Smock Alley's progress under pressure
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Main image: Smock Alley Theatre

Below: Patrick Sutton, Director of Smock Alley Ltd.

Smock Alley's progress under pressure

Smock Alley is under pressure. But its director, Patrick Sutton, who is also the director of the Gaiety School of Acting, soon to be its “anchor tenant” admits this with a characteristic upsurge of rhetoric and determination.

“Are we under pressure?” he asks. “Yes we are. Will we get there? Yes we will.” The first set back for the redevelopment of the oldest theatre in Ireland (established: 1662) had been a relatively minor snag. A delay in the fabrication of steel for its new seating bank pushed back the finish date of its five-month construction. “It’s about eight days behind schedule,” Sutton told ITM. A short delay brought significant consequence when the Absolut Fringe, a regular tenant during its September running dates, decided not to rent the main space this year when its completion date became too close to the Fringe’s opening for comfort.

“We are using two of the three spaces,” Absolut Fringe director Roise Goan said. “We’re fully supportive of the venue and can’t wait to see it used to its full potential.” Sutton admits that the loss of such a tenant from the main space causes Smock Alley cash flow problems, but he doesn’t resent their decision. “It’s just due to the circumstances we find ourselves in.”

The renovation is experiencing other pressing financial pressures. Last month it was reported in The Irish Times that Temple Bar Cultural Trust, which leases the building to Smock Alley Ltd, approved a loan of €300,000 to the company, and a guarantee of €350,000 to cover a long-term bank loan. In 2006 and 2007, Smock Alley was granted €3.8 million by the then Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism to rehabilitate the theatre, but revised plans for a less extensive development saw the grant reduced to €2.2 million. It still leaves a shortfall for which Smock Alley Ltd has been fundraising and seeking philanthropic donations. When one such donation fell through, Sutton approached TBCT for the loan.

“Philanthropy is not what it used to be,” says Sutton. “But we’re still in the middle of a campaign and we’re still short. We’re under pressure but we’re on target.”

PSutton-(1).jpgSutton disagreed that it was a bad time to be opening a theatre: when Smock Alley reopens it will feature a 200-seat main theatre, an 80-seat studio and the 60-seat Boys School space, together with a Banquet Hall above the theatre which will be available for private hire. The Gaiety School of Acting will pay rent to Smock Alley Ltd for the portion of the building it inhabits, and a further rent to use its performance spaces when it stages public productions. It will receive no sweetheart deal, Sutton insisted.

“There’s a view that I’m making money out of this operation,” he said, although he works in a voluntary capacity as director of Smock Alley Ltd. “I have not yet made a penny out of Smock Alley. I would love to at some point. But before that, we need to finish it.” Asked whether there was enough activity among the Irish independent sector, the most likely renters of the spaces, to make it viable now that funding is unpredictable and increasingly project based, while venues such as the Project Arts Centre and soon The Lir’s three new spaces offer competition, Sutton was sanguine.

“Right now, as I’m trying to finish the project, I think it’s a challenge. We’ve got to develop an audience, that’s part of the deal.” One method Sutton proposed was to package the history of the venue to a tourist audience – he has approached a playwright to develop a “a very physical, in-yer-face” piece about the Smock Alley story – while the Banquet Hall, originally due to be demolished, has become more commercially significant, a venue for social events (a recent St Patrick’s Day hire was particularly lucrative). Part of the redevelopment has been invested in sound-proofing the spaces to allow such divergent activities. Do upstairs corporate piss-ups send out the wrong signal for a theatre and a centre of learning still aiming to create a university-accredited undergraduate degree?

“Is it at odds with the artistic policy?” considered Sutton. “We’ve got to make a living. The way of making that living is to makes sure that, when we can, we monetise the Banquet Hall to keep the doors open.” The history of the Gaiety School of Acting, a private enterprise, is based on such dual processes – funnelling profit from its various schools and courses back into the full-time acting course – and Sutton, who perceives no conflict of interest between running the School and Smock Alley, is comfortable managing them. In receipt of a hefty government grant and now a significant loan from its landlord, TBCT, Smock Alley Limited is a charity, without Arts Council funding, currently run by volunteers. “It’s a different model,” says Sutton. “It requires us to operate in a different way and it requires us to be extraordinarily astute as to who we make our commercial relationships with.” He paused to clarify. “I’m speaking with my Smock Alley hat on here.”

Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine.


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