How we picked the shortlist for the ‘Irish Times’ Irish Theatre Awards 2015
As the three judges meet to consider the productions they’ve seen in the past year, ‘violent agreement’ breaks out
Róise Goan, producer, arts consultant and former Dublin Fringe Festival director
Former Irish Times Magazine editor Patsey Murphy with Gerard Smyth, poet and a former managing editor of The Irish Times
A discussion between the judges for this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards can become animated quickly. It starts with emphatic statements: that Irish theatre can be either great or abysmal, say, but is rarely anything in between. This invites immediate interjections. Voices are raised, arms are folded, and the rhetoric of rebuttal is frequently employed: “So, you mean to tell me . . . ”
If you were sitting near our table (in a quiet Dublin bar so shrewdly chosen to elude the theatre community that only two actors stop to say hello) you might think this was a heated argument. Actually, everyone’s getting along just fine.
“I think there were times when there was very healthy debate,” Anna Walsh, director of Theatre Forum, says of their deliberations through the year. “I don’t think there was violent agreement a lot of the time. That may be because of the nature of the exceptional work this year.”
“Violent agreement” – a pleasing term for vigorous disputes between people who are actually on the same side – tends to characterise much of the discussion which is informed, alert and passionate. The judges have different tastes, the poet and a former managing editor of The Irish Times Gerard Smyth agrees with Róise Goan, the producer, arts consultant and former Dublin Fringe Festival director. Yet the concentration and breadth of their nominations, which seem a considered reflection of the year, suggest an easier consensus.
DruidShakespeare, the Galway company’s exhilarating staging of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, chiselled down by Mark O’Rowe, leads the field with 10 nominations. That sort of dominance could be interpreted two ways; either as an artistic pinnacle – an achievement impossible to ignore – or as an island, an accomplishment without much competition.
“DruidShakespeare was really exceptional across so many categories,” says Goan, “but you are also seeing work by Dead Centre [Chekhov’s First Play], THEATREclub [director Grace Dyas for The Game], and Corcadorca [director Pat Kiernan for Gentrification]”. Indeed, as Smyth points out, Anu Productions’ Pals and Brokentalkers’ collaboration with Junk Ensemble It Folds, all represent the strength of independent companies.
Still, if we were to be joyless statisticians about it, they are more modestly represented than the Abbey Theatre which received 11 nominations (five shared by its co-production with The Lyric, which has seven nominations in all); or The Gate, nominated for five, including its outstanding staging of The Gigli Concert. That makes it seem, again, like a good year for big companies.
In a typically energetic discussion, frank with industry insights, the judges offer some persuasive reasons.
Smyth, who also served as a judge for 2014, and who set up the awards in 1997, speaks of adjudicating a higher standard of work in 2015: “Bars were set quite early in the year for us.” That may have created a gulf between regularly-funded organisations, who can plan and develop productions over a longer period of time, and smaller-scale independents who “have to re-invent the wheel each time”.
“Seven years later, we’re really seeing the effects of the cuts,” says Goan. “In rare instances, individuals and companies that work independently have been making exceptional work, but they’re working well beyond the scope of the project award [or grant] they’ve received – often with support from existing organisations and festivals.”
With devastating cuts affecting the arts in Northern Ireland, and funding in the South effectively at a standstill, making good theatre requires building a team first.
One deep concern the judges had this year has similar roots: diminishing activity in regional theatres. Nominations for Sligo’s Blue Raincoat and Cork’s Corcadorca may keep an encouraging geographic spread, but those are long-established companies, they point out. Others need to be nurtured and supported.
Another violent agreement erupts. “I would have said two years ago that Irish theatre is producing wonderful actors, terrific directors, some fine companies – but there’s a crisis in writing,” says Smyth. His opinion hasn’t changed. Smyth is content with this year’s nominations for Best New Play but competition has not been thick on the ground. He wonders if writers have been squeezed out by devisers; Goan suggests that project funding, which favours productions, and thinning commissions from producing theatres “have kind of left the playwright out in the cold”. As a result, perhaps, many new writers seemed less concerned with the specifics of the artform. “It felt to me that they were more engaged with television box sets than with where performance is going,” says Goan.
There have been exciting developments elsewhere. Smyth points to a resurgence in opera, which has drawn new artists (such as Enda Walsh) and new audiences. Goan enthuses about “some really extraordinary design this year”. And the experience of seeing upwards of 130 professional productions this year, has been personally rewarding.
With their final deliberations still to take place, the judges decline to identify personal standouts, but Walsh admiringly recalls being moved towards a completely new appreciation by one production’s intellectual journey. Goan, who knows she has seen an extraordinary piece of theatre when she has to “walk it off” afterwards, says, “That happened three times this year”. And in Smyth’s theatre-going lifetime, one show in 2015 has been an all-time highlight. “The fact that I’ve got that, 50 years since I went into a theatre for the first time, says something for Irish theatre,” he says. “For that alone, I’m grateful.”
As the conversation draws to a close, the trio reach a gentle exchange. “I’m not sure I like the idea of judging anything, to be honest,” says Smyth. “But I think the real value of the awards is the profile they give to theatre.”
“It’s useful to think about the awards as recognition rather than judgement,” says Walsh.
“I agree,” says Goan, non-violently.
This year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place on March 6th at the national Concert Hall, Dublin. Tickets (€20) will go on sale on Friday, January 22nd. See nch.ie or 01-4170000.
This year, An Post will sponsor the GPO Witness History Audience Choice Prize, in which readers can vote for their favourite Irish theatre show of 2015. The competition will be open for entries on January 23rd. See irishtimes.com/theatreawards.
The judges for the 2016 Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards are: Anna Walsh, director of Theatre Forum (chair); Ella Daly, general manager of Dublin Youth Theatre; and Prof Nicholas Grene, Trinity College Dublin (retired).