Stage Struck


"Pub theatre is a place to loosen creative inhibitions" Pub theatre? I'll drink to that, writes PETER CRAWLEY

Theatre director Peter Brook took an empty space and called it a stage. Somebody walks across it, he explained in his theatre bible, The Empty Space, and someone else watches: "This is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged."

The gospel according to alternative theatre is slightly different. We take any empty room above a bar and call it a stage. Someone walks across it, someone else nearby quietly pulls a pint, and the person watching craftily splits open a bag of Bacon Fries. That's all we need for an act of pub theatre to be engaged.

Pub theatre, an age-old phenomenon that reached its zenith here in the 1970s, appeared to wane during prosperity. Now it's making a comeback. As you read this, a long room full of promise above The Plough on Dublin's Abbey Street is being prepared for theatrical use (see panel, page 21). This involves draping its cheery walls in black, banishing all natural light from the room, and de-cluttering a small area up front for performance.

It's a modest space, currently marked only by a new sign that reads "theatre" and bears a small arrow to show you that its managers (the actor and director, Karl Shiels, the writer and director Paul Walker, and the technician Andy Cummins) mean business. When there's no money in the economy, they decided, you can either drown your sorrows or raise a toast to bare boards and a passion.

They're in good company. "Above an Irish pub with all the horrors that entails," is how the London Evening Standarddescribed the Bush Theatre in the 1970s. "Ladies would be well advised to go there in a warm pair of trousers." That space has remained a powerhouse of new writing ever since: staging the premieres of Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy, Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie, and new plays by Terry Johnson, Sebastian Barry and Conor McPherson.

The latter's early career was bound up with Dublin's International Bar, a venue as insalubrious as it is important. Boozers and watering holes regularly feature in McPherson's work (and most Irish theatre, for that matter). While nobody likes the suggestion that alcohol lubricates the imagination, it seems that pub theatre can really open up possibilities.

Perhaps that's because function rooms are easier to access for theatre makers on a budget than more august institutions. An audience in an informal space is better disposed to take risks and buy into new work. It seems that new writing regularly emerges over the clink of glasses, benefiting from the gung-ho spirit of any literary policy worked out first on the back of a beer mat.

Theatre at the Plough starts as it means to continue, with a season of new work from Walker, Brian Delaney, Deirdre Kinahan and Eugene O'Brien. But programmers are open to suggestions - their pub theatre is a place to loosen creative inhibitions. It's also a place built on good spirits. "This is just a ridiculous room above a pub with police cars going by," the Bush's Dominic Dromgoole once said. "The only way it becomes a theatre every night is by an act of communal will."

Everyone can drink to that.