At the hub of Limerick's theatre life
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Above: Denis Foley, John Murphy and Maurice Cotter
            The Fisherman's Son
Photo:  Press 22

Below: Gene Rooney and Monica Spencer
            Excess Baggage
Photo:  Press 22

At the hub of Limerick's theatre life

The production hub set up as a pilot project in Limerick to produce four shows over five months was an 'impressive creative enterprise' that proves that the hub model is capable of producing excellent work, writes Sara Keating.

With the shrinking of Arts Council funding this year and the threat of further cuts to come, production hubs have been the buzzwords for theatre in 2009. Theatre practitioners have had to question whether the economic climate can accommodate the current infrastructure of individual production companies. The direction was signalled, to an extent, by David Parnell, who was appointed Head of Theatre at the Arts Council in late 2007. Speaking to the Irish Times in January this year, he commented that the reduced Arts Council budget was “a good opportunity to at least re-imagine the model by which we make theatre”. Meanwhile, one of the most significant funding awards made in the early months of this year was for a pilot hub project in Limerick, which was to be managed by the Belltable Arts Centre.

Having lost its main professional theatre company (Island Theatre Company) through funding cuts in the last three years, Limerick seemed a perfect site for such a pilot project to take place. It was a chance for the professional theatre scene to be reinvigorated and for artists working on the periphery of professional theatre to gain a profile and professional experience.

Joanne Beirne is the artistic director of the Belltable Arts Centre and absorbed the role of production manager of the Hub into her full-time duties after the project failed to secure full funding. “It was a way for us to acknowledge artists who were aspiring to work at a professional level but were not getting the opportunity to make work,” she says. “We felt it was important to keep an eye on the future; that the Hub should be a professional programme of work for an audience, yes, but also that it would facilitate artists getting to the level of producing work of a professional quality themselves in the future.”

After inviting applications from local theatre artists and theatre companies, the Limerick Theatre Hub decided to stage four separate productions, two with affiliated theatre companies, two with individual artists, each of which would be produced by the same production team, and share administrative and technical resources. In order of staging, the four productions were: Excess Baggage, a contemporary telling of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, written by Mary Coll and directed by Joan Sheehy; The Fisherman’s Son, a new play by Ciarda Tobin, directed by Bairbre NĂ­ Chaoimh, in collaboration with Amalgamotion; a George Bernard Shaw adaptation, Don Juan in Hell, directed by Duncan Molloy; and a new version of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy by Mike Finn, with Bottom Dog Theatre. (See our review.)

Although the marketing campaign linked all four of the productions together through an evocation of the elements of earth, rain, wind and fire, there was actually little sense of a thematic through-line to the productions. Furthermore, that three of the pieces were modern versions of obscure plays or texts, suggested a hard sell for a contemporary audience, although Beirne is quick to point out that “audiences don’t always know what they are going to like.”

However, rather than commissioning a curated season, as Beirne explains, the Hub was actually responding to ideas that were submitted. Anyway, she says, the Hub’s job was “not to make a safe programme, or something artistically conservative, but to ensure that the risks that we took were calculated risks. So that if we had two pieces of new writing, which we did, they should be off-set by something more recognisable. And our projected budgets took that into account.”

Because the project only secured €86,000 of the €100,000 requested from the Arts Council, Beirne goes on, there was “no room for loss, because we did not have an administration to soak that up. And we knew that at the start, so all of our [financial] projections were deeply conservative, in order to limit the risk. But because of the funding shortfall it is actually difficult to financially evaluate what the real cost of administering the project was, as there were a variety of hidden costs and benefits-in-kind that we received, which we couldn’t have afforded to pay for.” Overall, audience figures between the four shows averaged out at between forty and fifty per cent, so box-office, as projected, was not to be a source of income.

Audience attendance rates do not do justice, however, to the impressive creative enterprise showcased over the five-month production period and there was a recognisable consistency to the production values of the four plays. Much of this had to do with the fact that, for the most part, the four shows shared design teams and technicians, whose versatility in the difficult Cecil Street venue where the Belltable is in temporary residence was particularly commendable.

Excess-Baggage-66.jpgWhile Darragh Bradshaw’s perfectly atmosphere-less airport design for Excess Baggage incorporated two life-sized puppets, his skill as a puppeteer was to be further showcased to greater thematic effect in Don Juan in Hell, where he constructed and manipulated one of the protagonists. Meanwhile, Emma Fisher’s transformative designs for The Fisherman’s Son, Don Juan in Hell and The Revenger’s Tragedy used every inch of the limited theatre space, drawing the eye up to its farthest corners, and inviting the imagination to roam down through the concrete floor or suggestively up through the ceiling.

Although cast sizes ranged from two (Excess Baggage) to seven (The Revenger’s Tragedy), there was little double-casting; the excellent comic actress Gene Rooney providing the only link between the plays. While this gave rise to a showcase of a wide range of actors, it would have been interesting to see how some of the most interesting performers – Dorothy Cotter, Aidan Crowe, Patrick Ryan and Monica Spencer in particular – would have fared in other roles. Several of the productions also featured excellent sound design (with particular credit due to Steve Ryan for his original score for The Revenger’s Tragedy). Meanwhile, what Beirne herself highlights as one of the most important artistic successes of the season is the creative relationships that have been spawned by collaborations between younger artists and more experienced professionals.

The Limerick Theatre Hub received an overwhelming amount of local media coverage (interviews and preview pieces as well as advertisements and reviews), cuttings from which papered the walls at 36 Cecil Street, providing both diversion and context for audiences before the show. There was also plenty of national attention, especially because of the topicality of the venture. If audiences for the four productions remained inconsistent, then, it was perhaps to do with the material itself, which, while excellently produced, just was not compelling enough to draw large audiences.

Excess Baggage was a pleasant, gently comic meditation on airports and women’s woes; The Fisherman’s Son proved to be a nice, nostalgic tribute to generational misunderstanding; Don Juan in Hell staged a didactic philosophical debate about love and justice, while The Revenger’s Tragedy made the Jacobean morality tale resonate with contemporary crime. Ultimately, with the exception of The Revenger’s Tragedy, there was nothing to excite the contemporary imagination, nothing that resonated vitally with the present day.

Limerick Theatre Hub has successfully demonstrated that there is huge talent among the theatre community in the region, and it has also proved that the hub model is capable of producing consistent and excellent work. As Beirne explains: “At this point it is anticipated that a further application will be submitted [to the Arts Council] in the new year in the Projects strand of funding, which would be supported by the Belltable. However, with the uncertainty surrounding all potential funding, there is no guarantee that the Projects strand will be available, but we would certainly hope it will.”

What they need to do next is prove that there is an audience for excellent work in Limerick, but to do that they will need to convince Limerick that they also have something worth saying.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for the Irish Times and Sunday Business Post.

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