WORKING nationally and internationally as a freelance theatre producer for the last 20 years, Maura O’Keeffe is used to helping theatre practitioners with funding applications and hosting advice clinics - often for no payment.
Money can be tight in the theatre world. But Maura lives and breathes theatre. It’s more than a modest living for the Castlelyons native. It is her passion.
She is the reason Corcadorca is in New York with its production of Enda Walsh’s play, The Same, playing at the Irish Arts Centre until March 6, having premiered at the Old Cork Prison in 2017.
The play, starring sisters Eileen and Catherine Walsh, has won a number of awards. It’s the first theatre production in the new building of the Irish Arts Centre in Hell’s Kitchen.
Maura and Sara Cregan, who was associate producer with Landmark Productions for almost a decade, set up Once Off Productions last year.
It’s an independent producing platform which is run under a pilot scheme funded by the Arts Council. The company received funding of €240,000 last year and the same again this year, which allows Maura and Sara to pay themselves a salary and support theatre productions.
“Basically we’re guns for hire,” says Maura.
“We don’t know if this new initiative will continue. Normally I would take my fee from a project and share it with a young producer that I’d bring in with me. Now I can bring in a young producer and give them the full fee for whatever project they’re working on with me.
“So, basically, the theatre artist gets more bang for their buck. I’m not spending all the hours that I have trying to help artists and not getting paid for it.”
Through Once Off Productions, production management support is offered.
“We have brought a bunch of young production managers into the mix. We give them a monthly fee. They can help artists to plan.”
The Arts Council has funded three organisations for the pilot scheme. As well as Once Off Productions, there is a group called Field Arts providing support services for producers and there is a Galway-based group called Branar which supports companies making work for young audiences.
Maura says: “The good thing for me is that I’m doing what I’ve always been doing for the past 20 years but now I’m getting paid for all the work. Before, I’d be paid for about half of it.”
She wasn’t paid for “the in-between stuff” such as the advance planning.
“Nobody ever got paid for that. Artists used to constantly feel that they were coming to me cap in hand.
"Now I’m able to say that they’re coming to me as part of a professional relationship. It just makes everyone feel a bit more grown up,” she said.
Freelancing in the theatre world is tough going, says Maura. Constant touting for work is all part of it.
“I like that part and I like working on different projects. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed.”
Maura has always had young producers working with her such as Julie Kelleher, former artistic director of the Everyman who now runs the Mermaid Arts Centre in Wicklow, when she was starting out.
“This allows me to juggle parenting and work. I’m still at the school gates every day. That model of having a young producer allows me to have a career and be a parent.”
Cappoquin-based Maura has a 13-year-old daughter, Nora Kate, and is married to Mel Mercier, composer and chair of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick.
Maura says she is lucky to be married to someone in the arts as he is aware of how unstable such a career can be.
“I subsidise my producing work by working part-time for Lismore Castle, managing private hire there. My husband is very understanding.”
Asked what is the highlight of her career, Maura, who clearly doesn’t have stars in her eyes, says that just being able to pay young producers “even a half decent fee” marks a high point for her.
“Also, Corcadorca going to New York is a real thrill. It’s a magnificent play.
"Enda’s plays and productions have been out in the world. It’s kind of lovely to see this little thing that happened at the old prison in Cork being in New York.”
How did the stateside production come about?
“I had been talking to Pat Kiernan (artistic director of Corcadorca) and Fin Flynn (former Corcadorca company manager, now manager of the CAT Club) about how brilliant the play is. They knew I was interested in doing something with it. I’ve done a lot of international work. Pat and Fin approached me, saying they’d be interested in maybe looking at an international tour.”
Maura linked up with Washington-based freelance performing arts consultant, Edie Demas (who used to work with Graffiti Theatre Company in Cork).
“We set up a partnership whereby Edie works on the international side of productions. The Same is our first project together. It took two or three years to get it over the line.
“Our second project will be Manchán Magan’s solo show, Arán agus Im, which will go on a U.S tour starting on March 10.
An arts graduate of UCC, Maura started producing with Meridian Theatre Company. She went on to work with the Dublin Theatre Festival for a number of years before going freelance in 2003. When Fin Flynn left Corcadorca in 2020, Maura stepped in temporarily and faced the challenge of producing work during the pandemic.
“Fin had worked with Once Off Productions last year on a part-time basis. When she took over the CAT Club, we realised what a brilliant opportunity it would be for us to support young artists in Cork by supporting Fin. So we’re putting some resources into the CAT Club. It will involve a trainee production manager role. It will mean that young companies coming into the venue will have a little bit more support. We’re doing that for a year in a much-loved building that doesn’t get any funding.”
Maura’s daughter is an enthusiastic student of the Montfort College of Performing Arts.
“The Montforts got us through lockdown with online stuff right down to a Christmas party held online.”
Growing up “in the sticks”, Maura didn’t have the opportunity to do drama. She is a great believer in exposing children to the performing arts.
“Anywhere there’s encouragement to interact is good. It teaches kids a bit of team spirit.”
Maura puts her beliefs into practice in her work with collaboration being a big part of what she does.
The Same has already toured to Galway for the arts festival there.
“Getting it to New York is no major difference but we did have a bit of a scare with the shipping before Christmas.
“The knock-on effect of that boat that got stuck in the Suez Canal meant there was a real scarcity of containers. Everything was a bit wobbly for a while, but we got there in the end.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Maura, who has her eye on the big picture.