‘It’s a love song to Dublin’: Anne Clarke brings Once home

Anne Clarke of Landmark Productions moves comfortably between ‘art-led’ productions and explicitly commercial undertakings. But then she is ‘a little bit like a shark’ – in a good way

Anne Clarke on the set of Once in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Anne Clarke on the set of Once in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Anne Clarke is sitting in the light-filled atrium of a Dublin hotel, on a rare break from the swirl of meetings, rehearsals and emails that propel the work of her staggeringly successful theatre company, Landmark Productions. She is explaining how she came to bring the stage musical version of Once to Dublin.

In New York with Enda Walsh’s Misterman (a co-production with Galway Arts Festival) in 2011, Clarke had attended the opening of the stage adaptation of John Carney’s movie, with its wry new book written by Walsh. “It was really, really special,” she says. “I came out at the end of that show and sort of blurted to Enda, ‘It’s a love song to Dublin.’ ”

Although Once touched down in Dublin briefly in 2013 en route to London, Clarke had long hoped to reunite the Tony award-winning musical with the city of its affections. That may sound suspiciously sentimental, but it’s also rather shrewd: viral videos of the Once ensemble busking on Grafton Street, and the carefully considered hashtag #onceindublin, seem like a savvy marketing strategy to appeal to summer tourists. Clarke has a growing track record of successfully staging large-scale works in big venues where other producers have lost their shirts.

“Touch wood, they’ve all been very successful, by and large,” says Clarke, perched on an armchair. We look around for something wooden to touch but find nothing but cold metal and marble fixtures, tiled floors and furniture smothered in upholstery. Finally we notice a bannister just within arm’s reach and pat it, relieved, before the conversation reconvenes. “I think I’m getting more superstitious, not less,” she tells me later, laughing. “It’s not good.”

Clarke’s has always been a risky business, somewhere between cultural entrepreneurship and high-stakes gambling, where no amount of accomplishment ever seems to put her entirely at ease. If she speaks of success (of which she has had plenty) she will reflexively add a caveat – “so far”, “by and large”, “let’s hope” – like someone on a prolonged lucky streak, determined not to jinx it. It’s hard to tell if independent producing is a constant source of worry or an addictive thrill. Perhaps both.

 

Hybrid model

Since its first production, with 2004’s Skylight, Landmark has come to pursue two kinds of shows. The first involves “art-led” productions such as 2011’s Misterman, 2013’s Howie the Rookie or last year’s Ballyturk – all of them critical and international successes, sometimes subsidised through Arts Council project grants and assisted overseas by Culture Ireland. The second involves explicitly commercial undertakings – such as three Ross O’Carroll- Kelly plays by Paul Howard (he is currently working on a fourth) and three plays by Fiona Looney – popular productions in large venues, funded mainly by private investors. Ten years ago, when commercial and subsidised theatre seemed worlds apart, Clarke’s hybrid model looked fantastically odd. Now, as Landmark flourishes through impoverished times, it is a model to which more companies aspire.

Landmark’s current projects, which Clarke is producing back to back, show how increasingly well-braided these different pursuits have become, to the point that it’s hard to decide which is which.

“In an ideal world I’d produce everything Enda Walsh has ever written,” she says. Indeed, with Once and The Last Hotel following Ballyturk, The Walworth Farce and Misterman, she appears to be getting there.

“She’s hands down the best producer I’ve worked with anywhere,” Enda Walsh informs me. He describes a rigorous method, starting up to three years before a show, in which funding is raised, international partners found and tours planned. “Already a production’s life and history is being mapped out,” he says. “This really empowers everyone, I think. It shows ambition – and that’s what you want from your producer, that sense of, ‘It can happen; I’ll make it happen.’ ”

A few weeks after Once opens, Landmark will stage its first opera, The Last Hotel, a co-production with Fergus Sheil’s Wide Open Opera, directed by Walsh. It took shape when Clarke brought the composer Donnacha Dennehy into contact with Walsh for 2011’s Misterman at the Galway Arts Festival and saw how Walsh – usually pretty animated – had “physically doubled over, in paroxysms of delight, when he started to hear the music that Donnacha was sending through”. The result is a collaboration that, buoyed by Landmark’s quality control and strategising, will open at the Edinburgh International Festival and tour to London’s Royal Opera House and St Ann’s Warehouse in New York.

“Artistically, she asks the right and most difficult questions, placing herself as an audience who wants to be challenged and wants to see excellence,” says Walsh. “It matters to her – and it should – that people are parting with their hard-earned cash. You need to deliver. She is driven, but you feel incredibly cared for. She gets that you’re not just an employee, that for the work to be good work, everyone – and I mean everyone – has someone in their corner: her.”

Clarke takes pride in her work, but she is not inclined to sell herself. “I’m not looking for a bow,” she says. Similarly, she was happy to be included in a scholarly new book, Radical Contemporary Theatre Practices by Women in Ireland, in an article by Tanya Dean, while simultaneously downplaying any idea of radicalism. (“I do slightly blush at the title,” she says.)

What’s the biggest kick of producing?

She thinks for a minute. “Knowing that you’ve got it right,” she replies. “There are so many things that can go wrong. So if you get to the stage where the show’s open, and the people are coming, and the audiences are responding, and the cast and creative team are happy with the work, there’s a tremendous sense of fulfilment in that.”

“I think she’s a little bit like a shark,” says the playwright Mark O’Rowe. “Not in that [cliched] sense of a producer, but that she’s always moving.”

 

Incredibly single-minded

O’Rowe, who directed Tom Vaughan- Lawlor in Howie the Rookie, which Landmark toured to Edinburgh, London and New York, is now writing a new play for the company, to be staged late next year. “She’s incredibly single-minded about the work,” O’Rowe says of the loyalty that she demonstrates and that she also inspires. “It’s always surprising, as an artist, to find someone as committed to a piece as you are.”

For Clarke, Howie the Rookie was a labour of love, a white-knuckle ride and a tribute to her tenacity. When the production didn’t receive Arts Council funding shortly before going into rehearsals, Vaughan-Lawlor’s agent asked whether the actor should stop learning the text.

“I said, ‘No. Please tell him not to do that. I will find a way.’ ”

After a sell-out success in Dublin, it struggled to find audiences in Edinburgh – where new work is king – while another Landmark production, Deirdre Kinahan’s These Halcyon Days, was rhapsodically received. Howie’s visit paid off, though: from Edinburgh it was invited to London’s Barbican; from there it toured to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“There are certain moments when you’re producing when you just have to hold your nerve, dig deep and not let the shoulders go down,” says Clarke of the experience. “But then it was a perfect arc. Tom went out and gave an amazing performance in Edinburgh, and to be able to bring it to London and New York and fill the Olympia with a one-man show was extraordinary. It was a perfect fairy-tale ending to that very long story.”

Of Once, she says, “It’s so deceptively simple. You’ve got 12 people onstage telling a story through song. But the technical sophistication of the show is something nobody ever realises. There’s an army of people that nobody will ever see.”

It begins to sound like a description of Landmark itself. “The audience will see 12 people on the stage of the Olympia and go away transported. That’s the way it should be. What’s going on behind the scenes is another story.”

  • Once previews until July 13th and runs July 14th to August 22nd at the Olympia Theatre. The Last Hotel opens at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 8th-12th, then tours
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