Irish Theater Is on the Dole, Despite Boom Times

By Gyavira Lasana

`So what are you doing here?" they always ask. After all, as an African American playwright, staging a play about W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne at the Dublin Writers Museum, I stick out. I give the usual reply: Research on the Beat poets led me to the early 20th century Irish poet and his lover. My partner, Helen Calthorpe, who portrays Maud in the play I wrote, led me to this project.

I have to drag chairs from the third floor to accommodate the audience for today's show--35 students from the southern U.S.--far surpassing our usual gate of three or four lovers of the Celtic twilight, Yeats' mythic realm of Irish folklore. Our difficulty in attracting audiences, we've discovered, is not uncommon here. Little of Dublin's newfound wealth has trickled down to its stages. Theater companies are still largely state subsidized, and few plays can survive for more than a three-week run. Even the National Theatre (comprising the Abbey and Peacock theatres), where Maud Gonne first starred in Yeats' Kathleen ni Houlihan, requires ever-increasing grants from Dublin's Arts Council to survive. "Despite our new prosperity," says Martin Fahy, general manager of the National, "people in Dublin are still not willing to pay the top price of a theater ticket, which is now about $25."

Following each lunchtime performance, Helen and I pocket our couple of quid and search for a cafe serving all-day breakfast. The weather is sunny, almost warm, with a breeze that swirls in no particular direction. We stroll down O'Connell Street and cross the river Liffey, marveling at recent changes: construction cranes sweeping the skyline, glass-and-steel towers rising next to 19th century greystone forts. Crowds roar through department stores. All this activity, of course, has been generated by what's called the Celtic tiger, the powerful infusion of capital and trade that has made Ireland's economy one of the fastest-growing in the world. From 1990 to 1999, the gross national product here increased 6.5% annually, more than twice the European Union average.

PLANET MURPHY. Shoppers are particularly thick on Grafton Street, which now displays a strange mixture of fast-food chains and trendy boutiques--all with enduring Bewley's in the middle, serving its assortment of teas, scones, and blood sausage. Nearby is the district known as Temple Bar. A decade ago, it was a nearly deserted mess of rotted buildings. Today, young Dubliners regularly frequent its nightclubs, pubs, art shops, and lap-dancing parlors.

During the next several hours, Helen and I meet friends in cafes, browse bookstores, and catch a movie at Dublin's impressive new Film Center. By then, the air has chilled but the streets remain hot and bright. As we walk to our apartment, every nightspot we pass is packed with Dublin's young--spirited, well-groomed, and apparently self-satisfied. At fashionable Bailey's, for example, they flow out of the pub and into the streets, quaffing pints of stout; on Camden Street, the scene is repeated in new clubs like Mono and Planet Murphy.

It's past 11 p.m. when we get home. We've spent more money today than we've made. And we'll probably keep it up till we're bankrupt. Or, perhaps, until the Celtic tiger lends its magic to the Celtic twilight. Thus far, however, showering disposable income on culture is not, well, not yet part of the culture.

Paula Meehan, one of the few playwrights exploring the lives of Dublin's inner-city souls, thinks the problem lies in numbers. "Dublin has a small population," she says--it's roughly 1 million. "And just a few attend theater regularly. The only way you can make money is by crossing over to non-theatergoers." Broadway-style come-ons have been tried several times, says Meehan, often by casting soap stars in plays. But the results have been disappointing. "We're happy to see a project develop its own legs and move into the commercial market," says Enid Reid-Whyte, drama adviser at the Dublin Arts Council. "But it happens only rarely." So what does the theater community do? It goes on the dole. "None of us," says actress Suzie Kennedy, "could work without state subsidies."

CLOSED BOOKS. Ireland is nearing the end of a three-year, $120 million arts funding cycle subsidized by the arts ministry. This outlay--a 20% annual increase above the previous cycle--still ranks below arts subsidies provided by other European governments.

Small wonder, then, that Mike Colgan sought new ways of generating capital. Colgan, the director of Dublin's Gate Theatre, has been so successful in promoting old plays and new playwrights that the Gate has actually turned a profit during the past few years. But the Dublin Arts Council responded to this achievement by cutting the Gate's subsidy of $720,000 in 1999 to just $240,000 in 2000. "We are being punished for our success," says Colgan. The National's Fahy supports Colgan, saying that "theaters should be allowed to keep their surpluses" to cover unforeseen expenses.

The Dublin Arts Council, ruling from its offices on Merrion Square, defends its decision. The Gate, it feels, should only get a grant based on need, and need can only be determined by examining the financial records. Colgan, however, has turned over only some accounting sheets and books.

The Gate's example raises this question: Should all the theater companies be weaned off the dole and eased into the competitive market? I put it to Helen Meany, arts editor at the Irish Times. "The Gate is at the heart of Dublin's theater community," she said. "But I also feel we need people at the edges, the fringe, the diversity. And for this we need subsidies." Our own experience bears out the difficulty of going it alone: With a production cost of $4,000, we made $1,500, most of it from a three-day run at the Bank of Ireland Arts Center; four weeks at the Writers Museum grossed only $400.

A few days before our last performance at the museum, Helen and I chance to meet an actor we knew in New York. He's an Irishman who was moderately successful in the States and has chosen to return to Dublin to further his career. Over coffee in Bewley's, we tell him of the troubles we've had with our unprofitable play about Maud Gonne. He is hard up for work but he tells us he has resolved his monetary concerns. "The day after I arrived," he confesses, "I signed on to the dole. I collect on Tuesdays."

New York-based Lasana's latest play is based on the life of Langston Hughes.

Letter From Dublin

Edited by George Foy

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