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The conference is over but the conversation continues

June 26, 2010

Ash under the microscope from arindam5580's photostreamThe Eyjafjallajokull eruption on Flickr

We are all back from Wexford, back to the grindstone perhaps, the blank page, the empty space, the tickets to sell, the show to get on the road.  For many of the delegates its back with new perspectives, ideas and resolve.  We looked at theatre in Ireland through several lenses, the micro and the macro, the local and the global, the philosophical and the practical.

We looked at some different perspectives on the value of theatre, from the National Theatre of Wales – a tool in nation building, to the reconceptualising of cultural value explained by Dick Penny of Watershed.

We looked at the value and impact of creativity,  delved into the language of the creative economy and we looked at relationships – between theatre and the state and between theatre and its communities.

We learnt lessons,  “Slightly exaggerate everything “ (Maureen Gaffney) – but avoid “boosterism “(Tom Fleming)

We argued about the arts council model, explored storytelling, audience data and digital technology.

A medal for bravery to THEATRECLUB youngster Grace Dyas who interviewed the revered veteran Tom Hickey. Tom came down to Wexford late after a performance in Dublin and was there for the ungodly 9am session the next day.  A true pro.  Couldn’t say the same for some of our non native speakers who hit the Guinness too hard the night before!

The podcasts will be on the Theatre Forum website any minute now and, with the Twitter report, will provide the comprehensive record.  The speakers ,chairs and delegates were great. So for now, for me, some personal highlights.

Dr Maureen Gaffney telling us how to flourish under fire through stacking up the positive thoughts to negative thoughts at a ratio of 5 to 1. Maureen Gaffney’s curtain call.

Camilla Holland and Anne Clarke , talking about the interdependencies of the commercial and non-for-profit, Camilla sharing that in Toronto the not for profit sector may have supplied talent to a buregeoning  commercial sector but that the commercial sector has supplied audiences.

Anne Looney’s cut to the quick response to Paul Collard’s talk demonstrating the impact of England’s creative partnership programme which develops creative skills in children at school.  Anne advocated a revaluing of the arts and creativity in the Irish curriculum.  Paul Collard’s video of himself as a cartoon animal.

Tom Fleming’s 101 images.

Ray Yeates’ call for the Irish Theatre community to be more inclusive.

Stefan Jonsson and his gift of volcanic ash.

And the chat, the subject which was chewed over was, wait for it, Twitter as delegates and colleagues not in the room at Wexford tweeted merrily in what will surely be mainstream by next year. Good to extend the conversation though.

Did we become more resilient? I think so.  Were we renewed? – yes.  Or am I just exaggerating everything  a little?


Sand in Wales, Sea in Wexford

June 16, 2010


Am already in sunny Wexford before finally managing to catch up with Carys Shannon and Catherine Paskell from National Theatre Wales  as Catherine lost her dongle reception between the hills of North Wales and the Marches on her way back from rehearsing The Beach – an excuse thats hard to beat!
NTW is in its first year – whats been the reaction so far?
This is our first production year and so far, we have produced 3 of our 12 productions which will be staged, one a month, over 12 months, in 12 different places across Wales. We are still a young company and through our first year, it has been interesting to explore and negotiate people’s expectations of what a “National” theatre is. The reaction to our shows from audiences has been fantastic; our first, A Good Night Out in the Valleys, which toured miners institutes in the South Wales Valleys, sold out bringing in a large proportion of new audiences. The Devil Inside Him, staged at the New Theatre in Cardiff, was filled with young people, for most of whom, it was their first theatre going experience. We have also received great notices in both the Welsh press (English language and Welsh language) and national press. One of our core values at National Theatre Wales is engagement. We maintain openness in the dialogue we share with audiences and artists when we were creating the company in 2009 and through the production of our first year productions. Our online social network (, which in its first year grew to over 2,000 members, enables us to engage in open conversations on anything from asking them what productions they would like to see, to what our writers policy should be. Early drafts of such policies were put up on the community and we received valuable feedback that contributed directly to the development of the finished policy. We try to see as much work as we can, to get to know emerging Welsh and Wales-based artists and theatremakers. To expect that people will simply go along with us blindly because we are a “National” company seems naive and arrogant. We hope that by being open and bringing people along with us on our developing journey, the artists and people of Wales will come with us – and stay with us.
NTW performs in pubs and clubs and other non theatre spaces. Catherine you are directing The Beach – is it on the beach?  How do you cope with the sand?
One of the first productions I ever directed had a set that was constructed out of 3 tonnes of sand – and that was inside a theatre – so sand is something that I keep coming back to in my work! The Beach is a production like no other in our first year. It is a game that will be happening outside on the beach in Prestatyn, North Wales. The audience are the players, the characters in the story and can influence the outcome of the production. There has to be a winner – and it could be you. We are exploring what theatre can be whilst creating a show for the playstation generation with three emerging young Welsh artists: Rhiannon Cousins, Bethan Marlow and Carl Morris. We are working closely with the local community and holidaymakers of Prestatyn to develop the production, bringing groups of people onto the beach to play early versions of the game and give their feedback. Producing our game outside is exciting because it gives us so many new resources to work with. The beach, sand and all, is literally our ‘set’ and having lots of adults playing outside, something lots of us haven’t done since we were children, allows us to see our world as a playground, to see it with new eyes and to reimagine our place in it.

The importance of local culture for a successful creative economy

June 15, 2010

Faunagraphic Sheffield, United Kingdom

Tom Fleming is currently in Sheffield en route to Wexford where he will talk about the language of the creative economy

You travel extensively, giving advice to cities, regions, states and nations about their creative economy. How important is the indigeneous and local culture to success in the creative economy?

It’s absolutely central to success. Creative businesses and cultural practitioners are all about producing meaning, exploring identity and reflecting on their environment. Without distinctive local cultures, we wouldn’t have the raw materials or indeed inspiration to develop content, products, services etc. For me, creativity can only be understood in context as based on a relationship with place. This isn’t to say there is some sort of ‘authentic culture’ that is expressive of place. For me, very little is ‘indigenous’ – almost everything is a compound of different influences. This means places are the confluence of negotiated identities, always in motion, never settled. This is why notions of, for example. ‘Irish music’ or ‘Danish Design’ are always changing. Localness is a driving factor, but notions of ‘local culture’ are never settled.

 You are involved in  Sheffield’s City of Culture 2013 bid in the final four with Birmingham, Derry and Norwich . What’s special about Sheffield?

 Sheffield is my kind of city: it doesn’t have the obvious ‘iconic’ palaces of culture; and it is not a classically beautiful city; but it’s a city with an incredible cultural life that bubbles beneath the surface and then, once in a while, bursts into international prominence. It’s a city that gives oxygen and prestige to the independent, DIY and boundary-crossing. Yes it has excellent cultural infrastructure – such as The Crucible Theatre and Millennium Galleries. But it’s the ‘everyday cultural life’ of the city that I love: people creating and making culture, often in the industrial spaces that shaped the landscape of the city. It’s a place where collaboration happens as an instinct, where experimentation is prioritised over business, and where new trends emerge without pretension.

When did you last visit Ireland?

Too long ago! About 2003 on a short visit to Cork.


Iceland parties: Stefán Jónsson

June 14, 2010

 I caught up  with Stefán Jónsson before he departs Iceland for Ireland to participate in the Theatre Forum conference opening session:  

The Nordic countries are internationally recognised as those placing the most value on culture and the highest levels of state aid to the arts. Has the economic crisis threatened state support to the arts?

 I´m not so sure that Iceland can be fully included in the Nordic league, when it comes to state support to the arts. The economical crisis is affecting all sectors, how great the cuts will be is still uncertain, the latest figure I heard is 9% cut in the arts. The Icelandic Film Fund will be cut by 20-30%. The government is trying to avoid redundancies but salaries are being lowered. At the Arts Academy where I teach,  salaries have been cut by 4%.

 Do Icelanders really party 24 hours in the summer?

 Icelanders party 36 hours in the summer.

Would you like to comment on the ash?

The ash is our latest export, our currency. It´s a symbol of a party that went terribly wrong and a smoke signal to the whole world, a timely reminder that we are not the masters of this universe.

Paul Collard – international governments want to hear about the success of Creative Partnerships

June 12, 2010

Paul Collard will address the conference in the session Future Proofing Theatre. He is Chief Executive of Creative and Culture Education. I caught up with him yesterday:

CCE runs a major programme of research into the far reaching impacts of young people’s engagement in creativity. Why is this important?

There are many reasons why a Government might want to support the arts. Some Governments invest in them for their intrinsic value. But generally Governments are prepared to invest only where the outcomes address their most urgent concerns. These are generally social and economic. To attract such funding the arts competes with many other sectors who also claim to improve the social and economic outcomes of the country. Governments will inevitably challenge the evidence base of all such claims to distinguish between them. CCE believes therefore that if it is to continue to provide high quality cultural programmes to young people it must be able to demonstrate through its research programme that it will deliver the outcomes Governments are looking for.

There is an international appetite to learn from CCE’s experience and you have been having extended discussions with Governments and funders in countries as diverse as Germany, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Korea. Why? 

 The focus of the world’s major westernised economies is shifting away from resource extraction and manufacturing. The resources are depleted and the developing world manufacture more effectively and at a lower cost. So the western economies now see the creative and knowledge industries as being their best hope. Generally, they are constrained from investing directly in the industries themselves and so increasingly seek alternative ways of nurturing the development of such economies.  Preparing the workforce for such economies is an area in which they can invest – and this inevitably leads them to consider the nature of the education such a workforce might need. Creative Partnerships is probably the biggest programme focussed on developing creative skills in the world and has worked hard to understand how such skills are developed. For this reason many governments and funders are anxious to learn how CCE’s experience can be applied in their countries.

 You experience at first hand the creativity of children and young people.  What has surprised/inspired you recently?

Today I was in Telford and talking to a remarkable young woman, in care, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a production in which she plays Lady Macbeth. Her ability to turn experiences which would crush most of us into a performance of controlled power and conviction was humbling, extraordinary, inspiring. Everyday is like that for me.

A Canadian recalls the recession and an Irish pony

June 11, 2010

Irish Pony c michaelfaas

Catching up with Camilla Holland before she departs Toronto to come and participate in the session on creating a sustainable theatre economy:

You recently chaired the Commercial Theatre Development Fund of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, while your day job is running Tarragon, a small new writing theatre which supports playwrights.  Have any playwrights got wealthy through commercial theatre?
It’s hard to think of a wealthy Canadian playwright. The most-produced playwright in Canada is Norm Foster, who has astonishing success almost entirely outside of the Toronto market. If you scroll through the Theatre Communication Group top ten lists ( you’ll notice over the past ten years that Michael Healey’s show “The Drawer Boy” has had 36 productions across the US, but not at strictly commercial venues. John Krizanc’s “Tamara” ran for ten years in LA and three years in NY in a commercial production. The all-Canuck book/lyrics/composition team behind “The Drowsy Chaperone” must also have paid off a mortgage or two from that show’s international commercial success.
Canada went through its own recession 20 years ago and is now heralded in some quarters in Ireland the UK as being the model recession buster. Was it good for the arts?
I can’t imagine anyone who was working through the recessions in the last two decades felt it was good for the arts. There were really two distinct “economic downturns”, and I have to confess I had to call colleagues for details as I wasn’t working in the arts through the first one. The first recession in the 80s had a “shrink-wrap” effect, by which I mean that everything got a bit leaner and meaner. Interest rates were so ridiculously high that companies with any reserves actually had decent interest income. The arts bounced back from the 80s; the tougher one one was the 90s when in Ontario our provincial funder was cut by 40% as an extremely conservative government slashed most of the “soft services”. This is where we as a sector felt large cuts, companies responded by reducing their programming severely, and some organizations closed.
Having survived the two recessions made the arts more focused on diversifying our revenue, with a renewed push for private sector revenues and building endowments. There was a lot more collaboration and joint advocacy that followed in the early part of this decade, and through to today. We’re always looking for new models of production, new ways to build our audiences, new relevancies to the community. But isn’t that the case with any arts organization in the world?
The tangible and intangible effects of the economic downturns are still seen today. Ontario now has students graduating from high school who have never been exposed to the arts within the school system. As a sector, the not for profit companies are still being pushed to increase our private/public partnerships, and grants haven’t really rebounded. And yet we persevere …

This is your first trip to Ireland (I think).  Do you get Guinness in Toronto?
I was in Ireland once before, when I was four; I remember there was a pony. I expect I’ll make some more excellent memories on this trip!
Over 4 million Canadians claim Irish heritage (and that stat grows exponentially on St. Patrick’s Day) so it’s safe to say there is Guinness in Toronto. Heck, in the past year alone Toronto has hosted “The Walworth Farce” (Druid Theatre) and “Giselle” (Fabulous Beast), both to great acclaim.

How Iceland’s artists make drama out of crises

June 10, 2010


Its not only Irish eyes that have been on Iceland during the last two years.  At first, the two nations were singled out as those who had most overextended in the boom years, before it became clear that they were not alone.  When Theatre Forum member Jim Culleton took Fishamble to Reykavik last year, he reported back in the Irish Times on the optimism in the theatre sector quoting playwright Bjarni Jónsson

 The day the Icelandic economy came crashing down, one realised that – apart from the fact that nobody died and we had food and water – we had all this culture left. Yes, suddenly culture didn’t seem a luxurious thing, but rather a base or a firm ground; a kind of a safety net. That, I believe, is a valuable lesson we learned last autumn and the authorities seem positive towards the arts

But that was before the next drama with the volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption,  before the change of government to the left, and  the publication of the Report of the Special Investigation Commission into the collapse of  the three main banks.

With such natural and man made dramas all around, how has the Icelandic theatre community responded?   Stefán Jónsson, speaking at the conference’s opening session, will share some of the ways in which theatre’s role has shifted in the context of Iceland’s crises.

In April, when the Report of the Special Investigation Commission was published, 45 actors at the Reykjavík City Theatre read the 2000 page report in  a performance which took 5 days

This report from the Iceland Review

The employees of the Reykjavík City Theater have decided to read the report in its entirety—all 2,000 pages of it—on stage. Admission is free.

According to a statement on the theater’s website, actors will not attempt to interpret the content of the report. The reading will begin as soon as the report is made public and will continue, day and night, until the report is finished.

Around 45 actors  will participate in the reading, which is estimated to take three to five days. People are welcome to attend the reading in part or in whole. The theater will be open 24-hours a day and the reading will be broadcast live on the theater’s website.

The theater is hoping to become a sanctuary from the media circus, where the report is likely to be interpreted in a number of different ways, where people can come, listen and contemplate on the report’s content without harassment from the outside world.

The theater is keen on being an active participant in discussions in society and cover topics important to the community. Since the banking collapse the theater has incorporated current affairs into its program in various ways

Has theatre’s political role in Iceland been heightened at these times of crises? And what are the resonances for Ireland?