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Passion play: Cork theatre fights for its future

The closure of Corcadorca theatre company, in 2022, left a hole that the city’s remaining theatre community is battling to fill

When Corcadorca closed, two years ago, it left what the theatre maker Geoff Gould describes as a terrible sense of loss. A darkened Cork indeed. For three decades the inspirational company had made site-specific theatre in and around the city and county, working from its development base at Triskel Arts Centre.

As well as the spectacle of The Trial of Jesus, which it staged on Patrick’s Hill in 1999, and its even earlier adaptation of A Christmas Carol, mounted at the city’s former women’s prison in 1994 with what came to be recognised as the company’s instinct for atmospheric intrigue, Corcadorca’s productions included the 1996 premiere of Enda Walsh’s play Disco Pigs. Now possibly deserving the adjective iconic, this featured Eileen Walsh and Cillian Murphy under the direction of Pat Kiernan, the company’s founding artistic director.

Subsequent events grown from the company’s Triskel home include Stars of Bel Air, the first play by the writer Patrick McCabe, which graduated from a reading in 2012 to the stage of Cork Opera House, a year later, as The Big Yum Yum, in what Tony Sheehan, Triskel’s artistic director, cites as a “classic case of how the development centre was meant to operate”.

A more concrete financial loss after Corcadorca closed was that of its Arts Council grant, which would have brought €200,000 to Cork’s theatrical community. In a city where some venues are operating more like taverns than theatres, and suffering, like many other stage companies, from a surfeit of scripts for low-budget 75-minute monologues, there seemed no likely alternative destination for that kind of money.


Corcadorca’s demise was, at least, a catalyst: essentially, it led to the creation of Cork Theatre Collective, according to David Parnell, the head of theatre at the Arts Council, who quickly began a conversation with Michelle Carew, Cork City Council’s arts officer, about the “significant gap” the company’s disappearance would leave. Cork’s equally alarmed theatre community then seemed to develop a collegiate sense of purpose and began, as Carew puts it, to “coalesce around the same imperative” in order to work out a sustainable future.

Through meetings that she initiated between the Arts Council and local theatre makers, the notion emerged of a collective, and the group soon settled on a key target to help fit the Arts Council grant to existing circumstances: Corcadorca’s former base at Triskel. Its well-equipped ground-floor auditorium was where the company had provided the time, space and facilities for ideas to grow into finished products, ready for the limelight. That auditorium, which Kiernan had set up “as part of the company, and without any additional funding”, according to his former colleague Fin Flynn, now artistic director of Cork Arts Theatre, was empty, and Triskel was looking for a new occupant.

The site is now at the heart of Cork Theatre Collective, which in January appointed Leigh Hussey of the Irish Theatre Institute as its artistic director and creative producer. She is already operating a one-year pilot scheme of residencies and bursaries, and is now preparing the funding application for year two.

“The scheme roughly covers 25 weeks,” she says, “which means that approximately 75 artists can be accommodated. It isn’t all onstage: we’re working on the broad definitions of theatre, on creativity and activity. The attraction for me in this job is that it’s a unique proposition, and I’m very passionate about artists being able to make their work in their own county or country, being able to make their debut in their own locality, becoming known.”

The essential change from Corcadorca is that this scheme includes funding to pay participating artists. Its Space to Think residencies, which come with a €1,550 bursary, provide two desk-based weeks when artists can focus on their projects without the distraction of having to find an alternative income. Space to Play residencies, which come with €3,000, offer a collaborative week during which work in progress can be developed with other participants. The minimum weekly fee for artists is €750; the minimum daily rate is €150. The residencies are limited to theatre workers in Cork City and county, with an accommodation allowance of €200 for county applicants.

It’s the strongly creative impetus of the collective that is most warmly welcomed by Niall Cleary of the city’s Graffiti Theatre Company. “Also, my perspective is that this is an initiative which recognises theatre for young audiences – although it’s not age-related and it’s not prescriptive. It’s a workshop model for bringing your ideas together, and being remunerated for that.”

The novelist and playwright Ger FitzGibbon, a former head of drama and theatre studies at University College Cork – and a founder of Graffiti, which his wife and co-founder, Emelie, ran for three decades – recognises that theatre in the city is in a state of flux. “We’re producing loads of talent which is somehow missing the next step in the ladder to production, a fundamental problem at different levels. This welcome development creates a seedbed, especially for artists whose work is still in the cold frame.”

Are such spaces sufficient to arrest what appears to be a steady decline in the city’s theatrical repertoire? Cork Theatre Collective’s board represents the city’s leading arts management, from Maura O’Keeffe of Once Off Productions to Eibhlín Gleeson, chief executive of Cork Opera House, and from Cork Midsummer Festival to Cork Arts Theatre. Gleeson, who is already involved with a successful student residency and mentoring collaboration with UCC, believes the collective is a resource providing a supportive environment for theatre workers. She knows the community well and is familiar with its priorities. This, she says, is an opportunity to “get it right”.

The board’s chair, Sophie Motley, is another member of the group determined to keep the Corcadorca grant in Cork. “We really had to be fleet of foot at the time, and that galvanised the group’s approach,” she says. Motley is attuned to the local creative ecosystem, where equitable support is needed at all stages and for all ages. “The way you learn in theatre is by seeing productions, by being in productions, and then by making productions. We can have an audience there, so the collective offers the whole process, beginning with the space at Triskel.”

Motley, whose three-year contract as artistic director of the Everyman concluded late last year, looks at what she calls the Tom Creed generation: the Cork artists who saw that there was nothing for them in the city any more; the current graduates heading to London; the rich fount of talent at, for example, MTU Cork School of Music. In a way, she believes, the collective is re-establishing what has been lost: “It’s so important to leave a track when you’re starting out.”

The previous beneficiaries of Triskel’s development opportunities include Bernadette Cronin of UCC and Regina Crowley of Cork School of Music; as Gaitkrash theatre company, they worked there on several earlier collaborations. Cronin says that the reopening of the space – an area “where everyone felt they belonged” – with funding from the Arts Council is heartening news for key arts organisations in the city. “It also sends a really positive signal to the wider theatre community and to the public about Cork as a vibrant centre for theatre in Ireland into the future.”

David Parnell, of the Arts Council, is very optimistic that the collective itself will make the case for its continuation. Geoff Gould, whose Blood in the Alley Productions is based in west Co Cork, thinks that that the collective’s residencies should suggest an imprimatur rather than a legacy. The theatre-company system is gone, he says; it’s a very different world now, but the collective offers an incredible system for getting a production together as quickly as possible. “How can that be negative? In reality it’s indirect funding for a production. As for sustainability, you just have to stay on the bus. Staying on the bus is what it’s all about.”

Even if it is too soon to say that everyone welcoming Cork Theatre Collective is singing from the same hymn sheet, they are certainly all singing the same hymn. But here irony intrudes: Corcadorca stayed on the bus for 31 years; this month Pat Kiernan’s own application for a Space to Think residency was refused by the collective’s three-person peer panel (which is entirely separate from its board). According to Hussey, Kiernan’s application was one of 18 being considered for only four places. “I was very pleased to see that he had applied,” she says, “but the demand is quite high, so I hope he will apply again.”