The great White hope

 

After a period of turbulence, the Project, in Dublin's Temple Bar, hasa new artistic director. Willie White, who has come to the job via LooseCanon Theatre Company and RTÉ, has the difficult responsibility of headingthe arts centre into a period of redefinition Aidan Dunne writes.

Project used to be the Project Arts Centre, a small, spartan but functional theatre and arts space tucked away in an unfashionable street in a run-down part of town. The setting and the pared-down facilities suited its radical credentials.

Then, as part of the redevelopment of Temple Bar, Project negotiated its own sweeping expansion. It went to sleep, you might say, as an edgy venue on the margins and woke up a couple of years and about €4.2 million later, as a state-of-the-art culture palace in the heart of Dublin's recreational playground.

An identity crisis was to be expected, but not the meltdown that ensued under the artistic directorship of Kathy McArdle, who left in October last year. Despite her undoubted energy and commitment, her vision of Project as open and innovative ran into trouble for at least two reasons: the persistent personnel problems that dogged her tenure, and the unresolved contradiction between the desire to run an alternative, even subversive cultural facility and the need to programme in such a way as to balance the books.

Now Willie White has stepped into the breach as artistic director. The co-founder, with Jason Byrne, of the Loose Canon Theatre Company, White originally studied English and Theatre Studies and has latterly been working for RTÉ. Although his stint there on the eclectic arts review, The View, led him down all sorts of cultural avenues, he is acutely conscious of being labelled as primarily a theatre person.

"You're going to ask me how someone with a background in theatre can do justice to the range of arts covered by Project," he says pre-emptively. In fact, while he is clearly passionate about theatre, he is a cultural omnivore, with a lively curiosity about everything, including dance, music and visual art.

The question of the visual arts is particularly germane, given that it was McArdle's decision not to renew the contract of then visual arts director Valerie Connor that generated a huge outcry in the artistic community about Project's perceived down-grading of visual arts. It should be pointed out that visual arts curator Grant Watson was already in situ by the time of McArdle's departure, and he is widely regarded as being equal to challenge of fighting his corner.

"Obviously I don't want to go into the recent past too much. I think we have to get on with it, we have to look to the future," White says. "There's no question of a lack of commitment to the visual arts. They are at the core of Project since the very beginning."

He knows this, having written a thesis on the centre while at Trinity. "I would say," he acknowledges, "that there isn't that much crossover between theatre and visual art, certainly from the theatre side. I'm aware that in the old Project, the theatre people called the gallery the foyer."

It is true that multi-disciplinary arts centres have a tendency to sideline one or other discipline eventually, and perhaps ideas about the crossover and convergence of forms have run their course for the moment.

"I think there's an element of truth in that," White says. "Those ideas were current at the time of the first arts plan, but not much since. In practice, one discipline tends to be subordinated to another. It's not something you can dictate . . . If it happens, it happens - the impulse comes from the artists."

In any case, despite the multi-purpose element intrinsic to Project, there are obvious practical limitations. "It was great to see Project reopening in 2000 with a visual arts show throughout the whole building," he says. "Then the seating went in the upstairs space and you realise that you just don't get it out again that easily, so of course there are constraints on the versatility of the space."

What is important, White feels, is the maintenance of a range of activity. "I remember going to Edinburgh to see 7:84 and happening on Pina Bausch's Dance Theatre of Wuppertal. I was knocked out, I thought 'gosh, I just didn't know you could do that'. And that kind of openness is important, that you might encounter anything."

There have been other criticisms of the building, particularly in terms of its blank facade and its access, while the gallery is a distinctly odd, gloomy, garage-like space. "Frankly, I would say that aspects of the building are problematic," White says. "The gallery was definitely designed with new media in mind. Otherwise, the spaces are not at all bad - once you're inside them. And the facilities, backstage and so on, are pretty decent.

"But, and this is as someone who has experienced it, I'd say the foyer is not inviting. It's dark, negotiating it is awkward, that sideways progress - it's just not welcoming. The journey in could be more comfortable.

"One of my ambitions would be to have a café. It may seem peripheral, but it is important. It's about offering a service to the audience, the artists and the people who work with them."

White's vision is strongly artist-oriented. "Project is about allowing artists to make art. From the first it was an artist-inspired initiative. So whether it's money, or technical resources, or other enabling devices, that's what we're there for. I'm not an artist, I'm not creating anything, but if you can generate a kind of critical mass, can be, let's say, pro- actively passive, self-effacing but enabling, I know artists will respond and the audience will be there."

He is a little perplexed at the absence of an emergent generation of innovative theatre groups. "We have a core of strong companies across theatre and dance, but a curious absence of anyone coming through," he says. "So I very much want to find, stimulate and encourage new theatre-makers in every way I can. I say 'makers' rather than writers because people automatically think that 'new' means new writing. And in practice, I think new Irish writing often means just more Irish writing. Also, I'm uncomfortable with the word innovative. What does innovation mean? It comes back to making; making is innovating."

Where are the absent theatre-makers? "It's not that theatre has become irrelevant, more that maybe people have been doing other things, but, you know, there are hints that some of that energy - which, for example, went into IT during the boom - is finding its way back into theatre," White says.

"But I am amazed at the number of people who come to Project and say they want to do Zoo Story. It's like a guitarist saying they want to play Stairway to Heaven. There's more out there. I am not saying that, early on, you don't do Stairway to Heaven on your way to becoming Pat Metheny or whatever, but by the time you get to Project you should be a bit further on."

That said, he is currently busy programming 2003. "I've programmed about the first six months, and while, obviously, for various reasons, I can't release details of it as yet, I'm pleased at the way it's shaping up. I know you'll say I'd have to say that, but I really am."

FROM various hints and suggestions, it seems fair to say that White is thinking carefully and strategically, balancing must-see events with Project's radical pedigree.

Culture has never been as widely discussed, and it seems that talks, seminars and debates sometimes threaten to overshadow practice - a factor relevant to Project's recent travails. White is aware that there is an issue there.

"I know there is this sense that part of what Project does is about talks and discourse," he says. "And that's very good, it's important, but . . . What you don't want to lose sight of is that we're about what might be termed non-pragmatic discourse. I can appreciate a level of anxiety about commodification, and of course process is important, but really we are about what we do, and I want to have an audience that's excited about what we do.

"There's a story about Beethoven, that after he'd played a sonata someone asked him what it meant. His answer was to sit down and play it again. I'd go along with that."

Project's birth and rebirth

The Project Arts Centre had its beginnings in November 1966, when Colm O Briain (later director of the Arts Council), having failed to get the rights for a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was rehearsing three one-act plays for a three-week season at the Gate. Since he had the Gate for three weeks, O Briain reasoned, why not widen the scope of his activities? The result, Project 67, incorporated various events, including an exhibition by four artists (John Behan, Michael Kane, John Kelly and Charles Cullen), who became the core members of the Project Gallery, a voluntary artists' co-operative, initially located in Abbey Street. After peripatetic beginnings, the Project Arts Centre became established in South King Street, and moved to its current location at 39 East Essex Street in 1974. By then, it was evolving from amateur to professional status as a curatorial organisation, and was central to a wide front of cultural activity, including theatre, visual art, film and music.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s it fought a running battle with the Arts Council in relation to funding, and attracted the wrath of Councillor Ned Brennan, who was incensed by a production by Gay Sweatshop. A serious fire in 1982 wiped out files and records and left a void in the building, too expensive to repair.

The list of individuals and groups associated with the Centre is a veritable roll-call of cultural life, including, to take a cross-section, the Sheridans, Tom Murphy, Mannix Flynn, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Garret Keogh, Rough Magic, James Coleman, Nigel Rolfe, U2, Noel Sheridan and John Stephenson.

Fiach Mac Conghail, the artistic director from 1993, who bowed out in 1999 prior to the opening of the new building, substantially revived the centre's reputation for ground-breaking work, including, ironically enough, off-site projects involving curator Valerie Connor, most notably Dorothy Cross's ambitious Chiasm. Mac Conghail opted against moving to Smithfield in favour of redeveloping the Essex Street site. Shay Cleary Architects came up with the plans.

Rebirth proved traumatic, however. Kathy McArdle's brief tenure as artistic director was marked by acrimony, staff departures and, that old Project staple, a funding deficit. The challenge for the Project remains one of redefinition in the changed cultural landscape of the city and the country.