Every venue on the Irish theatrical horizon has a remit, whether officially acknowledged or not. Bewley's Café Theatre in Dublin is home to the lunchtime show, where the one-act matinee comes with soup and brown bread, filling one’s stomach as well as satisfying a thirst for drama. For the past seventeen years Bewley’s has supplied Dubliners and visitors with shows that can be caught in a lunch break, using the tiny stage in the former Oriental Room to impart big ideas to intimate audiences.
Last month, Bewley's Café Theatre presented its first season of international plays, in which lunchtime shows written by five established playwrights were staged on five consecutive weeks. A collaboration between two theatre companies and five venues in Scotland, England and Ireland, it was the latest venture by the artistic director David Horan. The programme featured specially commissioned work from David Harrower, Marie Jones, Gary Owen, Linda McLean and April De Angelis, which toured from Oran Mór cultural centre in Glasgow to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, before moving to the Live Theatre in Newcastle, the Belgrade in Coventry, and ending their run in Dublin. One of the shows, Owen’s In the Pipeline, was directed by the 33 year-old Horan, who has run Bewley’s Café Theatre since Alan King stepped down in 2007.
“The idea originated with a company in Scotland called Oran Mór,” he says. Their venue is a converted church in Glasgow, “very similar in design to the church on Mary’s St, Dublin. They’ve been staging plays under the heading ‘A Play, A Pie and a Pint’ at lunchtime in the basement since 2004.”
Oran Mór only stage new plays, which run for one week at a time. “So if people see a show they don’t like, it tends not to deter them from coming again, as a new play will be along the following week.” This kind of programming appealed to Horan, although he thinks the nature of Irish audiences meant it wasn’t one he could adapt himself – “our audiences like to be familiar with the actors or the artists they pay to see”. So when the award-winning UK touring company Paines Plough hooked up with Oran Mór to take their season of plays on the road, Horan jumped at the chance to test the waters. Paines Plough commissioned the pieces, Oran Mór paid for them and all the venues invested in the project.
“It was imperative that there was an Irish show in the mix,” Horan says when asked about his own stipulations for the project. “No show could have more than four actors; no show could run for more than forty-five minutes and no show could have a fussy set design.” All the writers had a previous relationship with Paines Plough and were specially commissioned for the project. “None of the shows was devised from scratch” Horan says, “but all of the playwrights had something they were finishing that fit the bill.”
There are a lot of administrative differences between this season and his usual way of working at Bewley’s. “We had to publicize five shows rather than one, and the tech team were in every weekend rather than just before the show.” But he also experienced the benefits too. “We are in the age of collaboration right now. Everybody has less funding. So more companies work together, making the money go further, increasing box office and requiring less subsidy.” He considers one-act plays to be a very civilized way of seeing a show and believes it to be a great outlet for first-time writers to follow up a hit play: “to get that difficult second album out of the way.” He hopes to stage the season biennially, “maybe with first-time playwrights next time”, but wouldn’t stage it in October again, with the Fringe festival and Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival following in quick succession. “This is theatre fatigue time.”
Another model Horan has explored to extend the theatre’s reach is the ‘Show in a Bag’ series, an actor-led project conceived with Fishamble theatre company’s Literary Manager Gavin Kostick, the Absolut Fringe Festival and Irish Theatre Institute. It ran over five consecutive days at Fringe Festival in September and featured five shows co-written by Kostick, based on ideas submitted from over 120 actors. The idea was to develop a show for the actors that could literally be taken on the road in a bag. Each show was assigned a mentor - a de facto director - and was showcased to venue managers with a view to future productions. “Poor theatre is fabulous when it is done right,” Horan says, “and is it any wonder they turned out so well? Each show was specifically devised by the actors to suit themselves and to suit our venue.”
Bewley’s Café Theatre opened its doors in 1993, the brainchild of the Campbell family (proprietors of Bewley’s) and the actor Michael James Ford. At first it just consisted of a show here, a show there, but by 1997 they were staging plays regularly and started operating as a full-time theatre in 1999. “Bewley's is only funded [by the Arts Council] to the tune of €50,000 per annum,” Horan says, “yet we provide theatre fifty weeks a year, paying royalties to writers and fees to directors.” They are aided by the goodwill of the venue which charges no rent and pays their electricity, insurance and their heating. “That’s an unseen subsidy of about €75,000 there,” Horan says.
Bewley’s is now recognised as part of the country’s theatrical infrastructure, providing a launching pad for emerging playwrights, and attracting actors of the caliber of Tom Hickey, Bosco Hogan and Garrett Keogh. “As you get older there are fewer parts out there, so many actors come to Bewley’s to keep their skills honed.” It provides a daytime theatrical outlet for some older audience members, as well as tourists who get to witness work in one of the city’s most noted landmarks. “Ireland is an incredibly literary country, so if we put on a piece by Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, they are almost hanging from the rafters. We specialize in adapting short stories, which allows us to be reverent yet inventive.”
What attracted the then 30-year old Horan (right) to the post of artistic director? “ It was a chance to run a venue. In Ireland directors don’t do that so much, whereas in England and most of the world directors run the institutions. I got to assist [Hungarian director] László Marton when I was at the Abbey and he said: “you’re not a theatre director until you’re looking at an actor and going: ‘I want him to play Lear in twenty years time. What are the parts I have to get him to play between now and then to make that happen?’ So it was about expanding those skills, and thinking in the wider ecological sense. To learn how to forward-plan, clear up my communication style, and think about programming at that level.”
Having tightened the quality control of the performances in Bewley’s productions and created an award for the most exciting show under an hour in length in the Absolut Fringe (the Bewley’s Café Theatre Little Gem Award), what ambitions has Horan left for his tiny venue? “I would like to get Bewley’s to the point where people come for the experience. We have an incredibly loyal audience but if we have a show that doesn’t take off, the dip is noticeable. I would like to get to the point where we have more regular houses, which would allow me to be more adventurous in the programming.”
The beauty of the position also is that it allows Horan to continue to work as a freelance director with other companies. Last year he directed Moment by Deirdre Kinehan for her Tall Tales Theatre Company. It transfers to the Bush Theatre in London early next year. “I feel that it was unfairly overlooked when it played here last year,” he says. “People knew what it was and considered it old-fashioned. There are certain plays that have a lot of themes and a lot of ideas, all of which are interesting but which haven’t settled or found an organic structure. But they show potential. And it’s easier to praise that potential. Because potential is always promising.”
Does he think there is a lack of constructive criticism within the theatre world? “We over praise new talent and then get really hard on them in mid-career when they don’t develop,” he says. “People get awards in the Fringe. And deserve the awards. But then they get over praised beyond that, and by their third and fourth show, after they are funded properly and if their work doesn’t improve, people act all shocked.”
Horan’s latest production is Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa for Second Age theatre company, which is currently touring. How did he approach such a well-loved play? “There was stuff to be mined in there. The original production was a sepia-toned thing and the film was so watery that people forget the darkness. It explores our relationship with Africa and paganism, which we brought out by incorporating African dance moves in the céilí. And I really wanted to bring out the weirdness of it. Such strange things happen in the play.
“We are living in a world where all the institutional values have fallen apart. And Dancing At Lughnasa is about all the institutional values falling apart. When it was first produced it was on the cusp of something great; now we are on the cusp of something terrible and that makes it all the more poignant.”
Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Horan for Second Age, tours until 11 December.
What’s Left of the Flag by Jimmy Murphy runs at Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin, until 27 November. Read Jesse Weaver’s review.
Caomhan Keane writes about theatre for publications including Totally Dublin.