REMEMBER when a night out at a gig, a comedy show or a play was something we just took for granted?
Here in Cork, we are spoiled for choice with theatrical venues. The current inability to attend live performances has left a void in the lives of both audiences and artists alike.
It’s important to remember that the spotlight doesn’t always fall directly on those who make the magic of a live event happen, however.
With Covid-19 restrictions still at level-5 in Ireland, the curtains have come down again on theatres and live performance venues across the country. Months of writing, rehearsals, preparation and promotion are on pause as events are cancelled, ticket holders are refunded, or shows are rescheduled, with no amount of certainty for a future date.
Our sympathies often lie with performers and artists, whose livelihoods are dependant on being able to reach their audience, but there is always a scaffold and network of people working tirelessly behind the scenes to bring each performance to its audience.
One such person is Cork woman Claire O’Connell. Behind every great event there is a great producer and Claire’s career as Co-founder, Managing Director and Producer of Cork production company Cccahoots has gained her the reputation of being one of the best in the business.
Her passion and enthusiasm for her work is infectious as she recalls her career to date, the challenges that Coronavirus have brought to the industry, and the future of theatre while pandemic restrictions are in place.
Claire, originally from Kinsale now living in Passage, had her first taste of theatre at the age of 16, with a work-experience placement at Cork’s Everyman Palace. She laughs, remembering how she learned on her feet and got to grips with some of the technical terms used in the business.
“One of the first tasks the Technical Manager gave me was to sort the gels. I naively thought I was going to the dressing room to sort out hair gels, but I wasn’t long learning that gels are the coloured sheets used for lighting.”
In that week, Claire gained invaluable experience, getting to be part of the ‘Get in’, which is when a company arrives to the theatre and the set is built in preparation for the performance. “I was also there at night, during the shows, seeing how everything works backstage. As a 16-year-old this was just amazing and I can genuinely say that I still love the live aspect of theatre today.”
Although bitten by the theatre bug, Claire went on to study for an accounting degree in CIT and after graduation travelled to Australia, working in accounting for three years.
“I always knew I would come back to theatre so I came home to study Theatre Production with Marion Wyatt and Tim Murphy in Coláiste Stiofán Naofa. My dad thought I was absolutely mad leaving a good steady job but I have never regretted it. Life is too short — I believe in living it.”
Within her first year of working in the business, Claire worked with The Everyman, Cork Opera House and Corcadorca. In 2015 she joined forces with well-known Cork actor, writer and comedian Tadhg Hickey and founded their production company Cccahoots. Together they created several shows for RTÉ including the sitcom The School, starring fellow Corkonians Dominic MacHale and Laura O’Mahony.
“We built up a national profile and ended up touring Ireland. We sold out the Cork Opera House which was just amazing. I will never forget watching from backstage as Tadhg, Dominic and Laura got a standing ovation. It was so emotional and feeling that all the hard work had led to this point was just unforgettable.” Claire recalls the rollercoaster of producing a large project like The School for RTÉ.
“We had about 100 cast members including 72 children. They say never work with children or animals, so trust Tadhg to have both in his scripts. We had a goat, a pig, a chicken, a rabbit and two goldfish on one of the days and that was on top of the 72 children!”
The role of producer is is to be a master multi-tasker and while the more functional aspects of her job have to be met. Claire is always conscious of making sure everyone involved is well looked after.
“I spent much of my time either on the phone or doing paperwork during the shoot, but I broke away as much as I could to check on the children and make sure everyone was happy on set. As a company, it is always our priority to have a good atmosphere on set, so to hear the lovely feedback from the parents after the shoot made our day.”
What Claire loves most about her work is that no two days will ever be the same.
“Being self-employed can be tough when you don’t know how much money you will earn next month, but then you have the freedom to just head to the beach on a sunny day!”
Like many people in the arts, Claire’s ability to work has been decimated by the impact of Covid-19. Tadhg’s solo play In One Eye, Out the Other had attained great critical acclaim in 2019 and was the most nominated show at the Dublin Fringe Awards 2019.
Following on from this success, the play was scheduled to tour Ireland this year, including a sell-out run in The Everyman. It was also to feature at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the month of August. With all dates cancelled, Claire’s work schedule all but evaporated for 2020.
The production company remain optimistic throughout. “Both myself and Tadhg are lucky in that we both have a positive outlook on things and believe it will all be alright.”
Claire believes that theatre spaces can be accessed safely by reduced capacity audiences. She describes a run the show was lucky enough to have had in Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin just before the current lockdown.
“There were 46 audience members in a theatre that can normally seat 180, everyone wore masks the entire time they were in the venue and there was plenty of hand sanitizer everywhere.
“I felt completely safe as a theatre space is such an easy environment to control in terms of maintaining social distance.”
Not defeated by Level-5 restrictions entirely, Claire, in conjunction with Smock Alley Theatre, recently managed to bring a live performance of In One Eye, Out the Other to viewers in the safety of their own homes via live streaming.
“Smock got funding to invest in cameras and equipment and we were very proud to be their first live stream event. It was exciting and nerve-wracking for all of us. With a live show, anything could go wrong! I cried with happiness when the show ended, knowing it had all gone perfectly.
“We were delighted with the support from the public and the beautiful, positive comments they gave the show.”
Claire believes live streaming is the perfect solution for the public to continue to enjoy a live performance while those in the industry can continue to work. She is hopeful for the future. “People who work in the arts industry love what we do, we will do anything we can to save it.”
I felt completely safe as a theatre space is such an easy environment to control in terms of maintaining social distance.