World of possibility

 

Networking doesn’t always come easily to artists, but as Irish performers broaden their horizons at this week’s music dance and theatre showcases in New York, they’re proving pretty good at it

SINCE LAST WEEK, they’ve been packing the flights from Dublin to JFK, buzzing in the bars and theatre lobbies of Manhattan, and making their way into the columns of the New York Times– it’s that time of year again, when Culture Ireland brings an army of Irish performers and promoters to the city that never sleeps and that expects its artists to maintain an equal level of insomnia. At the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (Apap) conference, at the Under the Radar and Coil theatre festivals, and at a series of showcases in theatre, music and dance, some 100 Irish performers and promoters have been getting stuck into the sometimes difficult business of making themselves known.

With so many key players in the city at one time – producers, promoters and presenters from across the US and around the world – the opportunities for the Irish delegation have been immense. There have been connections to make, deals to broker and dates and venues to book in the US and elsewhere.

In other words, there has been a whole lot of networking to do. Laurie Uprichard, who directs the Dublin Dance Festival and played a major role in curating a showcase of four Irish choreographers at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, says that an event like this is “a matter of introductions, but also of process – there’s no immediate gratification. But it’s important for artists to be seen in a global context, and this is the biggest marketplace in the world for performing artists.” No pressure then.

The truth is, though, that networking is not a skill which always comes easily to artists. All that meeting and greeting, all that pressing the flesh, all that talking the talk, can be wearisome and intimidating for people who’d prefer, after all, to be in the rehearsal studio or even staring at the blank page. But in today’s market, as director Tom Creed says, it’s no longer optional. “If you have aspirations to work internationally,” he says, “you have to do it.”

Creed, who is in New York both as a presenter looking for new work to bring to Ireland and as director of Raymond Scannell’s play, Mimic, currently playing at the downtown venue PS 122, says that in the past two years the art of networking has been revolutionised – and relaxed – with the help of an online friend. Or, in Creed’s case, some 1,140 online friends.

“Facebook has been the great leveller,” he says. “Because you can meet somebody – say Mark Russell – in Edinburgh, and you can friend them on Facebook the following day. And in a kind of ambient way, you get to know each other, by reading each other’s updates, by being able to comment. It’s something that I’ve seen manifest itself in Irish theatre in the last while, in terms of the way emerging and established theatre artists have this virtual network mapped directly on to a real network. So from a global point of view, I can have a casual and informal relationship on an ongoing basis with people I’d once have met only at festivals.”

Some level of contact, online or otherwise, with potential partners or producers well in advance of a conference like this is essential if artists and organisations truly want to do business, says Gary Sheehan, manager of the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, who was in Culture Ireland’s showcase of traditional Irish music at the Irish Arts Centre.

“Things like Apap work best when you’re advancing things that are already in the pipeline,” says Sheehan, who set up Ó Lionáird’s meetings in mid-December. “While there’ll always be some unexpected connections, it just doesn’t work to show up at these conferences with your artist, thinking you’ll talk to 20 people and something is bound to happen.”

Jane Daly of the Irish Theatre Institute (ITI) agrees that artists and their representatives need to do their homework: “You don’t want to invite to your showcase somebody who doesn’t programme your kind of work at all.”

The presence at Apap of a resource organisation such as ITI can prove a boon to artists and companies. Daly, whose attendance at Apap with ITI in fact pre-dates Culture Ireland’s existence and its involvement in the conference, points to the ability of such an organisation to handle business queries and discuss logistics on the behalf of artists. Which is not to say that artists themselves can get off the hook. Sheehan and Ó Lionáird spent their time at Apap working out the details of a new deal with a global agent, and Ó Lionáird was expected to sing for his supper just as much as was his manager.

“It was actually good and vital that Iarla was here,” says Sheehan. “Because they’re going to be working with him for the next few years, he and the agent needed to spend time together and get to know each other.”

Even for an artist such as Ó Lionáird, who has already had considerable success stateside, the process of competing in the US market is an ongoing one. “America will forget somebody really quickly,” says Sheehan.

This raises the question of why Irish artists want to make their mark on the American scene, and of what they want from that experience. Does an aspiration to somehow “break” the US still exist? For performing arts which don’t particularly kowtow to commercial concerns, is it a realistic aim?

Judy Hegarty Lovett, of Gare St Lazare Players, this year making a fourth visit to Apap, showcasing performances of work by Beckett and Herman Melville (and adding bookings to existing plans for a US tour later this year), says that it’s certainly not about any idea of “conquering” America.

“It’s more that here your potential is stronger and bigger,” she says. “What we’re doing is obviously a particular audience and not quite Broadway material, but you do feel that you have the potential to make more connections and to get to bigger venues and bigger exposure. A New York Timesreview will be read by a lot more people than an Irish Timesreview.”

One company currently feeling the glow of a New York Timesrave is John O’Brien’s Gúna Nua, whose production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gemhas been a critical and popular hit at the Flea Theater, where its sell-out success attracted serious interest from producers in several US cities – a happy prelude to its run at Dublin’s Peacock Theatre later this month.

“The beauty of having a show in New York,” says O’Brien, “is that you’re being evaluated and judged alongside some of the finest practitioners in the world. If you can stand your ground with them, you know you’re doing something right.”

Chief executive of Culture Ireland Eugene Downes says that many elements of this year’s mission illustrated the extent to which Irish artists can and do stand their ground on a world stage. The recognition came not just from within the arts community – Lou Reed (at the Gare St Lazare show) and Mikhail Baryshnikov (at the dance event) were among high-profile attendees at the showcase performances – but also from the city of New York in a more formal sense. Receptions were hosted for the visiting artists by City Council speaker Christine Quinn (at City Hall) and by Ambassador Niall Burgess, Consul General of Ireland.

“That civic and political dimension really clicked this year,” says Downes, “signalling that the artistic and cultural bridge between Ireland and America is hugely important in the overall relationship between the two countries. And that what the artists were doing this week in America is not just about touring, not just about their careers, but is actually about very direct investment in the national relationship and what they bring to it as fantastic ambassadors for the country, and for Irish imagination and creativity.”

It’s an understatement to say that Culture Ireland’s establishment and support has made this expansion and aspiration a more realistic prospect for Irish companies, according to Dominic Campbell. Campbell, artistic director of the Bealtaine festival, first commissioned the show which became Silver Stars, a collaboration between theatre company Brokentalkers and singer-songwriter Sean Miller.

At the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival last year, the show, which explores the stories of Irish gay men, was seen by Meiyin Wang, of the Under the Radar festival, and booked for this year’s festival at the Public Theater. But without Culture Ireland’s support – which covers the cost of visas, travel and accommodation – Silver Starswould have had to stay in Dublin, according to Campbell. “It’s that simple,” he says. “We’re going home now with a list of contacts we didn’t have before, of people who are interested in talking about the show coming to their venue. That opportunity would never have been there otherwise.”

Tom Creed concurs. “Whether it’s formally, through networking, or informally, late at night in bars on First Avenue, it’s possible to make connections and for one thing to lead to another for the work,” he says. “And now, because Culture Ireland is so supportive of the work and so approachable, the aspiration to work internationally is suddenly attainable.”

With so many Irish artists and organisations in New York over the past week as part of Culture Ireland’s delegation to the Apap conference and associated events, there has been plenty of discussion about plans for a new Irish Arts Centre in Manhattan. The project was spotlighted last month when the Irish Government announced – on the eve of the Budget – that it was to give a €2.3 million grant towards construction. Along with Culture Ireland’s Eugene Downes, a number of members of the Irish delegation were invited to a meeting at the existing Irish Arts Centre with its executive director, Aidan Connolly. Among those taking part in the meeting, which focused on ideas of what the new space should be, were Gerry Godley of Improvised Music Company, John Scott of Irish Modern Dance Theatre and director Tom Creed.

With Apap 2010 wrapped up, Culture Ireland is now looking ahead, and is aiming to drive the programming of a year-long season of contemporary Irish art across the US. The season, says Downes, “will be about putting together really interesting clusters of work across the art forms which major festivals and major venues in the US will be interested in working with for 2011”. There are a number of reasons why 2011 has been chosen as what Downes calls a “keynote year“: for a start, the choice incorporates lessons learned about the long lead-in time of many major US arts programmers; then there’ll also be a changing of the cultural guard at the Irish Consulate in New York in 2011, with several members of the team coming to the end of their terms and Downes anxious “to get the maximum impact from their expertise and network before that turnover happens”. Finally, there’s a significant anniversary – though whether it’s authentic is another question.

“2011 happens to be the 250th anniversary of, effectively, the invention of St Patrick’s Day as a global marker for Irish identity,” says Downes (1761 was the year of the first St Patrick’s Day parade, which took place in the US). Downes says that the anniversary “offers us an opportunity to say, culturally and in every other sense, what we’re about” through work being prepared now by Irish artists. It’s a promising vista, but as well as the “celebratory” nature of St Patrick’s Day, Downes alludes to its “problematic elements”, and it remains to be seen how a celebration of contemporary Irish culture will gel with a parade committee which still bans LGBT groups from participating. In negotiating this potential bind, continued interest from City Council speaker Christine Quinn – who is openly gay and has boycotted the New York parade for several years – is likely to be vital.