Production image of Tom MacIntyre's What Happened Bridgie Cleary by Bottom Dog - one of several Limerick-based theatre companies who could benefit from inclusion in Limerick City of Culture
In July 2012 Jimmy Deenihan, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, introduced the National City of Culture initiative, wherein a designated city will host arts events all year round in hopes of increasing visitors to the locality as well having a long-term effect on the development of arts in the area.
Hosting duties were given to Limerick, a decision which couldn't have been more timely. It's been a difficult year for theatre companies in the city as the closing of the Belltable Arts Centre dealt a serious blow to the city's artistic infrastructure. When the government delivered the budget last month they announced €6m to go into Limerick for City of Culture. But from the reveal of the programme on Monday it was obvious that almost all of that money is going towards importing artists from outside the area. There's no doubt that the initiative will draw visitors to Limerick but it risks severely missing the opportunity to generate audiences and resources for the companies who will be working in the city after this ceremonial year is over.
Theatre & Dance
The theatre and dance strand features Romanian director Silviu Pucǎrete's production of Faust. Advertised with the tagline "Meet Faust. And meet him in Hell", this promises to be macabre theatre on a grand scale using over 100 actors and musicians. The UK's leading contemporary circus company NoFit State Circus also form part of the line-up, as well as international sensation Fuerza Bruta - a carnival meets nightclub performance which stations the audience in a large cellophane pod as dancers produce stunning visual effects. It's been blazing all around the world since its debut in Buenos Aires in 2005.
On the Irish end of things we have a collaboration between the country's two leading site-specific companies, ANU Productions and The Performance Corporation, in Beautiful Dreamers, using the city as a canvass to explore the dreams and realities of its people. Fishamble's artistic residency in the city will accumulate in the premiere of Pat Kinevane's new solo play, Underneath. Carnival company Macnas bring a new performance, Melodica, to a secret venue. And for the Riverdance fans out there, the dance phenom will be marking its twentieth anniversary (!).
In an engagement with the local community comes The Táin - a call out to urban artists to create an indigenous Hip Hop adaptation of the Irish epic. Local venue the Lime Tree Theatre will host the community of Moyross in a performance which allows them, as opposed to the tabloids, to tell their stories. And a prominent local performer, the river Shannon, features as a recurring subject in events across the programme including a multi-sensory play performed on a boat.
Promotional Art for Beautiful Dreamers - a conversation with a city co-produced by site-specific experts ANU Productions and The Performance Corporation to debut May 2014 as part of Limerick City of Culture
What Kind of Year Has it Been?
Aimed at local theatre artists is the Visionaries for Four Seasons training scheme, which will involve workshops with practitioners whose work features in the event. This presumably will go some way to better establish some of the active companies in the area who are still considerably young (groups such as Magic Roundabout, Wildebeest and Sidhe were formed in 2010). But a better opportunity would be to include these artists more distinctively in the programme so that they can take advantage of the publicity.
Unlike most cities in the country, Limerick does not have an annually-funded mainstay company in the way that Galway has Druid, Waterford has Red Kettle, and Sligo has Blue Raincoat. These companies began receiving Arts Council funding twenty-to-thirty years ago as a process of establishing theatrical infrastructures around the country. The funding model til then had been centered on Dublin. By the turn of the millennium Limerick companies such as Island Theatre Company, Daghdha Dance and the Belltable Arts Centre were receiving healthy support but these three arts bodies no longer exist.
The Belltable company went into liquidation earlier this year (a costly debt of nearly €1m owed for refurbishment in 2009-2010 was revealed at a creditor's meeting), leaving independent theatre artists without a 200+ seat auditorium. The Lime Tree Theatre, which opened close to a year ago, expects to fill a vast 515 seats. As a result, unfunded companies have depended on pop-up performance spaces in the Savoy Hotel, Dolan's Warehouse and The Loft bar. The loss of the Belltable also meant that those applying for arts grants under a partner venue scheme were prevented from doing so.
But the crisis has shown just how competent the city's arts community is at organising itself. Coming together to form PLAN (Professional Limerick Arts Network), Limerick practitioners have published an assessment (which you can read here) of the current needs of artists in this time of crisis. This has opened a dialogue with the Arts Council, local authorities and the Lime Tree on matters such as the allocation of funds to the Belltable, which eventually was redirected to fund a pilot programme called Limerick Arts Encounters that saw performances staged in alternative venues. Another welcome addition to the artistic landscape is the reintroduction of the former Daghdha Dance space in the opening of a new venue, Dance Limerick, artistically led by former CoisCéim manager Jenny Traynor.
As part of Limerick Arts Encounter was Tom MacIntyre's What Happened Bridgie Cleary by Bottom Dog. I regretfully declined the company's invitation to review the performance but I was struck to learn in our correspondence that the Irish Times, the Sunday Independent and the Examiner had also failed to critique it. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if a lack of media attention is leaving most of the country in the dark as to who the players in Limerick's theatre community are.
You might first recognise Bottom Dog founder Liam O'Brien from his stint on Emmerdale a few years back but he has also worked extensively abroad, performing for over two years in the West End tour of The Rat Pack: Live from Las Vegas and most recently finishing an international tour with Edward Hall's Shakespeare troupe Propeller in their productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. Are you aware that the Lecoq-trained Simon Thompson, founder of Orchard Theatre Company, is an alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company and used to be director of the Garrick Theatre in the West End? Or that Zeb Moore of Magic Roundabout is off to Hollywood this month to make a movie with James Bond and Star Wars cinematographer Mark Salter? What does it say when these talented actors can find extensive work abroad but can't receive the means to consolidate their theatre scene at home?
"There is a crisis in the arts in Limerick", states the PLAN assessment, and with the publicity of the upcoming City of Culture you can't help but think there's a golden opportunity to generate audiences and resources for those keeping the arts sector going. Limerick theatre is in a different situation than in other cities. It doesn't have as many active companies as Galway, Dublin or Cork but, unlike those cities, it doesn't have a long established mainstay company around which venues and audiences have been generated over decades. These companies who have become active in the last few years are in the same position as Druid in 1975 or Corcadorca in 1991, in that they are working in a region encumbered by the lack of an appropriate performance venue and financial support. There's a desperate need for the funding angels to plant a tent pole.
The full details of Limerick City of Culture have yet to be revealed, so there still could be announcements of performances by local theatre companies. The strength of the international line-up should attract visitors to the city but, for the artistic health of the city, the long-term effects of the scheme have to be to build a sustainable theatre scene for after 2014.
Five Theatre Companies Based in Limerick City
Founded in 2008, this ensemble are committed to delivering theatre that has never before been seen in the region. This has resulted in an eclectic playography consisting of a musically macabre Killer Kabaret, the ambiguously authored Jacobean drama The Revenger's Tragedy, and the first outing of Tom MacIntyre's What Happened Bridgie Cleary since its 2005 premiere in the Abbey. A tour of Romeo and Juliet co-produced with New York's Forestburgh Arts Centre saw a punked out production of the lovers' tragedy performed by a young American cast, while the Janet Hood song-cycle Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens and Bottom Dog member Myles Breen's Language UnBecoming a Lady suggest a political sensibility towards homosexuality.
The duo of Zeb Moore and Darren Maher established this company in 2010 to extensively tour Maher's This is Spinal Krapp - a highly rated Beckettian spoof chocked with 80s references. Deftly performed by Moore, responses suggest that Spinal Krapp is more deceptively tragic and emotional than the whimsical title suggests. Their follow-up was a production of Love, Peace and Robbery, Liam Heylin's play about two redemption-seeking men released from prison, adapted by the company to a Limerick setting. Most recently they've staged David Mamet's American Buffalo and a new play written by Maher, The Maltese Falcon (if not already taken).
Originally from Manchester, director Simon Thompson set up Orchard in 2005 to tour productions across Europe, drawing on his Lecoq training to produce physical and mask-based theatre. In 2009 he relocated to Limerick city. As well as becoming a guiding voice in local youth theatres, recent productions by Orchard include plays by English playwrights Shelagh Stephenson (Five Kinds of Silence) and John Godber (Bouncers); a trilogy of original works called underGROUND which, delivered in the buffoon mode from Lecoq's practice, looked at underground transport, nightlife and crime in London; and the Irish premiere of Mark St Germain's Freud's Last Session - an imagining of the unconfirmed exchange between the psychoanalyst and C.S. Lewis.
Maeve McGrath and Sinead Vaughan founded the theatre and film outfit Sidhe in 2010. With an ethos of producing work by Irish writers, the company have since produced plays by reputed authors such as Tea Set and The Candidate by Gina Moxley, Last Year by Gavin Kostick and Under Pressure by Limerick playwright Helena Enright - who will be one of the architects of the River Shannon Project next year.
The authorial voice of Wildebeest seems to have shifted since its origins in 2010, when it premiered playwright Meadhbh Haicéid's The Real World and then her follow-up A Different Animal. Marie Boylan, who co-founded the company with Haicéid, now works closely with performer and writer Ann Blake, having co-written and performed TAN - a satire into women's social rituals, and a model which has since expanded to include a bigger cast under the title TANOLOGUES. The company will soon be announcing their next production.