Earlier this week, an American left Washington for Ireland in order to trace his roots back to a small village in Offaly. (You may have heard something about it). At roughly the same time, a Kildare-based Irish theatre company found itself in Washington mining the cultural history of a historical Irish ghetto called Swampoodle, reborn as a site-specific production. Culture Ireland, the state agency for the promotion of Irish arts worldwide, does not usually facilitate two-way traffic, but this time it had a significant part in both events.
For the public celebration of President Barack Obama’s Irish visit in Dublin, Culture Ireland were drafted in to advise on music and guest speakers, working with the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the concert promoters, MCD. A few days before the event in College Green, ITM met with Culture Ireland’s CEO, Eugene Downes, who remained elegant and unflappable in a tornado of urgent incoming phone calls. It was then unclear who would be participating (even the venue was secret) but in hindsight Culture Ireland’s influence seemed easier to determine amid an eclectic line-up on Monday: Brendan Gleeson paying tribute to Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, Stephen Rea reciting Yeats, Daniel Day Lewis quoting Lincoln, Jedward singing 'Lipstick'.
“That is the story of America and Ireland,” Obama said, outlining a litany of historical connections. “That's the tale of our brawn and our blood, side by side, in making and remaking a nation, pulling it westward, pulling it skyward, moving it forward again and again and again. And that is our task again today.” It doesn’t require a cynic to suggest that Obama’s interest in Ireland, and Irish-America, is more strategic than sentimental, nor that our Government’s interest in Irish-America may seek greater dividends than a nostalgic tear shed to the strains of Danny Boy. Indeed, the American President’s words might have supplied a stirring mantra to Imagine Ireland, the year-long, €5 million initiative to promote Irish arts throughout America; a programme that is about making and remaking a nation, both culturally and economically.
As it nears the middle of its programme, Imagine Ireland has already proven staggering in its expanse, representing every art form, combining established and experimental ensembles and artists, and demonstrating a wide geographical reach. “It is curated, it has a geographical focus, it has a timing focus and it’s an attempt to create a body of work in a coherent way,” says Downes. He traces its origin to a 2007 meeting with Gabriel Byrne, then chairing a Governmental working group on identifying supports for the promotion of Irish arts in America and later appointed Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador. “Gabriel was encouraging us to look more strategically about the difficulties and challenges, and to eradicate any sense of complacency about Ireland’s cultural presence in the United States,” recalls Downes.
At a time of economic crisis and in the wake of the implosion of the Irish banking system, the country’s international standing is somewhere as low as its credit-ranking. Last year, when most arts organisations weathered cuts, Culture Ireland’s budget was increased by 71 per cent - from about €4m to just under €7m - to facilitate the Imagine Ireland programme. To those scrutinising the value of the arts and their perceived relationship to the economy after the efforts of the National Campaign for the Arts and the Global Irish Economic Forum in Farmleigh, the stakes seem high.
“As the [economic] crisis developed through 2009 and 2010 and the proposal for Imagine Ireland became more developed, more specific, the stakes were clearly higher, the context was changing,” says Downes. “Now was the time, above all, when we needed to find scope to invest in some of the key long-term strengths of the country to counteract the very significant reputational damage.”
The expanse of the programme, with support for hundreds of events and several tours and showcases across almost forty states, was necessary. With such resources, says Downes, “you could present this with real critical mass, which you need in the States, which is throwing down a gauntlet at a difficult time to say that not only is Ireland open for business, but we have some extraordinary work coming out of the country that you may not have heard of.” Enda Kenny’s phrase, “Ireland is open for business”, deployed during his own American visit as Taoiseach, emphasises a commercial agenda, and Downes often sounds firmly on message.
“Now is the time when, for Irish artists and ensembles, it’s more important than ever before to grow their overseas prospects, if you like, in a territory, a market place, which is vastly greater than our home market, which could equally make certain careers viable, make certain projects or productions viable, which might not otherwise be.” In Imagine Ireland’s theatre strand, many companies have proven eager to pursue American connections, securing their participation in the programme through co-productions and partnerships.
Druid Theatre company, for instance, has three productions under the Imagine Ireland banner: its Atlantic Theater co-production of The Cripple of Inishmaan in nine American venues (with bravura returns to both Dublin and Inis Meáin), Penelope’s appearance in Washington’s Studio Theater’s Enda Walsh festival in March, and The Silver Tassie’s transfer to New York in July. The Performance Corporation’s Swampoodle, meanwhile, is a site-specific co-production with Washington’s Irish-theatre company Solas Nua – a new play by Tom Swift unlikely to see an Irish site. As artists and companies chart a career plan through difficult years, Downes says, many are looking to the United States for succour. “There was a specific sectoral opportunity – it’s not a trade mission – but it’s creating a platform where the work can be seen.”
That platform is wide and canny, focussing on showcases in key cities, attended by American and international programmers and presenters, and attracting national American media coverage. Quarter page or full-page reviews, some of them glowing, are “not to be taken lightly at a time when otherwise, if we get a column or a quarter page, it’s more likely to be adverse comment than positive comment towards Ireland.” The dissemination of that message, he thinks, “creates a wider group of people who will be more likely to not just look well towards Ireland, but come and visit, come and do business here.”
Column inches are easier to measure than reputational capital, of course, and a spike in sales of Irish poetry in Manhattan or a surge of American Express bookings for hotels in Connemara may seem like a rude metric. Downes agrees that the efforts of Imagine Ireland require a more sympathetic blend of qualitative and quantitative evaluation. But another more sceptical, less scientific evaluation has begun at home, raising questions about Imagine Ireland’s gravitational pull and its effect on Irish production. Downes is due to speak on the subject next month at the Theatre Forum Conference, which poses the question: “Is this a win win for Irish theatre? Or does the creation of work for an international market skew the product both at home and abroad?”
“I’m not sure that that’s the case,” Downes considers. “A specific co-production, of course, will slightly alter the artistic equation. There are other examples of work being made with particular resonances in America.” Gare St Lazare Players, he points out, is to tour Conor Lovett’s adaptation of Moby Dick to New England whaling ports this autumn. “There’s probably only upside in that, in terms of being able to bring that work to those places, those communities.”
What are the longer-term benefits of what may be an exceptional year? Culture Ireland, which has survived the suggestion of 2008’s McCarthy Report that it be abolished and then last year’s Labour Party manifesto which proposed merging it with the Arts Council, now finds itself within a new Government department. Can it secure continuity for the project or even for itself? “If we can get the job done well, then the work itself is less likely to be thrown away completely,” Downes says evenly. Of proposals to cut departments or amalgamate State agencies, he adds: “Structural solutions are always at issue and it’s probably the times we live in. But I think things have settled down since the election. Obviously we’re working very well now with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and with the new Government. There are only positive signals from that.”
The volume and scale of Imagine Ireland, he allows, is a one-off, but its development has been a steady process and its continuation may be just as organic. “What we want to do, and work with the companies to do, is to help them exploit all the doors that have been opened during the year. A lot of that they can do themselves, but obviously we’ll work with them. Our role is also to identify the really significant, high-value breakthroughs that we’ve had during the year that we then need to build on.”
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example, will host a second Irish production this year, following the Abbey’s visit with John Gabriel Borkman, although the production has yet to be revealed. “It’s as much about the contact making and the connections as it is about the funding,” Downes says. “As the special funding which had been there is pulled back, we can just be really smart about how we collectively apply our resources and also the company’s resources to maximise those impacts.” Sustaining that momentum after such strategic impact and furthering the presence of Irish arts – indeed Ireland – on American soil is the desired legacy of Imagine Ireland. Its effect on the real Ireland – the making and remaking of the nation through art, tourism and exchange – will be its return journey, one that is slowly taking shape.
Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine.