Missing the Belltable

170711121655--IMG_1013Well, it’s the end of January (good riddance!) and 2013 is off to a bittersweet start for the local arts scene. There is a Belltable Arts Centre sized hole in my theatre schedule. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Long rant ahoy!

After 32 years, Ireland’s first regional arts centre closed early in the month for a temporary “seasonal closure” with the loss of five/six staff. The board proposed “a re-structuring plan” that would give the venue a “sustainable path for the future” and allow it to “plan for its role during Limerick’s year as national City of Culture in 2014”.

This review of the artistic policy will involve “wide consultation” to form a “new vision” and the closure would allow the venue “breathing space”. It’s admirable how many management-speak buzzwords are crammed into such a short statement. The gallery space and Chimes café downstairs are still open.

It’s a long story…

So just over two years after it reopened after a €1.26 million refurbishment, the Belltable is closed. A Government grant and Limerick City Council funded the project. The Belltable also received €550,000 for enabling and wiring works in 2006. The Limerick Leader reported that the Belltable is in debt up to six figures and it could be mid-summer 2012 before it reopens. Seemingly, the redevelopment “cost more than anticipated”. The cost of everything is a lot more than in 1981, when it was converted into a theatre venue for £20,000. Then again, audiences were more enthusiastic then too.

BL-CultureBut the fact is that an independent auditor questioned whether the Belltable Arts Centre could continue to operate when net liabilities were over €100,000 by the close of 2008. It lost nearly €45,000 in 2008 and much the same the year before. A report by Deloitte & Touche stated the Belltable’s financial position at that time signaled a “material uncertainty, which may cast doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”. It warned that national funding was vital to its existence and “if at any time in the future, it were to lose funding provided by the Arts Council of Ireland or suffer a dramatic drop in box office sales, it would not be able to continue”. Although the financial situation improved from 2009 upwards, it was obviously not enough.

Unfortunately, the dangers of an over-reliance on Arts Council funding have been seen in Limerick before. Island Theatre Company and Daghdha Dance Company had their sizeable funding withdrawn and both are now defunct. The annual AC funding for the Belltable has been substantially reduced over the last few years. Cuts have affected many arts organisations and venues because of the knock on effect of the Government reducing the funding to the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism and the Arts Council. I think the AC should be one of the outlets to help the Belltable to become more sustainable going forward. Surely, there is a model elsewhere in Ireland or the UK that can be drawn upon?

For better, for worse…

In mid 2008, the Belltable closed for a refurbishment and relocated off-site to the former Red Cross Hall. The audience capacity was reduced from 275 to 100 and that had an understandable impact on box office takings. I don’t think anyone anticipated the revamp to take two years but issues with planning/construction hampered the project. I actually really liked watching performances up close and personal in that draughty old hall! The facilities were very basic and it was hard on performers and staff but it had a certain charm that seems to have gotten buried in the rubble torn out of its original home on 69 O’Connell Street.

The Belltable re-opened to much fanfare…and noise pollution in November 2010. The auditorium, exhibition space and audience facilities got a proper makeover. A new, specially commissioned show made its debut to a packed house. I was sitting in the very back and still I could hear the loud noise created by engine revving and metal clanging on metal. It seemed to be coming from behind the stage and went on for the first half hour of the play.

belltableIt turned out that the noise disturbance was from a garage in the alley behind the theatre. The self-employed owner, Mick Daly, was exercising his right to work at unusual hours. He had previously expressed his dissatisfaction at the works going on at the Belltable because they were disrupting his business. Define irony: By pure coincidence his business was now disrupting the theatre’s work.

I’ve been to see a lot of performances at the Belltable since November 2010 and the vast majority of them have had extra sound effects like revving, grinding, hammering and loud music. It’s a regular toolbox symphony orchestra back there! Define irony: The one thing the Belltable didn’t get in its €1.8m worth of works is suitable soundproofing.

There is a serious problem when an issue like this can’t be resolved. In June last year, the Leader revealed that the Belltable was paying a massive €3,000 a month for sound recording equipment to monitor the levels and pattern of noise behind the venue and round the clock CCTV.

This brings us nearly up to speed…

In April 2012, the Limerick Leader reported that the Belltable’s takings had risen by a whopping 82% and had nearly doubled to around €147,000 in 2011. However, the then artistic director Gerry Barnes, warned that due to a 15% cut in Arts Council funding, theatrical activity might “pause” over the summer. The Belltable’s AC funding was previously reduced by a quarter in 2010. It’s worrying when a theatre warns of a possible pause in theatrical activity.

Theatrical activity isn’t a DVD that you can pause, rewind and fast forward at will…or unlike the films in the Cine-Club, which the Belltable was increasingly relying on to fill up its programme. I love films but when a venue is not doing enough of what it became best known for, people aren’t so inclined to go. When there is a high chance of noise disruption, both audiences and performers get put off. It gets harder to attract productions and harder to draw people, and so on.

Also, I feel that pricing according to what row you sit in doesn’t work that well in a 220 seat venue with 25/26 rows. A bigger venue has levels or tiers and there is a significant difference with the view. Maybe the nosebleed seats i.e. the back five rows should be cheaper but I reckon everything else should be the same price. It’s better to fill the place with cheaper tickets than quarter fill it with more expensive seats.

Earlier in 2012, there was the unexplained non-appearance of the Unfringed Festival in its regular spot in January. I was told that it was rescheduled to summer. So when it didn’t appear that summer, I emailed Mr Barnes and I rang twice, leaving messages. No response. Thankfully it resurfaced, though rather abruptly, in October 2012. The programme—curated by Duncan Molloy—was very impressive and attendances (albeit in a variety of smaller venues as well as the Belltable) were healthy. What drew people out for the Unfringed?

Last year, I found that the houses in the Belltable generally were unpredictable. Sometimes it was full and other times it wasn’t. That is the case for most venues. I don’t have exact figures but I’d guess that the takings of the sell-outs weren’t making up for the rest. In the autumn, I got notices for LivingSocial deals on film and theatre tickets in the venue offering significant discounts. 159 of the ‘€10 for €20 to spend on theatre performances’ vouchers were purchased. I hope those people used them because although the promotional value expires on March 12, 2013, they’re about as useful as the HMV voucher your auntie got you for Christmas. Why not offer discounts directly via ticket bundles, social media or a loyalty scheme?

What now?

Although my patience had been wearing thin with the Belltable, I still miss it. Even the bad points weren’t enough to put me off going there. But I imagine all the things I’ve outlined (and more) annoyed the other patrons. During the refurbishment, audiences drifted away. After the move back home, audiences were driven away. People only have so much goodwill. I’m not blaming any one or any one factor. Maybe the Belltable just didn’t do enough to keep them coming through the doors. Maybe it lost sight of its remit and duty to artists, audiences and the community at large.

The climate has a lot to answer for too. People have less disposable income and going to see a play or a band is a luxury. There are more venues, all vying for business in a crowded market. The consumption and media of art have changed exponentially. Apathy is rampant. BUT although theatre, visual art and the written word have been around for thousands of years; music has lingered for many hundreds of years and even film has been reeling for over a century, there’s still a hunger for them locally and beyond.

The Belltable has a role. Now, the board et al needs to think very hard and not shy away from the issues here. Everyone gets very caught up in political correctness and not so much with doing the right thing. We can’t lose a prime city centre venue like this, particularly one which has had a large financial and artistic investment. It’s embarrassing ahead of Limerick’s campaign for City of Culture 2014. Define irony: The people involved in this drama need to act.

Review: Freud’s Last Session

freud-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigarI went to see this in the Belltable on November 28 and reviewed it for Irish Theatre Magazine. Read all about it here.

The play is touring further in 2013 and I would urge people to go and check it out. More information is available here.

Orchard TC has done some sterling work since its foundation. It has an exciting schedule of workshops, a schools programme and productions coming up in 2013.

Theatre at the Savoy in the next few days

Theatre at the Savoy has a packed few days ahead planned with lunchtime and evening performances for the Unfringed Festival and yet another new venture, children’s theatre, this Saturday.

In the regular monthly lunchtime slot tomorrow (Thursday October 26) and Friday, the play, PAYBACK! is on. The show is written and performed by Marion O’Dwyer and Maria McDermottroe.

The plot is as follows: “Welcome to the Invisible World of the Middle-aged Woman! Did you ever want to get your own back? Kitty and Mary do. Mary and Kitty have a plan. For…PAYBACK! Kitty and Mary have been hard done by, but they’re not taking it lying down! In the meantime, they’re having a jar, having a laugh, and hatching a plan.”

It has gotten good reviews with The Irish Times saying it was “neatly structured and with lots of funny lines, it’s an amusing, righteously angry hour” and the Sindo calling it good fun and “a magnificent and comprehensive revenge”.

The routine is as per usual. Doors at 12.50pm and start at 1.05pm. Be warned: half the €10 (includes lunch) tickets are sold already so reserve ahead to avoid disappointment (http://lunchtimetheatreorganiser.eventbrite.ie/We).

Also on tomorrow and Friday in the 6.30pm slot is The Wheelchair on My Face by Sonya Kelly. This won The Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2012 and has gotten brilliant reviews all round from the likes of Irish Theatre Magazine and RTÉ’s Arena.

“Part memoir, part theatre and part stand-up comedy” according to the Irish Independent, the play is performed by Kelly herself and directed by Gina Moxley.

“I got my first pair of glasses when I was seven. A nurse came to the school and tested everyone’s eyes. And so it was discovered why I’d thrown bread to the floating crisp packets in our local pond and walked into lamp posts and said,’excuse me’. Until that day the world was a swirl of moving coloured blobs. I thought it was the same for everyone. How wrong I was.”

Admission is €15 per person, payable at the door and that includes a glass of wine or soft drink.

Both these shows—and the sublime, Bandit, last week—were developed as part of Show in a Bag, an artist development initiative of Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Irish Theatre Institute to resource theatre makers and actors.

Then on Saturday October 27 at 12 noon the first children’s theatre show will open with Goblin’s, Goons and Witches starring Myles Breen. This will involve Halloween tales with puppets, rhyme and verse. It promises fun for all the family and everyone is encouraged to come in costume.

Admission is €7 per child (€12 for two children or €15 for three children) and adults go free, but they have to stay for the show.

Bookings by phone: 085-8554341 or at www.lunchtheatre.com. More info on all the plays on Facebook and Twitter (@lunchtheatre).

Unfringed runs until Sunday so try and all the listings are on www.belltable.ie.

Unfringed Festival 2012 starts tonight, Oct 16

The Limerick Unfringed Festival 2012 kicks off tonight (October 16) with a specially commissioned play, Siege.

The festival will run until October 28 and will include new and established theatre, music, dance, cinema and literary events. This year’s festival is curated by Duncan Molloy and the theme is ‘Darkness on the edge of town’.

The Unfringed used to take place in January but I think the new timeslot is a good move and spreading the festival events over 12 days will hopefully encourage audiences. There are a few ticket bundles available too, which might soften the financial outlay for some. The prices for events range from €7 to €22.50. The programme is a heady mix, with a lot of local input, so I would encourage people to support the festival by attending at least one event if they can at all. I’ll get to (and review if possible) a few things myself.

Siege is a local affair—written by Ciarda Tobin, directed by Marie Boylan and starring Aidan Crowe, Erica Murray and Joanne Ryan. The plot outline is as follows: “Pa is missing, Mouse is on the warpath and the houses are burning. This new short play, set in Limerick and inspired by the Trojan war, follows the exploits of Helena and her daughter as they discover Mouse’s secret and are forced to escape his fury. This is a highly charged urban play, which swings from karaoke to chaos and comedy to tragedy. It is rough and ready; it is savage and familiar. The production will be fast paced and physical.” The venue is the Belltable and it runs until Thursday.

Thursday lunchtime marks the first of three shows tying in with Lunchtime Theatre at the Savoy. Bandit—fresh from the Dublin Fringe—is on at 1pm on Thursday and Friday this week. On Friday (October 19) and Saturday nights, the multi award winning, Silent, by Pat Kinevane, is on at the Belltable. Act Without Words II by Samuel Beckett is on this Saturday and Sunday (two shows a night). The venue is site-specific but audiences meet at the Belltable.

Also on Sunday, Molloy’s own work—Mass—is on in the afternoon in the Limerick City Gallery of Art. Mass is on again on Sunday October 28. Interactive dance performance, Chimaera, by Angie Smalis is on Sunday and Monday night. On Tuesday October 23, there is a screening of the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Mimic by Raymond Scannell is on Wednesday and Thursday night (October 25). Also on Thursday and Friday, Payback and The Wheelchair on my Face will feature at Lunchtime and Teatime Theatre at the Savoy respectively. On Thursday, The Loft will host Under the Influence where comedian/actor Pat Shortt and playwright, Mike Finn, will discuss their inspirations. Later that same evening, there will be a celebration of Richard Harris presented by Bottom Dog Theatre Company and The Little Apple.

On Friday night, French jazz musician, Tigran will perform and on Saturday, band Scullion will perform. Unique live game, Day Zero, is taking place, every 20 minutes from 1-4pm on Saturday. The idea is that the city has been overrun by zombies and you have to find a way to survive. The venue is site-specific but audiences meet at the Belltable. On Sunday, the festival will conclude with a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna.

Find out more about the Unfringed programme at www.belltable.ie or download it here.

Feast of poetry at Cuisle Festival this week

It’s time for the feast of poetry that is the Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival again, which started today (Wednesday October 10) and will run until this Saturday.

The festival—in its 17th year—attracts poets of note from Ireland and internationally. It has a range of events including afternoon/evening readings, book launches, a daily poets’ convention, film screenings, a poetry slam and the Young Poet of the Year Awards.

The festival also runs a programme for schools with readings and workshops.

Poets taking part include: Terry McDonagh, Fred Johnston, John Pinschmidt, Máire Áine Nic Gearailt, John F. Deane, Moya Cannon, Peter Sirr, Sue Cosgrove, Medbh Mc Guckian, Fiona Clark Echlin, Paddy Bush, Anja Golob, Radharani Pernarčič, Veronika Dintinjana, Istok Osojnik, Lorna Thorpe and Jeremy Page.

Room—one of the films to be screened—was scripted by local poet, Mark Whelan. The latest Stony Thursday anthology is one of the books that will be launched. The venues are split between the Belltable, the Hunt Museum, the Daghdha Space, The White House and Bentley’s Bar.

Programmes are available around town but for more info, Cuisle is even on the Facebook now.

My two cents…

I’ve been going to Cuisle for a good few years now and I’m always pleasantly surprised. I’m not saying I love everything I read/hear but the variety of poetry, the vibrancy of language and the celebratory tone of the festival never fail to impress. Poetry isn’t about big words or lofty ideas but more about people trying to make sense of the world.

Many poets even like to write about poetry. I referred to the festival as a “feast” earlier and incidentally, there are a lot poems about ‘consuming’ poetry i.e. Mark Strand wrote: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry.” The food analogies are useful because of course, poetry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or maybe a bitter taste still lingers from your school days. But if you try a little bit, you might like it. If it doesn’t go down well, it can be your last supper.

I’m going to end this post with a funny poem by Billy Collins called ‘Introduction to Poetry’. As for me: I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.