What do the Irish Theatre Awards nominations tell us?

What do the Irish Theatre Awards nominations tell us?

The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards always give rise to surprises – that, after all, is part of the fun. But it’s probably fair to say that this year’s shortlist is in some ways unprecedented, due to the surprisingly low number of nominations for the Abbey and the Gate.

This represents a big turnaround. In 2009, the Abbey received ten nominations and won three awards, while the Gate received five nominations and won one award. But in 2010, the Abbey has received only four nominations, three of which are for design. And the Gate has received no nominations at all.

Other established companies might also have been surprised. Druid’s Gigli Concert was nominated twice, but might justifiably have expected more – and Rough Magic’s highly admired Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer did not feature at all.

I saw over seventy shows in Ireland last year, but still managed to miss many of the productions that have been nominated – so I don’t intend to questions the judges’ choices, or to suggest that any of the nominees that appear on the list shouldn’t be there. And I’m delighted to see so many first-time nominees getting deserved recognition, and also pleased for The Corn Exchange’s Freefall, which was the best thing I saw in 2009 (pictured right, with Andrew Bennet). What I’m really interested in here is asking whether the nominations reveal a genuine shift in the relative status of the established and emerging theatres in Ireland.

The three judges (Sara Keating, Ian Kilroy and Bernadette Madden) did offer some insights in an interview with Fiona McCann in The Irish Times. Of course, such interviews can only ever provide a limited sense of peoples’ opinions – and the judges will necessarily have to avoid explaining their choices in detail until the awards are announced on 28 February. But their remarks are still interesting.

Kilroy acknowledges that the nominations “contain… few nods to more established theatre stalwarts” – a characteristic that he sees as “democratic”. He suggests that the new “economic realities” were a problem for the bigger theatres. “Turning the Titanic takes a long time, and… smaller companies are quicker to react to new circumstances,” he argues.

Keating implies that the judges didn’t discriminate between new and established theatres: the nominations were “our reflection of what was most memorable and what was of the highest artistic standard, no matter what the resources”. Madden makes the same case. They had “no intention of making any political or ideological point” she says; the nominations are “what all three of us thought were the best”. So they seem keen to refute any suggestion that there was a deliberate bias against the Abbey or the Gate.
Even so, the comparison of the big theatres to the Titanic might have caused some disquiet in Dublin 1: that vessel, after all, is not famous because it was too big to turn around quickly. But is there reason to believe that the Abbey and Gate reacted too slowly to the recession?

Admittedly, watching Marina Carr’s Marble in February last year, I found myself thinking that the recession had made the play seem dated before it had even premiered. As Carr put it in an interview with Eileen Batterbsy, Marble is about a quartet of city dwellers who are suffering from having too much cash. “They have everything materially, yet have nothing; they want more yet are terrified,” she explains. Even two years ago, such a problem could have been resonant; two years from now, it might again make sense. But for an audience coming to terms with the possibility that the country might be about to go broke - for people facing the loss of their jobs or their homes - Carr’s play might have seemed frivolous or even insensitive, because of its timing.

Yet, other plays at the Abbey and the Gate seemed appropriate to our changing circumstances. While we watched Brian Cowen struggling with leadership, it was informative to see Tom Mac Intyre’s play about an inept Taoiseach, Only an Apple, at the Peacock. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Gate showed with bitter clarity what happens when the pursuit of profit takes precedence over community. And at a time of enormous insecurity, the apocalyptic mood of Conor McPherson’s The Birds seemed strangely apt.

Perhaps most powerfully, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of A Reluctant Tyrant at the Abbey took on our two biggest problems: the obsession with property, and the way in which the Catholic church carried out, and colluded in, the abuse of the most vulnerable. Its central character Arina had “sold her soul”, we’re told. “Property, land, money. That’s all she ever thought of”, says her son – placing Last Days in the context of the growing number of Irish productions that present the Celtic Tiger years in terms of a Faustian pact (The Seafarer, Druid’s The Gigli Concert, Terminus, Freefall, and others). I thought there was some marvellous acting in Conall Morrison’s production. Declan Conlon and Frank McCusker should certainly be forgiven if they feel disappointed not to have been nominated. So should Murphy himself: the play may have been flawed, but an imperfect Murphy play (aren’t all of his plays somewhat imperfect when first produced?) is still far better than a lot of other work.

Many of these Abbey and Gate productions received negative reviews, so I’m not necessarily saying that they should have been nominated over other productions, especially ones I haven’t even seen. But what really struck me about 2009 was that the big companies were, if anything, leading the way in responding to the problems we face as a country and as a culture. Indeed, we might ask whether we want our theatre companies (large and small) to be “relevant” – or if they should instead concentrate on being interesting. But in any case, it’s hard to see how the recession figures here. It certainly didn’t affect the big theatres’ production values, since it was in that area that the Abbey actually did well this year. So it will be interesting to see how the judges elaborate on this issue.

What, then, about the notion that it’s possible to treat all theatres equally? It makes sense that you might go to the Abbey with high hopes for a new play by one of the big Irish writers, and could then come away feeling frustrated if it fell short of expectations. And it also makes sense that, when you see a production that is staged in a fringe venue by three unknown actors who have no money but lots of enthusiasm, you might be inclined to be much more positive – and perhaps more excited. But is it really possible to measure the difference between a flawed play by a great writer and a promising play by someone who’s largely unknown? Can one be genuinely objective in such a situation, and is the comparison between such different kinds of work even fair?

What I’m wondering, then, is whether the nominations would have seemed less surprising if the bigger theatres had been judged on the basis that they might have done more with the funding and resources available to them. But I think they could justifiably wonder why they were omitted if their work was indeed judged on absolutely the same basis as everyone else’s. My point here is that someone who hadn’t read the judges’ comments might assume that the nominations this year were rewarding spirit and innovation. And the judges would have been perfectly entitled to adopt such an approach, had they done so.

Also surprising was the status of new writing in the nominations. I’ve written elsewhere myself that 2009 was a thoroughly disappointing year for new writing, and I agree with Ian Kilroy when he states that “for the solitary event of the writer sitting at his or her desk and producing a play text… it was a very bad year”. Sara Keating criticizes the editing of new work, which in her view was poor “despite all of the money invested in literary managers and dramaturgical work”.

It is notable that the companies nominated for best new script haven’t one literary manager between them (I’m referring to Bewley’s Café Theatre, Corn Exchange, and Ransom, while Manchán Magan produced his own script). So one assumes that Keating is talking about some or all of the Abbey’s new plays: Marble, Only an Apple, Ages of the Moon, Reluctant Tyrant, and Tales of Ballycumber. It’s possible that she might also be referring to Abbie Spallen’s Strandline from Fishamble, because none of the other companies with literary managers produced a new play this year.

It’s not clear, but what all of this seems to suggest is that, with all its funding – and with access to new scripts from writers with an international reach and reputation – the Abbey impressed the judges far less than companies with fewer resources and less experience. So the judges have delivered a very strong message about new writing to the Abbey, whether they meant to do so or not.

No doubt there will be even more to discuss once the awards themselves are announced. By that stage, we should be in a better position to answer the many questions that have arisen this year. Do the nominations really provide a sign that the balance in Irish theatre has shifted away from the “establishment”, and towards the newer companies? Do they really mean that the Abbey and Gate have had their worst year since these awards began over a decade ago? Has the output of these theatres really deteriorated substantially in the space of a year – or has everyone else’s suddenly became so much better? Should we react to these awards by celebrating the successes of the younger companies rather than debating the omission of the more established ones (even if those established companies get almost half of the theatre funding in Ireland)?

Or, is this year’s set of nominations just a blip, representing – as all awards inevitably do – the unique set of interests of their judges?

Patrick Lonergan


abbie spallen says Thu, 28 January 2010 16:16
I have read your blog article with great interest and although I never usually respond to such things i must say I felt compelled to ask for a clarification. i would like to know which 'Strandline' production you are referring to? the 'Strandline' I wrote for fishamble received on opening many extremely good reviews one from the Irish times and more interestingly a four star review written by Sarah Keating herself in th sunday business post. If there is another 'strandline' production by fishamble of which i have been unaware i would be very grateful if you would let me know as I can pass this knowledge onto my publishers faber and faber and indeed the Susan smith blackburn award trustees who have nominated the play for their $20,000 prize this year. i am sure they would be very interested to know that there might be another less successful 'Strandline' in existance. yours, with of course, the greatest respect for you very thorough research,
Abbie Spallen.
Patrick Lonergan says Fri, 29 January 2010 09:03
Thanks for your reply.

In that part of the blog, I'm trying to understand what might have been meant by the suggestion that the problems with new writing in 2009 arose “despite all of the money invested in literary managers and dramaturgical work”. As I stated in the blog, to the best of my knowledge the only Irish theatre companies with literary managers that produced new plays in 2009 were the Abbey and Fishamble. (I’m not sure whether it would be right to include Tinderbox here; they did produce a new play by Darragh Carville in 2009, but they specifically refer to Hanna Slättne as company dramaturg.) Whatever was intended, those remarks are being widely interpreted as having sent a strong message to the Abbey (fairly or not, intentional or not) and it’s in that context that they are discussed in the blog. But my point is that the original comment refers not to one literary manager, but to literary managers throughout Ireland.

I don't suggest in the blog that there is anything wrong with any of the plays that are mentioned in the paragraph you’re referring to - not yours, not Tom Murphy's, not Sam Shepard's, not the others' (though I do discuss the timing of the production of _Marble_ earlier in the blog). Most of those plays have been published too, and have had some good reviews, and some negative ones. So as I state, it's not really clear what was meant by that reference to literary managers. But people are talking a lot about it anyway.

Two other quick comments, not directly in response to yours... The first is that it’s not necessarily the case that the literary managers themselves are being criticised in that line from the Irish Times interview. It may be that what’s being referred to is the relationship of the literary manager to the writer – including the willingness of the writer to take well informed, constructive editorial advice from someone who wants the best for the play. This could also have been a problem identified by the judges.

The second is that the statement in the original IT article suggests that there were some plays that could have been “magnificent” if they’d been given more time. I don’t think that means that those plays were bad: ‘almost magnificent’ doesn’t seem negative to me. It just means that they could have been better. So that comment could very easily have been referring to many respected, admired, well reviewed, popular and successful plays.

So my point is that the judges have raised some really interesting questions about how new writing is developed, staged, and received in Ireland, and I’m hoping that they will have a chance to say more about this at some stage soon.

Congratulations on your nomination for the Blackburn prize. I'm sure everyone will wish you the best for that.
Olwen Fouéré says Tue, 02 February 2010 21:54
I am sure that those who were nominated "deserved" to be and, just as in every year, there are bound to be others who "deserved" to be and were not.

My big question is why do we have to have these ersatz hollywood style awards at all?

I am not alone in observing how pernicious they are in creating a climate of competition which has absolutely nothing to do with what we do or why we do it.
For the first few years, no one took these awards seriously, but it was a welcome chance for a party. That attitude has changed. It is important that our work be acknowledged. But not like this.
Please, Irish Times, lead the way and invent a new way of honouring and celebrating the work we do. Eliminate the vulgar idea of "...and the winner is..." for a start.
Patrick Lonergan says Fri, 05 February 2010 09:29
I’m very interested in the suggestion that some alternative form of celebrating/recognising theatre should be arranged. I’d wonder if people have any ideas about how that could be achieved?

Just a few quick thoughts on this…

One of the things that makes the ITT awards seem very worthwhile is that the judges see everything that’s done in Ireland over the course of a year. Work that can’t get recognition because it's by an emerging company - or not on in Dublin - or staged in a fringe venue - has been brought to national attention due to these nominations. And that’s really important.

I’ve wondered if an alternative form of awards would be more representative. Suppose you have a set of awards that are voted for by the public. The recipients would have the great pleasure of knowing that they’d been praised by their audiences. But it would end up as a numbers game, and the shows that had been seen by most people would be likely to do best. Perhaps there’s no harm in that, but a show like _No Worst There is None_ - the audience for which was strictly limited – would lose out, as would many shows produced outside of Dublin.

How about awards voted for only by theatre practitioners – members of Theatre Forum, for example? Again, it would come down to numbers, and while it’s nice to be recognised by one’s peers, would the feeling of being overlooked by those peers be more damaging?

Could there be an equivalent of the Critics’ Circle awards in the UK? There probably aren’t enough full-time critics in Ireland to make such an award meaningful, and again there might be a natural bias towards work in Dublin. At the same time, there might be some value in critics having an opportunity to emphasise the good things they'd seen over the course of a year.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that any award ceremony is going to have its limitations. So what can be done?

Perhaps it would be good for us in Ireland to have an equivalent of the New York ‘Best Plays of the Year’ yearbook. But who would purchase and/or read it? Perhaps we could fund a digital library of great Irish performances/productions/plays, with, say, a dozen productions each year being selected for inclusion in it - something like the Playography, but for performances rather than scripts. But who would fund it, and who would use it?

If we don’t have those awards, the only trace of great performances lies in material like reviews or company archives. Due to their length, press reviews don’t do very much to commemorate great performances, and they rarely discuss the technical accomplishments of lighting, set and costume designers. And theatre archives are by their nature closed off to large numbers of people - so they may have recordings of great performances, but few people will ever see them. The only other trace of a performance is the published script – which doesn’t tell you anything about the acting or design, and which can’t be used to understand why a piece of dance theatre or opera worked well.

In other words, awards may have their negative characteristics – but is there a better alternative? I'd be interested to know what suggestions others might have...
Enid Reid Whyte says Fri, 12 March 2010 15:45
For years I allowed myself – and still do – to believe the Irish Times Theatre Awards have value as a publicity tool for the industry. However, there is absolutely no way on earth, with due respect to the judges, that three people can determine “the best” of anything. After all, even the maligned Oscars are voted by the members of the Academy –however conservative, ethnocentric and sentimental. And yes, I do think peers are the best ones to make these choices, if they must be made. I will also admit that I am uncomfortable with the whole idea of competition in the arts. In training I was always taught that it’s impossible to be better than another artist; it is only possible to be better today than you were yesterday.
And before anyone jumps in about my previous role in the Arts Council: my recommendation criteria were always based on the Arts Council’s priorities first; then artistic and managerial standards relative to organisations’ own goals; capacity; impacts on audiences; and influences on other artists. These deliberations were for a particular governmental purpose with complex and layered processes given over to at least two additional groups of people for further input before decisions were made by the board and documented. Grants are not prizes - much as they may feel that way at times.
I too would be happier with terminology other than “best” or “the winner is”. How about: “The -performance, production, design et al - we enjoyed most this year”? This phrase lessens the competitive edge and tells the truth about the relatively subjective process of adjudication - even with such a knowledgeable group of people - without transparency. Because I am absolutely certain the one thing the words “best” and “grants” have in common is that they have nothing to do with personal taste.
And as for lasting records of this most ephemeral art form? Well, somehow legends remain. We still know about and can read about performances from Mrs Patrick Campbell, Maria Ouspenskaya and Henry Irving or designs from Gordon Craig or choreography from Agnes de Mille – and not have a clue what awards they may have won. I know more records make for much better research opportunities for scholars. But the purpose of awards is not scholarship –nor is it the purpose of theatre.
So keep the prizes by all means but let’s be honest about what they actually are: lovely or terrifying; stately or farcical; heart-warming or chilling moments in a theatre that caused three people to sit up and take notice of them out of all the other moments they spent in Ireland’s venues.

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