Corporate Sponsorship of Irish Theatre – Or: Why I still go to the Grand Canal Theatre

Every month or so, I try to find out about forthcoming shows in Dublin, so I scan the websites of the big receiving houses. When I do so, I always find myself typing out a URL that is effectively obsolete – www.grandcanaltheatre.ie/ That always redirects me on to another page, which gives me that theatre’s new name.

Perhaps it’s petty, but I just can’t bring myself to type in the words “Bord Gais Energy Theatre”.  Like many people, I was disappointed by the theatre’s decision to dispense of a name that seemed elegant, atmospheric and apt – and to sell the naming rights to a utility company.

Leaving aside other considerations, the name seems ugly to me, and I always find myself thinking of Gwendolen in Importance of Being Earnest: “there is very little music in the name, if any at all, indeed.  It does not thrill.  It produces absolutely no vibrations”.

Well, “Bord Gais Energy Theatre” produces no vibrations, at least in me. Who wants to go to a theatre with homonyms of the words “bored” and “gash” in the title? Likewise I find the inclusion of the word “energy” in the title troubling, as if I am expected to arrive at the theatre really keyed up for a show. And shortening it to “b-get” doesn’t work: it always reminds me of those long lines of names in the Old Testament of men who begat other men.

In fairness though, I am one of those people who still talks about going to the Point Depot or Landsdowne Road, so I would probably have been hostile to whatever name the theatre ended up having to call itself.

Of course I know that theatres have to attract funding in order to stay open, and that the selling of naming rights is widespread internationally. But what bothers me about this kind of thing is that it turns us all into involuntary advertisers.

I knew, for example, that eircom and Ulster Bank were title sponsors of the Dublin Theatre Festival – but I was never obliged to refer to those companies when booking tickets or arranging to meet friends for the shows. I saw the logos on posters, noticed the link, and in general had a higher opinion of the companies for their sponsorship. So all good there.

But the selling of naming rights inserts brand names into our landscapes. So when I tell someone I was at a football match, I have to mention Aviva – and when I go to a gig, I have no option but to mention O2. This takes my private utterances and turns them into free advertising for companies that I may (or may not) like.

To be fair, I have nothing against any of those companies. Well – with the possible exception of Aviva, who were responsible for the single most illiterate ad I’ve seen in a long time, which was posted to Galway’s buses during the summer.

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But like all good consumers, I value freedom of choice – why should we be forced to use a company’s name if we don’t wish to do so?

Name branding also separates a building from its local environment, and thus from its history. When we see something at the Point Depot, we understand that building’s link with Dublin’s docks – we understand that it was once something else, that it has a past, and an interesting one too. But I often find nowadays that when people tell me they saw a show in “the O2” I’m not sure which one they mean – the Dublin or London one, or perhaps another someplace else? This flattening of local difference and distinction has significant consequences.

People I know in the theatre will sometimes say that this kind of thing isn’t a big deal. There’s so little funding around at the moment, they point out: when we have a lovely building like the Grand Canal, isn’t the most important thing that it stays open?

Perhaps so, but while I support title-sponsorship, I still dislike the selling of naming rights in this way…

I have heard people say similar things about another recent marketing project, called the Arthur Guinness Projects. Anyone with an Irish email address will have heard of this recently. The idea was that arts organsations (and other groups) would compete for “votes”, and that the groups with the most votes would in turn go into a competition (adjudicated by relevant experts) for a modest amount of funding – which, in the case of Irish theatre, may result in the production of some plays which might otherwise not have happened so soon.

Well, I look forward to seeing the work that is produced as a result of this but again, I found this project troubling.

Like many people, I got dozens of emails and twitter messages, often daily, from practitioners looking for votes. Every one of those emails was an ad for Guinness. Every retweet was an ad for Guinness. Every time someone logged on to view a company’s profile, they were also viewing ads for Guinness.

In the end, Guinness got a massive amount of advertising, and a proportionately tiny number of theatre practitioners will be able to make work. I’m not convinced that this was a good deal. Only 10% of the submitted entries make it through to a stage where they are judged by a panel of experts and I cannot tell from reading the website how many projects will actually be funded in the end. Ultimately  roughly 290 arts projects will get no funding at all. That’s a lot of people who’ve spent their time letting us all know that Guinness cares about creativity and community etc.

I worry slightly about such campaigns, which, while apparently well intentioned, may end up being inadvertently exploitative of the fact that some people really desperately need money in order to make art.

It’s also important to say something that will be obvious but which bears emphasising:  alcohol companies advertise not just to convince us to buy a particular brand if we’re out in the pub: they are also trying to shape our attitudes towards alcohol in general. It’s worth thinking about the positioning of this drinks multinational as a funder of work that will be young, edgy and experimental (the kind of work that won’t otherwise get funded).

There’s a performance going on here by the company itself, and it seems to me that there’s an attempt to position themselves as benign, trendy, responsive to ordinary life, authentic, and so on. The shift to using the full name – the Arthur Guinness Projects – even gives us a personality to identify with (isn’t there something kindly and avuncular about the way they use the name Arthur?)

Much of this is surely an attempt to build brand loyalty. But some of it is shaping attitudes. So the next time we have a public debate about alcohol and its impact on our society and indeed on our people and their families, our response to that debate will be shaped to some small extent by these campaigns, and by other events such as Arthur’s Day.

It was for similar reasons, after all, that tobacco companies used to sponsor art galleries.

I don’t think any of the companies I’ve mentioned in this post is acting out of cynicism or opportunism or anything else – any more than anyone does when they advertise. Likewise I am certain that the people doing the assessing of all of these projects are doing so out of a firm desire to give up their time to help new work get off the ground. And overall I am quite sure that the decision to engage in sponsorship was made out of some enthusiasm for the arts (or sport, in the case of the Aviva).

And again people I know who work in the arts have said  that none of the concerns above really matter, that people are smart enough to make up their own minds, and that if work is being made – what’s the problem?

But we must also acknowledge that those companies are trying to buy something that we as theatre-goers have: our awareness, our respect, our loyalty. That is quite literally a valuable commodity, and it belongs to us.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to say this: I’m not trying to keep a theatre running, and I know very well how difficult and stressful it is for hundreds of individuals and companies in Ireland.

But for my own part – I will continue going to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. But I’m going to keep calling it the Grand Canal.

The Gate, the Actor and the Designer – Thoughts on _Streetcar Named Desire_

A couple of months ago, I posted a note asking why we don’t see more non-Irish plays here in Ireland. The argument I made was that the staging of new and classic international works has an impact on the development of new Irish practice: that the production of great Irish plays helps to develop writers, directors, designers, performers and audiences in important ways.

There is a lot of evidence of this kind of causal relationship between international work and Irish practice in the history of modern Irish drama. We know, for example, that by producing European and American plays the Dublin Drama league helped to inspire a lot of the work that emerged in Ireland from the late 1920s onwards – not just in playwriting but also in direction and design. There’s a case to be made that without the DDL you wouldn’t have had the Gate Theatre, and its focus on European ideas about performance and design.

Likewise, the Pike in the 1950s premiered work by Behan and Beckett but also made a point of producing international work, including plays by Tennessee Williams, whose play The Rose Tattoo famously led to that theatre being raided by the police in 1957.

And both Druid and Rough Magic started out by producing quite a lot of non-Irish work in the 1970s and ‘80s respectively, before developing to a point where they could focus more on Irish writing. Garry Hynes has spoken interestingly about how her company produced plays by writers like Dario Fo before it “grew up” and started doing new Irish work, for example.

Throughout the history of modern Irish drama and theatre, many people have expressed the fear that by engaging with international work we might damage Irish drama – that it might be diluted or overpowered. But the reverse is true: Irish practice has been strongest at periods when there has been a good level of awareness of writers and ideas from outside the country.

So for these and other reasons I was glad to have the opportunity to see a very strong production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Gate earlier this week.

The production has been getting very positive reviews, with most commentators praising the quality of the acting, especially by Lia Williams as Blanche. It thus drove home to me the extent to which the Gate has contributed so much to Irish practice in terms of acting. In fact, the theatre recently organised a World Actors Forum – the idea being that if Davos can host economists, Dublin might justifiably do something similar for acting.

I can understand why the Gate might want to stake a claim to world-leading expertise in acting, not only for Dublin but also for itself.

The theatre has in general been omitted from (or played a very small role in) the standard histories of Irish drama – mainly due to the fact that, even now, most published scholarship about Irish theatre explores the history of Irish plays. The Gate has of course presented some notable premieres, from The Old Lady Says No to Philadelphia Here I Come! – and it usually gets credit for that. But I think it’s fair to say that in any history of Irish drama from the last 20 years or so, Field Day has received more attention than the Gate, and of course the Abbey still dominates. The Gate is definitely mentioned, often appreciatively, but rarely discussed in any depth or detail.

But if we wrote our histories of Irish drama based on acting rather than writing then the Gate would surely have a dominant role. Likewise, a history of Irish stage design would have to focus an enormous amount of attention on the Gate. At a time when our scholarship is moving much more towards theatre studies rather than drama studies (that is, we research the plays that are produced in Irish theatres rather than looking at plays that are written by Irish authors), the Gate is starting to get more attention, particularly for its impact on Beckett. Indeed, I’m aware of two PhDs currently being written on the history of the Gate – one of them by Des Lally here at NUI Galway and another in Holland. But there’s still a lot more work to be done on the theatre and its influence.

So while watching Streetcar I was struck by the ways in which the Gate can strongly be associated with ‘the actor’ (and the singular is deliberate). I’m thinking here (of course) of Mac Liammoir, and also of the way in which the theatre has during its history hosted such actors as Orson Welles. That tradition has continued under Michael Colgan, who has  produced many high profile shows that are dominated by single strong figures. There are many examples of this: Michael Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe; Ralph Fiennes, Ingrid Craigie and Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer; Owen Roe in Uncle Vanya and Faith Healer; John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape; Lia Williams in Eccentricities of a Nightingale; Cillian Murphy in The Shape of Things; Jason Patric and Flora Montgomery in Bash; Barry McGovern in Watt and  and so on.

This is not to say that they ignore ensemble: think of the quality of their Homecoming with Ian Holm, Ian Hart, Nick Dunning, Lia Williams and John Kavanagh – or of their long-running Godot  – or Selina Cartmell’s Festen and Sweeney Todd. But they are a theatre that has done much to promote an awareness of the importance and perhaps even the mystique of the actor. This goes far beyond the business of casting celebrities in order to gain an audience (though Michael Colgan spoke openly in his Theatre Talk interview about the commercial benefits of what he called “eventing”). What I’m suggesting here is that one of the important aspects of the Gate’s ethos is the staging of plays that provide lead actors with opportunities to show their virtuosity, by playing challenging roles in well known Irish and international plays.

So Streetcar is in many ways a quintessential Gate Theatre production, not just because it’s directed and designed to a high-standard, but because it’s a celebration of the skills and dynamism of Lia Williams. There are also outstanding performances from Garret Lombard, Denis Conway and Catherine Walker in the play’s main supporting roles.

As Stanley and Stella, Lombard and Walker seem unusually relaxed in their roles, while Conway’s carefully controlled voice and movements convey the sense in which his character (Mitch) is both decent and cowed. And Williams’s performance is seriously impressive, mainly because she does such a good job at showing that Blanche is essentially a very hammy actor in a play that no-one else wants to participate in.

For instance, there’s a very nice  moment between Williams and Lombard,  when Stanley has grabbed some of Blanche’s letters which have fallen to the floor. Blanche desperately wants these letters back and also wants them to remain untouched by anyone – yet she’s very frightened of Stanley. So she twice reaches towards the letters, about to grab them from Stanley’s hands – but at the last minute pulls back. This conflict between Blanche’s fears and her desires is genuinely dramatic, and actually very touching.  At the third attempt, while reaching forward Blanche suddenly turns her hand around – moving from a grabbing gesture to a supplicatory one. Stanley then hands over the letters.

In those three movements, we learn a lot about Blanche (her ability to use acting as a way to manipulate others, the strength of her feelings for her former lover, and so on). And we also learn that what threatens Stanley most about Blanche is that she is prepared to assert and act upon her own desires. A key question here is whether those gestures are being performed by Williams for the audience, or by Blanche for Stanley – and the answer is that both of those suggestions are probably true. All of that is evident from the script, of course, but these small gestures help to fill out the characters in new ways.

I was also very struck by the quality of the lighting design, which is by Paul Keogan. The Kowalskis’ home is on a slightly raised platform on the stage, and all of its walls are exposed. This means that we can see lights all around the stage, including from the back – so occasionally the lights glare right out into the auditorium. I loved the fact that the positioning of the lights meant that we never lost sight of the fact that we were watching a play: the stage mechanics were obvious not just in the lights but also in the ways in which the actors drew curtains, picked up discarded props, and so on. This was a reminder that Blanche is never off-stage: she’s constantly performing, constantly acting as if she’s in a spotlight. So the design did much to underline Blanche’s theatricality.

Some of what I’m trying to convey about Keogan’s design is evident from the photo of Catherine Walker below, which is by Peter Rowen, and which I have copied from the production website.

The lighting also guarantees that the audience would never fully see Streetcar as an example of cinematic realism. There’s a simple way to make a mess of any production of Tennessee Williams, and that’s to ignore his plays’ expressionistic qualities.  If you direct Streetcar as if it were written by, say, Arthur Miller, its symbolism and language will seem heavy-handed. Instead, we need to feel that the world on stage is being presented as if seen through Blanche’s eyes: it needs to be vaguely histrionic, melodramatic, over-wrought.

Keogan’s lighting helps to achieve that impact brilliantly: he uses vivid reds, greens and blues to capture and emphasise Blanche’s changing moods, and to show that for Williams there is often a strong link between colour and emotion. One of the things I always enjoy about Keogan’s lighting is that you can see how carefully he’s read the script – and here he is revealing aspects of the play that could easily have seemed heavy-handed but now seem fresh and even original.

Denis Clohessy’s sound design is also really excellent: we have a constant sense of the world beyond the stage – and thus of the ways in which Stanley and Stella are part of a much bigger community. That design gives their home a sense of warmth but also adds occasionally to Blanche’s sense of being trapped.

So again this emphasised to me how important the Gate has been for Irish stage design. Hilton Edwards is important here, but it’s worth recalling that the theatre has also hosted work by people like Louis Le Broquy and Robert Ballagh too.

All of this shows that the direction too is impressive, mainly because it was so unobtrusive. Ethan McSweeny does bring an original approach to the play. The casting of Conway as Mitch, for example, shifts the dynamic quite interestingly: the character is supposed to be in his early 30s, but here is older – making Blanche’s play for him seem more opportunistic and Mitch’s eventual disillusionment more poignant. But McSweeny also delivers a very solid and faithful production of a very difficult play. In terms of technical accomplishment it reminded me a lot of Annabelle Comyn’s staging of Tom Murphy’s the House at the Abbey last year.

As someone who teaches drama, I’d have loved to take students who are just starting out to see this production. I’d expect that they’d learn a lot about how to act and indeed how to direct from watching it – but I’d also expect them to be excited by the excellence of the design too. This is a production in which everyone involved is, to use a cliché, at the top of their game: it shows how good you need to be to create this kind of theatre – but it also shows how enjoyable theatre can be when it’s done really well by disciplined, talented practitioners.

One final note. I’ve mentioned before that many Irish writers state that their main influence is not another Irish dramatist – but is in fact Tennessee Williams. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking of her statement at the Synge School that she’d love to direct Williams’ plays, but Marina Carr’s presence seemed palpable throughout this production. There’s a moment, for example, when Blanche appears in a white dress with a  veil over her head – and for a moment I had a flashback to Olwen Fouere in the same costume in Carr’s By the Bog of Cats back in 1998 (given the play, this was probably post-traumatic stress disorder). Likewise, the stylised direction of the scene in which Stan attacks Blanche immediately reminded me of Tom Hickey as Red Rafferty in Druid’s On Raftery’s Hill.

This illustrates again that there is a strong symbiotic relationship between international and Irish drama, that Irish plays are richer because of the influence of non-Irish work.

Third Level Drama Courses After CAO 2013 or – Why We Need a National Campaign for the Arts (Degree)

Yesterday, over 50,000 Leaving Cert students were offered college places for the year ahead.

As someone who runs two undergraduate drama courses, I was keen to find out what the points for admission for this year would be – and to see how Drama is faring throughout the island, at a time when Arts courses generally appear to be declining in popularity.

In Galway, the outcome for Drama is very positive. In our Drama degree course (GY118) the points are unchanged from last year on 450, while in our BA Connect degree (GY115, an option whereby students can get a degree in two ‘ordinary’ subjects like English and French, but still do some Drama in their spare time), the points dropped slightly, from 410 to 400. So we can look forward to being able to welcome 30-40 new Drama students to Galway next month, and that’s (genuinely) exciting.

Around the country things seem similarly positive.  Drama at Cork is on 375, which is well ahead of that university’s ordinary Arts degree. At DIT, it’s on 410 points. At Trinity it’s on 460, and at UCD a joint degree with English is on 335, and IT Sligo the points are 280. That, of course, represents a wide spread of points, and all of those courses are very different from each other – but the key feature is that demand hasn’t changed much, and that some of the above Drama courses are among the most popular in the state.

So throughout Ireland we can be sure of at least 100 new undergraduates taking drama courses during the year ahead.

Sometimes people assume that this means that there are 100 people hoping to become actors – and while it’s true that some students start university with that ambition, many that I speak to have a wide range of motivations. In general, it seems well understood that a drama course will teach a student the skills of critical analysis and close reading that you’d expect from an Arts degree – but it also builds skills in creativity, team work, public speaking, improvisation, and so on. So a Drama graduate has a lot to offer, and not just to the world of theatre.

In four years’ time, then, we won’t see 100 more actors looking for work – but we will see a group of graduates who will end up doing many different things and who will – I hope – care about theatre, and will continue to support it and advocate for it throughout their adults lives.

One of the key things we want our First Year students to do is to see a lot of good theatre. For example, this year we’re bringing them to the Dublin Theatre Festival, where they can choose tickets from a list that includes Threepenny Opera, Neutral Hero, Taramandat, The Rape of Lucrece, The Critic, and more. They’ll also have access to shows in the Town Hall and at Baboro during the first semester. So by Christmas, they’ll already have seen a good selection of Irish and international works, including children’s theatre and dance. Overall then they’ll have been exposed to the idea that there are lots of different ways of making theatre, and lots of different ways of thinking about it too.

We also try to involve theatre practitioners in our courses. Many of the courses are taught by working practitioners like Andrew Flynn, Mary Elizabeth Burke Kennedy and Max Hafler, and we also have modules that are run by Macnas and Blue Raincoat, and we have a very strong partnership with Druid.

And throughout the island, there are similar relationships between theatre companies and theatre departments in universities and Institutes of Technology.

So there’s a strong symbiotic relationship between theatre training and theatre practice in Ireland – and indeed most of the practitioners I meet say that they are delighted to work with Irish universities because doing so helps them to develop the next generation of Irish theatre practitioners, and indeed the next generation of Irish theatre audiences as well.

I think there is one other way in which the arts and the university sector can work together, and that is in campaigning for the Arts. And by ‘the Arts’ I mean specifically the Arts degree.

One of the big stories from yesterday was that Arts has continued to decline in popularity, at least insofar as points are concerned. The suggestion seems to be that students are taking courses that are more likely to result in clear-cut employment opportunities. There has also been a swing towards Science, Engineering and Technology subjects – which is something that the government has strongly encouraged, and which I think everyone agrees is a very positive development.

I think the position is a bit more complex than is evident from the headlines however (and to be fair, most commentators show an awareness of this complexity too). The points for Arts courses are falling, but there are still more students doing Arts than any other subject: from a rough count I would estimate that at least 3,000 people will begin Arts courses next month.

I’m also not certain that students are rejecting Arts exclusively because of a fear of not finding work afterwards. We saw yesterday, for example, that journalism courses are thriving throughout the country, and in Galway our most popular courses include subjects like Drama, Creative Writing, Human Rights and Children’s Studies. Trinity College’s two-subject Arts degree seems to be doing as well as ever, and at UCC a new degree course in English has attracted students with very high points. So there is evidence that when students have the opportunity to choose specific pathways, they are happy to do arts degrees – and that very highly qualified students (people who could do other subjects, in other words) will choose those pathways.

The fear of not finding work after an Arts degree is widely felt, and perhaps understandable in the sense that there isn’t a direct and obvious career path from an arts degree into one specific job – as would be the case in, say, teacher training or Medicine. But Arts students can study subjects with a strong vocational element – areas like Psychology, Modern Languages, IT, Law, and Maths – while also doing the more traditional Arts subjects. I would imagine that a student who graduates with a  degree in English and French in three years’ time has as good a chance of finding a job in Ireland as does a person in one of the STEM courses that are attracting students with 500+ points.

In other words, the points for a course aren’t a real indicator of its easiness or difficulty, of how easy it is to find work afterwards, or much else.  As most Career Guidance teachers  that I meet  say to their students  – people tend to do best when they do what they are good at. I’d worry that students who could thrive in Arts are choosing subjects that are less well suited to them. In other words, I think people are in some cases avoiding Arts courses not because of any real flaw with that option, but because of other factors.

And I wonder if perhaps we in Ireland have been talking down the value of the Arts degree – and if that denigration is part of a wider pattern whereby the arts and creativity are being instrumentalised by governments throughout the West. After the financial crash in 2008, many government set about cutting the arts, describing them as an expensive luxury. Those cuts were slowed somewhat when theatre people and other practitioners made the economic case for the arts, showing how they develop tourism, attract Foreign Direct Investment, help to “brand” nations, and so on. The arts now are still undervalued, but I think there is a better understanding at governmental level that funding for the arts should be seen as an investment: that is, money put into the arts tends to generate a return more substantial that the original investment.

Likewise I think Arts at university level has come under attack due to similar thinking. The argument goes something like this: why should the government spend 10,000 euro a year on educating people in subjects that are (to use the phrase again) an expensive luxury?

A colleague in the UK made the point to me that in that country many of the people most opposed to funding Arts subjects at university are themselves Arts graduates – that is, politicians and journalists. She made the suggestion to me that such people may be basing their assumptions about today’s Arts students from their own time as Arts students. In other words, some of the prejudice against Arts degrees arises from a memory of how things were rather than an awareness of how things are.

I don’t know if the same is true in Ireland, but I do know that when the Arts community makes the case for the arts, they are fighting the same battle that we in universities have to fight for the Arts degree.

We are all trying to say that the arts produce many benefits that cannot necessarily be measured but which all civilised societies nevertheless recognise as being true and worthwhile. And we are also saying that the arts produce many benefits that can be measured in terms of economic impact. In a university context, an example of that is how a great majority of arts graduates will go on to secure good jobs in important sectors in our society: tourism, business, education, and indeed the arts – and indeed politics.

The fact that there are so many people looking to study theatre in our universities shows that groups like the National Campaign for the Arts are succeeding: many of our young people and their parents care about the arts, and believe that studying them can help them to secure a happy and prosperous future. But we also need to ensure that we do more to promote to people the value of the Arts degree, not just to the students themselves, but also to the broader society.