|When Druid’s production of John B Keane’s 1964 classic The Year of the Hiker opened in Tralee on Wednesday night last, it marked the beginning of an extensive seven-week, eight-venue, forty two-performance tour across the length and breadth of the country from Kerry to Donegal, Ennis to Newbridge.|
It also marked another and important milestone in a continuing struggle to bring first-class theatre to audiences outside of Dublin.
It was fitting that Druid, as a pioneer of the theatre touring network in Ireland over the past thirty years, was the company centre stage in this instance given the tour, which after Siamsa Tíre Tralee takes in Cork Opera House, Glōr Ennis, An Grianán Letterkenny, The Pavillion Theatre Dun Laoghaire, Backstage Theatre Longford, the Riverbank Arts Centre Newbridge and the Dunamaise Arts Centre Portlaoise, is the result of an imaginative joint initiative (supported and funded by the Arts Council) between a group of leading regional venues and a touring-focussed company who believe no one should be denied access to state funded theatre because of geographic location.
The venues in question are collectively known as NASC (which means ‘link’ in Irish). They joined forces in 2005 to identify and produce, co-produce or present high quality, audience-driven touring theatre for regional audiences. The group felt that, by pooling their resources, they could better address their frustrations at the difficulties of bringing theatre productions to the regions in the absence of an Arts Council touring policy. And for NASC, Druid was the obvious and natural partner in tackling this burning issue.
Druid shared NASC’s frustrations, frustrations poignantly articulated most recently by Louise Donlon of Dunamaise Arts Centre in Portlaoise. Dunamaise opened seven years ago. In its first nine months it hosted ten Arts Council-subsidised theatre or dance companies including The Abbey, Opera Theatre Company, Red Kettle, Fishamble, Island Theatre Company, Calypso, Gallowglass and the Irish Modern Dance Theatre Company. This year, six years later, the same pre-Christmas period will see just one production by an Arts Council-subsidised company in the venue – Druid. This, by any standards, represents a staggering decline. So what went wrong?
In a nutshell, the Arts Council’s direct funding for touring was withdrawn in 2000 and prohibitive costs and financial risk kept theatre companies off the road. Touring quality productions is an expensive activity and in the absence of the companies’ running costs being underwritten, many hesitated to travel beyond their home territory. Ironically - and unfortunately - the withdrawal of direct touring support coincided with the coming on stream of a network of state-of-the-art venues across the country financed largely by grants from Government which in turn created unprecedented demand for touring ‘product’.The withdrawal and its timing thus created an enormous vacuum, a vacuum which benefited no-one - venues (established with Arts Council/Government funding), production companies (financed by Arts Council /Government funding) and audiences (whose taxes finance Government/Arts Council funding) were all left wanting.
The absence of specific funding meant less touring to regional venues,less performances for audiences, less employment for actors, creative and production personnel and lower standards right across the spectrum of Irish theatre. It just didn’t make sense.
Take Druid as an example of what was happening. In the twenty four years to 1999 when Druid received specific and additional Arts Council funds to tour, the company performed 78 productions at 83 locations in Ireland from Letterkenny to Listowel and from Carlow to Castlebar. The withdrawal of touring support in 2000 restricted the reach of the company’s productions, threatening to cause audience relationships built up nationwide over the previous decades to wither on the vine. Druid refused to concede defeat in the battle to hold on to those audiences and over the subsequent six years gradually re-built many of those relationships (albeit on a less extensive scale than that achieved during the company’s legendary Unusual Rural Tours of the eighties and nineties), banking on box office success to sustain its touring activity. But not every Irish theatre company had a sufficiently strong track record and relationship with regional audiences and venues to facilitate such risk taking. Something had to be done.
Druid thus welcomes the recent Arts Council announcement of a new programme to support touring across all the art forms. “The Touring Experiment” described as a dynamic and interactive two-year action research programme, has real potential to address the current impasse whereby venues across the regions are screaming for ‘product’ and production companies are lacking the financial resources to deliver productions to venues outside of major centres of population. The €2m fund promised for the ‘Experiment’ is not insignificant (although it is spread over two years and across all the art forms) but it is only a first step – the next step must be multi-annual funding to allow companies and venues security in planning, programming, relationship and audience building. All are an integral part of solving the problem.
Let the vision, imagination and resources which have, for example, allowed Culture Ireland achieve such a tremendous international touring impact in a very short timeframe be now applied with equal determination and skill closer to home to deliver first-class theatre to regional audiences. The NASC-Druid initiative, mirrored recently by the NOMAD-Livin’ Dred venture in the North Midlands, demonstrates what can be achieved when such vision and imagination is applied in a sensible and practical manner.
This article by Garry Hynes was first published in The Examiner on 7 November 2006