As the grand old dame of Cork theatre celebrates 120 years at the heart of Cork cultural life, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with artistic director Julie Kelleher about its legacy and its future.
It’s been a part of life on Leeside now for 120 years, a gaudy yet warm, old-fashioned facade lining out almost politely onto the bustle and character of Cork city’s McCurtain Street, remaining statuesque among its many changes as the years have worn on. Legends such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy have trod its boards, and it remains synonymous with theatre for generations of Corkonians as the city’s oldest theatre. The Everyman Palace Theatre has entered its 120th anniversary, and speaking with artistic director Julie Kelleher, it’s clear that marking the occasion throughout the year has been a labour of love. “It’s been really lovely so far. Marking the occasion has given us the opportunity to research and reflect upon the rich history the building has, and to consider how that might influence its future. It’s also given rise, informally, to people sharing fond memories of the building – everything from onstage disaster, to opening night triumphs as well as first dates going back to the building’s time as a cinema, and first meetings of now married couples at our much-beloved club nights in the early 2000s.”
A hefty weight for any arts project head to bear, to be sure, is that of the weight of the memories of a city. But casting an eye forward is the way creative endeavours stay alive and thrive, which wasn’t lost on Kelleher when curating the year’s programming. “Really, the approach wasn’t significantly different – we’re always trying to balance the programme with events which appeal to our loyal audiences, along with those that might tempt potentially loyal audiences of the future. Our audiences actually keep the doors of the building open, as 90% of the Everyman’s income comes through box office sales, so we’re constantly seeking programme that will connect deeply with audiences in one way or another. Of course, there’s always the shows that will sell loads more tickets than others, but often there is a compelling artistic case for those others, and we feel those are important to the audience also. We have taken efforts to ensure that there are some extra special shows this year, and we are definitely pushing the boat out with our inhouse programme this year: we produced the world premiere of Kevin Barry’s first stage play, Autumn Royal, and we have two very special productions coming up this summer: Futureproof by Lynda Radley and Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa.”
Comedy plays a bigger part in the lineout this season for the venue, of both local and national origin. Kelleher explains its ongoing importance, commercially and critically. “We’ve been building the comedy programme slowly, but surely, over the last number of years. Comedy acts are, in the main, a huge commercial draw, so they make great economic sense for the venue. But beyond that, stand-up comedy is a performance art in its own right, and comics have tread the boards here since the building opened its doors in 1897, so I don’t think it would feel like a rich enough programme for the Everyman without having a varied comedy programme year-round.”
A selection of musical tribute acts also features on the line-up for the rest of the season, but with the city’s vibrant and vital music scene continuing to gather momentum, almost in spite of a lack of venues at present, is there a chance the venue could play host to some of the upcoming bands and artists in the city? “Absolutely. We had a sold-out gig here with Jack O’Rourke’s album launch in October 2016. The tricky thing to figure out in the absence of a 400ish capacity venue, is which acts can scale up from 250 capacity to the Everyman’s 650. But we are actively looking at this, with some local acts for the Autumn season in particular.”
The city-centre is at the outset of a period of rapid physical and social change, with large-scale developments replacing older buildings, and the character of the city slowly bring eroded by identikit office blocks and half-empty shopping centres. The Everyman, however, has always stayed, and its charm has been retained. Kelleher is emphatic about the theatre’s staying power.
“In some ways, I think the Everyman’s heritage and charm is almost hidden away – we have a limited street frontage, and so to someone who doesn’t know what’s already inside, it would be difficult to guess, compared with the imposing outdoor presence of Triskel Christchurch or the Opera House for example. That said, we are doing are best to encourage people to attend and create events here, so that we can share its Victorian beauty with as many people as possible. Hopefully the designation of MacCurtain Street as Cork’s Victorian Quarter will really help to draw attention to the building as a great point of historical interest.”
With all of the heritage and history that envelopes the building comes the challenge of its upkeep, a task that mounts in volume and urgency as the years pass. “The day-to-day challenges of maintaining the building are manifold, but I can tell you right now that there is a nasty leak from the ceiling over the balcony door that needs addressing! The age of the building throws up huge challenges in that regard, so as well as our commitment to the artistic programme, we have to make sure that the financial health of the building is strong, so that we can continue to maintain it for generations to come.”
With 120 years under the venue’s belt, the long-term plan now is to build on the venue’s instiution status and expand its reach nationally, via creative collaboration and community outreach. “We have lots of aspirations for the future – we are keen to improve profile as a producer of fantastic theatre and opera nationally and internationally. To those ends, there are plans afoot to partner with excellent artists, as well as high-profile producers and like-minded venues nationally. We’re also keen that these works would showcase and profile the brilliant work of Cork-based actors and creatives. We’re also committed to the presentation of work for younger audiences, so that we continue to make sure that the Everyman is a crucial point of contact to the performing arts for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
The Everyman is near and dear to Corkonians and their cultural lives, and Kelleher sees this link the theatre has to the city’s daily routine in her work and interactions with its audience. “I think it’s to do with the positive memories with family and friends that people have. As well as the first dates or chance encounters with future spouses mentioned above, people frequently tell us that they came to see panto regularly as children, or that they brought their children or grandchildren over the years. Basically, I think it’s the combination of an excellent live experience with a really positive social experience that gives people the warm fuzzy feelings. And that’s exactly what a theatre should be – a place for a community to be together, to laugh, cry, hug, sing along, whatever!”
The Everyman Palace’s commemorative 120th anniversary programme of events continues throughout the year. For more information, visit: everymancork.com.