In the crumbling dressing room of a cabaret theatre in Sydney, Panti peels off an eyelash. She has a beer in one hand, an eyelash in the other. "What am I doing with my life?"she asks. We are midway through a fabulous, sold-out tour of High Heels in Low Places, but it's a question that has been haunting me since I turned 35.
When I was 15 a friend and I walked into a youth information centre in search of activity groups. We weren’t fussy, just two bored kids looking to get out of Finglas. They pointed us to Dublin Youth Theatre. I had never seen a play, but it didn’t matter; we were out for adventure.
Today I’m a playwright, director and producer of theatre: a “maker”, as we say in some circles. I have spent every day of my life since I was 15 investing in theatre in Ireland. So why is it so hard to stay here?
In our first term at Dublin Youth Theatre we went to see Happy End, the musical by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. I don't recall much about it. What I remember is the theatre; the feeling of walking through the door of Project Arts Centre for the first time. In 1995 the Project was a shed with a leaky roof, but all I saw was excitement and glamour. Something told me that I belonged.
As soon as school was over I started to work as an actor and got some small roles at the Abbey Theatre. I would watch incredible actors such as Anita Reeves, Pat Kinevane and Jane Brennan from the wings, hoping that some of their brilliance might rub off on me. Then, in 1999, I went to see Howie the Rookie, by Mark O'Rowe. Until then theatre had always been exotic: I felt like an outsider given permission to sit in the good room. But O'Rowe's play made me understand that theatre is vital; it is about all of us, right now.
In 2006 I wrote my first play, Danny and Chantelle (still here), an ode to friendships forged on the dance floors of Dublin. It was the start of a really creative period for me. I started working with my partner-in-crime Jennifer Jennings, and together we created our theatre company, THISISPOPBABY.
The Project Arts Centre was the natural home for our work. As part of a centre for experimentation we were encouraged to break the rules and dream extralarge, and those big ideas and our careers were supported.
Alice in Funderland was one such idea. It took four years of experimenting to make it, but after a raucous work-in- progress showing at the Project it received a full Abbey Theatre production in 2012.
Since Danny and Chantelle I have tried to advance theatre as an art form in Ireland while opening it up to new audiences. Inviting everyone into the good room, just like I was invited in all those years ago.
So what am I doing with my life? Apologising for it, mostly. Things are less creative than they used to be. We expect culture to flourish in Ireland but no longer want to support it. We’re in a rotten mindset that makes us believe that killing art will create more hospital beds. It won’t. Cutting off the oxygen supply to artists and arts organisations won’t make society any fairer, but it will make it duller.
We have decided that artists are part of the problem, not part of the solution. We denounce artists as spongers leeching off the public purse, until there’s a new bridge to be named. The theatre artists I work with every day are resilient and passionate. They fight for every job they get, they are motivated by rejection, they subsidise most if not all of the projects they participate in, and at 8pm every night they turn it out for an audience.
And every day they, we, are asked to justify our careers, apologising for our existence – and we do it. Because we are scared. We are scared of public perception. We are scared of the funders. We are scared of the future. We are working within a culture of fear, and fear cripples creativity. Instead of asking our young people to let their imaginations take us to outrageous places we are asking them to rein it in. We are telling them to be realistic. We are asking them to think small.
So why do I stay here? Because I believe in staying at home to make home a better place. I believe in feeding into a collective creativity to make Ireland an exciting place for our emigrants to return to. I believe in giving them a reason to come home.
Wouldn’t it be radical if, rather than squeezing artist-led organisations such as the Project Arts Centre until they can barely function, we were to invest in them instead, acknowledging the impact their support has? Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we told our young citizens to dream big, indulge your imagination, create? Wouldn’t it be decent if we told our artists to stop apologising? If we told them, “Do what you do best: be bold, make amazing things, don’t be scared – we’ve got your back.”
Maybe then when our politicians sing about the richness of our culture on international stages, we, the artists, could stand behind them.
Project Arts Centre announced its €50,000 Project Commissioning Fund for Artists this week, ahead of its 50th-anniversary celebrations, in 2016