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It’s not endgame for Irish theatre, but it is a struggle

Theatre has been resilient, but with the Gate in trouble, the sector is on a knife edge

News at the Gate Theatre this week highlighted the serious difficulties facing live theatre at this point in the pandemic. Theatres (both producing theatres and receiving venues) and independent producers are treading a knife edge, and even with live performance allowed back at 100 per cent capacity big challenges remain.

Following 2020 operating losses for the Gate of €509,868 and what the theatre's annual accounts described as the "financially devastating" impact of Covid, rumours spread within theatre circles that it was to "go dark" (ie cease to present shows) next March, following a new production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, and just as Selina Cartmell steps down after five years as director and chief executive. But Gate chair Peter Crowley confirmed that while the theatre won't present its usual full year of productions next year, with potentially long gaps between shows in 2022, "it's nobody's intention for the Gate to go dark".

He added: “There will be periods where the Gate is quiet. We won’t be producing all of the time, but there will be shows after Endgame.”

The prolonged closure imposed by Covid, and uncertainties in relation to the State's long, slow recovery, are hitting the Gate hard, underlining what is seen as the unsustainability of its dependence on close to full occupancy: ticket sales usually make up 67 per cent of turnover, notwithstanding significant Arts Council support. As a producing theatre with high fixed costs, from building rental to staff, it was left exposed by the live performance shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, with its box office sales wiped out – plummeting by 85 per cent in 2020. There were no Gate theatre shows for more than a year after Nancy Harris's Our New Girl abruptly shut in March 2020.

Production returned slowly at the Gate, with online-only The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness arriving in April 2021, followed by Mikel Murfi's In MiddleTown in a touring truck. The first live audience at the historic theatre in 20 months was last month, for Philip McMahon's premiere of Once Before I Go during the Dublin Theatre Festival.

With other funding limited, getting to sustainability may involve additional Arts Council investment; pandemic stabilisation funding of €501,969 brought 2020’s council support to €1.77 million. Meanwhile, recruitment for Cartmell’s successor will begin before the end of 2021. It will be interesting to see how artistic and executive leadership are structured.

Adapting

When Covid shut all theatres abruptly in March 2020, many companies adapted, presenting online initially and later outdoors, and later still to reduced capacities indoors, juggling evolving restrictions. The sector’s professional health and safety skills have risen to the task, managing safe rehearsal pods, regular testing for casts and crew and audience protocols to keep people safe.

That so much theatre has happened at all since is impressive, given the second guessing involved in planning with restrictions and circumstances in constant flux, and how live theatre involves long lead-in times.

“It shows how creative the industry has been. The resilience, and how people have been able to move quickly and adapt,” says independent producer Donal Shiels of Verdant Productions.

Another independent theatre producer, Anne Clarke of Landmark, says two things give her comfort: "That audiences are absolutely coming back and are craving the live experience. There is no hesitancy"; and Government assurances that once reopened things won't go backwards.

Speaking this week from New York, as her co-production with Galway International Arts Festival of Enda Walsh’s Medicine opens there, she observes that “compliance in theatre has been through the roof”. Theatres are now allowed 100 per cent capacity, having titrated upwards, and increased precautions announced this week had been implemented in theatre since reopening, with vaccination certs, and audiences masked throughout performances. “But Ireland’s lagging behind on testing,” says Shiels, who points to lateral flow tests used in West End theatres.

Throughout the pandemic Landmark has juggled productions impressively. The key is being flexible, Clarke says. Also, "determination can get you a long way . . . It's about holding your nerve." Sometimes she was lucky; for example, when capacity allowances increased just as a show opened, most recently with Emmet Kirwan's comedy Straight to Video, currently at the Project Arts Centre.

Shiels says there’s very little theatre on in Dublin right now; generally it takes eight or nine months to pull a show together, between rights, creative teams and finances. With Christmas shows and pantos in train, he also senses some productions are pulling back on scale as it’s easier to adapt smaller shows.

Pandemic performance supports from the Department of Arts have been very good, he says. They allowed Verdant to present online, and recently its production of Hansel and Gretel ran in a tent in Rathwood, Co Carlow, for 12,000 people over 11 days. But Shiels is planning no live productions until late spring. “Without Arts Council or Government support it would be insane to plan live theatre in this climate.”

Abbey approach

When the pandemic hit, the Abbey Theatre switched operations, following the model of producing online and later outdoors. New artistic director Caitríona McLaughlin and executive director Mark O'Brien recently took over at the helm, and Michael Gallen's opera Elsewhere was this week on the Abbey stage, at full capacity but not quite sold out.

Two Abbey productions are currently in rehearsal: The Long Christmas Dinner for the Peacock, programmed by McLaughlin, and Faith Healer for the main stage, originally planned by the previous directors and since rescheduled by the new team. With a work safety protocol in place when cast, company or staff are in the building, the Abbey had begun a phased return to base in September. This is now being re-examined following latest Covid-19 recommendations. Meanwhile, the show goes on, with plans to announce some 2022 shows in mid-December.

After adapting over lockdown with live streams and outdoor performances, Galway's Druid Theatre is in rehearsals for a new show, Three Short Comedies by Seán O'Casey, "which will thankfully play to sold-out houses in Galway" before a national tour, says Druid's executive director Feargal Hynes. "We're looking forward to getting back on the road and performing in front of full-capacity live audiences at indoor venues." Operating within guidelines, it's full steam ahead for Druid, which is also about to announce its first touring theatre of 2022, and participants in its theatre development and artist residency programmes and Marie Mullen Bursary.

Receiving houses

Receiving houses find themselves in a different situation. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (BGET), with capacity for more than 2,000 people, was closed for "18 months and nine days", says general manager Stephen Faloon, before it reopened to 60 per cent houses on September 21st. Back in February they reasoned it might be possible to open with reduced capacity come autumn, and planned accordingly, with touring productions they felt they could manage on reduced box office numbers.

Capacity is now back at 100 per cent, and needs to be for shows like The Book of Mormon, now running at the theatre until December 4th, The Lion King next month, and Les Misérables in February. “We can’t do them with reduced capacity. Lion King involves 23 45ft trucks for set and costumes. It’s not a cheap endeavour,” Faloon notes.

The juggle and judgment, to plan months ago for what they can present now, also involved a lot of luck, says Faloon. Some shows have been “rescheduled four or five times at this stage”. With a full line-up planned for 2022, the more immediate shows they had rescheduled – Mormon, Lion King, Les Mis – are “brilliant, funny shows to celebrate theatre again. They’re offering a reprieve from Covid news and misery.”

BGET is a modern building and “the air conditioning is pumping fresh air into the auditorium”, says Faloon, adding that the theatre hasn’t been notified of a close contact since reopening.

Through a torrid time, the theatre sector has been impressively adaptable and resilient, and as it now gets back on its feet, Faloon likely reflects what most others in theatre are feeling: “We hope to remain back. Because it’s great to be back.”

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