Backstage at The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards
12 months, 138 productions and three judges - we take you behind the scenes of the Irish Theatre Awards nominations
What was Irish theatre like in 2014? It depends on how you look at it. In the case of the three judges of The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards – who saw 138 productions in conventional theatres, site-specific locations, promenade performances and even floating venues – there was plenty to look at.
“At the beginning of the year I conned myself that there would be a much lower level of activity, because I was so conscious of cuts in arts funding,” says Gerry Smyth. “That didn’t prove to be the case at all.”
One discovery of last year, a sixth successive year of diminished State funding for the arts, is not that theatre disappeared but that it was forced to change. Many productions have become shorter, staged in hour-long gulps in spaces above pubs or cafes or brought to unconventional spaces.
“A real issue was the blurring of lines between professional and nonprofessional performance,” Smyth says. “One of the core rules at the creation of the awards was to recognise ‘professional’ productions. I’m not sure, even at the end of this year, that I have all the answers to that. Very few people do it exclusively for a living.”
As a former managing editor of The Irish Times, Smyth founded the awards in 1997 to adjudicate all professional theatre throughout Ireland.
“At the time Irish theatre was going through a great surge, particularly in terms of international recognition, but there was no local recognition for that. The paper decided, because part of its core audience is the theatre audience, to establish the awards. I think one of the things it was welcomed for was to provide Irish theatre with a moment of celebration.”
As theatre changes that celebration may have to change too. “There are a lot of award categories that we would have loved to add,” says Liz Nugent, novelist and one-time theatre stage manager; one is an award for smaller companies, new artists, composer and dance.
The actor Fergus Cronin, now completing his second year as a judge, agrees. “It’s very clear that the awards themselves don’t necessarily reflect the [full range of theatrical] activity.”
To judge from this year’s nominations, 2014 was a good year for the mainstream. The Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, leads the pack with 13 nominations, pressed hard by Lyric Theatre, in Belfast, with 12. Hot on those heels comes Landmark Productions, with seven nominations.
The most-nominated productions of the year are Landmark and Galway International Arts Festival’s Ballyturk, by Enda Walsh, the Abbey’s Our Few and Evil Days, by Mark O’Rowe, and the Lyric’s Punk Rock, by Simon Stephens, each nominated for six awards. Fine shows all, but this resembles a triumph of the overdog.
“It does reflect what’s been happening in the last 12 months of Irish theatre,” Smyth says. “That’s where the best shows were,” says Nugent.
The bigger revelation, they say, has been in new writing for the stage, with Best New Play swelling to include five nominees. “There was an explosion of new writing,” says Nugent. “I could have added another five to that list.”
Indeed, 96 of their 138 productions were original pieces of writing for the stage, much of it in the shape of short works in small venues. “One criticism I think we all would have shared is unpolished or unfinished work getting on to the stage,” says Smyth. “The notion of it enduring, surviving into the canon for decades to come, applies to a number of the nominated plays.”
Two judges freely describe themselves as traditionalist, but they both extol the virtues of much of Limerick City of Culture’s off-site performances, one of which, Wildebeest’s On the Wire, is nominated for best production. Elsewhere, though, they divide over emerging patterns.
“I had a problem with the blurring between stand-up comedy and theatre,” Smyth says. “I certainly would not like to think that this is a coming trend in Irish theatre.”
With Owen McCafferty’s new play, Death of the Comedian, opening in Belfast next month, in a coproduction between the Lyric, the Abbey and the Soho Theatre, in London, it would seem so. “I have no objection to the form,” Nugent replies. “I welcome it.”
Theatre, a live and ephemeral art form, is often measured in moments. Asked for their own, Nugent chooses the interval of Our Few and Evil Days at the Abbey: “It was pure excitement.” Smyth recalls being led into the Old Sailors’ Home in Limerick for On the Wire: “I found it very haunting, the whole construct of it. That has stayed with me.” And Cronin seizes on the energy and precision of Punk Rock: “There was something about that show that convinced me that theatre wasn’t pulling its punches.”
What defined the year in theatre, do they think? “I think it was a year of consolidation,” says Cronin, suggesting that alternative theatre made fewer advances, while institutions claimed more territory.
“I’ve always had admiration for people who work in theatre,” Smyth says, “and this year it has increased greatly. The number of productions we would have seen with little or no financial backing is a worry in terms of the State’s responsibility to the arts.”