Tour allure: Irish theatre and dance companies on the move
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Main image:
As you are now so once were we...  by The Company, which toured to Berlin as part of The Full Irish.

Other images:
Dermot Magennis and Judith Roddy in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's A Doll House. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett in HotForTheatre's I Heart Alice Heart I by Amy Conroy which toured extensively in Ireland and internationally.

Brokentalkers' The Blue Boy which was co-produced with Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival


Tour allure: Irish theatre and dance companies on the move

Over the six month term of Ireland's Presidency of the EU, many Irish theatre and dance artists took part in Culture Connects, supported by Culture Ireland. Christine Madden spoke with Culture Ireland on the impact of this cultural programme and also with some of the artists and companies who toured work to Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Aukland, Sydney and elsewhere.

Ireland has a long – often tragic – history of exporting its talent in the form of emigration. It was usually the worst kind of business deal, because the value of the export – priceless – was in no way matched by the compensation.

There is, however, one kind of human export commodity that offers a rich return. And since 2005, Culture Ireland have been making the most of it. Touring Irish arts throughout the world has been instrumental in increasing Ireland’s profile and providing benefits not only to artists but also to the State in general. The Imagine Ireland programme that flooded the US with Irish arts in 2011 enabled more than 1,400 events. This year, to mark Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, Culture Ireland have helped us celebrate by supporting a swathe of visual and performing arts presentations on the Continent and further abroad.

Now at the end of Ireland’s presidency, Christine Sisk, director of Culture Ireland, feels proud of the achievements of the past months. “The level of interest was fantastic; the reception people got has been very positive,” Sisk says. With a focus on Brussels, Paris and Berlin, Culture Ireland’s support facilitated artists and companies as diverse as HotForTheatre, Fishamble, Pan Pan, Macnas, Ponydance and Fabulous Beast to tour Europe as well as Australia – because holding the presidency gives you “the chance to tour territories that regard Europe as an entity and highlight the six months in a way you might always be able to do”, she explains. This rushing about the globe reflects the “wider aim of the Government’s investment in the EU Culture Programme to highlight the strength of Ireland’s creativity abroad”.

The nearly 200 events listed on their website  took place in a variety of venues, many of them world famous with a very high profile. The Gate Theatre’s production of Watt by Samuel Beckett, for example, appeared in London’s Barbican Centre. A retrospective exhibition of designer artist Eileen Gray has been on display at Paris’s Centre Pompidou. Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre presented work in Australia and Austria as well as at Sadler’s Wells in London and the Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris. A new festival devoted to Irish theatre, The Full Irish, took place  in Berlin in May.

PanPan_DOLL1-(1).jpgPan Pan Theatre Company have been front runners in this game from the start. Their very first show toured to Eastern Europe, and they hosted the Dublin International Theatre Symposium from 1997 to 2003. The company have toured all over the world, including Europe, the US, and the Far East; their most recent tour took them to the Brisbane Powerhouse Arts festival in Australia with A Doll House. Although they focus on making work locally and internationally, “it’s very important for us that our work is successful in Ireland”, says Pan Pan’s artistic co-director Gavin Quinn.

Another more recent player in the international game, The Company share Pan Pan’s aspirations. The Company’s work draws heavily on Irish history, literature and culture with productions such as Who is Fergus Kilpatrick and As you are now so once were we – the latter being the opening show at Berlin’s fledgling The Full Irish festival of Irish theatre. Nevertheless, says José Miguel Jiménez, artistic director of The Company, in touring their shows in the US and Europe, they’ve “learned that the more local, the more specific you become, the more universal the show becomes as well”. Their work has become “more local because we could tour abroad”. (Ironically, although they are keen to tour within Ireland, they haven’t yet been successful in securing a Touring and Dissemination grant and have yet to present their work in Ireland outside of Dublin.)

Brokentalkers also presented their work at The Full Irish festival, which gave the German and international community in Berlin the chance to see choice Irish theatre work – with the support of Culture Ireland. The timing was excellent: the festival took place concurrently with Germany’s most prominent theatre festival, the Theatertreffen, so although Irish theatre vied for attention with local productions, it has a chance to nudge its way on the radar for theatre goers and professionals throughout the country. Rather than feeling in any way intimidated by the abundance and polish of local work, Gary Keegan, co-artistic director of Brokentalkers, states, “I personally feel very confident about the standard of Irish work when we go to festivals, that Irish work is of an extremely high standard”.
Heart_alice_Amy.jpgCulture Ireland also helps sponsor programmes such as Re-Presenting Ireland, which took place over the course of the Dublin Dance Festival, ReViewed and the International Theatre Exchange within the Dublin Theatre Festival and the networking events at APAP and Edinburgh. These all assist in making the Irish performing arts visible – the precursor for establishing relationships and getting those decisive offers. When young company HotForTheatre received invitations from presenters to take their show I Heart Alice Heart I to Australia, they managed to work their various offers into a tour, which made the trip very good value for money. Their schedule took them to the Auckland Arts Festival, where “we were the only theatre show from Ireland”, reports Jen Coppinger, producer and company manager. They appeared on the same stage as London’s National Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland, which have far bigger budgets and greater resources. Yet “Culture Ireland enabled us to be there”, she states, putting contemporary Irish work on a very international stage and giving it a chance to “punch above its weight”.

“It’s important for a small country with a strong cultural sector to have the support of an export scheme,” explains Laurie Uprichard, associate producer with Quaternaire, the international agency that represents Brokentalkers and Pan Pan. Her extensive international experience, also as a former artistic director of the Dublin Dance Festival, gives her both a broad perspective and an understanding of how to make useful connections. “A lot of people I talk to don’t have much experience or knowledge of Irish theatre,” she explains. With the financial support buoying the appeal of the work, presenters will be more likely to take a punt on something unfamiliar. “Everyone asks about it,” Uprichard admits.

BlueBoy5-(1).jpgCulture Ireland’s support acts as an investment in Irish arts in another crucial way. Being seen by international presenters and artists can also pave the way to collaboration and co-production, which inject both capital and creativity into a company’s work. With the assistance of CI, Brokentalkers were able to establish a dialogue with the Noorderzon performing arts festival in the Netherlands, which became co-producers of their show The Blue Boy.

The island of Ireland, with its relatively small population, can only offer a limited market for shows – no matter how engaged and loyal that market can be. In opening Ireland’s high-quality work to audiences internationally, international touring makes the best use of the cost of producing and presenting them. “The idea of spending two to three years working on a piece, then running for five weeks in Dublin, seems a little insane,” explains Quinn. When a show continues to run, it not only spreads the production costs across every performance, but it also keeps all the people involved in the show gainfully employed and paying PAYE. It adds up to a picture of a very effective bit of cultural policy. Not to mention economic policy – high yield on money judiciously invested.

The heightened international profile of Irish arts over the past decade has taught companies and artists a great deal about marketing themselves. Both Culture Ireland and the artists supported by them have raised and sharpened their standards – the former regarding what they will sponsor, the latter in their decisions about where they choose to show their work. Quinn, who has worked closely with CI over the years, sees the agency as assessing Irish companies and their work for support according to various criteria – do they maintain a certain standard? Do they take risks? Are they moving forward? Is the work of a certain quality? Does the idea work?

Sisk, too sees a sea change in the manner in which companies approach their international touring. “They have become much more strategic,” she says. “Companies realise their own value. So they don’t necessarily jump at every international opportunity. They look strategically at where they want to be and be seen. They engage with presenters and work on a long-term relationship with them.
Sarah McGrath, first secretary (economic and culture) of the Irish Embassy in Berlin, believes the Culture Connects international programme “has worked really well”. The embassy’s brief “to share Ireland’s ongoing, vibrant cultural scene” took wings during the past months with, among other things, the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s opening concert of Ireland’s EU presidency at the famous Konzerthaus on the Gendarmenmarkt square in the heart of Berlin. Both McGrath and Sisk cite the concert and its enthusiastic reception as a high point, with Sisk remarking that it was “a goosebump moment” for her during the past months of the programme.

But artists also become frustrated with the emphasis on economic reasons for producing and touring work, because of course that’s not why they do it. The focus on funding and financial support – an unavoidable and intimidating issue in strapped economic times – draws too much attention away from the reason why artists make art in the first place. “Money shouldn’t be the main argument to defend the existence of the arts,” Jiménez contends. “What we do, what we make is important. We create these spaces where things make sense in a different way.”

“The arts are an indication of the character of a country,” says Quinn. “It establishes more than one story coming out of a country. It’s very important for the perception of a country to show its diversity. All kinds of things happen because of that – social, economic, spiritual and educational.”

The Irish arts sector feels a bit jittery about the future of Culture Ireland and its programmes. Cutbacks and the general perception of a less strident profile have given rise to anxious speculation regarding its role in the coming years. “We’re sad and scared,” says Jiménez, as Culture Ireland has been “so instrumental in the development of us as a company”.

Coppinger also describes CI’s support as vital to the activity of HotForTheatre. “They helped Conroy get an international reputation. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” she states.

“Funding may not be available to the same extent as it was years ago,” Sisk admits. The work that Irish artists have toured abroad, with the support of Culture Ireland, has paved the way to finding viable alternatives to public funding. These include seeking out partnerships, collaborations and co-productions that will facilitate international touring – even perhaps the creation of the artistic work itself. As lamentable as the economic situation for Irish arts has become, these prospects can help the country’s arts sector to continue. There will be a need “to look at European partners or Creative Europe, a new EU funding scheme coming on board” next year, Sisk suggests.

The dwindling number of evecompany_AYOWSNAW.pngnts – from more than 1,400 in 2011 to just about 200 in the first half of 2013 – speaks for itself. Yet, within the Irish performing arts sector, you see an exceptional counterpoint to what Keegan refers to as “the dominant strain in the Irish media about mismanagement”. As an antidote to the fixation on economics, he believes, showing the world our cultural richness and artistic excellent “is important for our confidence. Culture Ireland allows Irish artists to communicate a different story to our European brothers and sisters – we are creatively alive and healthy.”

Jiménez puts it more baldly: “If Culture Ireland disappears, we’re fucked.”

Christine Madden is an Irish journalist, critic and dramaturg currently based in Berlin and Munich

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