At the recent launch of the Lyric Theatre’s autumn/winter season in Belfast, board chairman Mark Carruthers spoke frankly of the theatre’s need to “recalibrate . . . to reclaim our position, our rightful position, right at the apex of Irish theatre and Irish cultural activities”, admitting that the eye may have been taken off the ball slightly since the new building opened over two years ago.
A few months previously, it was announced that Jimmy Fay had been appointed to the newly created post of executive producer. The accompanying press release said the theatre had undertaken "an extensive review of its operations", with Carruthers concluding "the whole team is looking forward to a bright future with Jimmy at the helm".
So, no pressure, then? Fay grins ruefully. “People have been very kind since I came and, yes, there is a sense of expectancy,” he says.
“But I can only deliver what I can deliver. I think that with a new person in place, the board wants to start afresh, to usher in a new phase in this beautiful building. But I will be keeping up connections from the past, talking to directors like Rachel O’Riordan, for example, who have done great work here, and exchanging ideas and talent.
“I want to bring on new writers and new directors, to nurture a dramaturgy process and facilitate argument and conversation in developing a script. And we need to foster dialogue with the independent sector. It’s a cycle; an eco-system where we all learn and feed off each other’s buzz and energy.”
Fay’s appointment has precipitated an almost unprecedented level of support and positivity within an organisation which has a long-standing, devoted following. Yet over the years it has sometimes struggled with its public profile.
Through his company Bedrock, Fay was the inaugural director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. He also has a close association with the Abbey Theatre, where he was a staff director, as well as literary director. He acknowledges the strong cultural links between Abbey and the Lyric, both of which were set up as poets’ theatres.
“There are many similarities, not least the fact that the ethos of both theatres goes back to Yeats,” he says. “I’m fully conscious of the Lyric’s story, starting up in Mary O’Malley’s garden, never closing its doors even during the worst of times. It is now the most beautiful theatre on this island, but it can’t only be about the building.
“Programming is crucial. I want us to be telling stories that people can engage in and connect with. I will be listening to people like Mark Phelan, Patricia McBride and Stephen Douds, who’ve been involved with programming. I am not an egotist but ultimately it will be my decision.”
The intriguing title of Fay’s first season is Northern Soul. The cover of the programme shows the contemplative face of a member of the Lyric Drama Studio, which offers training to young people with serious ambitions of entering the profession. Fay says the image underlines his intention to be inclusive and draw in audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
“Northern Soul is a title that resounds,” he says. “I like the sound of the words together and I like the music it actually was ascribed to, not least that quintessential Northern man, Van Morrison. It sums up best this season, my first as executive producer, and seems to encapsulate the spirit of the place.
"The season will kick off with Punk Rock, which is an intense and powerful examination of 21st-century teenage angst. It's by the brilliant and influential London-based writer Simon Stephens who, I have recently discovered, has deep family ties to Belfast. I'm delighted that Selina Cartmell has agreed to come up and make her directorial debut at the Lyric.
"This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Ulster Workers' Strike, which is the perfect context for the late Stewart Parker's last play Pentecost. I will be directing it and we will be taking it to the East Belfast Festival, going right back to the place where the story is set.
"Over Christmas, we will have a new play – Mistletoe and Crime – by Marie Jones and, in February, another exciting world-premiere, The Death of a Comedian by the Belfast writer Owen McCafferty."
A native of Tallaght, Fay has been variously described as "a man of the people", "a true socialist" and "a breath of fresh air". But he is no stranger to Northern theatre. His first experience was on Tinderbox's site-specific Convictions, staged in the chilling surroundings of the now-abandoned Crumlin Road Courthouse, the scene of many notorious supergrass trials during the Troubles. He was subsequently invited by the Lyric's then-artistic director Paula McFetridge to direct Sam Shepard's True West. A fine production, it did not do well at the box office. "It died," says Fay, unequivocally.
Soon afterwards, he had his first encounter with McCafferty, with whom he has formed a lasting friendship and professional association. McCafferty had written a new version of Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs for Tinderbox. Directed by Fay, with Sean Kearns and Carol Moore in the central roles, it remains a memorable landmark piece. It was through McCafferty that Fay was to forge another relationship, which has had a profound and significant effect on his career – with Belfast itself.
"I became obsessed with Belfast when I was researching Owen's play Quietly," he says. "I love the long, slow burn of the story. That research fed into St John Irvine's Mixed Marriage, which I directed last year at the Lyric during the time of the flag protests – now, that was real street theatre.
"In Pentecost, I will have come through 100 years of Belfast history, through a tinderbox of emotion and flames of conflict. Belfast people are buoyant, cheery, welcoming, but there is an ever-present streak of melancholy too. But melancholy can be channelled into positive energy. It can drive things.
“Am I excited at the prospect of this job? Don’t I sound excited?”
Punk Rock opens at the Lyric on August 10th and runs until September 6th