Cork theatre-makers waiting in the wings to step into the new normal

Theatre scene that thrived before pandemic is busy planning for return to work

Gare St Lazare’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s How It Is. Photograph: Clare Keogh

Gare St Lazare’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s How It Is. Photograph: Clare Keogh

 

“This is a funny old place to start,” says Sophie Motley while she awaits her return to Ireland as the new artistic director of Everyman Theatre in Cork. “There’s this theatre, so iconic in the city, and none of us can be in it!”

A Shropshire lass who took her degree in drama and English at Trinity College Dublin where, with Sarah Jane Shiels, she established WillFredd Theatre and held a variety of positions with, among others, Rough Magic, English National Opera and the Abbey Theatre before moving to the UK as artistic director for Pentabus in 2016. She’s bustling with ideas but taking a long view, understandably as in January Everyman chief executive Seán Kelly issued an appropriately dramatic statement: “The doors are closed; the Everyman remains open.”

“There’s always some form of engagement going on but not in the building,” says Kelly, speaking about the difficulty of formulating outline plans for the year “when we don’t know exactly what the Covid protocols are going to be”. One solution was an audio stream of rehearsed readings (to be repeated from March 1st) and the digital preview from Gare St Lazare of Samuel Beckett’s How It Is as the delayed third episode of a three-year residency, streamed from a rehearsal studio space in Paris in January.

At the Opera House, chief executive Eibhlín Gleeson admits to something of the same frustration in a situation of constantly moving parts. “It’s the uncertainty that is the cancer in all this.” she says, as well she might, given that she has the biggest space to fill in Cork, presenting all levels of venue-based entertainment in a 1,000-seat auditorium where the pandemic closures created a cascade of cancellations. So while she says 2022 is filling up nicely, her strategy for 2021 is cautious.

“My system now is to plan on a seasonal quarter-by-quarter basis, with this winter-spring being the most difficult, the dark before the dawn, I hope,” she says. Essentially a civic theatre, the Opera House enjoys a “high-functioning” relationship with City Hall, which provides an annual subsidy of €250,000, to which is added this year’s increased Arts Council grant of €179,000. The building is probably the best-equipped venue in Cork in terms of digital adaptability, which allows Gleeson to say that streaming is there to stay.

The Opera House also partners with University College Cork in an educational collaboration offering internships, residencies and postgraduate studies. Working online with the college’s department of theatre staff, Gleeson is mentoring the next generation of arts managers and technicians who, she believes, will see the Opera House “come out of these very, very difficult years in a way which will completely inform their understanding of theatrical production”.

Site-specific producer

Like Motley without a building, Pat Kiernan of Corcadorca is a site-specific producer without a site. “Even if open-air performances are permitted the conditions that allow them to happen will carry the costs of compliance,” he says. In last year’s lockdown Corcadorca, which is currently recruiting a new general manager to replace Fin Flynn, managed to bring its promenade-style work to the city’s housing estates: “We felt that if the people couldn’t come to us, we could go to them anywhere there was a green or open area.”

Corcadorca can’t do that now and can’t, in fact, do much of anything, even with this year’s grant of €211,000 from the Arts Council. “The pandemic makes it very difficult to gauge what you may or may not do. With the Midsummer Festival in June, for example, we’ve still no idea what level of restriction we’ll be in – it’s just next to impossible to anticipate.”

Corcadorca artistic director Pat Kiernan: “The pandemic makes it very difficult to gauge what you may or may not do. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Corcadorca artistic director Pat Kiernan: “The pandemic makes it very difficult to gauge what you may or may not do. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Kiernan’s productions are renowned for sound, lighting, staging and design effects and although he believes that streaming will continue he sees it more as a recording facility for work in progress, a revelation in itself but which, he says, won’t ever replace Corcadorca’s style of fluid and mobile work. He’s right to be protective, but he’s also realistic: “The younger artists are so tech savvy that we’re trying to improve our digital capacity in the hope that in future there will be a good kind of exchange between us and them.”

Cork Midsummer Festival director Lorraine Maye accurately describes the city’s arts environment as a very delicate and interdependent ecology. But she has an adventurous outreach and the award of this year’s Midsummer Commission to Tobi Omoteso and the Jane Anne Rothwell Award to Lesley Conroy give some indication of the festival’s creative signature on the city’s cultural ebullience. The imperatives of Covid are a constraint on potential and possibility, demanding more resources and staff to produce events safely within restrictions and making a shorter programme inevitable. At the same time Maye’s ideas about accessibility and online flexibility have changed as the advantages of enabling artists to create work where they live become more obvious. The fact that the proposed line-up for June 14th to 27th will include two commissioned works from composer John O’Brien, along with the creation of a new digital space from artists in residence Peter Power and Leon Butler, emphasises Midsummer’s significance as a promoter of new work. Now happily boosted by a 65 per cent increase to €350,000 from the Arts Council, Maye also has an ear to suggestions of a universal basic income for artists which, she says, “would be transformative”.

In this nationwide dilemma in which metaphors abound and we’re all supposed to be in the same boat Dolores Mannion found it difficult to keep the small Cork Arts Theatre and its repertory company technologically afloat. Instead of imminent closure and averse to digital alternatives she turned to GoFundMe and raised the €20,000 required for the rescue of a venue dedicated to new writing.

Gratitude

Not one of these companies insists that its problems are unique, although everyone’s trouble is their own trouble, the unifying factors are a shared concern for staff and an articulate gratitude for the this year’s Arts Council disbursement and for that government department which includes the arts in its capacious portfolio.

Nonetheless, “It’s been terrifying,” recalls conductor and composer John O’Brien, who saw a busy 2020 shudder to a halt with the big-show summer musical gone along with the Midsummer Proms, the Concert Operas, the touring Sea Trilogy and other engagements which took two years in the making and which, he says, “were hard enough at the best of times”. Later when the resilience of venues began to explore virtual possibilities, the most gratifying was a Christmas orchestral concert at the Opera House. “It was technically challenging, but the chance to make music with other people once more meant I’m never going to take live performance for granted again!” While he salutes the supports provided by the Government he wonders for how long it can be sustained. “We feel safe now because the Government stepped in. We’re screwed if it steps out.”

The fear of Catherine Mahon Buckley is that the excitement and participation intrinsic to pantomime will be lost to a generation of children if our system of lockdown were to continue indefinitely. Founder and director of the CADA academy and production company she felt the cancellation of last year’s panto at the Everyman as “a desperate bereavement after 26 years”, so much so that she personally phoned everyone involved in the abandoned production. She’s holding her breath for a little more Covid clarity before planning for 2021, although she carries on with her academy’s classes through Zoom.

While still awaiting Sophie Motley, Everyman has announced its adoption of the “theatre-making and citizenship”course run by the Abbey, beginning the pilot project this spring the theatre will engage with GroundFloor Cork YMCA, with Graffiti Youth Theatre and with the Abbey itself in online workshops designed to school young potential theatre-makers. “We believe this is where we can be of most use to the community,” says Seán Kelly, “Showing that as we emerge from Covid 19 we are explicitly rooted in the city’s consciousness.” Further post-Covid prospects come with Everyman’s elevation to tier one of the Arts Council’s Raise programme, aimed at encouraging philanthropic investment in the arts.

No coincidence then that Sophie Motley’s ideas for the emergence from Covid chime with these socially-conscious developments: “My instinct on coming out of the pandemic is that the future is local, using digital opportunities to connect with audiences far away.”

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