What is the role of the gatekeeper? How does one guard historical legacy, while respecting contemporary needs? These are some of the questions that have been preoccupying Róisín McBrinn and Colm O’Callaghan, the new directors of the Gate Theatre, since their appointment to the prestigious venue almost three months ago.
They talk as they walk me through the theatre’s backstage spaces: the bright open foyer of the Gate’s studio wing; the wide staircase that ushers artists upstairs to the theatre’s rehearsal room; the warm, wood-lined Gate Lab, where the set for the theatre’s forthcoming production, Piaf, is marked out in masking tape on the floor. Finally, we enter through the side door of the bijou theatre itself, where the stage is dressed for the evening’s performance of Sonya Kelly’s The Last Return.
The pair say that they have spent a lot of time in the auditorium over the last few months, watching audiences watch plays, “trying to figure out who they are, what relationship they have with this building, what relationship this building has with the city”, as McBrinn explains. “We are really still at the learning stage, but what we can say is that [we have observed] a real hunger for great work, for experiences, for engagement beyond just what is on stage.”
McBrinn and O’Callaghan have come to the Gate at the end of a challenging decade in the theatre’s history. High-profile personal scandals surrounding the theatre’s former director Michael Colgan revealed a problematic workplace culture, which its most recent director Selina Cartmell toiled hard to change. However, the pandemic exposed other weaknesses in the theatre’s operating structure: namely, as O’Callaghan calls it, “a vast overdependence on box-office returns”.
With the intervention of the Arts Council last year, the theatre’s safety has been assured for the foreseeable future, and as the new directors look ahead to the theatre’s centenary in 2028, they are “absolutely optimistic that the Gate can thrive, that it can be the most welcoming theatre in town”, as McBrinn puts it. “And for us,” she continues, “that’s all about community: the different whos of what this building can make up. The Gate is open,” she laughs, acknowledging the double-meaning. “The gate’s firmly ajar. We want to make sure that we become the type of civic space that a theatre should be.”
Community has been at the heart of much of McBrinn’s practical experience in the theatre over the last 20 years of professional practice. She comes to the Gate from London’s Clean Break theatre, where she served as joint artistic director for the last six years, and where local community engagement was a core aspect of the women-only theatre’s remit. Before that she was attached to British theatres like the Donmar Warehouse, the Bush Theatre and Sherman Theatre, returning to Ireland for the odd freelance directing gig.
McBrinn’s own experience working abroad was a key drive in applying for the position of artistic director at the Gate. “I went to London,” she explains, “because I couldn’t find moments of professional development here. Things like the Seeds programme [administered by Rough Magic], they didn’t exist, so I went to the Donmar Warehouse for a year to work as an assistant director. It was a paid role and it was a really important thing for me.”
Indeed, McBrinn elaborates, that experience “is a real driver for us here, in terms of thinking about how we can nurture artists who maybe aren’t ready to make work for the main stage, and how we can support established artists making new work.”
A new professional development programme, Gate Minds, will support accomplished theatre makers in sharing knowledge with emerging artists. O’Callaghan chimes in: “Because when we are talking about a focus on community, we are talking of course about a literal community on our doorstep in Dublin 1, but what does community mean when we are talking about our staff, our audience, the people we work with?”
O’Callaghan’s appointment as executive director also marks his return to Ireland after more than a decade working abroad. After gaining a wide range of practical and producing experience with Druid Theatre and Landmark Productions, O’Callaghan moved to Australia to work with Sydney Theatre Company, eventually moving to Sydney’s famous dance theatre company Force Majeure, where he worked as executive director. O’Callaghan’s experiences abroad made him “acutely aware of how respected Irish theatre is internationally” and the Gate is a key part of that tradition, he says.
“This theatre has always had such a circular relationship with other theatres, inside and outside of Ireland. When you think of those guys” – he gestures towards portraits of Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, who founded the theatre in 1928 – “they were a couple of English guys, opening a theatre [dedicated to] international work. And that [international vision] is still one of the Gate’s great virtues, whether that means working with an international community of Irish artists, or touring our own work, or working with artists on partnerships from abroad.”
It’s McBrinn’s turn to interject: “We are also excited about what we don’t yet know about that term – ‘international’. Neither of us have lived here for a long time so we are only beginning to understand how international Ireland has become in the years that we have been away and what that may mean for the work we make on our stages over the next five years.”
McBrinn in particular has her own personal history with the Gate. As a child, she attended the theatre many times, most memorably seeing Niamh Cusack in A Doll’s House in 1993, “which lit something in me that I didn’t know was there before: this idea that what was going on stage could speak to me in some personal way; it was the first time I was aware of feminism basically.” McBrinn went on to work with Cusack again in London, and that continuity from her childhood experience as an audience member to her professional working life is a touchtone she returns to constantly.
As a director, McBrinn made her debut at the Gate in 2018, as part of Cartmell’s new programming vision for the theatre when she took over in 2017, with a hugely successful production of Roddy Doyle’s family drama The Snapper, which returned for a second sell-out run the following summer too. McBrinn offers The Snapper as a template for her ambition for the theatre: “72 per cent of that audience had never been to the Gate before,” she says, aware of how canny programming can be a vital part of encouraging new audiences.
With this in mind, the forthcoming programme for the next six months, which is announced today, contains a blend of ambitious traditional drama and contemporary classics that Irish audiences have not seen before. A new production of Enda Walsh’s 2008 play The New Electric Ballroom starring sisters Barbara and Jane Brennan, directed by Emma Jordan, will be followed by Arthur Miller’s 1967 classic The Price. Finally, McBrinn herself will direct the Irish premiere of Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic memoir.
It is no accident that live music is central to two of the next four productions, McBrinn says. (The cabaret chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan stars in the biographical drama of French singer Edith Piaf over the Christmas months.) “Music can play a huge role in attracting new audiences, and it brings a lot to live storytelling.” The theatre’s new Gatecrash intervention will offer “music moments” to audiences: “gigs that have a theatrical slant, that live outside album promotion or touring moments. [We want] to work with artists trying to explore what theatre could be for them, offer them a chance to be on that stage with an intimate audience, and audiences a chance to experience live music in different ways.” The Gatecrash intervention will also deliberately target different audience demographics too, including babies: Anna Newell’s BabyGroove will bring babies to the theatre for the first time and “allow us to use the building differently, in a way that is less formal, around the main programme”.
O’Callaghan concludes: “It is part of our duty as the second biggest producing house in the country to nurture a community, and the way we connect with that community doesn’t only have to be artists or an audience. What we want to make sure of is that we are extending the cultural life of the theatre and the theatre in this city.”
Piaf runs at the Gate Theatre from December 2nd to January 2023
The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh
Emma Jordan directs Walsh’s trippy family drama starring Barbara Brennan and Jane Brennan. Runs from February 23rd, touring to The Everyman in Cork from April 4th-7th.
The Price by Arthur Miller
Olivier Award winner Conleth Hill directs the American classic about a family selling off their parent’s estate, from April 13th.
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori’s coming-of-age-musical has book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. It runs through the summer season of 2023.