Leaving Ransom Theatre Company – almost
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Stuart Graham and Miche Doherty in Ransom's current production, National Anthem, by Colin Bateman

Photo: Chris Hill 

Leaving Ransom Theatre Company – almost

Rachel O’Riordan, who has been appointed the new Creative Director of Perth Theatre, does not appear to be letting go of Ransom Theatre Company easily. The new writing company she founded in Belfast in 2002, which has premiered several new works since its first production of Richard Dormer’s Hurricane, is to continue under a new structure when O’Riordan leaves for Scotland in January. But she will continue to be attached to Ransom, as Artistic Associate, overseeing the programming of "guest directors". 

Perth Theatre, an institution that has stood for more than a century, represents the new challenges of managing a theatre with a substantial infrastructure while invigorating its drama programme. “They haven’t appointed me to play safe,” O’Riordan tells ITM, “they’ve appointed me to make changes and to move things on.” The job involves directing a number of productions per year for the theatre’s 500-seat auditorium, which O’Riordan counts as one of its primary attractions: “That’s my primary function.” Perth Theatre produces five new productions annually and operates as a receiving house for touring work. “The Scottish arts scene is incredibly vibrant,” O’Riordan says. “I felt there was more opportunity there for growth and development than in Northern Ireland, although Northern Ireland has been very good to me. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without it.”

O’Riordan is keen to maintain links with Irish theatre through her position with Perth and also in her new capacity as Artistic Associate with Ransom. Perth Theatre and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, where O’Riordan has worked several times as a freelance director, are already planning a co-production, and she also intends to build links with various British theatres. “I started Ransom as a very inexperienced director and I built up lots of contacts with interesting companies such as Paines Plough, Soho Theatre, The Traverse Theatre and The Tron through Ransom. In the [current] climate, it’s about reaching out to other organisations that you have an affiliation with, and starting from there.”

Her continuing relationship with Ransom may sound like the role of Artistic Director Emeritus; O’Riordan has a programme in place to cover two years, and a series of “guest directors” will be appointed on a yearly basis with O’Riordan overseeing their programming. “It’s going to be difficult for Ransom, I understand that,” she concedes. Like all theatre companies it takes on the personality of the person who founded it and developed it. And I’ve programmed all its work to date. Hopefully, if it works out, the company can stay present in the land and continue to provide opportunities for artists.”

The new organisational model is partly born of financial necessity. Through years of erratic funding from the Northern Irish Arts Council, Ransom has been supported by various Lottery Project Grants, undergone shifts from Multi-Annual Programming to Annual Support for Organisations Programming, and availed of schemes for initiatives such as its 'Write on the Edge' development of female writers in Northern Ireland – but it has never paid an artistic director salary. “All organisations in Northern Ireland have been told to remodel themselves, essentially,” says O’Riordan. “To look for other ways of delivering their products, to think about mergers and partnerships. So we’re trying to think in a lateral fashion that will allow us to continue.”

Among the company’s plans is a commission for a new musical by the composer Conor Mitchell for 2012. “It’s my job to see that project through,” she says. Ransom’s current production is National Anthem, the first play from novelist Colin Bateman, which is now on tour in Northern Ireland following a sell-out run during the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Some confusion surrounded early performances, with ITM told by the Grand Opera House that its second performance last week had been cancelled, while O’Riordan says that the run was not interrupted. “Tuesday’s performance was not cancelled. There was a risk that it might be, until quite late in the day. In the end we went ahead with it.” She declined to elaborate on the reason.

National Anthem is a comedy explicitly involved with a new Northern Irish identity in thrall to the old one, in which “our future is our past” and O’Riordan does not expect it to have further commitments beyond its current tour. “I think Northern Ireland is trying to look out more,” she says, and her own connections, tours and career may reflect that. “But in order to do that within a country, you have to understand yourself. National identity is a huge subject in Northern Ireland; the future means different things to different people. The inherent division in the concept of identity is very interesting.” Is it any less the case in Scotland? “A bit less, I think,” she says wryly. Some things, perhaps, you can leave behind.