Limerick's Belltable Arts Centre has played as many parts as the performers treading its boards over the years. The former Georgian terraced house at number 69 O’Connell Street has been a shirt factory, a make-shift opera house, Amharclann na Féile, a community hall and a cinema. But after two years off-site and a €1.26m refurbishment, its staff aim to restore its place in the hearts of audiences and the arts community when it re-opens this Friday.
The venue was last refurbished in 1991, so a refit was overdue, specially when competing with custom-built facilities in the mid-west of Ireland, such as Glór in Ennis and The Source Arts Centre in Thurles. Around €882,000 came from the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport. The architect, John Keogan, who was involved in the redesign of the Abbey Theatre, was brought on board. The Belltable moved to a smaller, off-site venue at the former Red Cross Hall on Cecil Street in mid-2008. Due to delays, it remained in temporary accommodation for nearly two years. The roof of the O’Connell St venue was replaced and the café and front of house facilities renovated. The distinctive façade - including an elliptical arch and columns, designed by Clifford Smith in the early 20th century - is one of the original features retained, but the interior is “unrecognisable, in a good way”, according to artistic director, Joanne Beirne.
“It’s very exciting because we’ve been off-site for so long. I started in the Belltable in April 2008, so up until now I've only programmed three months in 69 O’Connell Street. It looks amazing. The gallery space has been expanded. The balcony in the auditorium is gone, as is the stairs going up to it, so you now enter the auditorium from a different space. There will be natural light coming in. I'm not doing it justice really. It was stripped back to the bare bones, and to see the transformation to a functioning, 220-seater auditorium is fantastic. I know prior to my time there was speculation about the Belltable moving to a green-field site. But there is an inherent charm to that building. It has its limitations but there's a lovely atmosphere and very good acoustics.
“The stage will be at ground level and the auditorium has raked seating so it’ll give it a totally different perspective. From a performance point of view as well, there will be a much better relationship with the audience. As opposed to looking down at the audience, actors etc are looking up at them, which is what I would describe as ‘Vatican II’ theatre.”
The inaugural production, Anything But Love, has a unique Limerick character and is fitting to usher in a new era for the Belltable. It was written by Mary Coll—a former artistic director—and takes its inspiration from the novel The Ante Room by Limerick writer, Kate O’Brien. It will be directed by actress Joan Sheehy while the lighting design is by another native, Kevin Treacy, now based in London. The original score was written by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, founder of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in the University of Limerick. Anything But Love was the recipient of Arts Council project funding for a one-off production this year. “There is almost a feeling of coming home to the space. The play is very dramatic but still has barbed humour. It’s set on the North Circular Road, where family members gather to say goodbye to their dying mother. It’s a classic three-act drama. It’s got a fantastic cast and creative team.
“It’s important as a marker going forward that the Belltable hosts and presents work for Limerick audiences of a distinctly local flavour and of a very high quality. We’re trying to create a balance of work produced locally, but still attract work of a high standard from touring companies. The Belltable will be thirty next year so there’s a sense of acknowledging its place, as well as beginning again and looking forward.”
The Belltable was founded in 1981, when the building known as “the Coliseum” was converted by Murray O’Laoire Architects into a theatre/exhibition space with £20,000 by Shannonside Tourism, Shannon Development, Limerick City Council and the Regional Development Association. The building was owned by the Confraternity Credit Union, and the name of the new arts centre came from Henry Hubert Belletable, a Belgian army officer who founded the Holy Confraternity in the city. In the early 1980s it was one of the only venues outside Dublin to host work by touring companies. Founding director, Bríd Dukes, recently recalled productions by Druid, the Abbey Theatre, the Market Theatre from South Africa, even hosting the controversial Diary of a Hunger Strike, “when no theatre in Dublin would take the risk”. The Belltable was also where Limerick theatre company, Island, began to make its mark.
Joanne Beirne’s new programme combines local favourites – the film club, works by local amateur and youth companies, the Fresh Film Festival and the Belltable Unfringed Festival – with additions such as a new youth arts festival in January.
“We have a theatre and gallery space, but there are lots of other boxes to tick: dance, cinema, music. We’ve been very lucky to receive money from the Department for Ireland’s first online children’s gallery, so we will have events around that. We will be doing more family weekends. With tickets in general, we’ve tried to be price sensitive,” she adds. “The youth arts festival is very exciting. There’s an art exhibition, a film made by the county youth theatre, a play by the city youth theatre, and we will host a social gaming weekend. It has been done in Europe and America but this is the first time in Ireland.”
The ‘Unfringed Festival’ in January will run over five days in a variety of spaces, with some outdoor performances. “The festival will celebrate positivity. I think what we need is a woman with a rather large bosom and nice perfume to give us all a big huge hug. That’s what the country needs; someone to say ‘It's going to be okay’ and it is. These are difficult times. Everything is in a state of flux.
“There are significant challenges, primarily financial, because we now have to be able to stand on our own feet. The Belltable’s funding was cut by twenty-five per cent in the last two years and we’re possibly looking at another significant cut next year. It’s going to be tightly balanced between artistic incentive and commercial awareness. We’ve been lucky in terms of subsidy and grateful for the continued support of the Arts Council, because it is under considerable pressure."
But Beirne, who ran the Limerick Theatre Hub last year, is optimistic about the future. The Belltable has now received Arts Council funding for a theatre resource-sharing initiative. Limerick City Council will be a partner in retaining the off-site venue. “This funding is to facilitate theatre makers and artists to continue professional theatre, particularly in the context of having no directly funded theatre company in Limerick. What I had imagined is that Cecil Street would be a ‘development lab’ during the day and could be whatever it wanted to be at night. We’re having ongoing discussions with practitioners to see how we can achieve that.”
This partnership between the Belltable, practitioners and the audience is crucial to the survival of the venue. “In a broader cultural sense [Limerick] has fantastic facilities and cultural capacity. The Belltable pre-dated the slew of recently established venues; the local authorities have to be commended on their foresight. There are more entertainment options than ever. Audiences are trying to find escapism but I think they’re also looking for connection and a shared experience. Word-of-mouth is a huge marketing tool. It’s our duty to support the development and presentation of the arts in Limerick. In the hearts and minds of people, it's not just about the work presented there, but the emotional attachment they have to the place. We want to re-ignite that sense of pride, ownership and engagement.”
The Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick, re-opens with Anything But Love by Mary Coll on Friday 26 November .
Rachael Finucane is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Limerick. She was a judge at this year’s Limerick Unfringed festival.