We need to talk about theatre

Oh Lordy, I seem to have opened a can of worms…in a good way! The debate is still going on about theatre in Limerick (and beyond). It started with a review of the play, Fight Night, with a few personal remarks at the end. I asked for opinions and I published several responses in this post. Then, the man behind Fight Night, Aonghus Óg McAnally responded—which I posted here. And there are a few new responses below.

What I said was: I want to know why more people don’t go to the theatre in Limerick and in general? What is so off-putting? Do you dislike certain venues? Do you have a problem with the choice of production on offer? Is the cost prohibitive? Are you intimidated by the theatre? Do you have an opinion?
Short remarks in the comment box below (with names please) but people can also email me at rfinucanefreelance@gmail.com.

Liam O’Brien of Bottom Dog Theatre Company

“I think it’s great to see a visiting artist reply to his experience in Limerick – and mainly to contribute to the conversation. We at Bottom Dog Theatre Company know all about how difficult it is to even break even on a show when you are without arts council funding and have similarly toured all over the country with a one man show as we believe in the work and that it should be seen far beyond just Dublin or in our case just Limerick. Our venue The Loft got a brief mention by Maeve but for those commenting that there seemed to be little going awareness of what’s on – that’s a two way street. If you are interested and active you of course will find out – by contacting the venues, looking in the arts pages, listening in to Limerick diary etc.

To advertise is the singular biggest cost of anyone promoting an event. I can tell you from personal experience that shows have often given the highest proportion of ticket sales direct to ineffective advertising – which has taken up valuable income stream away from actors who are barely getting by. It’s a terrible situation but one that I play no small violin for, as we have have chosen this life, there were no arms twisted. But it goes without saying that we all – artists, technicals and creatives need to make a living too. I think we know how I feel re: the sound at the back of the main stage in town, and how it upsets me deeply as an artist and audience member that it is still unresolved (and that’s not placing the blame anywhere to acknowledge that it is still not).

Finally our Loft venue has been running for 18 months and we have had over 20 productions, over 5000 people through the doors. These are not made up statistics but well documented ones. We have worked incredibly hard to find a new audience all who book on a tailored system of text and reply, and who know our shows will rarely be over €10. Yes this means we make less money in the short term but as our audience has grown, longer runs become possible. In essence we have been building from the ground up all over again and finding a way to allow visiting companies to produce at a venue with very little risk and share more than equitably in the spoils of success. It has also allowed our own company, and other Limerick companies such as Magic Roundabout, Orchard, Quarry Players, Torch Players and Wildebeest a warm atmosphere where a small crowd never feels that small and a packed house is increasingly likely as the time has gone in. We are all very proud of this fact and more than proud that Limerick’s legacy of theatre and audience attendance does continue and hopefully begin to thrive as we move on down the line.”

Simon Thompson of Orchard Theatre Company

“I agree totally with the praise of Fight Night, yet it’s the sentiments in respect to pricing and value for money that touch a nerve, please guys support local artists and local venues where the revenue goes to the artists and not the corporate fat cats. High pricing is not a cure for bad management and poor programming of the past. We need to build loyalty and an ongoing interest in theatre. In the words of the Jewish Tailor “Lots of small profit is better than one big one” Rant Over.”

Fight Night actor gives his opinion on theatre today

Hot on the heels of one post reviewing Fight Night at the Belltable and a follow-up post about responses I got to the question ‘Why don’t more people go to the theatre?’, someone else noteworthy has thrown their hat into the ring.

Aonghus Óg McAnally, the star of Fight Night and Artistic Director of Rise Productions, emailed me. Fair play to him for taking time out to give his opinion and he makes some great points. I have to exclaim, in the style of Bishop Brennan when he realises Father Ted did kick him up the arse, ‘People do read my lowly arts blog!’ Lovely hurlin’.

“First off, thanks for coming to see the show, and I’m delighted you enjoyed it. It’s tough work, but a great show to do, and the response so far has been overwhelming.

I’m surprised to hear that ticket prices were as high as €20, as producers we had set tickets at €15 and €12, and that’s what they’ve been selling for at the majority of venues. Occasionally there’ll be an additional €1 booking fee or something, but for the most part it has been €15/12. We had deliberately set ticket prices at this level for precisely the reasons you’ve mentioned above. While we feel the piece stands on its own merits as a satisfying evening at the theatre, we’re aware that, given its shorter running time, people might be hesitant to pay a more standard €20/18. (As an aside, regardless of whether a show lasts 20 minutes or 3 hours, the expenses of touring, like transport, accommodation and insurance remain the same. We’re hitting 18 venues in 15 counties across all 4 provinces on this tour, including every single county on the west coast, because we believe audiences outside of Dublin deserve to see quality work. We’re also doing this without any direct Arts Council funding.) And trust me, anyone who makes their living by working in theatre is acutely aware of how tough things are for people out there.

In relation to the attendance, of course every performer wants to play to full houses every night, but I’ll genuinely give it everything I’ve got no matter how many people are in the crowd. Audience figures have been up and down on the tour, selling out in many places, yet struggling in others. I can’t tell you why that is, if I could, I’d bottle it and become a very wealthy producer! We’ve certainly done everything we can in terms of publicity, with coverage from national press, radio and TV, and a huge amount of local press and radio for each venue. I guess some venues just have stronger audience bases built up than others.

Another factor is that it’s ‘new writing’, and whether it’s award-winning or not, it can be tough to get people to take a chance on that sometimes. Like with Bob who commented, the established Brian Friel ‘brand’ will go a long way to putting bums on seats for Faith Healer, regardless of the quality of the production (which I believe is great!).

On us not being a ‘local company’, I can’t really comment, because it’s a phenomenon that simply doesn’t exist in Dublin. Cork is infamous for it, but if any city, Dublin and Cork included, wants to be exposed to new, challenging and exciting work, then it has to step outside the familiar. Anything less does everyone a disservice, artists and audiences alike.

I completely disagree that theatre is an expensive night out- if you’ll happily drop nearly €100 quid to see the likes of Britney at the O2, or a tenner to see the latest Twilight movie, I don’t think you can call €12 theatre tickets pricey. Even top price tickets at the Abbey are only €40, and while that’s a lot of money if you don’t have it, their concessions start at just €15, and that’s for the same show that’ll be charging £45 sterling when it transfers to London.

I’m just not going to comment on the ‘Tesco Value’ line!!

Again, thanks for coming to see the show, and more importantly for engaging with it in such a detailed and honest way here. Theatre cannot exist without an audience, and frank and open debate about the work we make is a vital part of the process.”

Thanks again to Aonghus Óg for that. I came across an interesting article in the Guardian during the week about the length of plays (read here). It says there’s a Beckett play of only 35 seconds…if only all his plays were that long. Can you tell I’m not his biggest fan? No? Okay then, I think his work is just Krapp…

200th post!! Theatre review: Fight Night at the Belltable

I saw the play Fight Night last Friday at the Belltable Arts Centre and it’s a horrible cliché to say that it packs a powerful dramatic punch…but I’m past caring what people think. And that’s at least one thing I have in common with Dan Coyle Jr—the protagonist of the piece.

Dan’s grandfather, father and brother achieved great success in boxing and since he didn’t emulate that he feels like an outsider in his own family. It is only when Dan has his own son that he starts reflecting on his past and what led to the end of his boxing career six years before. Dan decides that to fight his demons outside the ring, he has to get back in it.

Of course, it draws comparisons with films like Rocky or The Fighter but the script—mainly a stream of consciousness style monologue—is emotionally complex with a firmly Irish flavour. The play has the relationship between fathers and sons at its core. Dan Jr must confront his father, his father’s assumptions and the family legacy. But he’s also battling his deepest fears (being a failure and a disappointment) and asking questions about self worth, love and life in modern Ireland.

These are weighty matters but Gavin Kostick’s script broaches the subjects naturally with conversational language. The audience is drawn in by this everyman quality. The movement of time is clear but punctuated by flashbacks and pivotal moments. Lighting and music/sound design were good. The direction by Bryan Burroughs was very solid. All the individual elements of the production were in harmony and the pace never let up.

Aonghus Óg McAnally was outstanding. Firstly, the piece was specifically written for him based on his own proposal as part of the ‘Show in a Bag’ initiative (an artist development initiative of Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Irish Theatre Institute). It was a winner of both Best Actor and the Bewley’s Little Gem Award in Dublin’s ABSOLUT Fringe 2010. Both awards were well deserved.

His performance was energetic and very physical, incorporating the training regime. He skipped perfectly while talking for what seemed like 10 minutes at the opening and the ritualistic way he taped up his hands was fascinating, for example. Monologues probably pose the biggest challenge for an actor; there’s nowhere to hide! But he never hesitated or wavered in emotional intensity. The gloves were truly off and the play could not but be a total knock-out as a result. It might be a cliché but that doesn’t make it less true!

Fight Night is currently on a national tour and will also be part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival from next Tuesday, October 4 to 9.

Now for a small rant…
The play was top class but the turn-out was extremely poor. I’d say there were 14-15 people in the 220 seat auditorium. It must be soul destroying for an actor to come out and perform for a near empty house. AND there were some extra sound effects at the start thanks to the venue’s infamous noisy neighbour. It was a credit to McAnally as a professional that he still gave it his all under difficult conditions.

I don’t know why the audience was so low for an award winning play. It was covered in local press Ents sections and online; it featured as prominently in the Belltable’s programme as any other production. Granted, it wasn’t a local company. The miserable weather on Friday didn’t encourage punters to venture out and the subject matter/format wouldn’t appeal to everyone. A ‘one night only’ performance is also harder to sell because with a longer run at least you have the possibility of word of mouth marketing.

I’m going out on a limb to say high ticket prices might have had something to do with it. The first three and last three rows were priced at €12.50 and there were €17.50 and €20 options for the rest of it. I don’t think people should be expected to pay up to €20 for a 55 minute performance no matter how good it is. You can’t put a true value on art but people put a price on it all the time! I don’t mind paying a higher price for a large cast and/or high production costs i.e. elaborate costumes, special effects, a big set. But this play had one actor and the set consisted of a stool and a few props.

Myself and my two friends opted for the cheap seats and they were great—one row between us and the stage. The Belltable is still compact enough to have a good view from anywhere in the auditorium so I don’t think a cheap across the board ticket price would have done any harm. I know venues and practitioners have to recoup costs and try to make money but the recession is biting hard for audience members too.

Anyway, I want to know why more people don’t go to the theatre in Limerick and in general? What is so off-putting? Do you dislike certain venues? Do you have a problem with the choice of production on offer? Is the cost prohibitive? Are you intimidated by the theatre? I’m genuinely interested.

Thoughts in the comment box or by email to rfinucanefreelance@gmail.com. Best letter gets a prize…disclaimer: prize may be crap.