TAR Tell me about SEEDS. Portrait of the Artist is being directed by a former SEED, Ronan Phelan. It seems like it’s not just a training program for emerging artists, but one that continually supports them.
LP Ronan came to us a few years ago. So many of our SEEDS don’t really ever leave, they become associate directors or colleagues. Sarah Jane Shiels who is designing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she was a SEED. People like Zia Holly, Matt Torney, Lara Hickey, the list goes on. Cian O’Brien at Project was a SEED. He was an associate producer and ran SEEDS himself. And Tom Creed, our first SEEDS curator, he was a SEED. There’s quite a legacy of people now.
TAR It's always impressed me how people speak of the SEEDS program, even those who weren’t successful in getting onto it. The process really makes people feel valued as artists.
LP There are a lot of people we would love to have taken on for the program, but there are only so many spaces. But we don’t only work with SEEDS. Katie Davenport, who is designing for us for Portrait of the Artist, Katie was never a SEED. But Katie is a really good fit for us. So you don't have to be SEED to work which Rough Magic. It's just remarkable how many of them have come back into the company.
TAR That distinction is interesting. Because while integral to Rough Magic's identity, SEEDS has taken on an identity of its own.
LP It has. It's been running since 2001, which was really the second wave of the company. At this stage were moving into our third wave I think.
TAR And what does that look like?
LP Becoming a national company with constant and regular relationships all around the island. Built, in a sense, on the SEEDS that we seeded coming back into the company with that new, young energy, feeding into the creative conversation in a very significant way.
TAR That sense of conversation. One of the things I've always admired about Rough Magic is that you are both informed by, and informing, the larger cultural and theatrical conversations taking place. Back in the 80s, which was pre-technology, pre-divorce, pre-decriminalised homosexuality, pre-marriage equality, those conversations were very different. Since then Irish culture, and the arts, has transformed hugely. It seems we’re at a time now which is particularly interesting. Culture and identity have become much more fluid, much more unstable. How do you still inform, or continue to be part of, that cultural conversation?
LP That’s a very big question. Initially we were kids of the television and film age, so we didn't want to look back to the rural Ireland that was staged in so many of the Abbey’s plays. We wanted to reflect our own culture, the culture of our generation. In our current state, what you are describing, that instability, is something similar to what we felt in the 60s and 70’s with the Cold War and all of that. I suppose it's about there being a decency to your work. That in the face of so much tyranny, and instability, and fear, that there is a nucleus of artistic delivery which is about humanity, respect, decency, and common sense. Some of those values inform the conversation. And that doesn't limit what it can necessarily encompass.
TAR So by bringing those values to the conversation, you maintain its integrity and humanity?
LP We’ve never claimed to be perfect, but we have a culture that is built on good humour, respect, and those kind of values. And that reflects itself in the work. And that also reflects itself in the work we choose, including big classics that need some unpicking. That very smart sense of humour that is common to so much of our work, helps us to have a very sane prospective on the world.
TAR How would you see Irish culture, or Irish identity, going forward?
LP I think were growing up. I think the recent referendum really allowed us to hope. But I think one of the things we should hold on to is that ability to take the piss out of ourselves. To satirise ourselves. Once we start getting smug about anything we've lost it. There was a ‘aren't we great’ mentality that went through the Celtic Tiger era which was just so unjustified. Once it was punctured things got real and more realistic. An acid wit that allows you to see that, and see it for what it is, that’s a really important ingredient that we would hope to mix into anything we do.
TAR A willingness to engage with those kind of big questions seems, more and more, to be falling away from a lot of theatre. One only has to look at Broadway, or the West End, where the regurgitation and recycling of films into musicals has created a situation where less and less original works are being produced, yet more and more people are attending theatre. Often at exorbitant prices.
LP I think that's the fault line we’re all straddling. We have occasionally done populist work, such as our recent show The Train which was about the Irish Women's Liberation Movement. It was deliberately designed to be a popular show. Which happened before #WakingTheFeminists, it sort of pre-empted that.
TAR But even a populist work like The Train still asked fundamental, big questions of Irish culture.
LP At that time Irish feminism wasn't the most commercial ticket. We had to find a form, a way of telling this really important story, that was really appealing and upbeat. So we chose to do that through a musical. That was a great success. By the time it arrived in the Abbey it was reaching a much bigger audience than we could have in Project. But we can't just repeat things. What we try to do is take a text that we know has a popular appeal and do it in a really unusual way.
TAR So who are we making theatre for? Is it for theatre people like ourselves? Are we like poets who make works which are primarily read only by other poets?
LP This is exactly what we’re trying to counter. We were very, very happy working in Project in Temple Bar, but you can end up talking to your own friends. I think it's really important we spread our net much, much wider.
TAR Which is, in part, reflected in the work you’ve currently chosen. Seeking to attract a wider audience.
LP When we take Portrait of the Artist people already know the title so they are more likely to come and see it. But I know Ronan has a vision for it. Joyce was a modernist and this is going to be a very contemporary production. It's not going to be a nostalgic look at the 1904, or the years after that. It's going to feel right here, right now. Even though it’s dealing with history which is some distance away.
TAR Looking to the future through the past.
LP You have to remind yourself that Joyce, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was living through one of the most seismic upheavals in the delivery of art in the history of man. You think of people like Kandinsky, Picasso, Stravinsky, and all the new art forms. We want to bring something of the excitement and flavour of that time to this new production. Because it's about Joyce’s creation of himself as an artist, his realisation of himself as an artist. Of taking flight and getting the hell out of here.
TAR Something that, unfortunately, is becoming a common occurrence once again. Aside from the high cost of living and exorbitant accommodation costs, so many well-known spaces have closed down. Yet, at the same time, programs like Fishamble’s Show in a Bag, or your own SEEDS, or places like The Gaiety School or Acting, or The Lir, are producing and supporting huge numbers of highly trained and talented young theatre makers.
LP And they will continue to do that.
TAR But where can they go for work? How do they go about developing their own work?
LP People like ourselves went into the business for passion, or romanticism, what have you. But you still have that need to live as a citizen and have a life, to raise children, and all of that. That has to be within the reach of an artist. It shouldn't be that people have to choose between one or the other, making art or having financial security. But they kind of do. This is why I'm happy to see The Abbey and The Gate open up to new artists now, but there’s still a lot to be said for the independent company model.
TAR Is that model still as viable from most young companies I wonder? Something that can sustain them past that initial burst? In the 80s you could find somewhere to rehearse for next to nothing, basements in a bar. You could put on your work cheaply and you got better. Now you have to have the administration in place, you have to have the infrastructure first, in order to have any chance of succeeding long term.
LP You do need administration, but current funding allocations don't allow for that when people are starting off. Young people will always want to make their own work. It’s the period after that initial burst of energy that’s really tough.
TAR What would your hopes and concerns be for theatre makers in Ireland over the next ten years?
LP My concern is that art is still not valued in the way it needs to be as part of the spiritual and psychological health of the nation, and not just as an attraction for tourists. Art has to be reimagined in government thinking. But my hope is that we, as a sector, have enough chutzpah and intelligence to counteract that and start making connections with like-minded people all across the country. I do believe that unity is strength. So unity, plus diversity, is going to help make us a richer sector. But we have to make the argument for support because you don't get that rich, large minded, big spirited kind of work without an awful lot of ground work and investment in the initial stages. That's why I think we have to be smart about this and rationalise our administration base.
TAR Many would argue that in order to get funding you have to produce certain shows in a certain way. Big shows with big infrastructure are more likely to secure funding say, compared to a small, one-man production.
LP I don’t know if I can really comment on that. I actually don't know what the Arts Council wants in general. I know that it wants more reach. I know that it wants more people investing in the show by buying tickets, which is perfectly reasonable. I know that it wants things to be happening all across the country. We endorse all of that. We do need to have their support, and we do have it. But I think we also need to make connections with other people who we can support, and who can support us, and who can produce with us in order to make the spend most effective. I still think there is a lot of work that has to be done on that.
TAR A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kilkenny Arts Festival being a case in point. So why this play, in this space, at this time?
LP Kilkenny have been looking for us to do an open air Shakespeare with them for a long time and I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In that week we will play to twice as many people as we would have in Project. It's a much bigger auditorium. And it's an experiment for us. But also we'll have a show there that will be incubating underneath Portrait of the Artist. So if we revive one we can easily revive the other.
TAR Yet again you're marrying cultural interrogation, exploring questions on the environment and gender fluidity, with a populist piece.
LP That's easy to tap in to with this play. Shakespeare gives you all of that. It's not just a convenient choice. That great central speech of Titania is all about climate change. Ironically, we may be right smack in the middle of climate difficulties in the open air, but we’ll weather it. But what could be more current? The same with gender fluidity. It's interesting feeding that into the mix. I love this show. It’s a show I first directed at college, with some very famous names.
TAR You have worked with some phenomenally talented and famous people. Declan Hughes, Anne Enright, Pauline McGlynn, Stockard Channing to name a handful. It’s an amazing extended family. You seem to integrate new people well into that family, both experienced people and students fresh from college. Even in the current climate where some people say they’re even afraid to flirt?
LP Anyone I know, whether it’s colleagues, family, friends, whatever, I would trust to have a sufficiently sharp radar to know what the difference is between flirting and something more abusive.
TAR It was interesting watching rehearsals today, because you very much encourage feedback, and allow people to openly give feedback.
LP I'm very, very capable of giving a bum direction, and if I do, then they tell me.
TAR You mentioned several times your strong relationship with Project. Wasn't there a time when you wanted to have your own space? And is that still something you would like to happen?
LP To be honest I don't know if there's a right answer. It just didn't happen. There’s also the whole issue of running a venue which is a massive drain on resources. I think we'll have a relationship with theatres like we did with Project, that's the ideal, where there’s a management who run the building. I think that might be a more secure environment for us long-term. But it's not something that's going to happen any time soon.
TAR So what's next for yourself and Rough Magic?
LP We’re putting together a plan for next year. But the next thing is to get Portrait of the Artist up and running for DTF and on tour. Were also hoping to put together a series of events around the tour, which are additional audience development projects. Some of which will be developed by the actors in the company and some of which is work we are supporting through our other program, Advance, which began in 2011 for established artists. One of the things we’re commissioning, and we’re hoping to do, is a big national co-production about participation in choirs across the country. It's not so much about the choirs as it is about the people in the choirs. There’s an extraordinary degree of participation across all sectors, across borders and across gender, and people seem to need this. I'm really curious to know what they get out of it. We want to develop a show that will tour the country and intersect with choirs, with actors telling the stories of these people. Hopefully it will ignite sometime next year, but that will really be for 2020.
TAR So even though making theatre has changed, you still continue to love it?
LP It certainly changes as you get older. It's more rigid, looking at funding structures and all of that. It can be much more frightening, much more bureaucratic. It can also be less giddy, less fun in a lot of ways. But it’s still there, if you know how to access it. Things can get a bit serious from time to time, but if you can try remember back into the sheer, effervescence of that early period, which I'm certainly feeling now from the stimulus of working with this ensemble, it’s a profane joy as Joyce would say. And that's what keeps us going.
Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," runs as part of The Kilkenny Arts Festival at Castle Yard Kilkenny from August 9 to 18.
James Joyce’s "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," adapted by Arthur Riordan, premieres as part of Dublin Theatre Festival from September 26 till October 7 before undertaking a national tour.
Link to Part One
For more information, visit Rough Magic