It has been an unprecedented 24 months for the Irish theatre industry, a fact that the three judges for the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards are keen to acknowledge as they reveal their shortlist for a bumper edition of the awards this year, which encompasses almost 180 new Irish productions premiering on the island between January 2020 and December 2021.
“The extraordinary circumstances need to be acknowledged from the outset,” says media and cultural manager Lorelei Harris, who joined the panel of judges at the beginning of 2020. “It really is the most important thing to say about the last two years. We are not just celebrating the success or failure of this or that show. The very act of [artists] making work at all needs to be celebrated as significant on its own.
“The sheer courage involved, where you had a cohort of theatre practitioners, isolated in the way we were all isolated during the pandemic, continuing with their practice in the service of an audience: it was just remarkable really and we were privileged as an audience to be there.”
Fellow-judge, Tanya Dean, a dramaturg and lecturer, agrees: “What was really so impressive in those frightening, chaotic months of the pandemic,” she says, “was seeing how quickly and skilfully the theatre community adapted to the new reality. How they found ways of creating community, creating communal spaces, and of finding ways to create opportunities for artists to have their work seen.”
The past 24 months for Dean and Harris, who were joined on the panel by writer and academic Nicholas Grene, can be described in four phases. Firstly, they acknowledge the halcyon pre-pandemic months of 2020, when artists had never even heard of Covid and production schedules proceeded as they might in any given year.
That stability all came to an end in the middle of March, when the country went into its first phase of lockdown. As Dean acknowledges: “You had [theatre artists] all set to go, people who had invested a lot in rehearsal, people who were right in the middle of a run, and that all had to come to an end. It must have been hard for them to pick up again when everything was so uncertain. It is hard to imagine what production schedules must have looked like [over the last two years] and it must have been very frustrating for [artists] whose work was cut mid-way through, not really knowing what [their work] might have developed into.”
The second phase, however, was ignited quicker than the judges would have anticipated given the circumstances, with public health guidelines making it impossible to bring collaborators or audiences together. These were the months in which live performance practices moved online, and the judges were astonished by how quickly and efficiently artists adapted to the digital model.
As Dean says, “If you look at something like NT Live [the recorded performance arm of London’s National Theatre], they have spent millions [of pounds] over more than a decade to develop. So to see how quickly Irish theatres adapted to the idea of recording and streaming work, and to see the superb quality [they achieved], is testament to the industry.”
The judges were astonished by how quickly and efficiently artists adapted to the digital model
Grene puts this achievement in the context of evolving theatre history. Before the pandemic, he says “one had tended to be dependent on archival video of live performance. These grainy recordings, captured with one camera from the back of the theatre.” The pandemic, he says, “has created a new standard for live streaming and the best of the [digital work] was really, really excellent.” “If nothing else comes out of Covid,” Dean agrees, Irish theatre’s embrace of “the full technical resources [available] has been a major gain”.
The judges decided early on that these gains needed to be celebrated too, and Grene explains the parameters for inclusion in the awards, “Any show that was being streamed or offered digitally, that would clearly be a theatre show in other circumstances, was eligible. Whether that was as a streamed live performance and/or a recorded live performance; any recorded show that had a substantial live performance element was given equal consideration.”
Harris elaborates the nuances of occasional exclusion. “If people were clearly using the resources of film, like shifts of location and time frame that wouldn’t be possible in a theatre context, for example. The essence, for us as judges, had to be the liveness of performance.”
Despite the many boons they saw during Covid closures, it must surely have been a disappointment for the judges – and the theatre community at large – that this digital phase lasted so long. There was the rare opportunity to see live work. Rough Magic’s production of Solar Bones at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August 2020, nominated in three categories, was one notable production. However, the stop-start nature of lockdowns in 2020 made planning for live performance an extremely precarious business. Unfortunately, that scenario continued into the first six months of 2021.
In June, however, the Irish theatre community took tentative steps towards resuming live performances, with practitioners taking their practice outside in order to adhere to the (still) constantly shifting public health guidelines. The judges were impressed early on by how theatre companies embraced the challenge, “showing real ingenuity in the ways they found to come play and put on shows outdoors, not just for the sake of not being in theatre”, as Dean puts it.
“Being out in the wide world was a fundamental part of the dramaturgy.” Dean singles out the work of Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, which is nominated for a Judges Special Award for its Walkabout season. “Their perambulatory shows,” Dean elaborates, “were performed outside, but we never felt the performances themselves were outside just because of Covid. All the plays engaged with the story of the site: why are we in this park/this part of St Stephen’s Green? How can we interact with life in Merrion Square?”
Grene was also impressed with the way in which companies found really clever ways of making site-specific work speak to the moment and the space, as well as the regional breadth of the work, which “took me to places where I had never been before, of which I knew nothing, both around the country and on the outskirts of Dublin, like a field in Kilmallock in Co Limerick,” he says, referring to Blood in the Alley’s In the Middle of the Fields in July.
Harris observed that they noticed “a new dynamic between performers and local communities emerging in the process. There was a new kind of experience embedded in the heightened sense of those circumstances” which highlighted the effect that “bringing people together has. It is that essential act which is at the core of theatre experience.
Finally, at the end of the summer of 2021, the theatres reopened again. Dean, who Grene calls “our statistician”, says it was “like a dam burst. A lot of shows that were in the pipeline finally got to make it to the live stage from September onwards. More than half the shows we saw [they saw 177 performances over the two years] were in that period.”
The nominations reflect the quality of much of that work, but Dean says there is no category to reflect the “innovative level of ninja-like skill that theatre professionals showed, creating safe events in spaces in midst of a pandemic. It was all so brilliantly managed.
Dean says there is no category to reflect the 'innovative level of ninja-like skill that theatre professionals showed, creating safe events in spaces in midst of a pandemic'
“It is hard to imagine how exhausting it must have been behind the scenes, the dynamism needed to deal with changing guidelines, arbitrary rules, and often unfair ones. From box-office staff having to call people up to say, ‘Sorry the performance has been cancelled,’ to stage managers making sure the cast is safe, to the management team ensuring the audience are safe… There was a joke on Twitter that I think applies here: they should have put Irish theatres in charge of the pandemic. They have obviously got it sorted.”
On top of that, the work, Grene says, was “of an exceptional quality. From Dublin to Belfast, Cork, Kilkenny… we did not see a huge amount of work that wasn’t of first-class quality. We could easily have filled the shortlist for each category again.”
Indeed the consistent excellence highlighted one of the potential challenges for the Irish theatre industry in the future, as Dean sees it. “When we look at our eye-watering spreadsheet of two years, in the first three months of 2020 there was a real variety in the shows in terms of experience, from established [artists] to brand-new companies trying something new. The variety of that ecology disappeared when Covid hit.”
When theatres opened again, “we were very rarely seeing brand-new companies trying out new work. Companies that had an established structure were able to weather the precarity a little bit more, they had structures in place so that they were sturdier when the pandemic hit, but a lot of younger freelance artists and technicians were not protected in the same way. It is a very stark reality how vulnerable people who make this work really are.”
As they drew up their shortlists, the judges were keen, then, to commend the work that established companies did in trying “to find ways to support artists who were not protected in the same way”. Such as the Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland initiative, for example, which employed more than 300 Irish artists, or as Grene elaborates, the heavy presence of Irish work in the Dublin Theatre Festival: “Obviously that was because it was difficult to programme international work, and it is always a great opportunity to see international work, but it was also great to see Irish artists getting that kind of support and exposure in the festival.”
Dean has left the Awards panel now, but Harris and Grene are staying on as judges for the 2022 Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards. “We have been judges forever!” Harris jokes, but she remains excited by what the future holds for Irish Theatre.
The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards will take place on June 12th at the Irish Museum of Modern Arts, Kilmainham, Dublin
Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards Final Nominations 2020-21
Judges: Tanya Dean, Nicholas Grene, Lorelei Harris
Irish Times Criteria: Excellence: brilliance, superiority, distinction, quality and merit. Innovation and risk must come into the equation as theatre is all about creativity and therefore inventiveness, resourcefulness, vision, imagination, inspiration and originality.
Domhnall Gleeson, Medicine, Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival
Stanley Townsend, Solar Bones, Kilkenny Arts Festival in partnership with Rough Magic in association with Watergate Theatre
Matthew Malone, Once Before I Go, The Gate Theatre
Shaun Blaney, In the Name of the Son, Green Shoot Productions
Kate Stanley Brennan, Conversations after Sex, thisispopbaby
Sarah Hanly, Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks, The Abbey Theatre and Royal Court
Bríd Ní Neachtain, Laethanta Sona, Company SJ and Abbey Theatre in association with Dublin Theatre Festival and Galway International Arts Festival
Ruth McCabe, Bedsit, Galway International Arts Festival
Bosco Hogan, One Good Turn (The Abbey Theatre) and The Enemy Within (An Grianán Theatre)
Nigel Lindsay, Faith Healer, The Abbey Theatre
Peter Daly, The Cherry Orchard, Druid
Marty Rea, The Cherry Orchard, Druid
Bláithín Mac Gabhann, The Seagull After Chekhov (Druid) and Our New Girl (The Gate Theatre)
Máire Ní Ghráinne, The Long Christmas Dinner, The Abbey Theatre
Niamh Cusack, Faith Healer, The Abbey Theatre
Siobhán Cullen, The Cherry Orchard, Druid
Lisa May, Mojo Mickeybo, Bruiser Theatre Company
Lynne Parker, Solar Bones, Kilkenny Arts Festival in partnership with Rough Magic in association with Watergate Theatre
Sarah Jane Scaife and Raymond Keane, The Long Christmas Dinner, Abbey Theatre
Tom Creed, Conversations After Sex, thisispopbaby
Alyson Cummins and Pai Rathaya, Volcano, (Luke Murphy's Attic Projects)
Francis O'Connor, The Seagull (After Chekhov) (Druid), Fidelio (Irish National Opera) and Once Before I Go (The Gate Theatre)
Ger Clancy, Laethanta Sona (Company SJ and Abbey Theatre in association with Dublin Theatre Festival and Galway International Arts Festival)
Maree Kearns, The Enemy Within (An Grianán Theatre)
Deirdre Dwyer, The Veiled Ones (Junk Ensemble)
Lisa Zagone, The Heart of a Dog (The Everyman, Civic and John O'Brien)
Katie Davenport, Once Before I Go (The Gate Theatre) and Elsewhere (Straymaker and the Abbey Theatre in association with Miroirs Étendus and Once Off Productions)
Sarah Foley, Masterclass (Brokentalkers in collaboration with Adrienne Truscott)
Barry O'Brien, DruidGregory, Druid
James F. Ingalls, The Seagull (After Chekhov), The Cherry Orchard, Druid
Sarah-Jane Shiels, Hansel and Gretel (Irish National Opera, Theatre Lovett and Abbey Theatre) and Conversations After Sex (thisispopbaby)
Stephen Dodd, Volcano (Luke Murphy's Attic Projects) and The Long Christmas Dinner (Abbey Theatre).
Fionn Foley, Tonic, Rough Magic Theatre Company in association with Solstice Arts Centre
Kevin McGing, Elektra, Irish National Opera and Kilkenny Arts Festival
Rob Moloney, Volcano, Luke Murphy's Attic Projects
Teho Teardo/ Seán Carpio, Medicine, Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival
David Bolger, The Cherry Orchard, Druid
Luke Murphy, Volcano, Luke Murphy's Attic Projects
Ella Clarke, Alice and the Wolf, Barnstorm
Louise Lowe, The Book of Names, ANU Productions and Landmark Productions
DruidGregory and On the Outside , Druid
Mojo Mickeybo, Bruiser Theatre Company
The Long Christmas Dinner, Abbey Theatre
Volcano, Luke Murphy's Attic Projects
Conversations After Sex, thisispopbaby
Solar Bones, Kilkenny Arts Festival in partnership with Rough Magic in association with Watergate Theatre
The Long Christmas Dinner, Abbey Theatre
Volcano, Luke Murphy's Attic Projects
Best New Play
Aisling O'Mara, Next Please…, Bewleys Café Theatre
Luke Murphy, Volcano, Luke Murphy's Attic Projects
Mark O'Halloran, Conversations After Sex, thisispopbaby
Sarah Hanly, Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks, Abbey Theatre and Royal Court
Best Opera (in terms of best overall theatrical experience)
Elsewhere, Straymaker and the Abbey Theatre in association with Miroirs Étendus and Once Off Productions
Fidelio, Irish National Opera
Hansel and Gretel, Irish National Opera, Theatre Lovett and Abbey Theatre
The First Child, Landmark Productions in association with Irish National Opera
Judges Special Award – For inventiveness, excellence and/or contribution to the industry during Covid
Bewley's Cafe Theatre for its sustained contribution to Irish theatre over the years, and in particular for Walkabout Theatre returning audiences to live performances outdoors in June/July 2021.
Irish National Opera for 20 Shots of Opera, for its innovative and imaginative way of exploring the form of opera when live performance was impossible.
National Campaign for the Arts for its exceptional dedication to advocacy and political engagement on behalf of the arts, particularly during Covid.
The Abbey Theatre for Dear Ireland, creating innovative opportunities for creativity, collaboration, and performance in the midst of lockdown.
The Irish Times Special Tribute Award
Photographer Ros Kavanagh, for using his artistic skill to create an invaluable visual record of the many artists and productions that make up the history of modern irish theatre.