Guarding the Gate

Theatre’s precarious finances will test new director’s imagination and ingenuity

 

A year to its 90th anniversary, the Gate Theatre recently entered a new phase in its history with the appointment of its first female director, Selina Cartmell. She is a daring and often innovative theatre-maker who steps into the role at a time of challenge to the theatre’s reputation and to its sustainability.

A report by consultants Bonnar Keenlyside on the Gate’s precarious finances – it accrued combined losses of almost €1 million in 2013 and 2015 – points to limited opportunity to take risks or to develop or experiment as part of future programming. These are substantial losses in a publicly-funded arts organisation and this is not an ideal starting point for a new artistic director.

Cartmell is only the theatre’s fourth director in almost 90-years. Her predecessor Michael Colgan served 33 of those years, a longevity that might be deemed unwise in any creative organisation. Although Colgan consolidated the international reputation of the Gate, mounting productions with star names, and was in tune with its audience, his programming policy was designed for the most part to play it safe. His attention to the work of three of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century – Beckett, Friel and Pinter – will be part of his legacy but the report also highlights the scarcity of new writing by Irish playwrights on the Gate stage during his tenure. This is a fairly damming reflection on a theatre in receipt of Arts Council subsidy.

The report acknowledges that the former director was “widely recognised as extremely successful” though his remuneration package was one that raised eyebrows in a sector not generally noted for generous financial reward.

The board of the Gate – a panel that seems overdue for a shake-up – might have responded to the deficit with more alacrity. It must now act to safeguard the stability of the theatre without constraining Cartmell’s ambitions. Her greatest challenge is to replenish the Gate audience while not substantively chasing away its “core, loyal but conservative audience”. Striking that balance will test her imagination and ingenuity.

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