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In Conversation with Jim Culleton: Part One

Jim Culleton. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Jim Culleton is widely regarded as one of the most successful, energetic and enthusiastic artistic directors working in Ireland today. With his company, Fishamble:The New Play Company, Jim has produced, and often directed, many of the best, new Irish plays to emerge over the past three decades, winning countless awards, including an Olivier Award in the process. As Fishamble gets ready to celebrate 30 years in the business, TheArtsReview spoke with Jim about his passion for theatre, for new writing, the dramaturgical process, as well as all things Fishamble.

TAR You began back in 1988 with what was then Pigsback Theatre Company. How did that get started?

JC That's right, yes. We've been thinking about it recently, with next year being the company's 30th birthday and what that means, a company at that stage in its life. It's always interesting when you hit a few of those milestones, what you do about it, and also remembering where things started. Four years ago, when we were 25 years old, the National Library of Ireland took the Fishamble archives, an ongoing living archive, and we marked the occasion that way. So that was wonderful. But back in 1988, it began as a very modest affair. Some of us who were students in Trinity and were members of Players, and some who were students in UCD and members of Dramsoc, got together, including actors Kathy Downes and Paul Hickey, Ed Guiney, who runs Element Films, Martin Munroe, and Fergus Linehan, who runs the Edinburgh International Festival. There was this big gang of a dozen of us from the two drama societies who got together over the summer, like lots of students do, and put on some plays. That grew and developed as Pigsback from 1988. We started off doing new plays by our contemporaries in Trinity, people I was in playwriting courses with. The first plays were by people like Michael West, Gavin Kostick, Deirdre Hines, Marina Carr, early plays by people who were at a similar stage at the time. Then, over the years, we committed to dedicating ourselves exclusively to developing new plays, being the only company in the country dedicated exclusively to new work.

TAR When, and why, did you decide to become Fishamble?

JC Over time some of the founding members moved away, emigrating and so on, so after eight years we decided to change the name to Fishamble to mark that transition. It was also a way to renew our dedication to new writing, looking at what we could do to develop and help and support new plays in a range of ways. We called ourselves Fishamble because on Fishamble Street the theatre where Handel’s Messiah was first performed in the 1740s was also, in the 1700s, the first theatre ever to commission and produce new work by Irish playwrights. Everyone else was taking plays from London. We still have people, the odd time, walking up and down Fishamble Street calling us, going, “I can't find you.” We remind them that while we were in Temple Bar for a while, we’re here in our offices on Great Denmark Street now. Later we came up with the phrase “The New Play Company,” which became our tagline. It was quite simple, really not that sophisticated, but sometimes the simple things can take time to emerge. For a while we considered the tagline “New Irish Plays”, but then we thought, “Irish, what does that mean? Is it set in Ireland? Is the writer Irish?” It didn't seem to quite capture the range and breadth of the work, the diversity of voices we wanted to try to bring through.

TAR A lot of people hark back to the 90’s as the time when things really began to change, with the arrival of so many companies, such as Bedrock Theatre Company who were instrumental in developing The Dublin Fringe Festival. But you were there before that, in the late 80‘s, during a time when there really weren't any supports for companies. You were part of that first wave that got people to sit up and take notice.

JC It certainly wasn't like now when there are so many companies, and so many ways for people to train in theatre in Ireland. Today so many graduates form groups and collectives and companies. In the late 80s, there was The Abbey and The Gate, Druid was there, and Rough Magic, Passion Machine, Co-Motion and Wet Paint. And that was kind of it. There were only a small, handful of companies, made up of people like us. I think we all thought, “why don't we have a go at doing this in order to create work for ourselves, the kind of work we’re interested in, rather than sitting around waiting for the work to happen.” We were just concerned with making theatre and getting shows on and in developing new work. Producing work that's original, you're introducing the view of a writer to an audience, or a way of looking at the world to an audience, that is unique and original. That was more exciting to us than doing work that was already there.

TAR The desire to create and develop new works, that impetus was there from the beginning?

JC It was, really. From around 1990, the first time we dipped our toe in the water of new works when Michael West wrote an adaptation of Don Juan, where Dominic West played Don Juan in Project Arts Centre.

Clodagh O'Donoghue and Dominic West in Don Juan, 1990. Photo by Fishamble

TAR And it's been original plays ever since?

JC It has. Adaptations we moved away from, we haven't done them in quite some time. It's all been completely original work. Which means everything is risky. Sometimes you think, “my God, it would be great to do something that someone else has taken the risk on.” But you get such a buzz from taking that risk. Everything is new. That keeps us going.

TAR Even so, a company investing exclusively in new works and not just surviving for 30 years, but going from strength to strength, that is a phenomenal achievement. Several of the companies we mentioned earlier are no longer in existence.

JC I think we have a real commitment to what we do. We work hard at it, we love working collaboratively, not just with artists but with venues, and with other arts organisations.

TAR Most companies would probably say something similar. There must be something unique about Fishamble for it to have thrived as well as it has?

JC We love working with writers, audiences and the public in different ways. Across a range of platforms we’re engaged with new plays, apart from the works we produce ourselves. Whether it's the New Play Clinic with Gavin Kostick, giving dramaturgical support to plays which Fishamble isn't directly producing, or through the Show in a Bag scheme which we run with the Irish Theatre Institute and the Dublin Fringe Festival, we always want to help develop new work. A lot of which has toured nationally and internationally. I'd say over the last seven or eight years, every year we've had at least seven productions on tour to over 40 venues. An average of over 220 performances a year. There is a huge amount of activity. Thankfully there is a demand for the work.

TAR That must present something of a funding nightmare, particularly in the current climate.

JC We’re hugely grateful for the funding we receive from the Arts Council, Culture Ireland, and Dublin City Council. And they, in turn, can see that the work being produced is being really well received. But our Arts Council funding is always a good bit less than half of our turnover. So they can also see that the funding we receive generates a huge amount of other income. Income that all goes to creating art and making theatre, making new works happen, paying artists and engaging with the public. It certainly is tricky. There are a lot of companies I really miss who aren't around anymore. Particularly in the past 10 years with funding being reduced so drastically, there have unfortunately been a lot of casualties.

TAR You mentioned the Show in a Bag initiative, how did that come into being?

JC It was probably around ten or twelve years ago we sat down, Orla Flanagan, who was our General Manager at the time, Gavin, and myself, and we really looked at what it meant to be a theatre company doing new plays. Looking at what a play was, which was starting to be challenged, with people looking to create work in different ways. Devised work, verbatim work, Non-dramatic and Post-dramatic theatre. All that started to develop more and more and we thought, “what does it mean to be a company putting on new plays, to be working with playwrights, and to believe that the playwright is someway still at the centre of the creative process?” Looking at ways in which everything we did had the most life it could have and could reach its potential. Also, at that time, you had all these wonderful venues around the country, a great infrastructure of venues, yet funding was starting to collapse. Venues were saying it was very hard for them to find good quality, professional work for their audiences. Audiences were suffering, venues were suffering, and we happened to know lots of actors who were also suffering. Being an actor is a precarious job anyway at the best of times. We had absolutely brilliant, top-class actors who were saying to us that there’s even less work than normal. Looking at the kind of work we were creating, like the shows with Pat Kinevane, got us thinking. Here was work that could tour easily and we thought, “wouldn't it be great if we could help other actors create works they could do in between jobs?” We talked to the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Irish Theatre Institute and, together, we came up with Show in a Bag. A scheme where new work is developed dramaturgically by us at Fishamble, ITI creates networking opportunities for the artists involved enabling them to meet venues and promoters nationally and internationally, while the Dublin Fringe Festival puts the whole machine of the Fringe around helping to make the show happen. We've been doing that for eight years now. I think it's 35 shows that have come out of that and almost all of them have gone on to tour, creating all sorts of opportunities for the artists involved.

Sean Rocks and Ger Carey in Mark O'Rowes From Both Hips. Photo by Fishamble

TAR The importance of producing, or helping produce, new work is integral to what you do?

JC We like to see plays get performed, and reach the stage, either through our own productions or supporting other productions that have definite production plans. With our own Fishamble productions, we have been very lucky to have great producers work with us over the years – Maureen Kennelly, Jo Mangan, Ciara Flynn, Orla Flanagan, Marketa Dowling and, now, Eva Scanlan. Beyond our own productions, every dramaturgical or development scheme we have supports something being produced, so we can help reach an audience and create work for artists. We saw, when we were touring, so many people and companies getting caught up with endless readings, endless developmental work, but the work never happening. Of course, we too develop work that sometimes doesn't come to fruition. But in terms of all the initiatives we run, they are all production focused, developing new works, creating work for artists to generate work for audiences.

TAR You direct many of these shows yourself. Did you always aspire to being a director?

JC When I was growing up I went to drama classes and was in some films. For a few years if they needed a boy for a radio play in RTE, I was the one they called up. Then I did my degree in Drama and English in Trinity. I think I was probably the third year of that degree program in Trinity being in existence. Which meant I could stay in Ireland and train and study here, which was great. I got involved in directing in college. I was still acting for a bit when I left, and doing a little bit of everything. But then I got more and more interested in directing. I suppose I was always interested in all the different aspects of production; in design, music, and always interested in audiences, marketing shows and that aspect too. Gradually I became more interested in the running of a company and directing, rather than other aspects, as time went on.

TAR. While you speak passionately about the text, there's always a strong sense of theatricality around the way you direct.

JC Thanks for that! I suppose the work that interests me as a director, and interests Fishamble, is work that needs to be on stage. It's bursting out and crying out to be on stage, feels like it has something to say that demands it be produced for the stage. That it's not something that could happen on television, or on radio. Of course, things can be adapted and have other lives, but you need to feel there is something inherently theatrical about it. While you want to feel that the writer has a vision and something they feel passionate about, you also want to feel there is a theatrical imagination at work. So that you, as director, working with a cast and team of designers, can help bring that theatrical imagination to life.

TAR That “theatrical imagination” is very much in evidence in the work you’ve done with Pat Kinevane.

JC Working with Pat is always a real joy. I've been working on Pat’s solo shows since 2006 and we produced his first play back in 1998. So it's nearly 20 years of working with Pat as a writer and 11 years as an actor/writer together. As a director it's a real pleasure working with someone like Pat. He comes into rehearsals and shows you twenty ways he can do something. You then get to talk about the pros and cons of each way, making those key choices with him.

Pat Kinevane in Underneath. Photo by Patrick Redmond

TAR You encourage the actor to bring ideas to the process?

JC Absolutely. I think there is a responsibility, ultimately, on the director to shape the production, and to bring everyone involved in the team through the process until it reaches an audience. But I love when the process is as collaborative as possible. When the actors and the team are genuinely part of that collaborative process, sharing ideas, and creating in a space where people feel free enough to try out lots of things.

TAR What is that process from when you first receive a script, through the dramaturgical and development stage, up to production?

JC It’s an age of buzzwords like ‘best practice’ and ‘transparency’. But we do try to have a best practice and a way of doing things that is transparent and rigorous. We try, also, to make sure that we don't think that one rule fits all. New plays can get developed in so many different ways. It’s important to allow each play its own unique, creative route. In terms of unsolicited scripts that just arrive, in truth we don't really produce many plays that just arrive out of the blue that we haven't, in some way, been involved in the development of, or haven’t worked with the writer in some way before. It's happened, a couple of times. Back in 1996 we got a play sent to us out of the blue. The writer had never written a play before, and had looked us up in the Yellow Pages, in the days before Internet, sending his play to all the theatre companies listed under “T”. I remember reading the play and laughing, and then crying and going, “oh my God, who is this guy?” That was Mark O'Rowe’s first play. We rang him up and said, “let's do it.” I think there were some minor changes, but it came really fairly fully formed. Similarly Sean McLoughlin's first play, he is now Sean P. Summers, arrived unsolicited and we ended up bringing that to New York and it won the Stewart Parker Trust Award. So that can happen. More traditionally the process is we work with the writer from the early stage of the idea. So, for example, around this table the other day we had a reading of a play in development by Deirdre Kinahan. What happened with Deirdre is perhaps more typical of the way we work with writers. Both Deirdre, and Colin Murphy, submitted plays for our Tiny Plays for Ireland scheme some time ago. Both plays seemed to have a bigger life in them and we spoke to them about developing them into a full play. The results were Spinning by Deirdre, and a series of documentary dramas, Guaranteed, Bailed Out and Inside the GPO by Colin. We commissioned Deirdre to write another play for us, so she then wrote a draft which maybe took about six months. We then gave her some notes after Gavin, Deirdre and myself talked through it all. She took them on board and came back to us with another draft a couple of months ago. We decided now, being at the second draft stage, it was a good time to bring in some actors so we could hear it, and have a chat based on that. So we invited some actors in, read it, and had a discussion after which she is now going off to write another draft. It can be about a two year process with a mixture of private readings, notes, discussions and readings with actors, with a number of drafts being written in that time. It all depends on the writer. Sometime someone will say they need more time to work on the first draft, other people move through drafts quicker and need to hear it with actors earlier, or to go work on another draft earlier. There are all kinds of variations.

TAR Would that process be similar for someone like Pat Kinevane, whose Trilogy sees the writer also being the performer?

JC With somebody like Pat Kinevane it's different again. Usually it's just Pat and myself working together for a long time on each of those plays. We also bring in other members of the team, like Gavin, Denis Clohessy as composer, Emma O'Kane as choreographer, who all get involved as we go on. But for a good year and a half it’s just me and Pat meeting up and talking about it, and we trust each other hugely. Pat would write a little bit, send it to me, and we would meet up and have a discussion about it. We chat about where the play is going, what the play is becoming. I remember when we were rehearsing Silent, he wasn't sure about how the shape of the story was coming together. We literally took all the pages of the script and tore them into paragraphs and laid them out on the floor. We then asked questions like, “when should we hear about this, maybe we should think about this earlier, we don't need to hear about that, we can come back to that little bit later.” At one point he said, “we heard about this woman at the beginning of the play, and at the end of the play when she has a big moment.” Then I would say to Pat, “maybe we need to hear something from her in the middle”. Pat thinks so visually he would say, “I won't give her any more lines, I'll send her to flamenco classes and I'll do some flamenco dancing in the middle and that's how people will remember who she is.” So we’re always thinking about the shape and progression of the play. In that situation I'll be thinking logically and dramaturgically, and Pat will be thinking more visually and laterally. You hope to find a balance that hopefully then works.

Margaret Mc Auliffe in The Humours of Bandon. Photo by  George Carter

TAR With Show in a Bag you’re involved dramaturgically, but not in terms of producing the show. Is the process different there?

JC Yes, the artists have their own show which, ultimately, they produce. Typically, in Show in a Bag, people are often actors and performers who are writing their first play, or they’re writing it with a writer, or with Gavin. We would meet them and, along with the three partner organisations, would commit to helping them based on the idea they have. Then, over a period of four months or so, they would meet every couple of weeks, coming here to Fishamble, to meet with us and Gavin to talk through their ideas. When we begin, some participants will already have a couple of scenes of a play written, some would have an outline and are yet to write it, or some have just a shape to it. Even though there are deadlines, and a procedure to go through, over the seven or eight months of development it is always about remembering a one size approach doesn't fit all and being there to help talk through ideas. Once the show has been showcased in the Fringe, all sorts of partners then come on board. The artist can then go on to produce their own work, or work with independent producers who come on board to produce the work with them. Fishamble has produced only three of the thirty-five shows from Show in a Bag. We worked on Swing by Steve Blount, Peter Daly, Gavin Kostick and Janet Moran, The Wheelchair On My Face by Sonya Kelly, and, more recently, The Humours of Bandon by Margaret Mc Auliffe which we’re bringing to the Edinburgh Festival in August. We try to help as many of the plays as possible reach their potential audience, so we ensure that all these plays are published, we work with international and national partners to tour them, and so on. We will present Charolais by Noni Stapleton in New York in September. The aim in the initiative though is not to find work for Fishamble, it's about helping the artist to produce their own work so that they then have it, in a bag, ready to tour anywhere.

Click here to go directly to Part Two

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