A change in fortune for Cork Arts Theatre

As Cork Arts Theatre prepares to host eight plays this year, from new and emerging writers, COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to artistic director Dolores Mannion about the challenges and opportunities they have faced and positive times ahead.
A change in fortune for Cork Arts Theatre
Cork Arts Theatre on Carrolls Quay

THANKS to much-needed funding of €30,000 from the Arts Council, the Cork Arts Theatre will stage eight plays this year, from new and emerging writers.

Last year, the funding made it possible for the theatre to stage two plays by local artists, Sally Elsbury and Wandering Star Theatre Company.

Artistic director of Cork Arts Theatre, Dolores Mannion, admits that disillusionment had set in at the theatre because of past failures to attract funding.

“We had been applying to the Arts Council for years but we had kind of given up because it takes so long to get an application done and we really weren’t getting anywhere. So we decided not to bother. We had been told that we didn’t get funding because we were renting the property we worked from.”

However, the Cork Arts Theatre on Carroll’s Quay (formerly situated on Knapp’s Square) now has a mortgage that will be paid off in four years.

“That will make a huge difference because the mortgage is expensive. We thought that when we bought this venue, we would be flying and in a position to get Arts Council funding. But that didn’t happen. They said it was because we did a lot of amateur productions. That is true. We started our repertory company with professional actors. But we didn’t have the funding for it. Sets are hugely expensive. We were always cutting corners and that shows.”

Last year, the board of the Cork Arts Theatre underwent a change with some new young people appointed to it.

“It’s always good to get new blood. The board was saying to us to apply to the Arts Council again, so we went for it.”

Dolores, who has been artistic director of the theatre for 22 years, is “convinced” that Cork is full of talent.

“You only have to look at something like The Young Offenders to see that talent. A lot of the cast of it came through here. But in terms of theatre, we haven’t really been able to do anything for that talent.

“The bigger companies always got the grants. They use names that are known. That’s kind of understandable. But apart from Cillian Murphy and now, some of The Young Offenders cast, who do we know from Cork? Roles are being given to actors from Dublin. You might get the Everyman doing an in-house production once a year. But that costs a lot because of the set and all the other expenses.”

The Cork Arts Theatre, which can hold an audience of 100, can now afford to do more productions for less money because expenses are much lower, Dolores said.

The theatre is offering a good deal. Companies come in and get rehearsal space in Eason’s Hill for up to four weeks. They have two weeks use of the theatre, with the provision of a stage manager and a lighting technician. All of this is free.

Cork Arts Theatre artistic director Dolores Mannion.Picture: David Keane.
Cork Arts Theatre artistic director Dolores Mannion.Picture: David Keane.

“Every penny that’s taken at the box office goes directly back to the company once the rent is taken out. Our ticket price is generally around €15, so there’s the potential of €1,500 per night.”

Dolores says that she had 48 applications for the deal. These were whittled down to ten.

“We would have loved to have selected 15 plays. But it wasn’t possible. There was a lot of criteria that we asked for, such as how the play was going to be staged. The plays we picked are very varied and interesting and mostly new. We have always supported new writing.”

The reason each play will have a two-week run is because interest in plays in the city is generated by word-of-mouth, says Dolores.

Is there a supportive audience for theatre in Cork?

“They’ll come if they have heard of you and if they love the play. But theatre will die unless there’s new material. There’s nothing better than theatre that’s good. We have a fantastic intimate space. I have real faith in and excitement about this project.”

Prior to the injection of funding, the Cork Arts Theatre got by on a wing and a prayer.

“We depended on the rental income and fund-raisers that we do every year such as the ten x ten plays, Views from... and our lunchtime and supper season. We get a small grant from City Council every year which pays one month’s mortgage. We keep costs down. The heating in the theatre doesn’t go on until 7pm.”

Dolores says that, historically,, much of the Cork Arts Theatre output was amateur.

“There’s very little amateur acting going on now. Does that mean theatre is any better? It seems everybody is going to college now to do drama. You’ve got UCC, Kinsale College of Further Education, Colaiste Stiofán Naofa and CIT Cork School of Music. All these colleges are giving diplomas, certificates or degrees.

“People come out of these places and all of a sudden, they’re ‘professional’. But doing a course doesn’t mean you’re professional. Yes, you can be taught technique but you can’t be taught talent. If you don’t have the talent, a degree or diploma isn’t going to make any difference. Or you can be lucky. It’s like any talent. If you get the break, you might go to the sky.”

A former social worker who worked on Belfast’s Shankill Road, Dolores always loved theatre and ended up working with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast before she came south. While she has directed numerous plays, her first love is acting. She was appointed director of the Still Players in Midleton within two weeks of joining the group.

Looking back on her 22 years at the Cork Arts Theatre, Dolores says: “I think we’ve done well to stay open. We’ve done a good job. But other times I think I’ve done a terrible job because the theatre hasn’t progressed to be as well known as it should be.

“Hopefully, the €30,000 will change things. It’s an opportunity for us. We have always been rent-driven. This year we can take a back seat from that knowing that we have income.”

The nine part-time staff members at the Cork Arts Theatre are all on community employment schemes. Dolores, who is full time, is the supervisor of the scheme which pays her wages.

This year’s season of emerging artists kicks off on February 4 with a production of Brendan Griffin’s play, A Thousand Moments of Extraordinary Pleasure. This is the tale of a cross-dresser who reaches out on social media for another man to admire him.

Then, Ciarán Collins’ play, Primal, opens on March 5. Ciarán teaches English and Irish in Hamilton High School in Bandon.

“I love it. We have a fantastic creativity group in the school called the Prometheans and I teach the lads creative writing and film-making. Creativity in education is something that I’m very interested in.”

Ciarán had a novel, The Gamal, published by Bloomsbury in 2013. It won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature as well as an award in France.

“It was all a bit surreal and it was very well received critically too. I felt very fortunate. It makes the second novel a little daunting, but I think it’s coming along quite well.”

Primal is the second play that Ciarán has written, but the first to be produced.

“In many ways, I consider myself a playwright first and foremost. It’s what I specialised in, in my MA at UCC back along and I still read plays voraciously. I love the form.”

Ciarán says that Cork Arts Theatre’s role in his play being produced “could not be overstated. The level of support we are receiving from the talented, professional team is really fantastic. We’re also thrilled with the actors we’ve got. Jack Walsh and Tommy Harris are both amazing actors.”

For more see www.corkartstheatre.com.

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