Mary Hickson, chief executive of Cork Opera House, has a powerful gut. Right now it is telling her that the future will be exciting, but it won't be with Cork Opera House. Her five-year contract ends in October and her plans after that are unspecified but upbeat, and not tied to a venue.
It’s not that this particular venue was too much for her, it’s just that she feels she has done all she could. That meant deciding that the house works best with a calendar of one-off shows, gigs and stand-ups prevailing over the kind of programme that might be expected from a municipal opera house. She has given “150 per cent” to the job, and the return has been a €250,000 profit for 2013-2014 on a turnover of about €5 million.
“We’ve found that we’re more successful with single events; this is an awful big house to fill, and these last five years have meant we were always trying to pace the audience spend, always having the demographic in mind and diversifying the programme, really opening it up. We aim for 275 performances a year to keep the place viable when there’s very little crossover in our audiences. It may not be the stuff I want. It can’t be; it’s the audiences who have priority.”
Audience stamina can't be predicted: she gave them John B Keane "and they didn't come. We brought in Ballyturk and it was the first time ever we sold standing on a Thursday night. But you need more than that for a 900-seat theatre."
The three amigos
Hickson is one of three women keeping Cork's major entertainment spaces in business. The Opera House is the city's municipal theatre, which last year received grants of €324,000 from the Arts Council and €250,000 from Cork City Council.
Lorraine Maye at Cork Midsummer Festival is charged with flaunting a demonstrative calendar of art and entertainment events, and Julie Kelleher at the Everyman Palace is enhancing the theatre's stature as Cork's premier theatrical venue.
There's no attempt to deny that the Midsummer Festival has had a gruelling time over the past three years, and Lorraine Maye's gratitude for the extra €5,000, which brings Cork City Council's grant to €70,000, is some indication of her difficulties. After all, this is supposed to be the city's showcase, but its budget also relies on the Arts Council's €85,000 and Fáilte Ireland's €25,000.
As the event’s only full-time employee, Maye engages with local and other practitioners all year round, especially with the Theatre Development Centre inaugurated at Triskel by Corcadorca some years ago. When the accumulating financial deficit meant a significantly reduced time-span last year, it took courage and imagination for her to take on her role as festival director for 2015. Maye seems to have buckets of both.
The programme, composed with curator Kath Gorman and arranged over two weekends from June 12th, exhibits the pair’s collaborative skills and Maye’s own close relationships with her company team and a wide supportive community.
“We won’t have any big opera production as in previous years, but I think we’ve stabilised the organisation financially and we’ve devised a sustainable festival model for the future,” says Maye. “Waiting for news of the Arts Council grant shortened the timeline in which to pull things together, but the priority is to do what we can with the money we have, to make a lot of noise and make the arts visible.”
Noisy and visible means, for example, a 100-piece brass band in the courtyard of Elizabeth Fort with partners Music Generation. The Australian company Circa features the rock stars of the circus world and performs in partnership with the Everyman, and an inflatable pig that is a space in itself will commandeer Emmet Place in the city centre.
The Picnic in the Park will be the ultimate in civic cordiality; and there will also be seminars and art exhibitions; the Abbey Theatre Playwriting Pop-Up; a street-long banquet supported by Cork City Council; and a visit from Project Arts Centre with Dublin Old School. Participants range from Whistleblast Quartet and pianist Young-Choon Park to Conflicted Theatre, Hammergrin and Graffiti.
“This year we’re more like enablers, but we also want to show that we’re here, that we’re looking to the future and that we’re daring enough to present work that will be great, by people who will be great,” says Maye. “We want to put the focus back on the practitioners now that we’ve got the accounting sorted out.”
One year on from her appointment as Everyman’s artistic director, Julie Kelleher is happy with accounts showing an increase of €462,000 in turnover at the theatre for 2014, with a 23 per cent increase in box-office takings.
“We have an Arts Council grant of €185,000, and €35,000 from the City Council, but the box office is where the change has been: more people are coming to more shows, so there’s something right about our programming and our marketing. There’s a range of improvements happening here but the box office makes up 85 per cent of our income.”
The new season includes her own directorial debut with Brian Friel's Lovers. Isn't this old hat, considering that the programme also has permanent returnees such as Tom Crean and Catalpa? But she's persuasive.
"In fact I've never seen Lovers. I wanted to do something for the summer, a season notoriously difficult for theatres, and this looked like a production we could afford to mount and a title that people would recognise. But also it really connected with me; the themes are still so relevant and cathartic. That's theatre's function. I felt I could do it."
So she's doing it. Also listed is Geoff Gould's production of The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh; and Ian Pattison's new drama about the death of Michael Collins, Macroom, in August.
“We’re close to signing off on the rest of the year, and 2016 looks good. We had a great outcome for last year and the trick now is to sustain that. We’ll see how it goes, but in the meantime I’m going back to the rehearsal room’.”
Kelleher arrived at Everyman at much the same time as the venue’s new chief executive, Seán Kelly, and she is quick to share the credit for the theatre’s achievements with him. Kelleher personifies the ability of a small city to offer coalitions of arts organisations.
Her affiliations with local groups include collaborating with the Opera House for Sounds from a Safe Harbour in September, a festival curated by Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the National. “Mary Hickson got us involved in that, bringing us together to present elements of a single programme over one weekend.”
That weekend will be close to Hickson’s departure from Cork Opera House. The three-year strategic plan she leaves behind involves parking the intimate Half Moon space for a time in order to focus on the main building. She is working on stronger programming for children and is really happy with what has been done so far, and she believes this is a good time for a newcomer to take the place in a new direction.
From here to Christmas, the line-up includes Fiona Shaw and Alan Carr, and a two-week run of Singing in the Rain will defeat the summer doldrums from July 25th.
There’s always a quirk of humour in Hickson’s conversation, and her appointment five years ago was welcomed in the expectation of fun. Now that she leaves the Opera House in a better financial state than when she took over, was fun part of the experience?
“I’d like to think so. It’s important for me to have fun, and that travels down, but it’s also important to get the work done. You just have to do it with a smile on your face.”
- Cork Midsummer Festival runs June 12th-14th, 19th-21st; Opera House 160th anniversary gala is on June 13th. Lovers is at Everyman July 7th. Singing in the Rain is at Cork Opera House on July 25th