What next for Cork's Julie Kelleher after she leaves much-loved theatre?

Julie Kelleher has left the Everyman to take up a new post in the arts world. MARIA ROLSTON chats to her about the highlights of her time at the much-loved Cork theatre, and what the future holds
What next for Cork's Julie Kelleher after she leaves much-loved theatre?

Julie Kelleher. Picture: Darragh Kane

CORK woman Julie Kelleher has successfully managed to bag herself a rare thing during Covid-19 — a new job in the arts sector.

The former Artistic Director of Cork’s Everyman Theatre, who has been six years at the helm, was recently announced as the new CEO and Artistic Director of the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, County Wicklow, and is due to take up the post mid September.

It’s an unusual time to move into a new role in the arts world, which was almost entirely shut down during the height of the pandemic.

The departure of Julie, who brought ground-breaking work and box office hits such as the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It and musician Mick Flannery’s Evening Train to The Everyman, could also leave a gaping hole in Cork’s cultural landscape during what is a critical, if not crisis, period for the arts sector.

Julie, however, believes it’s the “best possible time” to make the move and open up a space for somebody new to come to The Everyman and “reimagine its future” working with the theatre’s committed team.

“Strangely, the Covid situation might have made life a little bit easier for me in terms of my own psychological dealing with moving because everything has changed,” said Julie.

“I’m a person who likes to plan very meticulously but I suppose we’re all learning to have to let go of some of the things that we thought were fixed points in our personal lives and professional lives.

“So, for me, whilst everything is up in the air anyway, it seems like the best possible time to move, while everything is fluid.”

Julie Kelleher. Picture:Darragh Kane
Julie Kelleher. Picture:Darragh Kane

Juile has been appointed to the top Mermaid Arts Centre post which is being vacated by outgoing CEO and Artistic Director, Niamh O’Donnell, who is moving on to head up Poetry Ireland.

Interestingly, the Poetry Ireland post was made vacant by the appointment of Maureen Kennelly to the position of director of the Arts Council of Ireland. Kennelly is also a former Mermaid Arts Centre boss so when the position arose, Julie went for it and says she’s excited to be following in the footsteps of incredible female role models.

All four of her predecessors at The Mermaid have been women and she believes that “says a lot about the role of “brilliant female leadership” in the arts world.

“I wasn’t looking to move on in any active way. I had always thought about what might be next and I had the philosophical idea that it’s not good to stay in one place for a long time. I think it’s not good for the individual concerned and I don’t know that it’s necessarily good for the institution either.

“I think it’s healthy for people to move on or respond to new spaces and new communities,” said Julie. “The reality is there’s a very limited number of roles in Cork city available to anybody working in the arts and when you move to a certain level, the pool gets smaller again. I suppose it was always clear to me that if I was looking for a move, I was going to have to be looking beyond Cork city.”

Julie can be credited with revitalising The Everyman programming, engaging with a wider audience and raising the theatre’s national profile during her tenure as artistic director — all of which are goals she set out to achieve. And although The Mermaid Arts Centre has a smaller auditorium, totalling 242 seats compared with The Everyman’s 650, the new role offers both more diversity and responsibility.

“The Mermaid is smaller but the current reality for all arts venues is that the maximum any of us are allowed to operate to is 50, so everything has been levelled in the short term.

“For me, the new role as artistic director and CEO is a chance to lead the organisation in a way that I haven’t previously had the opportunity to.

“The Everyman is also focused on performing arts and theatre in particular, while The Mermaid has a slightly broader remit in that they screen art house cinema, they program literature events and there’s also a visual arts gallery space. So it will certainly mean me diversifying in terms of programming and in terms of its range of people I’m dealing with.

“In its 20 year existence, The Mermaid has also crafted an amazing reputation for being a haven and sanctuary for artists of all art forms and I hope to be able to continue developing that and really looking after the artists I work with,” she said.

Looking back on what she has achieved at The Everyman, Julie says she has ticked most of the checklist goals she set herself when she took up the post.

“Artistically, I really wanted to see a return to celebrating the work of local talent at The Everyman and seeing more local actors, particularly more female actors, on stage. I think we went some distance with that.

Meadbh McHugh who adapted Asking For It for stage, Author Louise O'Neill, Julie Kelleher, Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre and Anne Clarke, Landmark Productions.
Meadbh McHugh who adapted Asking For It for stage, Author Louise O'Neill, Julie Kelleher, Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre and Anne Clarke, Landmark Productions.

“There are still plays or projects I had pitched to the hiring panel in 2014 that I haven’t managed to get over the line but that’s partially because other amazing opportunities cropped up. Things like Asking For It or Evening Train [written by local artists and staged with largely local casts] and I really wanted to make that a signature part of what The Everyman was about and I wanted to see it return to its roots as a producing company in the city rather than a receiving house.

“On a broader level, Sean Kelly, The Everyman CEO, and I took up our roles at the same time and we developed an artistic policy stating that The Everyman’s mission is to be ‘indispensable to the community that it serves’. We were keen that in terms of the cultural life of the city, it would be unimaginable without The Everyman in it, and the feedback we’ve had from people since the theatre’s closure due to Covid is that audiences really miss it and can’t wait for it to reopen.”

As for her hopes for the theatre and the cultural legacy she’s leaving in Cork, Julie hopes that whoever is appointed to the post will care as deeply about the future of The Everyman as she and the rest of the theatre’s committed staff.

“Whoever comes in will get to work with a really committed, dedicated creative team and my hope is that whoever comes in will have the same level of care and commitment that currently exists, that they will be able to continue what’s good and fill the space to reimagine what’s gone before.

“The main challenge at the moment for The Everyman, for me in my new role at The Mermaid and for arts venues in general, will be to provide audiences with really brilliant cultural art experiences in a really creative, imaginative way.”

What would be “really gratifying” for the outgoing artistic director, however, is if the post she is leaving at The Everyman is viewed as “a really desirable opportunity that attracts stiff competition” due to her legacy.

“That would be the best thing for me,” said Julie.

I think it’s healthy for people to move on or respond to new spaces and new communities.

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