Mending the Gate: ‘Michael Colgan’s style was very different to mine’

The Gate Theatre turned 90 this year. Nobody noticed. Selina Cartmell on a challenging first year in charge

 

She doesn’t use the word, exactly, but Selina Cartmell has been thinking recently about hypocrisy – about how someone can appear one way on the surface and behave quite differently behind closed doors.

“I had a really interesting conversation with someone about the public and private faces of leaders of organisations,” she tells me, late in our conversation as sunlight streams through the window of a basement cafe. “Around CEOs, particularly. How do you allow yourself to be authentic, both externally and publicly, and still be true to yourself?”

In an ideal world, public and private faces wouldn’t be so different. An ideal world, on the other hand, would have very boring theatre. (“That one may smile and smile and be a villain,” marvels Hamlet, as startled by hypocrisy as Cartmell often seems.) In Cartmell’s case, she is the poacher turned gamekeeper, a freelance artist who became the boss. As artistic director and chief executive of the Gate Theatre, an institution she worked for as a director just three times before, she is completing a tumultuous first year, during which the theatre has been rocked by scandals not of her making.

Most new artistic directors get a honeymoon period, in which audiences, collaborators and the industry at large give a new programme and a new vision every benefit of the doubt. Instead, two productions into Cartmell’s first programme, the Gate was spun into a crisis without precedent when a torrent of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by its previous director, Michael Colgan, became public. (In an irony worthy of the stage, Cartmell issued a statement condemning sexual harassment and abuse of power in the theatre, together with several Irish theatre organisations, just hours before the director Grace Dyas published her account of a demeaning public incident with Colgan, prompting a cascade of testimony.)

When the allegations against Colgan emerged, Cartmell was in rehearsals, directing the theatre’s Christmas show, The Red Shoes.

“It was deeply distressing and upsetting to hear the stories,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a job I signed up for. I’m no crisis manager. Inevitably, your focus and energy is taken down a different path.”

Cartmell really signed up for three separate jobs, and the crisis pulled each of them in different directions. The director of a show must manage a cast and crew while steering a play towards production (The opening of The Red Shoes was delayed by a week as Cartmell dealt with the media storm). The artistic director must safeguard the theatre’s programme, which had been announced up until The Snapper, premiering this month, and safeguard its reputation. The chief executive must protect the institution from harm, legal and otherwise.

“It was upsetting, it was unexpected,” says Cartmell. “I did not think it would break in the way that it did at that particular time.” Was she surprised by the allegations?

“I don’t think it would be surprising,” she says. “I think it was an open secret within the arts community.”

Exploiting vulnerability

This will strike many as a kind of hypocrisy: abuse of power can continue only when other people allow it to. But the exposure of predators such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others has also revealed how practised abusers and manipulators exploit the vulnerability of a freelance culture, keeping victims intimidated and isolated, while preserving their patterns. Vicky Featherstone, the exasperated artistic director of London’s Royal Court, could have been speaking for many organisations when she said last year, “We all knew about it. We. All. Knew.”

Cartmell, an award-winning director known for her extraordinary visual style and fondness for dark subjects, directed three productions for the Gate under Michael Colgan between 2006 and 2007. Beckett’s Catastrophe conceived of a tyrannical director and his harried female supplicant; Festen was a revenge tragedy against a secret sexual predator; and Sweeney Todd told the grisly story of a two-faced psychopath. Following the third, she chose never to direct for the Gate again.

“For a number of reasons,” Cartmell says now. “I think Michael Colgan’s management style and the way he was producing work was very different to my own. I think it’s no secret that myself and Michael wouldn’t have been the greatest of friends. That was, I suppose, one of the reasons why I didn’t work there in 10 years.” She will not be drawn on the details, but she says she witnessed “similar patterns” to those described in Gaye Cunningham’s independent report into allegations of inappropriate behaviour and abuse of power against Colgan. That report detailed management by “fury, stress and fear”, “rages and put-downs” “profane language” and “calling women ‘c***s’”.

“I just felt uncomfortable,” Cartmell says. “There was enough for me to feel that this isn’t a healthy creative environment to work in.”

Sclerotic organisation

Cartmell’s own management style may have been born partly in reaction. One of her earliest acts was to introduce an employees’ handbook for Gate staff to help address communication issues within a sclerotic organisation. For staff, some of whom had worked there for many years, that became more important in the fallout from the allegations.

“That really was my priority in the short term, to just open up discussion and say, ‘Look, how can we move on from this, how can we deal with this?’ Obviously, there was a lot of pain and hurt, as you can imagine, internally as well as externally.”

Throughout the crisis, and the theatre’s responses, Cartmell was forthcoming with public statements, often as the board tread more cautiously. “The Gate is committed to delivering on this process while dealing professionally and compassionately with any issues arising from the past,” she told The Irish Times when seven former employees of the Gate alleged abuse and harassment by Colgan. The board of the Gate Theatre finally issued an unreserved apology upon the completion of Cunningham’s report, drawn from accounts of 56 people, acknowledging a culture “which was not conducive to people speaking out freely”. (Colgan had sat on the board, with several of its current members, until his retirement early last year.)

Was there blame among staff and freelancers for those in senior positions at the theatre who allowed that culture to persist? “It’s a very complex series of emotions,” says Cartmell, cautiously. “I think a lot of people in the arts community, generally, were feeling…” She hesitates. “In terms of calling it out … I spoke to actors about that, directors, freelancers, staff. It was a very traumatic time for many people. And quite understandably when you’ve given your life to a theatre, when you’ve worked, when you’ve loved the Gate. So the team that we have now at the Gate, we’re really trying to work together to [communicate], and to put a closure to it as well.”

Trauma counsellling

How does a theatre recover from trauma?

Cartmell concedes that the theatre has suffered “reputational damage”, which hardly helps in fundraising and audience development efforts. Anecdotally, attendance for several productions over her first programme has been erratic: The Great Gatsby, which returns in November, reconfigured the theatre for a joyfully immersive, participatory performance and proved a knockout success. Tribes, a contemporary family drama coming immediately after it, struggled for audiences despite strong reviews. The reappearance of John Osborne’s misogynistic hero in Look Back in Anger might have been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is a theatre that needs to perform to a 75 per cent capacity audience just to break even, and people are beginning to worry that an older, loyal audience weaned on celebrity productions and canonical programming has been staying away, while a younger, politically attuned audience has come to see the theatre as contaminated. How does the Gate turn a corner?

“It takes time,” Cartmell says. “However frustrating it is, and however reluctant you are for that time to pass, what I realised is that I can’t change the past. I can only fix the future. There are many ways you can do that. But it’s not just about fixing it with the art.”

The Gate turned 90 this year – and nobody noticed. “My role is to try and ensure that the Gate Theatre is going to be there for the centenary,” she says, and that doesn’t sound like a small task. “I am absolutely passionate and committed to the fact that it needs to be there for the centenary.”

It’s telling that Cartmell now tends to speak about the ideals of the theatre’s founders, Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, as though the last 33 years never happened. But on another level, she empathises with them more instinctively. “It is not lost on me – and I said this at the launch of the Outsider programme – the irony of being an outsider going into an insider’s role,” she says. The tension between those positions can be difficult to reconcile, but transparency and honesty go a long way.

Reasons for optimism

Besides, there is cause to be optimistic. When the Gate announced a new production of Hamlet last month, starring Ruth Negga in the title role, the theatre broke all previous box office records in a single day, lifting ticket sales for all other productions. Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper is expected to perform well this summer in a production directed by Róisín McBrinn, and for all Cartmell’s challenges over the past year, her biggest rewards have been the introduction of new artists and voices to the Gate stage – such as director Oonagh Murphy and writers Nancy Harris and Emmet Kirwan – while support has poured in from the rest of the theatre community.

Dealing with the philosophical problems of how theatre can compete in the age of Netflix now sounds like a holiday. “I think it needs to be an experience,” Cartmell says. “It needs to start before you get into the theatre. And I think you need to build that dialogue, however you do that. To turn off your phone for 2½ hours sitting in the dark, shoulder to shoulder with anyone – isn’t that a great experience and a unique one to have today?”

I ask her about reconciling the roles of the freelance director and the chief executive, the public voice and the private self. She reaches for a Hamlet quote: “To thine own self be true.”

“That, for me, is the only way I can move forward: to be authentic, knowing I am driven creatively, first and foremost. We are creating theatre, which is a collaborative artform, so in many ways this is the perfect place to be asking the big questions about how we want to be perceived. The Gate is bigger than one person. You’re a custodian of a space for a particular amount of time, to make work for that time with enough spark and energy to make people feel this is an important place to come to. I think that’s the key to unlocking the Gate.”

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