Down to monkey business


The Ark's new co-production with regional arts centres is bringing Roddy Doyle to kids countrywide, writes Shane Hegarty

It's a Monday morning and the Ark buzzes with the chatter of the school class here on a project. The Children's Cultural Centre has become a magnet for many such classes, but there has been a nagging awareness that it will only progress so much if it is content to wait for children and families to come to it. So, when Roddy Doyle's puppet adventure No Messin' With The Monkeys begins its run today, it will be the culmination of a novel co-production in which the regional arts centres in Bray and Portlaoise and the Cork Midsummer Festival have joined forces. If successful, it may point the way forward for similar organisations across the country.

"The Ark wants to extend itself, to break down the walls in a symbolic sense and work more with organisations outside," explains acting director of the Ark Belinda Moller, once the giddy din has died down. "There's a very practical reason as well. The audiences we would get to Ark productions would be 5,000 to 7,000, which is very limited. And while we have done tours in the past on an ad hoc basis, for lots of reasons it's very difficult to fit into other people's budgets and constraints. So it seemed a very logical solution to work closely with other people. It means that the audience for its first outing will be just under 20,000, which is very significant."

The plan solves problems on all sides. It gives the Ark an opportunity to tour a show in welcoming venues that have been involved since the beginning, as well as giving it extra cash to put into its productions. Meanwhile, the centres and the festival can pool resources to get a show they could not have commissioned on their own. For small festivals and many of the new regional arts centres dotted around the country, it could be an enticing way to both put bums on seats and be artistically creative.

Louise Donlon, director of Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise, is convinced this has given her an opportunity to commission work from a major writer in a way that just wouldn't have otherwise been possible. "I had huge difficulties in regard to whether I could afford to do this, basically. And yet at the same time, I knew I couldn't turn this down. It's for children, but there will also be families coming to the theatre. We did a small survey about six months ago and one of the things that came up a lot was that parents said they had no opportunity to bring kids to the theatre as a family. Also, we're always on the look-out for good quality. I was over and back for about a week, wondering, can I really do this. But I couldn't turn it down. And I had to make compromises with budgets, borrowing from one to make up the difference, but I know it will make a big impact."

It is a new experience for the centre, which hasn't co-produced before and which has sometimes felt geographically isolated. But Donlon believes it will be about more than just putting on a decent show. "It's a constant struggle. Where we're based the population is exploding, and it's letting them know we exist in some cases. There are thousands of houses being built, so this is helping us to get a national profile as well."

Aideen Howard, director of the Mermaid Arts Centre explains that it has co-produced before, but that this project covers several bases.

"It's generating new work, which is something we're very conscious of in terms of ourselves as regional arts centre. It is something that is dear to us, the idea of generating work from artists, somehow being involved in a process where that can happen. It's not something that we can always afford to do on our own. Secondly, it allows a broad audience to feel that art is something that happens in their town and not something they necessarily need to travel to the capital city to see. Those two things fit into this brilliantly."

The Ark's Outreach programme has been running since 1997, but when it decided to approach other events with an eye to co-producing this show, it was taking a step up in scale and ambition. Several organisations were targeted, but logistics and budgets prevented others from coming on board. According to the show's producer, Maura O'Keeffe, the Ark had clear ideas of what it wanted, and yet did not want to set any rules.

"It wasn't a blanket invitation. We couldn't have everybody involved, and always thought it should be between three and five. We don't have any rules. When we started we decided very clearly we would pilot the idea. Rather than spend six months thinking and talking and researching and then going in to something, we decided we would use the work as a springboard.

"And the board of the Ark were very much in favour of this open process, so that we could go in and engage properly with partnership. So we are still at the stage with our partners where we are asking, what is this partnership? What will it end up being? And everybody seems very open to other people's ideas and very interested in talking to each other. There is no preciousness."

It is also something she believes will be relished by artists. "From the artists' point of view, it's really beneficial to have those partners outside Dublin," she adds. "There is always that danger that when the art is really successful in Dublin it might be a fantastic resource, but we've been serving a particular audience for a number of years. When we looked at expanding, we didn't want to just go to the Mermaid for two weeks. To make sure we could engage with a new audience in the same way as we have been building our audiences here, the best way was to link up with local producers, so that we're all working together and developing work."

Since it began, other arts organisations have sat up and taken notice, and there have already been calls about future co-productions.

The co-production of No Messin' With the Monkeys was pitched as a long-term idea, perhaps something that might grow into a more formal touring company. But there will be no mad dash into another project. "We decided as a group that we're going to wait and see," O'Keeffe continues. "We need to work a little bit more together for this year's show and then look to the possibilities of the future. I don't think anyone is saying we're going to keep this all to ourselves. But we are going to keep it quite small. Although long term, it would be fantastic to see lots more work going to children in lots of venues."

No Messin' With The Monkeys runs in the Ark from May 2 to Jun 18; Cork Midsummer Festival, Firkin Crane, Shandon, Jun 20-25; Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise, Sep 26-Oct 1, and Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Oct 3-8