Urbana: moving theatre out of the city – Hannah O’ Reilly


As a frequent Dublin-based theatre goer I can’t help but feel underrepresented.


Let’s put aside the fact that this is a universal truth for women theatre-goers, and unfortunately will be until gender balances are solid Policies in the Arts. (I’m also choosing to not touch on the utter void that is the lack of  support and circulation for Irish language Theatre, for fear of biting off too much to chew here). No, I mean as a country mouse, I rarely if ever see my life or background depicted on city stages. I am from a town in East Galway, not too big, not too small, and even in respect of Martin McDonagh’s wild westerners; rare is the show in which I see myself.


There are a few reasons why this might be:



Being in the era of Post-Modernism as we are, there is the inevitability that plays produced within this current style will have no particular setting.  Performed in an unnamed dimension or space, a lot of plays today simply don’t even enter in to the contract of depicting Irish lifestyle or geography. Nonetheless, way more settings staged in this context, that I have seen, seem somehow reminiscent of city life. Either way, let’s take in to account and make peace with the fact that some post-mod theatre won’t depict a specific place in its story, because it can often tend to the abstract.



Theatre Distribution

Cities are saturated by theatre, leaving rural areas starved of theatrical escape, aside from the annual community musical, Panto or classic play. –Not that they’re not wonderful community experiences, and great fun. I make the pilgrimage every year back home to see Dad play his role in the musicals, or lend a cameo to a play. It is the fact that if people who don’t live in cities want to see professional, high-quality theatre, that is supposedly representing them here and abroad, they have to make the pilgrimage to a city. Druid Theatre is known far and wide, even outside of my Alma Mater city of Galway, as the gang who defied it all in gaining national traction with their productions and consistent, sufficient audiences of the Capital. The company with the strongest footfall will always be king. This has to be accepted, as it is the format through which theatre keeps itself as a financial contender, but it cost next to nothing, comparatively, to hire a venue in a town or smaller city than it does in Dublin.

(It also costs a shitload to tour a show and pay the people involved, so I respect that.)



Funding Distribution

Money goes to the city.  Within the “Big Five” of Irish theatre making companies, (The Abbey, The Gate, Rough Magic, Druid, and Pan Pan), Druid is the only one from out side of Dublin. Other funded companies include Blue Raincoat and Corcadorca, but aren’t what I’d call the financial Big Daddies when looking at the support from the government. Mo’ money, mo’ shows. If theatre makers and writers outside of Dublin are not given more funding, the wide and wild array of Irish characters and stories will never see the light of day. If funding goes to the city mice, they of course will write what they know: City life.


Isn’t that a bit… disproportionate, considering there is a whole country out there, with other theatre making towns and cities?

I actually feel a little angry even typing this, but from my personal experience, getting funders, reviewers with national coverage, venue managers, artistic directors, anyone from inside the city (of Dublin) to come see something outside of Dublin was like PULLING TEETH. When I was working with ThereisBear! Theatre, only once that I know of in the ten shows we produced did a funding body come to see our work (happy to be corrected on this): When we did the inaugural Druid Fuel Initiative (which Galway practitioners should all apply for when the right time comes, because it is a fantastic commodity), it was very validating to have someone in the arts funding scene make the trip to see us, having spent years trying to get them over. Was this because we were working with their leading Western representative? Who knows. Could such a long record of absences be down to lack of funding their employees and scouts trips out side of the city? More likely. At any rate, not half enough attention and responsibility is given to ensuring art made outside of the capital is recognised, when it comes to theatre and theatre-making.



The City Wheel

Artists who come to Galway or Cork or Dublin (as I have) to seek work in a more theatrically prolific area will inevitably need time to establish themselves, unless they’re well connected, and gain that pinch of luck. Either way, a lot of hard work and time (AND MONEY) goes in to creating work. I have a feeling that in this time, one’s surroundings effect one’s being. I would identify myself as a woman of the city. I love bit cities, the bigger the place, the more comfortable I feel. On reflection, it was only recently that I realised I had not been making any effort to represent people from the place I grew up. And thus, the cycle begins: Must one abandon their rural life to combatting unfunded rural artistic practice? We’re all too familiar with the pressures of ‘having to be seen’, ‘having to make work’, having to consistently make work to make “more noteworthy” work.  Though, who’s to say this is the case? Work need not be expensive and extravagant to be good. What’s the big deal? I thought you artists were supposed to be in it for the art? Well, if artists can’t be in it for the art if they’re dead from hunger or homeless from lack of rent. Sure, a play of genius need not always have a Midas budget, but it does require dedication: Effort, space to breathe -actually, space to work too. These things come at a cost. Be it a job, sleep, or personal income, and those resources are only so finite.


My issue with only staging country bumpkins or mystic superstitious rural plays is that we only ever see one side of it: a negative one. People come to a show about life in the country and think ‘Ah, how far we’ve come’, where as buzzing drug-fuelled life in a city is just one perfectly acceptable topic of many that renders a city existence on stage. As a contrary example, Jericho, by Malaprop Theatre, was a fantastic show about a journalist in Dublin writing about wrestling, in the hopes of shedding light on something underground and giving meaning to her life: the millennial struggle. There are many compelling stories out in the country; out in the smaller cities, too, but they don’t get air time.


Now, personally, I have always had an affinity for the Big Smoke. I always wanted to move here, I love being here, and I love the work and the people, and when I first came here I endured months of couches and floors and the kindness of others just to get a roof over my head. But there’s something in that alone that catches in my craw…  I feel like housing issues and the over-population of the place –of any city- leads to the city bubble of (yep, here it comes) privilege. It is very hard to get here. Does that mean it is subconsciously perceived as some sort of honour to be here? Do people work so hard to live in their cities that they get less time to go home to the country? Or, and what I feel is most plausible, there’s so much going on in a city, that we forget that joyous, plentiful, or hard life and hubbub outside of it actually exists.


People who don’t live in cities are not some sort of estranged mole-people, who live a routine life, less interesting than those who do, so why am I only seeing city-based content? Okay, I live in a city, but don’t people who live in the country only see contemporary theatre about cities…if any at all?


In Ballinasloe, where I’m from, Philadelphia, Here I Come has been on four times in the last twenty years, followed by Sive, and Moll, twice, each. Fantastic play (fantastic players, too), but where is the new stuff? Hell, even in the Abbey Playboy of the Western World… I need say no more about the track record of that piece, new shows are not given priority. And new shows about life today for people NOT in the Capital or a big city seem to barely exist.


This is the part where I am grateful


In fairness, (obviously) there are works that break the mould.


Here are some lovely examples of contemporary work that focuses on rural subjects:


The Man in Woman’s Shoes. Toured extensively all over the country. Really depicting rural Irish community and characters. A heart-warming must see!


The Humours of Bandon. Touring extensively (understatement). About a Dubliner pursuing and Irish dancing career, but I feel still deserves a shout-out, considering a) she’s going to the Irish open and young Irish dancers to be can all identify with that I’m sure, and b) It really is touring so extensively


Pleasure Ground. Fregoli Theatre. Toured extensively. Written by Jarlath Tivnan, and directed with the sensitive hand of Maria Tivnan, Fregoli’s show hit the nail on the head of living in a small town. A kick-ass play by theatre makers and playwrights based in Galway.


Misterman. Toured internationally. I loved this beast. Cillian Murphy, on a stage where he needs to actually leg it to efficiently get from one side to the other to keep the story going. The man flung a hammer into the depths of that stage, and it just disappeared into distance! This rehashed show by Enda Walsh depicts Thomas McGill, Inishfree’s…odd guy, and his interactions with the rest of the town, as an evangelist of sorts. Very touching, drastic, and remarkably familiar in the characters portrayed.


The Seagull. Performed in the Dublin Theatre Festival. Didn’t tour. Beautiful, bright, green backdrop already gave Annie Ryan’s take on this Russian piece a familiar setting for me. An interesting sense of feeling a bit idle and a bit far away from heavily populated places. I grant, these are city dwellers in the country, so is it a country story? I don’t know, but it gave me the rural vibe anyway.


Locha na hEala/Swan Lake. Dublin Theatre Festival. Currently on in Clonmel. This was an excellent piece of theatre by Michael Keegan-Dolan. It was stunning. Intense, fantastical, but at the same time, reminiscent of Irish Catholic-influenced town life, namely in Longford. (Speaking to a few fellow makers, I was struck by their aversion to it for the depiction of women as weak and innocent This is something I forgive in this context, however in light of the fact that it’s embracing for its hybrid-adaptation of Swan Lake and the Children of Lir. The female characters could have not been the victims, but it was insanely compelling, the vulnerability of the young girls like a visual Derek Walcott poem.


Donegal. The Peacock Theatre. I didn’t see this, but a musical about Donegal, in Dublin? Perfect.


Jimmy’s Hall. (Very happy to have seen this in the Abbey calendar) Yet, to breach Dublin, this one will be touring the country, and –it bears repeating- is produced by the Abbey. The national theatre recognising the nation? I’m on board. (Next time, I’d want something a bit more current, with maybe a few more women, BUT not biting the hand the feeds here. I’m happy for now).


A pile of shows that depict country life! But, these plays were over a span of three years (even longer, including Misterman). I’m not saying I’ve seen all the shows out there, now. I’m really only adding the list to show that I acknowledge and respect them as shows depicting rural culture, for audiences nationwide in most cases. But as someone who would average maybe 30-40 plays a year, I do not find this sufficiently representative of life in Ireland (ie life in more than just the capital or a city).


I do not want to see the classics any more. Some modernisations are cool and relevant to a changing Ireland, but no. I don’t want to know about dead men from 100 years ago, talking about the rising. I don’t want to know more about the hardship of the Irish history. I don’t want to hear it. I want to see the impact of that history: I want to see Now. I want to see tomorrow. I want to experience my hometown. I want to see me. I want to see you!


This is where I feel hopeful.

What is the most interesting time to be alive for an audience? Their own time. It does not matter whether we are from a city or not. People are so interesting, and the crooked-houses and all-knowing archetypes of town politics, hopes and aspirations are equally as valid, equally as present, and equally as important for people across the nation to see as those of city dwellers, myself included.


I feel hopeful for our future as theatre makers and theatre goers. We live in the most well connected time that ever there was, physically, digitally, emotionally, and soon culturally. I am confident that theatre (and its funders) will get on board with this movement. It is time to therapy the fuck out of ourselves as a nation. We can unpick our cultural differences (be it geographical or generational) and our hang ups, if more theatre goers actually SEE these cultural minorities represented on stage. This will provide an actual realistic impression of the Irish experience and populace today. We have very exciting directors at the helm of our National and Capital theatre facilities, with a more accessible way for proposals and application for funding to go from outside of the capital to the funding panels that live deep inside it. It just takes time, and savvy.


Everyone is valid. Everyone deserves stage time, as it were. With open minds, from funding bodies and encouraging hearts of audiences and perseverance from theatre makers across the country, we will certainly begin to see a body of work on our stages that is curated without prejudice, with geographical blindness that gives a robust insight to all life in Ireland.


Hannah O’ Reilly