Cork Arts Theatre looks to the future

The woman at the helm of Cork Arts Theatre, Dolores Mannion, talks about their successful summer season and looks ahead to the venue’s future, writes LANE SHIPSEY
Cork Arts Theatre looks to the future
Cork Arts Theatre artistic director Dolores Mannion.Picture: David Keane.

CORK Arts Theatre’s artistic director Dolores Mannion has been involved in theatre since her teens.

Asked what first made her want to work in the sphere, she says: “I strongly remember seeing We Do It For Love by Patrick Galvin when I was 16 at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Liam Neeson was in it, believe it or not, one of his first parts, I think he played Pádraic Pearse. Seeing it made me want to find a way to be involved with the Lyric.”

Dolores is a woman who goes after what she wants. Born into an ordinary Belfast family, her mother was a tea lady and Dolores was the first in the family to attend university.

Her parents cautioned her against acting and encouraged her to train as a social worker, but when she enrolled in social science in 1973, Dolores also joined the young actors programme at the Lyric, where she was taught by its founder, Mary O’Malley. Trainees spent all day every Saturday at the theatre, and any other spare time they had. This was how they learnt the acting trade.

“I’m a better-trained actress than I am a director,” Dolores laughs, “I still tell people I am an actor who directs because nobody seems to want to cast me.”

One notable exception was Cork writer and dramatist, Patrick Galvin, whom she met during his time as writer in residence at the Lyric in the 1970s. Galvin later directed Dolores in one of her favourite roles, the title part in timeless one-woman play Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell, and she also played the Bear in his play The Cage, which premiered at Cork Arts Theatre in 2006.

Although she has now been artistic director at Cork Arts Theatre for more than two decades, Dolores still retains her down-to-earth Belfast accent. She moved to the Republic of Ireland to get married, living first in Dublin, then Midleton, where her husband’s job took them. It was here, in 1984, that she joined local theatre group Still Players. As she puts it: “The first night I walked in, the director of the show kind of fired himself on the grounds that I had more experience, so from the following week I was director of Still Players.”

An amateur group, the Players punched above their weight.

“They would play in the old Cork Arts Theatre quite regularly, and at The Triskel when it opened.”

In her 16 years with them, Dolores directed 82 plays, including a number of nights on which three one-act plays were performed the same night. Then, when the role of artistic director came up at the Cork Arts Theatre in 1998, Dolores applied and was appointed. Clearly it was a good fit.

“I loved it here, still do. We only seat 100 people, we’re a very intimate theatre, with very few frills. As an audience, this means you’re bang in the middle of the action — I always say theatre on this scale has to be good or people don’t come back.”

With core hours about on a par with an office job, plus the need to attend shows and occasionally to direct rehearsals, Dolores is a busy woman. Added to this, she also makes the soup for the summer Lunch and Supper series.

“It amazes me when I meet young actors who say they don’t go to the theatre — I think it’s essential. Seeing theatre, both good and bad, is part of how you learn your craft.

“Good theatre educates and entertains. But if it’s not of a good standard, well, I have been known to walk out.

“Michael McAuliffe had a code phrase that he would use — if he saw an actor in a show that wasn’t up to scratch, he would tell them, ‘My god, you worked hard on that’.”

While at the helm of Cork Arts Theatre, Dolores Mannion has overseen the theatre’s successful move in 2006 to its present very accessible venue at Carrolls Quay, and the move to buy this premises so as to secure a permanent home for the theatre. A reinvigorated board and a solid emerging artists programme are assisting with growing new audiences and building a future for the theatre.

Given its compact scale and affordable tickets, a sell-out show at Cork Arts Theatre with its 100 seats brings in less revenue than a larger theatre might do, so it is amazing that so many shows are staged here year on year. It is a great place for companies to try out new plays that they hope to tour. Artistic ingenuity plays a huge part, with recycled props being used where possible. A two-storey set for the premiere of Patrick Galvin’s The Cage was a rarity — approached creatively, minimal sets can perform equally well. A recent case in point is Wandering Star’s Adult Child / Dead Child, one of the summer’s Lunch and Supper shows. The set consisted of squares of light projected on the floor, like an outsize game-board. Solo actor Amber Deasy moved about the squares in such a way as to link them with unseen locations — home, the street, a secret hiding-place. The set’s simplicity focused attention on the writing, and on Deasy’s strong performance.

“It worked beautifully,” Dolores says of the piece, which was directed by Katrina Foley.

Dolores is especially proud of the emerging artists programme that Cork Arts Theatre is running throughout 2019 with Arts Council support. The programme has supported the staging of ten plays this year, with the theatre providing optional mentorships to the production companies.

The spring season was well received — these included Aoife Byrne’s history-conscious HerStory, and the deadly Primal, written by Ciarán Collins and directed by Shaun O’Connor.

Still to come this autumn are The Misfit Mythology, Wishful Thinking, and Three Men in a Boat.

Asked if the Cork Arts Theatre will run similar programmes in future, Dolores says they certainly hope so, but as yet have no confirmed sponsor or funder.

“But I would say to Cork people who enjoy contemporary theatre, and also to those who study drama or hope to work in theatre — come along. See the shows, tell us what you think, get involved.

“The theatre is here for all of us. And if ever you can’t afford a show that you’d love to see —bearing in mind it only costs the same as a night at the cinema — tell us, and we’ll find a way to fit you in.

“At the end of the day, a play is nothing without an audience, theatre is all about reaching people and making connections.”

Some of the upcoming shows include: The Misfit Mythology (October 11-12 ), Wishful Thinking (November 12-16), and Three Men in a Boat (November 19-30). Booking now online at www.CorkArtsTheatre.com or at the box office, 021 4505624.

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