From intimate confessions to an audience of one (Louise Lowe’s Bait) to the rallying of an entire town in the staging of its history (Asylum Production’s The Big Chapel), 2019 was a year of both the epic and the intimate in Irish theatre, if the shortlist for the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards is anything to go by.
The 2019 judges may have come from different backgrounds – literary (Jessica Traynor), academic (Anthony Roche) and cultural philanthropy (Rowena Neville) – but they brought a shared commitment and passion for theatre that saw them travel throughout the country to assess a record 184 shows.
As Roche explains, “it was a richly immersive experience” that took them all over the country, and it was a surprisingly even experience too: “There were very few stinkers. Most shows achieved a high level of professionalism, a seriousness of purpose and a committed engagement with the dynamics of theatre.”
“Right from the beginning,” Roche comments, “the three of us noted that 2019 was going to be the year of the new play.” Traynor, a poet and former literary director at the Abbey Theatre, agrees. “New writing made up 72 per cent of the plays we saw,” she says.
As someone with a background in literary management, she was particularly “heartened by the resurgence of the well-made play”, as evidenced in the nominations for Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney’s The Alternative and Lisa Tierney Keogh’s This Beautiful Village.
New writing for opera was also particularly notable. “We saw nearly 20 operas around the country, and many of them were new operas,” Neville says. “It’s probably what we talked about most through the year: the sheer volume [of new work]. It’s so exciting to see our sector taking risk after risk, supporting writers, getting the work out and, in so many cases, knocking it out of the park.
“Of course, what that meant was we could only nominate less than 3 per cent of those plays for best new play. It was the category we struggled most with to get that shortlist down to four. We felt genuine grief for the ones we had to leave behind.”
The judges were struck by the impact of funding cuts on the technical side of many productions, where set, lighting, sound design and costume design budgets seem to have been negatively affected
By comparison, Traynor observed that other elements of stage work were not as robust. As she explains, the judges were struck by “the impact of funding cuts on the technical side of many productions, where set, lighting, sound design and costume design budgets seem to have been negatively affected”.
She expressed fear that “we will lose a great many artists and skill sets if the current trend continues.” Even so, “there was a lot of work that was well crafted, created by teams who had clearly considered how best to use the resources available to them. This is a result of a lot of new initiatives created to facilitate more experienced theatremakers to mentor younger theatremakers. This collaborative spirit is really commendable, especially at a time when resources are so stretched.”
Despite this creativity, Roche observes that the judges’ nominations reflect “the same names as in previous years: professionals at the absolute top of their game”. Indeed in the technical categories, many of the designers are noted for their work in multiple productions.
Roche explains the decision: “The nomination is really to an individual for the high level of excellence they have achieved in the year, whether achieved in one show or several. With technical people they would do many more theatrical jobs in a year than actors, directors, writers, etc. And it tends to be the same names in those various categories, so we would have seen much excellence from them.”
As Neville comments, “We weren’t happy to pick one over another, as the work was outstanding across several.” Roche admits, however, that it reveals a disparity of opportunity between established and emerging names, and there is clearly a need for “younger designers in the early stages of their careers” to be given the same opportunities.
The regional spread of excellence in 2019, meanwhile, was notable. Traynor says they were “blown away by the creativity and resourcefulness regional theatremakers have shown, in spite of funding issues. A lot of the work we saw toured extensively, and continued support of touring work is hugely important in order to combat Dublin-centrism in the arts. Initiatives like the Fit-up Theatre Festival are hugely beneficial both to local audiences and to the theatremakers involved.
“But how sustainable all of this is in the face of the funding crisis in the arts is questionable. I hope the geographic spread of strong work in the nominations this year will make a case for more funding being directed to these areas. The commitment to double our investment in the arts is there, but in the time it has taken to draw that blood from the stone we’ve lost far too many talented theatremakers. Until funding is increased there can be no solution that doesn’t impact negatively on the sector in some way.”
We saw 815 individual performances on stages, down lanes in small towns, on beaches, in deserted factories. So many of them were memorable, moving and exquisite
Where public funding remains a challenge, Neville commends the growth of cultural sponsorship opportunities, in particular the way in which “corporate and agency partnerships commissioned new work to create a new lens on mutually relevant subject matters”.
The sponsorship did not affect the quality of the work, as the judges’ nominations for productions like Lee Coffey’s In Our Veins (an Abbey Theatre partnership with Dublin Port Company), Hugh Travers’s These Stupid Things (a collaboration between Science Foundation Ireland, the Festival of Curiosity and White Label Productions) and Brokentalkers’ The Examination (a commission from the school of history at University College Dublin) demonstrate.
No matter its origins, the impact of art can be deeply personal (a woman asking you to zip her into her dress before sharing her flask of vodka) or communally empowering (a woman standing at her doorway watching a ritual reenactment of her own past).
As Neville concludes, “We saw 815 individual performances on stages, down lanes in small towns, on beaches, in deserted factories. So many of them were memorable, moving and exquisite.” Their nominations represent only 16 of those. “Only 2 per cent! I will never forget the ones we had to leave behind.”
Here are all the nominees, section by section, for this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, followed by details of the ceremony, how to vote for the audience choice prize, and who the 2020 judges are
- Epiphany By Brian Watkins; Druid in association with Galway International Arts Festival
- La Cenerentola By Gioachino Rossini; Irish National Opera
- The Big Chapel X Based on The Big Chapel by Thomas Kilroy. Adapted by John Morton, Medb Lambert and Donal Gallagher; Asylum Productions and Kilkenny Arts Festival with the support of the Abbey Theatre
- The Examination By Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan; Brokentalkers and University College Dublin school of history
- Jim Culleton For The Alternative by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, Fishamble: The New Play Company in association with Draíocht, the Everyman Theatre, Lime Tree Theatre/Belltable, Lyric Theatre, Pavilion Theatre and Town Hall Theatre
- Judy Hegarty Lovett For How It Is (Part 2) by Samuel Beckett, a Gare St Lazare Ireland coproduction with The Coronet Theatre (London) in association with the Everyman Theatre
- Emma Jordan For A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, a Lyric Theatre production; and Removed, by Fionnuala Kennedy, Prime Cut Productions in association with Young at Art and EU Collective Plays
- Ronan Phelan For Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Nathan O’Donnell and Ronan Phelan, Rough Magic and Kilkenny Arts Festival
- Abomination: A DUP Opera By Conor Mitchell, Belfast Ensemble and Outburst Arts
- Don Quichotte By Jules Massenet, Wexford Festival Opera
- Griselda By Antonio Vivaldi, Irish National Opera with the Irish Baroque Orchestra
- The Stalls By Tom Lane and Lily Akerman, Cork Opera House
Best new play
- Citysong By Dylan Coburn Gray, an Abbey Theatre and Soho Theatre coproduction
- Dublin Will Show You How By Tracy Martin, an Abbey Theatre and the Complex coproduction
- The Alternative By Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, Fishamble: The New Play Company in association with Draíocht, the Everyman Theatre, Lime Tree Theatre/Belltable, Lyric Theatre, Pavilion Theatre and Town Hall Theatre
- This Beautiful Village By Lisa Tierney-Keogh, the Abbey Theatre
- The Big Chapel X Based on The Big Chapel by Thomas Kilroy and adapted by John Morton, Medb Lambert and Donal Gallagher, Asylum Productions and Kilkenny Arts Festival with the support of the Abbey Theatre
- The Travels of Jonathan Swift Based on the writings of Jonathan Swift and adapted by Conall Morrison, Blue Raincoat Theatre Company
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and adapted by Jack Thorne, the Gate Theatre
- Theatre for One A Landmark Productions and Octopus Theatricals co-production, presented by Cork Midsummer Festival in association with Cork Opera House
- Brian Doherty As Agamemnon in Hecuba by Marina Carr (Rough Magic); and as Dog in The Red Iron by Jim Nolan (Red Kettle Theatre Company)
- Aaron Monaghan As Jonathan Swift in The Travels of Jonathan Swift by Conall Morrison, Blue Raincoat Theatre Company
- Seamus O'Rourke As Thomas/Son in Trad by Mark Doherty, Livin' Dred Theatre Company presented by the Abbey Theatre
- James Riordan As Joe in Selvage by James Riordan, Brú Theatre
- Aoibhéann McCann As Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, a Lyric Theatre Production
- Rachel O'Byrne As Penelope in These Stupid Things by Hugh Travers, White Label in association with the Festival of Curiosity and Science Foundation Ireland
- Sonya O'Donoghue As Effie in Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, Conflicted Theatre
- Eileen Walsh As Laura in Beginning by David Eldridge, a Gate Theatre production
Best supporting actor
- Malcolm Adams As Polonius in Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Mill Productions
- Ian-Lloyd Anderson As Donal in The Beacon by Nancy Harris, a Druid and Gate Theatre coproduction
- Christopher Grant As Michael in A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe by Dominic Montague, Kabosh Theatre Company in association with OUTing the Past and presented as part of LGBT History Month and Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics
- Matthew Malone As Paul in Faultline by Anu Productions, a Gate Theatre coproduction
Best supporting actress
- Clare Barrett As Fr Rice and Sal in Trad by Mark Doherty, Abbey Theatre presents Livin’ Dred Theatre Company; and as Leonata in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, adapted by Nathan O’Donnell and Ronan Phelan, Rough Magic and Kilkenny Arts Festival
- Amy Conroy As Fionn in Citysong by Dylan Coburn Gray, an Abbey Theatre and Soho Theatre coproduction
- Liz Fitzgibbon As Josie, Marie and others in Dublin Will Show You How by Tracy Martin, the Abbey Theatre in a coproduction with the Complex
- Geraldine Plunkett As Mrs Loftus in The Afters by Ger Gallagher, Dolmen Theatre
Judges’ special award
- The Ark: A Cultural Centre for Children For engaging with a wide range of theatremakers, challenging them to create sophisticated work for young audiences, sometimes for the first time
- Arts and Disability Ireland Working to ensure that the theatre is not a disabling space for artists or audiences
- The Communities of Callan, Limerick and Mullingar For their support and involvement in the creation of theatre pieces that address painful local histories, via The Big Chapel X by Asylum Productions, Kilkenny Arts Festival and The Abbey Theatre; Bread Not Profits about the Limerick Soviet by Gúna Nua; and The Valley of the Squinting Windows from the novel by Brinsley MacNamara
- Dublin Fringe Festival For facilitating the development of a new generation of theatre artists, giving them the opportunity to test their creativity, break boundaries and experiment, with the guidance of excellent producers, artists and theatremakers
Special tribute award
- This year’s special tribute award will be presented to Macnas, the Galway-based creative ensemble that introduced the European tradition of street theatre to Ireland, awakening the country’s spirit of carnival and acting as a standard-bearer for community outreach and inclusivity in the arts for more than 30 years. It is particularly appropriate in the year that Galway is European Capital of Culture to acknowledge Macnas’s central role in the creation of the city’s current vibrant creative landscape.
Best set design
- Sarah Bacon For Citysong by Dylan Coburn Gray, an Abbey Theatre and Soho Theatre coproduction; and for Beginning by David Eldridge, the Gate Theatre and Drama at Inish by Lennox Robinson, an Abbey Theatre production
- Andrew Clancy For Beckett's Room by Dead Centre with Mark O'Halloran, a Dead Centre and Gate Theatre coproduction; and for A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, based on the short story by Gabriel García Márquez, adapted for the stage by Dan Colley, Manus Halligan and Genevieve Hulme Beaman by Collapsing Horse Theatre
- Owen MacCarthaigh For The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh, Gaiety Productions
- Nicky Shaw For La Cenerentola by Gioachino Rossini, Irish National Opera
Best costume design
- Sarah Bacon For Drama at Inish by Lennox Robinson, an Abbey Theatre production
- Dorota Karolczak For Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim, Northern Ireland Opera and Lyric Theatre
- Enda Kenny For A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, a Lyric Theatre production
- Sinéad Lawlor For Bingo Wings by Tom Swift, Fidget Feet Aerial Dance Theatre
Best lighting design
- Paul Keogan For The Big Chapel X based on The Big Chapel by Thomas Kilroy, adapted by John Morton, Medb Lambert and Donal Gallagher, Asylum Productions, and Kilkenny Arts Festival with the support of the Abbey Theatre; for The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, the Gate Theatre; and for Blood in the Dirt by Rory Gleeson, Landmark Productions and Keynote Productions
- Sinéad McKenna For Watt by Samuel Beckett, produced and directed by Tom Creed; and for Epiphany by Brian Watkins, Druid in association with Galway International Arts Festival
- Barry McKinney For The Travels of Jonathan Swift, adapted from the writings of Jonathan Swift by Conall Morrison, Blue Raincoat Theatre Company
- Sarah Jane Shiels For Redemption Falls, freely adapted from the novel by Joseph O’Connor, A Moonfish Theatre, the Abbey Theatre and Galway International Arts Festival coproduction in association with Town Hall Theatre; and for A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings based on the short story by Gabriel García Márquez, adapted for the stage by Dan Colley, Manus Halligan and Genevieve Hulme Beaman, Collapsing Horse Theatre; and for Selvage by James Riordan, Brú Theatre
Best movement direction
- Philip Connaughton For Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, adapted by Nathan O’Donnell and Ronan Phelan, Rough Magic and Kilkenny Arts Festival
- Owen Lindsay For Skin Tight by Gary Henderson, Restless Ecstasy
- Rachel Ní Bhraonáin For Losing Your Body by Rachel Ní Bhraonáin, Dublin Fringe Festival
- Paula O'Reilly For In Our Veins by Lee Coffey, Bitter Like a Lemon and the Abbey Theatre in association with Dublin Port Company
- Denis Clohessy For The Alternative by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, Fishamble: The New Play Company in association with Draíocht, the Everyman Theatre, Lime Tree Theatre/Belltable, Lyric Theatre, Pavilion Theatre and Town Hall Theatre; and for The Examination by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, Brokentalkers and UCD school of history; and for In Our Veins by Lee Coffey, Bitter Like a Lemon and the Abbey Theatre in association with Dublin Port Company
- Tom Lane For The Haircut! By Wayne Jordan and Tom Lane, the Ark
- Mel Mercier and the Irish Gamelan Orchestra For How It Is (Part 2) by Samuel Beckett, coproduction by Gare St Lazare Ireland and The Coronet Theatre (London) in association with the Everyman Theatre
- Frank Sweeney For It Was Easy (In the End) by Grace Dyas, an Abbey Theatre and THEATREclub coproduction
The 23rd Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards ceremony, in association with TileStyle, will be held on Sunday, Aril 5th, at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin. Voting for the audience choice prize will open in mid-February at irishtimes.com. The incoming panel of judges for the 2020 season have already taken up the baton. They are Tanya Dean, assistant lecturer in drama in the Conservatoire of TU Dublin; Nicholas Grene, retired professor of English literature at Trinity College Dublin; and Lorelei Harris, radio producer, documentarymaker and culture and media consultant