin Theatre Festival, brought along a collection of my reviews, containing umpteen predictions about the future that turned out to be wrong, my confidence in my prophetic abilities is not what it once was. But I do think it possible to say one thing about the next decade with some degree of confidence. It is that there will be a fierce tension between the form of theatre and the institutions that are supposed to contain it.

Irish theatre is deeply conservative. I don’t mean in terms of content or even of formal experiment, though both could be argued. I mean simply that the primary institutions in which most of it happens are astonishingly static. Twenty years ago, in 1992, the top four theatre companies, ranked in order of Arts Council funding, were the Abbey, the Gate, Druid and Rough Magic. Two full decades on and what’s the ranking? The Abbey, the Gate, Druid and Rough Magic.

It’s not just that we have the same four companies but that their places in the official hierarchy are unchanged.

Ireland has gone from bust to boom to bust, the Catholic Church has imploded, Fianna Fáil has shrunk to a rump, a black man is president of the US and Martin McGuinness has shaken the hand of the queen. But the basic institutional order of Irish theatre is unchanged.

In fact, this comparison of 1992 and 2012 seriously understates the degree of continuity. For one thing, if we go back to 1985, we find that the top three is exactly as it is now: the Abbey, the Gate, Druid. For another, the dominance of the Abbey within this ranking has actually increased. In 1995, the Abbey’s funding was about five times that of its nearest rival, the Gate. By 2010, the Abbey got more than seven times what the Gate did.

Perhaps even more striking is the continuity within these institutions. Druid is still led by Garry Hynes, who cofounded it in 1975. Lynne Parker is still artistic director of Rough Magic, which she, too, cofounded. And Michael Colgan has been at the head of the Gate since 1983. Apart from Fiach Mac Conghail, who has been at the Abbey a mere seven years, the leadership of the major Irish theatre companies is the same as it was in the mid-1980s.

I’m not suggesting that this is itself a bad thing: continuity can be a great strength, and Parker, Colgan and Hynes have been excellent leaders of their companies. But it is remarkable, especially when you consider that the institutional environment for Irish theatre was transformed over the boom years. The stasis at the top is part of a broader phenomenon: a huge increase in funding did not lead to a huge increase in the number of professional theatre companies. In the decade between 1995 and 2005, there was a fourfold increase in Arts Council funding for theatre companies, rising from €3.9 million to €15 million. The average grant to a company rose from €195,000 to €536,000. But the actual number of funded companies increased by just eight, from 20 to 28.

In the 1970s, when there was hardly any money, Druid managed to break through from nowhere and establish itself as a major institutional presence. In the 1980s, when there was hardly any money, Rough Magic did the same thing. But in the boom years of 1995 to 2008, when there was an awful lot of new money, no company managed to break through to a point where it could even come close to the top four in terms of official funding. This was not because none of the new companies was good: Pan Pan, Fishamble, Blue Raincoat, Corn Exchange, Anu and many others reached very high levels of production. It was because, rather like what happened with Irish society as a whole, the pre-established pecking order managed to reinforce itself during a period of apparently radical change.

Which brings us to the future. Nobody has a clue what the next decade will bring. But it is a safe bet that it will be a period of turmoil.

Firstly, Irish society as a whole will be under enormous stress as the welfare state is stripped away and questions that had seemed to be broadly settled a century ago – Irish sovereignty, for example – are reopened. Theatre as a public art form will be under pressure to respond to this crisis.

Secondly, of course, technological change will carry on apace, bringing new challenges to (and opportunities for) live performance. It is not accidental that the most notable trend in Irish theatre is towards making it even more “live” through site-specific and interactive performance.

Thirdly, Irish theatre is being feminised. Women have always had important roles in the theatre, but they have formed a minority, especially among writers. By the end of the next decade women will make up a majority of theatre professionals – including, most probably, of playwrights.

And, finally, the long-term effects of inward migration will start to make themselves felt as the children of migrants become performers, directors and writers. (Bear in mind that minorities of all sorts tend to provide a disproportionate number of creative artists.)

What these forces amount to is, in a word, flux. So much will be up for grabs, from the kind of stories the theatre has to tell to a society in crisis to the nature of the theatrical experience in a digital world, and from the male-dominated vision of what a play should be to the underlying notion of an Irish cultural identity. But these unsettling energies will come up against an institutional environment that is weirdly settled. It hardly takes a great prophet to say that something will have to give and the existing big companies will face the old Darwinian alternatives: adapt or die.

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