Who wouldn’t want to see an Anne Enright and Rusangano Family opera?

Readings and interviews are fine but writers must be helped collaborate with other artists

Wrongheaded by Elaine Feeney: Feeney found the collaboration encouraging, and particularly because it was paid: “It made me feel that my work meant something.”

Wrongheaded by Elaine Feeney: Feeney found the collaboration encouraging, and particularly because it was paid: “It made me feel that my work meant something.”

 

While literature continues to be the most underprogrammed art form at venues around the country, due to a perceived lack of audiences for poets, writers and novelists, a mix of artforms are enjoying national and international success with literary adaptations.

Theatre, film and other art forms increasingly lean into literature for inspiration resulting in shows like Country Girls (Abbey Theatre, 2019), Redemption Falls (Moonfish/Galway International Arts Festival, 2019), Asking for It (Abbey Theatre, 2019) and The Thing About December (Decadent Theatre, 2019). While theatre makers, dancers and musicians adapt and use the work of contemporary writers, writers themselves are not currently funded within literature to collaborate with other artists. All of the writers above who participated in the process were invited by the makers who wanted to use the work. Writers themselves, however, cannot currently access a fund to reimagine their words in collaboration with other artistic partners.

The formula of literary events offered to audiences has little variation. Most literary events on a festival stage or outside of the festival circuit tend to be readings, author interviews and panels. Where is the space for experimentation, play and creativity with how we tell stories? The writer is that after all, a storyteller. Michael Harding references this in his description of the labels he has worn: “I’ve often been defined as different things – a novelist, a columnist, an actor, but the word I would use to identify myself would be ‘storyteller’. Whether it is Beckett, Friel, Pat Kinevane, all of them are beautifully telling stories in a masterful way.”

Subtlety of form

Interestingly, Harding talks about the wider picture of Irish art and how he feels that producers generally are following what he defines as “an Anglo-Saxon model”. “An offering is formed to fit a template. Theatre is as you do on the West End, literature is the published book, but really there is so much more subtlety in the forms and what they can be. It doesn’t help that Irish theatre is often celebrated for its ‘ethnicity’, on a national and international level. We commend the ‘Irishness’ of a piece, rather than its merit for what it says about humanity or existentialism.”

Harding has toured successfully around Ireland on many occasions. His popularity with audiences makes him an easy booking for venue managers. His events tend to have elements of theatre, such as breaks from reading short excerpts of his book, peppered with stories and anecdotes.

A certain bravery seems to be absent in literature, to trust an audience to be part of something, to consider how a story might be told, and how that might be fun for a writer, as well as for the audiences, to experience something new.

Do audiences want something new? The answer seems to be a resounding yes, based on feedback from programmers and writers themselves. Sinéad Gleeson, winner of an Irish Book Award for her debut collection of essays, Constellations, says: “Panels and readings are a solid way to engage with audiences but having read at a lot of festivals in recent years, I get a sense that audiences are keen to see and hear something else; something outside of traditional formats.”

Gleeson has collaborated with her husband, composer Stephen Shannon, who composed soundscapes and a score for some of the essays from Constellations. Gleeson feels that audiences are interested in hybridity: “Audiences are intrigued, and interested in seeing more of it. Money is a huge factor though, as is a reluctance on the part of some programmers and funders to take risks on such projects.”

Mixed discipline

Certain producers do take risks on their programming and should be commended for it. The International Literature Festival Dublin has showcased some mixed discipline formats and seems keen to show another side of literature: “The most stimulating contemporary writing is often that which tests boundaries, shifts between forms and is driven by ideas,” says programme director Martin Colthorpe. “By extension, literary festivals should reflect this, offering the stage not just to writers but to artists from other fields, such as our Building Stories series from 2019, where writers, artists and architects collaborated on a series of events about writing, public space and the imagination.”

The Abbey’s version of Edna O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls: Theatre, film and other art forms increasingly lean into literature for inspiration. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
The Abbey’s version of Edna O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls: Theatre, film and other art forms increasingly lean into literature for inspiration. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

In the pipeline for ILFD next year is the innovative work of children’s writer and curator Sarah Webb. “Next year I hope to work with projection – immersive events featuring some of the amazing artwork produced by Irish picture book makers and music. I think families are looking for events that are interactive and immersive, parents and children both want to play and to learn something. Events that do both are my aim for 2020.”

Webb feels we are only “scratching the surface of the kind of events that we could create working together with other art forms. We have incredible literary talent in Ireland, and above all, working with other artists is fun and nurtures writers’ creative practice – so everyone wins, writers, fellow creatives and most importantly, the audience!”

Recently, Edinburgh International Book Festival produced an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, a story of oppression and resistance in a Bolivian Mennonite community. The adaptation was shown in Edinburgh in August and at the International Festival of Authors, Toronto, last month. The performance includes gesture and dance that inspire the language and tell an element of each character’s story.

Arts budget

If money and bravery are the blocks to this potential world of making, then where do solutions lie? The 4.6 per cent of the Arts Council budget assigned to literature is a massive challenge. It might surprise the general public to know that although we are an island of literary greats, we tend to reference our literary history frequently while quietly ignoring the fact that literature is offered only a tiny slice of the national arts budget. Professional authors tend to have an annual income of €11,840, and only 13 per cent earned their income from writing alone in 2019, compared with 40 per cent in 2005. Fifteen million books a year are sold in Ireland, a value of €175 million, so we like to read. We are just struggling to make life easier for writers.

It is important to say that funding is allocated to supporting writers with bursaries, grants to key literary magazines that publish good writing and programmes like the Writers in Schools Scheme. There is just not enough of a budget to support the talent that’s there, and clearly not enough to promote innovation and experimentation, in an artform that has made Ireland famous for its ambition and vision.

Without proper resourcing for collaboration, writers are missing out on not just the opportunity to develop their artistic practice, but also the prospect of additional income. For new writers like Ian Maleney, who published Minor Monuments with Tramp Press this year, adaptation can offer more paid work. Ian collaborated with Jamie Goldrick and Brendan MacEvilly to create what they call “an audio-visual essay”. The piece is currently touring Ireland and has been booked for 12 performances so far. These performances are in addition to the panels and reading events Maleney has been included in. It is very unusual for new or mid-career writers to be afforded so many paid events. Venues are purchasing this format as they are interested in a mixed-medium offering that may attract audiences who are interested in film, sound or visual art.

Power of impact

Wrongheaded, written by Elaine Feeney and performed by the Liz Roche Dance Company, opened at the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016 and has gone on to tour internationally to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Cardiff Dance Festival, and to several film festivals including the Athens Video Dance Festival, the Bucharest International Dance Film Festival, Festival Internacional VideoDanzaBA, Buenos Aires and the Underwire Festival in London. Again, the work of poet Feeney has now travelled to audiences it would never have been to, because of the collaboration. We can’t underestimate the power of this impact; what it does for the writer’s own profile, but also, for how it promotes contemporary Irish poetry internationally.

Landmark Productions and the Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre’s production of Asking for It by Louise O’Neill adapted for the stage by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn. Photograph: Jed Niezgoda
Landmark Productions and the Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre’s production of Asking for It by Louise O’Neill adapted for the stage by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn. Photograph: Jed Niezgoda

Feeney says that “the foundation of all artforms is to communicate; poetry and fiction are naturally communicative forms of art”. Like Harding, she feels that we talk to audiences through the presentation of the work, or that we should at least see it as a conversation, one that can happen in a theatre and continue after. Feeney found the collaboration encouraging, and particularly because it was paid: “It made me feel that my work meant something.” The support of working with other artists was also a new experience: “The entire Wrongheaded team were just wonderful to work with. I’m always utterly critical of my own writing but I felt more protected working in a group, less exposed.”

In the past 18 months, six arts venues around Ireland have been participating in the Literary Audience Development Scheme run by Words Ireland. As part of this scheme, the partners are developing their literary programmes and, together with Words Ireland, they will be commissioning a tour for the autumn of 2020. Submissions will be invited for a format that writers and their desired collaborators would like to create, inspiring for them and engaging for a live audience. It is a small step towards creating a platform for writers to be programmed more widely, outside of festivals, and for a new confidence in what types of literary offerings can be generated. Information of the tour will be published on the Words Ireland website in the New Year.

In the words of Sinéad Gleeson, “If we funded multidisciplinary projects, who knows what kind of work would come out of it? The possibilities for interesting pairings could produce genre-defying, jaw-dropping work from different practitioners. Who wouldn’t want to see an Anne Enright and Rusangano Family opera?”

Would you like to see this? I would. Let’s hope that we can be brave and that we find a matched support for that courage.

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