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.

Heaney draws the crowds at Kate O’Brien Weekend

The 28th Kate O’Brien Weekend rounded off very successfully with a reading by Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, to a packed auditorium in Mary Immaculate College today (Feb 26). I discuss it further down.
Firstly, there is an update on Kate O’Brien’s former home, Boru House. Mayor Jim Long announced that it was to be restored and turned into a writers’ centre. No-one could tell me definitively, however, whether the purchaser was a private individual or the local authority. It may even be a partnership of some type. The irony of the event’s theme ‘Tell it slant” isn’t lost on me! But the important thing is that it’ll be preserved. It is obvious, judging by the strong attendance at the weekend, that the city’s literary history has a certain appeal.
The weekend involved lectures, discussions and recitals. It was well organised as always, drawing a big crowd and featuring a broad range of participants. I went to several talks/readings on Saturday.
Leading sociologist, Dr Niamh Hourigan, gave a very interesting presentation on the concepts of intimacy and integrity in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. We have two conflicting moralities. She spoke at length about the role that colonisation had in shaping our modern culture and society. She even put forward an explanation of why the Irish political system depends so much on favours and funerals. Her research is still in progress and I’d say the finished product will be a compelling read.
Heaney n KOB 2 copy
Seamus Heaney reads under the stern gaze of Kate O’Brien
The poet, Katherine Towers, delivered a lovely reading of her work. Her poetry had strong natural themes running through it but I preferred her pieces about music. She said someone had told her once “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Well I don’t agree and thankfully she doesn’t either because otherwise she wouldn’t have written poems like ‘Counterpoint’ and ‘The Glass Piano’. Most of the vocabulary of music, unsurprisingly, has great sounds and Towers harnesses that language to great effect.
Novelist John Boyne read from his latest novel, The Absolutist. He spoke briefly about writing in general beforehand; his best piece of advice was probably that there is no set place that writers get ideas but they have to be open to ideas; recognise the good ones and grab them! The novel deals with the tricky subject of a conscientious objector during World War told from the viewpoint of his best friend. Boyne is a fine writer and an engaging reader. I’m definitely going to get the book on the strength of the reading.
Frank McNally, who writes the brilliant ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times, drew comparisons between Flann O’Brien and Kate O’Brien, or “the two extremes of 20th century Irish literature” as he described them. His talk was as witty as the column, although he pointed out that Kate O’Brien rarely used humour in her work…where Flann couldn’t see the serious side of things.
Seamus Heaney
Heaney 2
The closing event was The Kate O’Brien Lecture, which took the form of a reading by Seamus Heaney but he also spoke about how the poems he selected came about and his personal experiences. Heaney is to Irish literature what Bono is to Irish rock music in his ability to draw a crowd, and hold it totally in thrall. The new Lime Tree Theatre was full to its 500+ capacity and with all types of people, from kids to the elderly, such is the universal appeal of his work.
He read several poems about Spain because O’Brien had close links with the country. ‘The Little Canticles of Asturias’ was particularly interesting. His writings about his childhood tend to strike a chord with a lot of people. He read, Mossbawn: Sunlight, which is one of my favourites. It’s a beautiful tribute to his aunt in a description of her baking: “And here is love like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin”. The little miracles of household chores were also present in two sonnets about his mother, which describe peeling potatoes and folding sheets. Their closeness is apparent in every word.
The love poem, ‘Tate’s Avenue’, is another study of intimacy. ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, about Heaney’s stroke several years ago, is very evocative. He describes the “bone-shaking” ambulance journey with his wife looking on, worried. One line resonated: “We might, O my love, have quoted Donne/On love on hold, body and soul apart.” It was a diverse cross-section of his work. ‘Out of the bag’ was an unexpected delight. It’s a poem about how a young Heaney thought the local doctor brought babies in his big bag and his surgery must be full of baby body parts…sounds perverse but it’s funny when you hear it! Another poem that people seemed to respond to was ‘Peacock’s Feather’, written as a christening present for his wife’s niece. You can hear the reading here, courtesy of Limerick Writers’ Centre.
I saw him read once before in Mary I when I was a student there and his poetry is as powerful as ever. It was a pleasure to hear him read again. Unfortunately, he didn’t read my favourite poem of his—‘The Forge’. That’s a giant of a poem, much like the man himself.
All I know is a door into the dark,
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.