Theatre has long been one of the bedrocks of the Northern Ireland arts scene, an arena in which the particular realities of life in the region have often been challenged and reflected. It should come as a relief then that such an essential element of the cultural landscape remains in rude health, despite the ever present cloud of reduced funding and the shifting whims of increasingly discerning audiences.
The Northern Ireland Theatre Association (NITA) is the local representative body for professional theatre. Comprised of 64 members, NITA covers all theatre venues, producers and practitioners in Northern Ireland. Its key role is one of lobbyist and business development partner. ‘We would like to think we drive the development of the sector,’ says the Association’s chair, Louise Rossington.
Rossington is also general manager of the Portstewart-based Big Telly Theatre Company and these dual roles afford her an invaluable insight into the state of the industry. ‘I think theatre, coming under the umbrella of the performing arts, is thriving despite the lack of public investment. I think there’s an enormous amount of good work being produced. That may not be in traditional theatre spaces. It could be out in communities, in non-traditional spaces. It could even be in empty shops, community centres, old people’s homes, schools.’ A host of professionals, she says, are increasingly adept at getting creative in the face of squeezed resources.
For Gillian Mitchell, NITA board member and director of programmes at the MAC, Belfast, this corner of the arts continues to go from strength to strength. ‘I think we’re having a moment,’ she says. ‘I hope that continues. We’re very confident in what we’re doing and that confidence makes you feel that you’re coming from a position of strength. It allows us to explore and diversify in other ways.’ In her view this is indicative of something bigger: ‘Quietly, there is a cultural revolution going on in Northern Ireland.’
The theatre world has always been forced to make the best of its lot and, as Mitchell suggests, such graft continues to pay off. Rewards are possible for those willing to build trust with punters. Rossington echoes this, pointing to the development of strong theatrical content outside of Belfast and Derry~Londonderry. ‘The Arts council has invested an incredible amount of money in infrastructure in the last few years across the whole of the North. What there needs to be now is investment in the production side of the sector to enable the work to go into those venues, particularly regional venues.’
The economic situation, she believes, has forced the public, particularly from beyond the cities, to be ‘a lot more picky about what they decide to go and see in a particular season.’ That has had a huge impact on audiences in the regions. ‘As a result, those venues have been forced to take a big, long look at the work that they do and they are all reaching out to local communities in so many different ways.’
Of those companies currently producing stellar material, both point to Cahoots NI as one of a number presently bearing the standard for Northern Ireland’s bustling output. ‘They are flying the flag,’ says Mitchell, underlining the positive impact that Cahoots is having in collaboration with those other creative individuals who live and work locally. ‘They’re continually surprising the audience, but they’re surprising everyone else around them with where they’ve gone and where they continue to go.’
Cahoots is by no means the only collective standing out and, regardless of the name above the title, if the productions are strong there will exist an appetite to engage with them. Taking Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter as an example, it is clear how a place like the MAC — situated beside the University of Ulster campus and a popular nightlife hub — contributes to the economic wellbeing of an area. As NITA’s ‘Vision for the Arts’ document sets out, for every £1.00 of government support, £3.00 is returned to the economy. It is a simple statistic which reinforces the assertion that the sector admirably gives out more than it takes in.
Further to this, both Rossington and Mitchell are keen to accentuate the community outreach efforts that go into drawing yet more patrons through the doors and tamping down the fairly outdated — though enduring — notion that theatre is the rarefied preserve of a stuffy elite. ‘There’s a massive amount of work going into it,’ says Rossington. ‘It’s not elitist at all. In fact, it’s extremely accessible.’ She cites her own company’s moves to engage in the life of Portstewart’s promenade which includes (amongst many other things) inviting the public in to watch and participate in Big Telly rehearsals and initiatives. Any time such actions have an impact, contends Mitchell, another barrier has been overcome. ‘We’ve broken down the mystique.’
By Matthew Coyle