Monday, August 01, 2011

Caomhan Keane's article on Irish Language theatre, Irish Times, June 2011

The Irish Times - Monday, June 13, 2011

Irish language theatre - is it time to stage a revival?

While spoken Irish is encouraged in many sectors of society, theatre seems to be lagging behind in staging Irish language productions, but there are hopeful signs for the future, writes CAOMHAN KEANE

NO ONE could accuse us of passing up on a little self-flagellation when our mother tongue is involved. And it’s easy to tut and nod along with the naysayers when looking specifically at theatre “tri ghaeilge”. In 2007 An Taibhearc, the State’s national Irish language theatre, burned to the ground, and since the present government reneged on an agreement made by the previous one (to split the refurbishment costs three ways) it remains closed.

The Abbey Theatre, or Amharclann na Mainistreach, has mounted just one full-length Irish-language production in the past 15 years (Aodh Ó Dómhnaill’s Idir an Dá Shúil in December), and you’d have to go back to the 1960s to discover the last in-house Irish-language production that graced its main stage.

Although the Arts Council says that it is in no way unwelcoming of Irish-speaking applications, Foras Na Gaeilge’s 2007 calculations revealed that they gave a pitiful 0.001 per cent of their total budget (€216.56 million) to theatre practioners working through the language.

Figures like these would make you think that, just like poor old Peig Sayers at the start of her poisoned tome, theatre through the Irish language “has one foot in the grave and the other on its edge”. Yet ask the artists themselves and they’ll tell you it’s never been healthier. The person with the most important theatrical post in the country, Fiach Mac Conghail, the Director of the Abbey Theatre, is a vehement and passionate Irish speaker; there are more companies operating through the language than there have been in many long years and, most importantly, there are people already working within the industry who are looking at new ways of presenting plays through Irish.

So what do they believe are the problems facing them? “You see the real state of the Irish language when you try and perform through it in front of a general audience,” says the playwright Manchán Magan, who won the Stewart Parker Irish Language Award in 2009 for his bilingual production, Broken Croí/Heart Briste . “You are faced with these blank, zonked faces. To see the guilt, silence and incomprehension in their eyes, it’s just so disheartening.” Added to the audiences limited vocabulary is the issue of dialect – the different canúintí – which confuses an already hesitant audience, who then become less willing to fork out for a ticket for something they fear they should, yet don’t, understand.

Magan believes that we need to simplify, to purify the speech to give the audience the confidence to go with the work. “There is an undercurrent of up to around 800 words that every Irish person knows, but might not be aware they know. Play a game with their self-confidence and see where you can take them,” he suggests.

“We need to see it less as a barrier and more as a challenge,” agrees Maireád Ní Chróinín, the Co-Director of Moonfish, a Galway-based bilingual theatre company. “If you are speaking a language of motion and image, rather than just the spoken word, it’s easier to travel over boundaries, to speak to a larger audience than just those who understand the words.”

European audiences are a lot more open to modes of translation, be it through audio (in which audience members listen to a simultaneous reading of the play on headphones) or surtitles, which Moonfish opted for in their 2009 production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (Namhaid don Phobal ), using PowerPoint to allow those with little or no Irish to read along during the play.

Surtitles don’t work for small children, so for companies working with young audiences such as Fíbín, Branar and Graffiti, the physical expression – song, movement, puppetry, shadowplay – become important.

“What we found was that children were fluent in the emotional language of a story,” says Marc Mac Lochlainn, the director of Branar. “Yet they weren’t able to express themselves in Irish.” Since children have a natural ability to pick up on emotions, and are closer to body language than they are to actual words, Branar sticks to a mix of movement, script and puppetry “so that they will be able to look at the story and understand the feelings and the essence of it”.

Mac Lochlainn believes that if theatre for adults was based less on the information that was being put across and more on how it was going across, it would benifit the sector as a whole. “But it’s quite hard to get adults to come see shows like that.Children will be more accepting of something that is new and imaginative as they are more attuned to their imagination. Text-based theatre is all we’ve ever known as adults.”

In 2009 Meitheal Na mBeag was formed to act as an umbrella body for those who work in the performing arts as gaeilge for young people. They held their first conference, Ag Tógáil an Tí, last year to see who and what was being done in the sector. “Everyone was on the same page as to why they were working through Irish,” says Mac Lochlainn. “The agenda was artistic more than anything else. People just wanted to create work for children. There was no undercurrent of promoting the language tagged on.”

David Parnell, the Head of Theatre at the Arts Council, says they don’t hold Irish language groups above or below their English-speaking counterparts. “We support high-quality art, irrespective of language,” he says. Yet there is a belief among some who work through Irish that the Council practices a policy of cultural apartheid, by which it funds English language theatre and leaves it to a number of other bodies to pick up the Irish language slack.

Deirdre Davitt, the manager of Arts and Culture at Foras na Gaeilge, has been a key player in the development of Irish language work. “The Arts council wants to see a finished idea,” says Mac Lochlainn. “Deirdre is willing to go, ‘Okay, I’m going to give you a chance on this and you have to prove yourself.’”

Davitt ventured into the area of funding out of necessity. “Companies were going from Billy to Jack, getting nowhere,” she says. When Bord Na Gaeilge was turned into Foras Na Gaeilge in 1999 she had a far bigger budget to pursue it, dishing out grants to 10 groups or venues a year. “They were small grants in comparison to the Arts Council. But they are really very well spent,” she says. This funding allowed Branar and Graffiti to pioneer work for toddlers that is lauded at an international level while Fíbín are invited all over the world (most recently to Malawi) to stage their shows, using giant, life-sized puppets. “Their productions are in Irish but they are accessible on an artistic level,” says Davitt. “They are fearless in the decisions they make and look abroad for expertise and for training.”

As the National Theatre, the Abbey is understandably expected to lead the way when it comes to commissioning and developing new work. And while the history of Irish language work on both the Abbey stages has been slight, in the past two years things have looked very good indeed.

First there was a series of short play readings, directed by Paul Mercier, called Gach Áit Eile , in which three 20-minute pieces were commissioned by three separate writers in three separate canúintí. “This was an interesting process for us,” says Aideen Howard, the Literary Director of the Abbey Theatre, “as it allowed us to connect with the writers that were out there already and to reconnect with an audience who we haven’t been engaged with for seven years.”

The Abbey then approached writers who were writing in the language, but not necessarily for the stage, through a workshop led by Mercier called Bí ag Scríobh. “It was amplifying our regular, unsolicited script process,” says Howard. “Ramping it up and saying, ‘We are genuinely interested in engaging with Irish language playwriting, come show us what you have got.’”

Theatre is a minority art form, and Irish theatre language is a minority of a minority, so new writing is something Howard has to foster and develop so that in the next few years they don’t just have one writer they can turn to but a number of writers.

“It isn’t adequate to push one play out into the world unless you are able to sustain this activity with another one at least every two years.” She believes that this is a key part of what the Abbey Theatre should be developing and supporting. “We need to literally create the tradition and that is what we are trying to do.”

To that end the Abbey has a number of projects under commission and wants to repeat the Bí Ag Scríobh process. “My ambition is that, in next year’s new playwright programme, at least one writer will be an Irish-language writer.”

Magan believes that it is make-or-break time for theatre through Irish. “It was going to die. We needed a boom and we got people putting resources into it. All it needs is one innovator. One Michael Keegan Dolan, one Mikel Murfi, to come up with a dynamic, innovative story and the whole thing could really take off.”

But for that to happen the Arts Council needs to look more seriously at what is going on through the language. “The whole area is blossoming but it is happening against the odds,” says Davitt. “Young companies starting out need more support from the Arts Council so that their ideas come as far as a production. They have an obligation to the Irish language as much as they do to the English language and their support gives artists a status and a weight in the industry that I just can’t give them.”