Curtain up on a new theatrical era?

 

DESPERATE TIMES CALL for desperate measures. In The Producers, the two protagonists mount the worst musical in history, Springtime for Hitler, in an elaborate fraud. Ironically, the unexpected success of the show ruins them, writes CHRISTINE MADDEN

How desperate things will get in the Irish theatre sector in the coming year is anyone’s guess, but ruin is unlikely to come in the guise of a successful commercial venture. Instead, an ailing economy, together with the recently announced funding cuts it has precipitated, will serve to curtail independent theatre in Ireland.

Most theatre practitioners expect “to be facing an incredibly bitter spring”, according to Garry Hynes, artistic director of Druid Theatre Company. And as the independent theatre sector relies on funding from the Arts Council for its livelihood, the Budget cuts for 2010 will severely hamper the ability of these companies to create, produce and present work, or even to survive at all. In the last 18 months, the revenue available to the Arts Council for allocation has dwindled by about €14 million, from €83 million to €69 million.

What this means for theatre-makers – and the survival of quality theatre in Ireland – is that independent companies will increasingly have to look to other, more commercial, means of staying afloat. John Costigan, managing director of the Gaiety Theatre, can’t envisage the sector making “a shift from being a subsidised industry to a commercial industry, but many companies may have to make commercial decisions on what they present. Others will cut their cloth to suit their measure.”

The director of the Arts Council, Mary Cloake, admits that the year ahead “is going to be extremely difficult in terms of funding”. Nevertheless, she says, “public subsidy is crucial if you are going to have high-quality theatre that reflects the lives and culture of a society. If you don’t have subsidy to make theatre, a huge potential to enrich lives will be lost.” But to make funding for the arts more appealing to a Government in financial crisis, Cloake adds, “arguments are more vocal now about how the arts are one of the key resources to regenerate the economy. A level of subsidy for theatre that is quite minimal does generate employment and enable small businesses to be created . . . New ideas come through the subsidised sector. They gain currency and eventually go into the commercial sector.”

This perceptual shift was key in preserving arts funding for 2010. In the wake of the summer’s McCarthy report, September’s Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh upheld and reiterated the importance of the arts as a driving force in increasing the wealth and revenue of the economy. The report from the panel discussion on Promoting Brand Ireland through our Global Cultural Profile states: “Reference was made to ‘terrible consequences’ resulting if the recommendations of the McCarthy report in the cultural sphere were implemented . . . Participants strongly argued that the arts are no longer a luxury or a charity, but are a hugely important part of the economy.”

Options such as presenting work in larger-capacity theatres or touring a production may become crucial to a company’s survival if dwindling funding threatens the health of the theatre sector. Lynne Parker, artistic director of Rough Magic Theatre Company, uses the example of one of its greatest triumphs of recent years.

Don Carlos, one of our biggest successes, was never going to make back its running costs per week in Project Arts Centre,” she says. “It was absorbing subsidy all the way along because the house is so small.”

Another successful Rough Magic show, The Taming of the Shrew,was also originally presented at Project but then went on to tour, “so it had an enormous audience over a couple of years”.

“We have to increase the reach of the work that we do, whether that is through touring or playing in bigger houses,” Parker adds. “Not at the expense of the more experimental work, but to augment and support it. We need to bring the same aesthetic, the same standard, to commercial work as we do to the subsidised work, and that shouldn’t be rocket science.”

In the current economic climate, the Gaiety “will respond”, says Costigan. “We will collaborate with others to present work in a commercial environment.” He imagines the theatre will increase its emphasis on straight drama, “with some of the musicals going to the Grand Canal”.

Understandably, the opening of the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin’s Docklands, with its 2,000-seat capacity, represents an unprecedented opportunity for the Dublin Theatre Festival. “The Grand Canal is an astonishing building designed to an incredible standard, with an enormous stage, a perfect orchestra pit and incredible technical facilities,” says Loughlin Deegan, the festival’s artistic director. “We can work on a scale that the festival has never been able to before. We need ambitious companies and ambitious producers to produce work to take a lot of money at the box office and generate significant income. I do have conversations with producers who want to go to the Gaiety. I hope I will have people coming to me with ideas for the Grand Canal.”

ANOTHER WAY OFattracting larger audiences is to cast a top star in a lead role. “For instance,” explains Hynes, “this season on Broadway, a play called A Steady Rain, which stars Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, and which is in fact directed by our own John Crowley, more or less sold out almost before it opened and has completely made back its original investment and will return profits to its investors.”

Hynes cautions, however, that casting a star should “be within the context of the remit as subsidised theatres funded by the Irish taxpayer. You can’t suddenly turn around and start operating with commercial antennae. Because why are you being subsidised in the first place?”

Producer Anne Clarke, who works in both commercial and subsidised theatre, doesn’t see the necessity for a difference in approach or outlook when considering either. “Some people talk about commercial theatre as being cynical, cheap, only there to make money,” she says. “In my experience, that’s not the case. I took the same care and attention in casting and producing The Last Days of the Celtic Tigerand The Goat.”

For the sector to survive in the coming year, which Clarke concedes will be “bumpy”, she believes it “needs to do two things: one, continue to find ways of making work; two, not to lose courage while focusing more on the audience. It would be easy for people to keep their heads down, make work they think people want to see – that’s not the way out of this.”

Clarke is looking forward to the opening of the Grand Canal Theatre, which she believes will “enable a certain sort of work to be seen here that hasn’t come in before. In the 10 years after the Grand Canal opens, I bet there will be a far greater musical culture here. There is a great hunger for musicals.”

But she also expresses a wish that a 500-seat theatre would open, to allow for the opportunity for shows to transfer. Parker concurs with this view.

“One of the big problems in Dublin is the lack of a space to transfer work which can then make back the money investment,” she says. “For instance, in the US, Tracy Letts’s August: Osage Countywas done by Steppenwolf, then went to Broadway. And, actually, then to the National in London, so it went commercial and back to subsidised.”

Regarding the UK, Deegan says: “The National Theatre and the Royal Court often see their productions transfer to the West End. It doesn’t diminish the work, and it can make a profit.”

Professionals generally agree that continued funding remains essential to generate and drive such shows and maintain the health of the theatre sector. “Theatre is always going to have to be subsidised to create ground-breaking work,” says Deegan. “Yet there’s a shift happening at the moment – people are looking at commercial theatre with renewed interest. All work should be judged by its excellence, and the audience are people who shell out money for theatre. We live in a capitalist society, and the market will decide.”

ALTHOUGH THERE ISgreat anxiety within the sector about its survival, some regard the increased financial pressure on subsidised theatre as a possibly helpful influence.

“The work of theatre companies dramatically improved this year because of economic uncertainties,” Deegan maintains.

Costigan, meanwhile, “can’t see how cutbacks can improve quality – I don’t see the logic in that”. Yet Hynes observes: “Our theatre culture is like every other thing: it doesn’t necessarily improve in quality just because you throw money at it. There has to be a really well thought-out, joined-up cultural policy. And I think that’s as important as the money.”

To survive this financial crisis, Costigan believes, “not all companies in receipt of subsidy are geared to step up to the commercial environment. An inevitable consequence of this will be the contraction of the sector. We’re moving into a nail-biting period. But we’ll get through it. We’ve gone through recessions in the past.”

Until we come out the other end of the current one, “there is going to be a huge degree of suffering and misery in the sector”, according to Hynes, “because you can’t take a cut of that level, with the existing insufficiency of the funding, and not think that there will be major casualties. I think everybody’s just in front of votive lights praying.”

One flop away from a crisis: a ‘Brand Ireland’ success story

In terms of “Brand Ireland” and promoting the arts at home and abroad, Druid Theatre Company has presented all sides with value for money in the past year. With six productions presented in five countries and the many awards it received for its production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, including a Joe A Callaway Award for artistic director Garry Hynes, the company enjoyed unparalleled success in 2009.

Druid, which Hynes describes as being “severely under-funded”, somehow manages this through a combination of co-production, box-office success and a hard-working and dedicated team. But recourse to more commercial methods can’t replace the core funding necessary to keep the sector alive and well – and cutting-edge.

“I think there needs to be an increase in funding,” Hynes says. “Druid is 35 years in existence, with a current budget that only allows it to mount two new productions each year. We know people out there want it, because we’re constantly having to say, ‘I’m sorry, we’d love to go to X place this year, but we don’t have the money to do it’.”

Yet one slip at the box office can cause catastrophe. “Druid has been very lucky in the last few years,” says Hynes. “In the last three years I don’t think we totally dropped the ball once. If we have one complete flop, that immediately shifts us from a place where we’re managing to a place where we’re so not managing that we’re in crisis. And that’s the way we operate and that’s the way the majority of not-for-profits operate.”