Dr. John Cooper Clarke: “Get Me While I’m Alive!”

He’s the Bard of Salford, a punk-performance poet par excellence whose influence has trickled down from sharing stages with Joy Division to collaborating with the Arctic Monkeys. Ahead of his show on April 28th, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats about poetry, stagecraft, and the legacy of punk with Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

John Cooper Clarke is in very good form at the other end of the phone, a midweek presser interview happening on a sunny afternoon. Personable and honest, his Mancunian-accented voice resonates warmly down the line, spoken deliberately but with good humour and a wit you’d expect from a performer whose way with words and non-traditional influence led him to a legendary career, culminating in a doctorate from the University of Salford. He mulls over a line of questioning he’s been sent in advance. “We’ll talk about it like gentlemen”, he chuckles. It’s almost disarming, coming from a man of his stature.

Growing from a young boy in Manchester with the gift of a turn of phrase, to the artistic contemporary of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and Joy Division, rock ‘n’ roll mythologists might be slightly surprised that his body of work began with a very brief stint in folk clubs in his home city. It’s a dichotomy that didn’t quite sit right with him for a few reasons, and set the tone for how he’d proceed. “I give ‘em a wide berth, to be honest. Maybe once or twice. But if you grew up in 1950s England, you’ll remember that enjoyment of folk music was rigidly enforced, to counter the perceived Americanisation of popular culture, which I was in favour of. I always saw folk as some creepy, state-sanctioned f*ckin’ brainwashing technique. I’m not talking about Christy Moore, Dylan or the Pogues, more Morris dancing and that anti-American rubbish. I wanted to get into show business. I’d determined I would take it up as a profession, and the only way I knew of, really, given that there weren’t any venues, or any chance of anyone from my background getting a publishing deal right away, was to drag it into the world of showbiz!”

Poetry had scarcely been reaching non-traditional audiences up to the point of Clarke’s youth, reaching his family via Pam Ayres’ recurring spot on ITV’s postal-vote talent show Opportunity Knocks. In a world of YouTube poetry videos and shortform content, the idea of poetry topping the billing on such a television show today is nearly astounding, but for Clarke, it was what he needed to win his family over on his calling. “When I became interested in becoming a professional poet, I didn’t get much encouragement. They were only thinking of my welfare, I’m sure, but my parents pointed out that to their knowledge, no-one had ever made money out of it (laughs)… I’d mention famous modern poets like Philip Larkin, and they’d say ‘he’s a librarian’. Things like that. They were trying to be kind and discourage me from an ill-advised avenue of wealth.”

As mentioned, Clarke earned the moniker ‘The Bard of Salford’ by sharing stages with greats of the punk oeuvre across the late seventies and early eighties. While his live run and recorded work placed him firmly in that genre’s performance-art pantheon, to Clarke, it was a means of getting out and expanding his range. “Let’s deal with that moniker. After getting lumbered with that label, my first priority was to move to London. Who wants to be a local eccentric? F*ck that. The world of punk-rock provided a ticket for this, it only lasted two years, I think, but it provided an intense personal connection for the fans. For me, it got me out of Manchester and around the world, several times. It provided an opportunity for this kind of thing. It only lasted two years, and very few people were involved, but its effect on the cultural world, and in the UK, was disproportionate (chuckles). It shows you the power of mythology! It’s developed its own mythology which has intensified over time. And a general “anti-hippieness” that was so intoxicating at the time.”

A long-form poetry film is something that is just not seen anymore, much less given the opportunity to reach any sort of audience. While formulating a question on his memories, or current thoughts, of the creation of his own masterwork, ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, he’s quick to issue a correction that’s shown up in this very parish lately via the festival rounds. “I’ll give you one – Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gerard Depardieu. Blinder! It’s got swordplay as well! ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, I haven’t seen it in about thirty years. It hasn’t aged very well, I imagine. I watch my films once, and once only. Why suffer more?”

Salford returned the favour to its Bard in 2013 with an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford. Given his feelings on the discrepancy between literary academia and non-traditional forms nowadays, it must have been quite an experience to receive that recognition. “Why not me? At first, I thought, ‘why me?’, but then I read somewhere that Benjamin Zephaniah has sixteen doctorates from as many universities. ‘Thank you’, that was my response. Anything that entitles me to call myself Doctor, ‘thanks very much’. You don’t see him using them, though, he doesn’t call himself Doctor, and he’s entitled sixteen times over, whereas me, I won’t let people forget about it! I’m not wearing those ridiculous clothes in daylight and not call myself Doctor!”

His legacy in music continues to this day, including collaborations with the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend & the Makers, and regular live appearances reciting his own work at music venues around the world. When asked for his thoughts on the influence of his work on younger musicians, poets and performers, however, he’s happy to let that with those he’s influenced. “You’d have to ask somebody else, really, Mike. I’m glad of all the interest that I’d been shown, by Alex (Turner, Arctic Monkeys frontman) and Ben Drew, who used one of my works in the movie ‘Plan B’. I’m very grateful for this mass-media attention, obviously? What’s a poet if nobody knows about it? Without glamour and/or money? A schnorrer, a beggar (laughs). Anything that brings me closer to financial security (laughs louder).”

Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith, as part of an extended run of Irish dates he’ll have been on, including a big show at Dublin’s Vicar Street. He readily offers a message to the gig-goers, word-speakers and general culture-vultures of the Leeside city. “The last one I did in Ireland was three weeks ago in Vicar Street, which was fabulous. There’s no reason to suspect that St. Luke’s won’t be every bit as good. All I can say to the people of Cork is: ‘no pressure, but get me while I’m alive!’.”

John Cooper Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith in support. Tickets €30 on sale now via uticket.ie.

Lee Side Story: “The Opera House Can Be Daunting”

The culture of the city is explored, and the divisions that drive a wedge between starcrossed lovers are also the ties that bind, in Leeside Story, a new musical directed by John McCaffrey, featuring the voice and songs of Corkonian troubadour John Spillane. Mike McGrath-Bryan gets a chat in ahead of the show’s debut at Cork Opera House.

On either side of the river that wends its way through our beloved home city, two tribes eye each other suspiciously. Age-old rivalries have come to the fore, and seemingly insurmountable differences drive Corkonians North and South ever-closer to complete isolation. But as the light fades on a seemingly unending feud, in a Shakespearean take on Cork city, a Northside boy and a Southside girl emerge from the shadows. It’s the classic boy-meets-girl tale, plunged deep into the well of local humour, and placed amid the best light-entertainment stage traditions. ‘Leeside Story’, presented by the Leeside Drama group and debuting at the Opera House next week, draws on theatrical tropes and Cork’s cultural heritage to deliver a new work, embellished with local song and cutting Leeside humour.

Originally designed for smaller spaces in Cork city, the play’s story and vision quickly grew, catching the eye of programmers at the Opera House, and for director John McCaffrey, scaling up not only the production of the show, but its cast, was a challenge to be relished. “The stage in the Opera House can be daunting for many actors, but as I have found in the past, if you get used to working the stage, it’s no more daunting than a country hall. An audience of twenty people is the same as five hundred plus. Logistics have to be worked out, weeks in advance. Lighting plans, sound, projection needs, set design: never leave any of these items a week before a show.”

The Opera House’s generous stage portions must surely pose a challenge, though: while the play itself features a total cast of thirteen, the usual struggle with prop placement, and keeping the onstage action tight while emphasising the space available to them is a perennial challenge for playwrights, dramaturges and casts. The venue’s high-tech setup has done a little bit of the heavy lifting in that respect. “The main challenge for this show has been the inclusion of background screens and video. One has to be careful not to distract the audience too much with fancy backgrounds. Thankfully the Opera House has a lighting system second to none, so we envisage no problems there.”

As stated at the outset, the premise of the show plays on the oldest story of all: conflict, love and resolution, investing the cultural heritage of Cork with a readily accessible pop-culture narrative, as hinted at in the show’s title. Veteran writer Derry Cotter has taken the local vernacular and history, and brought it to a new life, according to McCaffrey. “Derry Cotter must have studied in in the same bizarre college of wit as John Spillane, I reckon. During a cold spell earlier in the month, John reminded me that the record for the coldest place in Ireland goes to Birr! Derry’s puns are legendary within UCC. One comes to mind from a previous play I worked with him on: ‘there are people dying now, that never died before!’ As a perfectionist, Derry often suggests changes to the script. Sometimes I say ‘okay’, other times I tell him to hop off. There is a cutoff after all, when you have to let your baby go. We see this show as a flagship production for Leeside Drama Group, and would hope to run it again in the near future.”

Music is a vital part of the show, including the involvement of Leeside legend John Spillane, armed with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Cork’s culture and song. Working with himself and musical director Jimmy Brockie, McCaffrey comments on what the collaboration has brought to the overall feel of the show, as well as the process involved. “Both Jimmy and John are a pleasure to work with. Jimmy has been working closely with anyone with a singing role to hone their skills. He is also adding wonderful musical colour to the show. As regards John, that man will walk on stage with guitar, and just do his magic.”

Spillane’s career has been well-documented, notable for the breadth and depth of his local knowledge and how it’s been implemented across a deep discography from which he’s drawn, not only for solo shows and regular residencies, but projects like this, which keep him going creatively. “I’m very happy that Derry and John decided on the songs, the context in which the songs are used. It’s an honour, and an honour to be involved in a play that sets out to be pure Cork, that I was the guy they went to for the songs. Dr. Con Murphy had a night to honour him at City Hall there lately, I’m getting a lot of that kind of stuff now.”

The experience of using four of his songs in a new context, while maintaining a certain familiarity in line with Cork light-entertainment tradition, was the end result of a process of working closely with writer Cotter. Contributing to the show’s creation, and influencing its use of Leeside humour, it’s only fitting that Spillane makes a few walk-ons over its course. “It’s very interesting. It’s a lovely crowd of people, and it’s nice to work with people that are different. We call it ‘amateur’ drama, but amateur drama is huge in Ireland. There’s a lot of people that are really good, and really passionate about it. It’s lovely to hang out with that (kind of) crowd.”

Just about a week from stage night, and with myriad concerns as a director to get addressed before doors are open, McCaffrey is chipper about his thoughts heading into the big show itself. Keeping things ticking over seems to be the name of the game. “So far, going tickety-boo! With a core cast of thirteen, and numerous stage and production staff to deal with, scheduling rehearsals has to be managed accordingly. Thankfully, the crew I have are dedicated, one hundred percent, to the production.” After this is done, it’s a wide spread of duties for the production team involved, including a dalliance with Hollywood stars in an unlikely location, and an immediate return to the grindstone with more new plays and productions. “No rest for myself. I’m stage-manager for ‘The Blarney Stone’ in April with Patrick Bergin in Macroom. I also know that Derry has further plays in the pipeline with Leeside Drama group, including another run at this show.”

Leeside Story debuts at the Opera House on Thursday March 14th, at 8pm. Tickets on sale now from €25 at corkoperahouse.ie and the venue’s box office.

Shane Casey: “I’m Not the Finished Article”


The Celtic Tiger is now firmly in the rear-view of the national psyche, and is increasingly remembered as a strange time in Irish history. For former painter/decorator Shane Casey, it was a point of frustration, but also a rich seam of material for comedy-drama play ‘Wet Paint’. Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down with the Young Offenders star to find out more.


From the local buzz that has sprung up around the international success of Leeside slapstick series ‘The Young Offenders’, the real-life stories behind its leading actors and actresses are among the most compelling, with a cast of homegrown talent breaking an all-too pervasive glass ceiling in Irish entertainment and further afield. Thanks to the international reach the original film and spinoff TV show has attained via RTÉ/BBC co-production, and distribution deals with streaming titan Netflix, ‘The Young Offenders’ has become a bona-fide success story in Irish media, and alongside Channel 4’s ‘Derry Girls’, a cultural talking point not seen in Irish comedy since the height of Father Ted’s success in the mid-nineties. For those out of loop, one of the show’s profound pop-cultural sensations is one of its’ anti-heroes, Billy Murphy, portrayed by Northsider Shane Casey.

Though the success of Young Offenders has placed Casey in a national spotlight, he’s been fervently working away on stories of his own for over a decade. Informed by his time as a painter-decorator at the very crest of the construction-boom wave, ‘Wet Paint’ was written entirely by Casey, who also stars in its upcoming Patrick Talbot production at the Opera House next month. Sitting down upstairs in the venue’s Blue Angel bar, Casey is open about the process of bringing the story of an image-conscious boss and his workers to life. “To be honest with you, I didn’t know that that was what I was going to write about. I started writing a monologues, and ‘I was on the Late Late Show once’ was the opening line. This monologue spilled out of me one afternoon up in Sunday’s Well, I was living (there). I found it was a funny anecdotal story about the man who meets the future James Bond on the Late Late Show, and told his wife that he knows him, when in fact he doesn’t know him. He’s caught out with a lie on national television. I found that humourous, and off the back of that, then, I had the character Tony, who I thought was like a neighbour of mine, and that evolved into the painting and decorating ‘boss’, that was under pressure, buying the new car every year, the new kitchen unit, and so on, all of this nonsense that was going on during the Celtic Tiger, and that evolved into, to be honest, a semi-autobiographical piece on being an apprentice painter-decorator as the world was going mad, in 2005.”

‘Wet Paint’ is a curio, in that it deals directly with the Celtic Tiger’s largesse and ‘notions’ by openly lampooning them, doing so not only as a personal nostalgia piece, but addressing the national episode, a time when the country, by and large, was arguably getting carried away with itself. Irresponsible investments, an over-emphasis on entrepreneurship, and a steady flow of cheap credit championed by banks and politicians alike created an atmosphere where anything seemed possible. For young people, however, soon to be the first victims of the precipitous bust of 2008 and the reviled austerity measures that followed, that fantasy was rarely the case, and Casey’s bile was aimed directly at the obstacles the boom-years mentality placed directly in his path. “It was just a frustration for me, at that point. I’d left the painting and decorating (a few years prior) and then when the 2005 (City of Culture) scenario rolled around I’d just finished college, I thought, ‘oh, this is going to be good for me, lots of plays and lots of theatre, vibrant things happening in my city’, and I just felt completely excluded from it. It was opera-singing up at the barracks, foreign plays coming in, which is all well and good, I love theatre, but I felt it was elitist, and that was the frustration that was coming through me in the play. I wanted to write a play that my Mam and Dad, and that my friends, who are builders, painters and decorators, and the theatre-going public could sit down and watch, and go ‘oh, he’s trying to say something, here’, y’know? I know that sounds kind of heightened, or convoluted, but it’s frustration, really, with… jambons, and silly, stupid carry-on.”

This time around, Casey and crew are working with former Everyman Palace director Patrick Talbot to get the Opera House production of ‘Wet Paint’ over the line, but Casey is quick to sing the praises of former directors that have worked with him on the play’s prior productions at the Granary Theatre, and the Everyman itself, drawing from the rich seam of theatrical talent that the city possesses in spades. “The play was directed by a woman called Evelyn Quinlan, who was one of the first Theatre students from UCC, she would have been involved with Julie Kelleher and people like that. She became a friend over the years, and I wanted a female input on the play originally, and she would have been a guiding light for the original production, and a director when we put it on in the Granary, and transferred it to the Everyman, then, a year later. Pat happened to be the guy that was running the theatre at that stage, and then when Pat came to me last year and said ‘would you take it out again?’, I was thinking it would be more relevant again, that there’s distance between now and 2005. I had another look, and thought, yeah, ‘maybe this does have something to say’, because now there is a nostalgia buzz, and I even talk about ‘Reeling in the Years’ in the play, Turners’ Cross and Cork City, all the stuff that was going on at the time. Pat has always been very encouraging to me in theatre, and encouraging me to write more, always.”

With the property bubble having long since burst, the fallout of the bailout and bank guarantee having taken a heavy toll on the Irish public over the course of the last decade-plus, and the prospect of a so-called economic recovery being touted by the Irish establishment, the temptation to ask Casey if any of the well to-do crowd have taken umbrage with the play and its mirroring of notions in certain parts of Irish society is frankly overwhelming for your writer. “I live close to inner-city Dublin, and I do workshops in schools. I know that kids are suffering because of the austerity cuts, like. We’re all suffering. The nurses are on strike. There’s kids who are homeless in Cork city. There is a bit of a recovery, but for who? That’s why I’m doing my workshops, ‘cause I know what it’s like to feel like sh*t about myself as a teenager, The Young Offenders has opened the door for me to do this, and put this play on again, and I’m proud and really excited to be working on it.”

In pursuing the opportunity given to him to revisit ‘Wet Paint’, Casey reached into his recent acting past to cast his two collaborators for the new production. Having moved to Dublin right before ‘The Young Offenders’ to pursue his craft in a busier atmosphere, the right people were literally falling in around him as he was revisiting the script. “The first time I met Tommy (Harris) was across the road (from the Opera House), when we were filming the prison scenes. I was beating this guy for an afternoon, and he turned out to be a friend, and now he’s in a play that I wrote, it’s amazing… I was in Dublin, went into a coffee shop that I had never been in before, and I took out the script. I hate taking out scripts in coffee shops, because I feel like a bit of a w*nker. The next thing, Tommy walks in the door, and I think ‘brilliant!’. Michael Sands is also a friend of mine, and he’s probably played more than anyone else at this stage. He’s been in dozens of pantos here, and in the Everyman, and I’m really excited to be doing it with him.”

Taking the play, a three-man piece with limited props, from the ‘round’ of the Granary and the smaller stage of the Everyman, to the generous proportions of the Opera House’s boards, would present anyone else with the question of how best to fill that space, and make the most of the historic venue’s facilities. For Casey, however, that negative space around his show’s characters presents an opportunity to maximise its visual impact and complement his story, allowing audiences to fill the spaces themselves. “That’s probably saying more for their isolation as characters, to be honest with you. We’re still on the outside, looking in on them. It was probably more ‘under the microscope’ as an actor, in the Granary and the Everyman because they were up our noses. There’s a moment in the show where, without giving too much away, where ‘the wall’ is very much broken. People didn’t realise we were acting within the scene, they thought the play was falling apart. We can make it maybe a little bit bigger. I’m glad that we did it in a small venue, and now we have it here, and we’re looking at taking it on tour later in the year, see how it does in other houses. We’re doing Skibbereen as well, I’m excited about that!”

When he isn’t working on his stagecraft, Casey has used his influence and the wide reach his acting has garnered him to advocate for awareness of mental health and stress among teenagers, following on from parental testimonies on ‘The Young Offenders’’ inherent inter-generational appeal. In his mind, opening up the conversation about the world around our young people, and the pressures that have always gone hand-in-hand with adolescence, is the first step. Casey draws from his own experiences prior to entering the performing arts, and has come away from his school workshops on the matter with some profound experiences and perspectives. “We’re opening up the floor to them, to have a conversation, suggesting things that they could do. It’s an experience-based workshop, based on the mistakes I’ve made in my life and the life I’ve led so far, what I need to do to be productive and happy within myself. That’s the most important thing. It’s very easy for kids to feel like sh*t about themselves, I know what it’s like to go home and sit on my phone for four hours, thinking everyone else’s life is perfect. I’m going in and being honest them, ‘cause I’m not the finished article at all. They think that when you’re an adult, everything’s over and you have everything made, they don’t realise you have problems and troubles. We need to sit down and talk about their problems and troubles as well. We had a lovely moment the other day, I asked a group, ‘how many people have somebody they can turn to if they really need help?’, and nobody put their hands up, and that was worrying. But we turned the tables on them and asked, ‘if somebody needs help, would yoy help them?’, and they all put their hands up. We’ve a lovely saying at the workshops, ‘don’t go the butcher for a haircut’. A lot of them get confused at the very start, but it’s about going to the right person for help at the right time.”

It must be an odd reverse-engineering of those experiences with mental health, then, to pour everything into portraying Billy Murphy, the Young Offenders’ eternal menace, rival and eventual anti-hero. Initially portrayed as protagonists Conor and Jock’s near-psychotic local bully, pursuing the pair over comeuppance received at the end of the original film, Murphy slowly becomes a sympathetic figure as the subsequent TV show progresses. He’s shown to be profoundly out of his depth when holding bus-goers hostage in the series’ infamous finale, and is ultimately shown as the product of parental neglect, mental ill-health and the wider social issues affecting inner-city areas and their infrastructure. With the responsibility that comes with such a large platform, Casey’s approach, similar to his other work, is to create a blank canvas for others to project their experiences onto. “Everything was there on the page from Peter (Foott, Young Offenders director). It’s well-documented at this stage that he lets us do a bit of improvisation, but Peter knows me for years, and what I can contribute as an actor. The character was there, and we knew there was more to him than the stereotypical guy that punches somebody. I very much wanted to have a struggle within the guy that if he does punch someone, that he goes ‘oh, tell your mam I was asking for her’, afterwards. I thought that was an interesting angle. Any time I ever saw a lad get into trouble, especially in relation to violence, he was kind-of beating himself up, more than anybody else, afterwards. I don’t think anyone goes out, punches someone and feels great about it. I think there is a sinister side to him as well, where he does take a little bit of enjoyment out of it, but there’s a pinch of salt to it.”

This coming summer will see the show’s second series enter filming around the city. While the details of the show’s next steps are of course under tight wraps, it’s evident that between the upcoming shoots and ‘Wet Paint’s continued run around Cork county, Casey has enough happening to keep him busy in the coming year. “It’s going to go again, that’s all I know. The kids and teenagers I meet are crying out for another series. The more we can get done, the better. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll get the one-percent of people coming up to me (saying so), but it’s like, ‘ye’re not the demographic’, like. Peter has assembled a brilliant team of people on cast and crew. Somebody put the headline that there’s a ‘love-in’ between all of us, and I’ll stand by that, I’m very fond of everyone I work with on that show.”

On a parting note, Casey makes time before he heads to a production meeting for an anecdote on the real strength of ‘The Young Offenders’ wide-ranging appeal. “A prominent person in this city, a television person, told me that they would sit down every Thursday night with their son and watch the show, and it would become a real bonding moment for them. It was really nice, as a family to do that. I thought that was really nice. The therapeutic quality the show has. Sitting down to watch one episode and being able to switch off, from their phones and the pressure they’re put under at school. I’m very happy to be involved in a show like that, and at the very least – kids are having a laugh.”

‘Wet Paint’ runs at Cork Opera House, at 8pm nightly from Wednesday March 20th to Saturday 23rd, with a special matinee show at 3pm on the Saturday. Tickets €21-27 are available from the venue’s box office, and corkoperahouse.com.

Imaginary Neighbours: “It’s Possible to Find More Meaningful Connections”

As Quarter Block Party sets out to re-imagine what the city’s historic quarter can be this weekend, one group of artists sets out to fill in the blanks left by vacant spaces left on North Main Street, creating a group of ‘Imaginary Neighbours’. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with installation co-creator, Gergő Lukác, and Quarter Block Party co-organiser Eszter Némethi.

It stands as proud as ever it has, for better or worse. North Main Street, at the centre of the city’s ‘old’ quarter is an important lifeline in traversing the city, linking Shandon Street and the Northside to Barrack Street and the Lough beyond it. A historically proud area for businesses and trade, the street has seen the ups and downs of arrivals, departures, and the seemingly endless cycle of boom and bust over the years, forging a strong and resilient community of traders and the loyal custom that keeps the area alive. For the past five years, Quarter Block Party arts festival has sought to breathe new life into the area’s vacant spaces, nooks and crannies, with music, performance and public engagement, doing so right as winter gives way to spring.

This year, a group of visiting artists from Budapest in Hungary have given specific consideration to the issue of vacant retail units and lots in and around North Main Street, devising a number of interactions and provocations through street art, installations and performances, among which is an intriguing proposition: ‘Imaginary Neighbours’. Asking workshop attendees to imagine the people and stories that could fill the empty spaces and open new possibilities for the area, the project sees the ideas rendered as images, drawn onto kites, to be flown during a special parade later in the day. At a time when vacant properties risk creating vacant neighbourhoods, co-creator Gergő Lukác explores the process of getting a conversation going beforehand. “Approximately 300 people live on North Main Street now. In theory, it shouldn’t be so difficult to reach and convince people to participate, but in practice, it definitely is. This is the reason we created a three-step strategy. First, posters will appear in the streets with our faces, to not be complete strangers when we show up. The second, to send letters to the residents, with more information about why we arrive. And lastly, to get to know them in person, on those four days when we arrive in Cork.”

Further to the process of finding out who will have “arrived” at the workshop, the stated theme of who is “yet to arrive” in real life hangs poignantly over proceedings: our city is to become a City of Sanctuary for refugees, and the artistic community works hard to create place for them wherever possible. Such concerns, though relevant, will be explored indirectly, via the simple process of imagination, as well as the chats with locals, says Quarter Block co-organiser Eszter Némethi. “The workshop, and the parade propose a curiosity and gives space for thinking together, about what it might mean to live together. What it might mean to move in to a very specific place, with a very specific history and situation. Like Gergő said, there are 300-odd people living on the street, that’s six busloads, a very small community. I think to be in the same room with your neighbours in itself is quite exciting, even if it is temporary.”

Reclamation of real and imagined spaces are a theme for the parade: vacant living and retail spaces have always been a feature of the city centre, like cavities, in its forward-facing nature, and in recent years, have coincided with the death of community arts spaces like Camden Palace Hotel, commonly falling victim to property hoarding and an inaction on infrastructural issues and changes in customer habits. For Nemethí, public art like this is an attempt to find a common way to suture up the disconnections with the city centre that have followed. “With Quarter Block Party, my personal question is: ‘what is the place of art on a street?’. And I like to propose this question to artists, traders, residents. To think together, because I think the answer is not simple, the dynamics change. The values and priorities shift. I learnt a lot about how much space there is on North Main Street for art, often more than I thought. Often in places I didn’t anticipate! But I also think ‘sensing’ this place requires a continuous dialogue, and it’s a slow process, a negotiation of differing value systems. It’s not the point to fill temporarily vacant buildings, meant for trade or living with art. It can help to lift spirits, but I think it’s possible to find more meaningful connections.”

The workshop was developed as part of the Common Ground programme of cultural exchanges between Cork and Budapest, that runs over the course of Quarter Block Party weekend, with the help of the EU’s Erasmus+ programme. For Lukác, the challenge was working from Hungary alongside Cork-based Némethi and the Quarter team, with all of the challenges that occur. “In Common Ground, we work and research on how we can reach and engage local communities through the tools of art. We work in small groups, along different approaches of the topic, everyone according to their main interest. We were interested in how to involve the people who actually live on this street, and what’s the topic we could catch their attention with. ‘Imaginary Neighbours’ was then designed especially for North Main Street residents.”

Quarter Block Party has, for half a decade, explored and shone a light on spaces and interactions for local people along the city’s old quarter. The initiative and effort that organisers like Némethi have put in to bring life to spaces that could otherwise be construed as ‘left behind’ by development and gentrification cannot be underestimated. “I think in the margins, the places where people do not look, wild and magical things can happen. There is a possibility for things to emerge and develop. And it might be hard to establish or eradicate things, but I also think this is the strength of these places, that they change, but also persevere. I think North Main Street is one of these wild spaces, just that it also happens to be in the very middle of Cork.”

The ‘Imaginary Neighbours’ workshop takes place between 1pm and 6pm on Saturday February 9th, at the Middle Parish Community Centre on Grattan Street. Families are welcome. The Parade of Imaginary Neighbours then sets off from Skiddy’s Castle Plaza at 6pm. To book a place, email eszter@quarterblockparty.com.

The Crossover: “This is a Way We Can Use Art for Better”

A Leeside initiative to bring local visual art, spoken word and music together has come together with First Fortnight, Europe’s mental health arts festival, for a special event tomorrow night at the Kino. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with organisers and collaborators.

There’s a lot made nowadays of making more of a gigging experience for people. Whether that’s providing densely-packed local lineups, taking advantage of a venue’s capabilities and idiosyncrasies, or delivering once-off experiences, Cork-based promoters and collectives have been driven to consider further the idea of gigs and performances as an overall experience. From this idea has emerged another breakout story in Cork arts in the last year, as events organiser Ciarán MacArtain has headed up multidisciplinary events series The Crossover, which has run in venues around Cork City. Speaking on the idea, MacArtain discusses the impetus for setting it up. “Originally the concept came about as an experiment, to see how different forms of art and performance can compliment each other and enhance an experience for an audience. A group of us working in different media came together to develop the concept, early in 2018. There was a feeling at the time that although there are many artistic events happening in Cork all the time, some of these can happen in isolation, where a lot of musicians attend a lot of music gigs, visual artists attend a lot of art openings/ exhibitions and poets go to a lot of poetry events, without there being much “crossover”. The drive of the original concept was to bring these different artistic communities in Cork together, to try to create something new, and expand the audience of each medium.”

Tomorrow night sees the project partner up with national mental health awareness initiative First Fortnight, running in cities and towns nationwide, providing an outlet for performance, discussion and artistic framing of the ongoing discussion and national experience around mental health. Having run in Dublin for a number of years and quietly getting off to a start in Cork, First Fortnight provides an important focus for artistic practitioners and facilitators on mental health, and for MacArtain, it’s this theme around which The Crossover’s event at the Kino revolves. “It’s a great honour for us to contribute to this festival. We were originally approached by Stanley Notte, who exhibited work at our first event in March, and also does curatorial work for The First Fortnight. The festival have been very supportive of us and have clear ambitions to expand their programme year on year in Cork and around the country. The way the festival has grown in the last few years is highly impressive. For us, the poignancy of its theme and scale of its output make it one of the most important festivals in the country.”

As mentioned, the event happens in the Kino cultural venue on Washington Street, a growing space for spoken-word following poetry collective O’Bhéal’s use of the space for their Winter Warmer weekender last November. It’s a spacious venue with a sizeable stage and cinema-sized screen, but the question of how to fill the stage with largely single-person performances is answered promptly by MacArtain, and his experiences there. “We’re delighted to be working in such an important cultural space as The Kino. We have huge respect for Phil and his family for maintaining the space as a cultural resource, especially considering the amount of artistic spaces that have closed around Cork in the past few years. Personally, I feel lucky to have experience working the space, I did the LX design for the Winter Warmer in November and have co-produced a play in there previously, so it’s nice to have that familiarity with the space as we approach this work.”

Among those in attendance will be rapper and spoken-word artist Spekulativ Fiktion, poet and aspiring journalist Matthew Moynihan, and Waterford wordsmith Alana Daly Mulligan. When speaking of working with an event like First Fortnight, the question of what goes into programming an event around such a theme emerges, but also what these poets bring of their work to proceedings. “It has definitely been an interesting challenge working with a set theme for this event. Previous Crossover events haven’t had a defining theme so it has made the creation of this piece slightly different. In terms of programming, there is a wealth of talent in Cork working in different media, so the consideration really is in building an ensemble. Trying to gauge how artists in different styles and mediums may compliment each other. Everyone involved has given generously of themselves and their talents to the project. It is ensemble based work and each collaborator has really grasped that in how they’ve contributed.”

Matthew Moynihan has emerged as one of the city’s most vital new poetic voices in recent years, in addition to a burgeoning body of student and community journalism, speaking forthrightly and with eloquence on matters both internal and external. The topic of mental health is close to home for him, and it’s this experience that compelled him to get involved. “It’s a great honour to be involved with First Fortnight. The Crossover is going to be a fascinating medley of Cork’s artistic prowess, representing our individual and collective journeys with mental health, and it’s such a pleasure to work with so many talented artists. To be working with First Fortnight is a career highlight, as most of my own subject matter is mental health related, and to get to share our experiences with the audience, and with a bit of luck help somebody, is a great opportunity.”

For Alana Daly Mulligan, a Cork-based spoken-word artist of Déise extraction, exploring mental health via artistic practice, and the links between the two, is a matter of not only looking at immediate issues in human emotion and behaviour, but adopting a more pragmatic approach. “Mental health and art have always been notoriously linked, or so it seems. This is a way we can use art and its platform for better, so people can come and see us through the lens of theatre, music, spoken word, physical performance and so on and try and connect with some of the issues we are discussing. It’s also important to note that mental health is a very open topic, it doesn’t always mean misery, doom and gloom, it is as much about seeing the good side of life as it is about reconciling with the bad ones. One thing I will definitely say about the Crossover is we are not telling anyone how they should or shouldn’t feel, this isn’t a lecture series that gives you the keys to feel happy or anything like that. We are interpreting mental health, using our experience and that of others for good.”

With a lot of effort having gone into curating, production and promoting the event between all parties, MacArtain is ready to present an important part of First Fortnight’s Leeside offering throughout the weekend. “I’m dead excited for it, really. A big consideration is trying to keep our own mental health in check so that we can give ourselves fully to the performance. There are a lot of moving parts when doing work of this nature so I’m trying to keep on top of it all while still maintaining a sense of playfulness and fun around it. I’m dead proud of the ensemble and the work we’ve done thus far so keeping my fingers crossed that we can represent that as best we can.”

The Crossover presents its collaborative event with First Fortnight at the Kino on Friday January 18th. Tickets €10 available at firstfortnight.ie or on the door.

Keith Barry: “Ultimately, I Have No-One to Answer To”

Plying a craft somewhere between mentalism, hypnosis and magic, Keith Barry has entranced live and television audiences the world over, and worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names. Mike McGrath-Bryan chats to the Waterford man ahead of his dates at the Everyman in March.

It’s been a long road for Keith Barry, from getting his first book on magic tricks as a fourteen-year-old in his hometown of Waterford, to leading the field across multiple media on hypnotism, magic, and mentalism. In the process, he’s refined his art for audiences around the world, and as he quickly cuts across the South Mall to meet up at the Imperial Hotel for a chat, he’s clearly in the press-day headspace ahead of his next Irish tour in the New Year, effusively chatting about upcoming engagements and projects.

While any craftsman worth his salt would never reveal his secrets, it’s a point of interest to discuss how magic, an art dependent on the presence of a live audience is transmuted to the camera, and its needs. Barry holds up his first television series for RTÉ, Close Encounters, as an example of not only the production nuance, but the graft that goes into magic as a television format. “The medium has changed over the years. When I started my TV projects, it was back in 2003, so you’re talking about fifteen years ago now. And there was really only David Copperfield, David Blaine and Derren Brown. I was doing street magic here. My whole ethos was, as few cuts as possible from the camera, all the magic is shot ‘as live’, no stooges, no camera tricks. I’ve stayed with that my whole career. The medium has changed, it’s now Instagram, Twitter, everyone’s looking for this hit, this instant dopamine thing, and there are a number of magicians that are paying actors to freak out, knock cups over and do tricks that wouldn’t work in the real world at all. So, it’s difficult. You have to have a live audience, the reactions have to be real, and my (upcoming special) for RTÉ, ‘Keith Barry’s Magical New Year’s Eve Party’, it’s a live studio audience, and you can’t pull the wool over their eyes unless you openly deceive them.”

While conquering the small screen is no mean feat, it’s much different again to take your craft to the silver screen and maintain the authenticity of the live experience. Barry worked as a consultant for the ‘Now You See Me’ series of films, both of which to date were huge box-office successes. The challenges of showing complete novices your craft, and doing so in the timeframe of a major Hollywood production, is a feat of magic in itself. “There’s two things to this: they’re big Hollywood stars, so you have to treat them with a certain level of respect, but also, you have to be mindful of their time. But for me, when I’m involved in a magic movie, there’s no secrets. You have to teach them as much as you can in as short a space of time is possible, and ultimately trust them. These are professionals, they’re not going to be out revealing your secrets. They learn their roles, and learn them well. Dave Franco, I taught him sleight of hand, with Woody Harrelson, I taught him how to be a hypnotist and mentalist. They can do all this stuff in real life now. I had a great time, and now I’m good friends with some of them.”

Barry has also overseen the return of hypnosis as a primetime television format around the world with ‘You’re Back in the Room’, a UK version of which aired on ITV a number of years ago, and has subsequently travelled well to other markets. What are the pros and cons of a show that has to function for a live audience, as well as fit into a gameshow? “It was massively difficult. It was a new format. These people do want to pop out of hypnosis and just grab the cash, so it was difficult for me to make work, while also having an entertaining gameshow. The most important aspect for me was to be able to stand behind the hypnosis, to say to you that they were really hypnotised. The end product was a hit, we did some in Australia, and we’ve filmed another ten episodes in the U.S., for Fox, so it’s travelled very well.”

More so than media, writing or any kind of consultancy, Barry’s bread and butter is the support of his home audience, and he has an Irish tour kicking off in the new year, that includes three nights in March at MacCurtain Street’s Everyman Palace. It’s a favourite room of the magician’s, and he’s looking toward weaving his deceptions on a Leeside audience. “My favourite part of what I do is being on stage. I believe that’s where I’m strongest, and that’s where I’m at my most content. Ultimately, I have no-one to answer to. I write the show, I direct the show, and I’m onstage, being the real me. I’ve had a great following for the last fifteen, twenty years, on the road. People understand that I change the show up every year, and this year, it’s called ‘Deception’. It’s about how the world is more deceptive than we’ve ever been in, not just with ‘fake news’, but with our own minds these days. I’ve been coming here for years, the Everyman is an amazing theatre. I always go across the road to Isaac’s for my dinner, brilliant restaurant, and the crowds here have always been fantastic. I love coming down here.”

Keith Barry presents ‘Deception’, playing at the Everyman Palace Theatre from March 14th to 16th. Tickets €30, on sale at the Everyman and through ticketmaster.ie.

Cork City Ballet: “Never Use the Words ‘I Can’t'”

Over the last 25 years, Cork City Ballet has gone from strength to strength, hosting international superstars and bringing the genre’s classics Leeside. Ahead of the premiere of their new documentary ‘Breaking Pointe’ at the Opera House, MIke McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Alan Foley.

The arts are a labour of love, of this there is no doubt. Look at the city’s veterans, the people that have rowed in behind their passion, and laid the foundations for future generations to build on theirs, and you see an unswerving dedication to their work, inextricably tied with the city, building their artistic and facilitative identities in its venues and spaces. These same intangibles are evident as your writer sits down upstairs in Cork Opera House for a chat with Cork City Ballet director Alan Foley, as he casually discusses corralling over twenty-five years of archive material for ‘Breaking Pointe’, a documentary on the troupe’s development and milestones, co-produced with Frameworks Films. Premiering at the Opera House on September 11th, the documentary feature includes interviews, professional performance footage and never-before-seen audiovisual material.

For Foley, it certainly doesn’t seem so long ago since he made a break with the city’s musical establishment to do something new, a change borne of frustration and the need for a body to represent the city’s dance community on the world stage. “I was a dancer, myself. I got to dance with the legendary Joan Denise Moriarty. I came to her when she was older, and tired, I suppose, and it used to drive me bonkers, when I asked her, ‘please, may I do this, may I go to New York, or London, or Russia?’, and she’d say ‘no, you may not’. ‘Why?’. ‘You just may not.’ I put up with that for so many years, I could not be dealing with it and needed to do my own thing. I was always very sure from a young age that I wanted to be in the driver’s seat, so as a result, maybe out of ignorance, I did. So, I set up Cork City Ballet in 1991, and we had our first performance at the Everyman Palace in 1992, and it’s just gone from there… it feels like about five minutes ago, then I look at this lifetime it’s been, and I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone.”

Foley has choreographed and produced all of the troupe’s productions since its foundation, alongside a busy professional career, both as a dancer, and later on the boards of various ballet organisations around the country. One imagines the work/life balance has been a bit of a challenge to maintain. “Necessity. Bottom line. It had to be done. All the jobs, I’ve always done myself to save money, and the one thing I did learn from Moriarty was to never use the words ‘I can’t’. Don’t be coming to me with excuses. If you do have a problem, come to me with it, but come to me with five solutions, and we’ll pick one. So that’s what I’ve employed, even with the young dancers I teach today… I can’t stand bureaucracy, the bulls**t that goes with so much of the world today. ‘Oh, you can’t do this because Memorandum A, Subdivision Q, Article 13 states that the green form and the blue form have to be triplicated and duplicated, etc.’ Are you serious? I want to do a ballet! That kind of thing used to, and still does, drive me to distraction. I can’t cope with it, so I avoid people like that as best I can. I surround myself with doers. Anyone that causes grief, or isn’t willing to make the tea. I don’t care if you’re the prima ballerina or the cleaner, we’re all on the same train, and it’s worked!”

The City Ballet is well-known and regarded on the international stage, with dancers from all over the world coming to town for its productions, as well as to coach and hold seminars. As anyone in the arts will tell you, relationships are everything, and Foley has over the years made a virtue of building on international working agreements. “Very much of it comes from my training or upbringing. I was the youngest of eight kids, airs and graces weren’t tolerated by my parents or my family. Very often, in the arts and particular in the ballet world, the elitism is there. Maybe not so much now, thankfully, but I’m one of those people that believes ballet isn’t just for the privileged. Talent doesn’t have an address. And I bring that ethos into every part of my working life, as well, when trying to attract sponsors or patrons, because we don’t get Arts Council funding. There is a very good product, we deliver that. And if you have that you can go anywhere. You can do anything. Another thing I don’t do too often is dichotomise and politicise. ‘Here’s the ballet, if you like it, fine, if you don’t, that’s fine, too.’ It’s a bit like Picasso, he painted, ‘d’you like it or don’t you?’.”   

The troupe’s business model has increasingly included community and corporate patronage, which allows those involved to enjoy the benefits of supporting the troupe – DVDs, discounts on the door, etc. In an age of crowdfunding and collectivisation of resources, Foley is open about how this model has added to sustainability for the group. “Ballet is very expensive. The tutus that ballerinas wear can go for upwards of three grand. The pointe shoes that they wear, they can go for €100 per pair. They run through three or four pairs of them per show. That’s a lot of money just to make this happen. We’re very lucky over the years to have had some great sponsors, great supporters. The Irish Examiner, Evening Echo, RedFM, have all been brilliant. The Arts Council pulled all their funding in 2011, they don’t approve of us as they say we’re too old-fashioned. Heard that a thousand times before. Innovation is great, it has to come along, but you also have to respect the traditions. Ballet as a modern artform has been around for over 250 years, and will be there for the next 250. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. They’re all milestones, that great dancers are judged by. This is what I’m trained to do. I don’t want to bring swans in on horseback or in roller skates. I want to bring them in on pointe shoes! We’ve had a presence here for 25 years, we’re bearing the torch of Aloys Fleischmann and Joan Denise Moriarty before us, so there’s a very rich legacy, and the support we get every year is phenomenal. That’s how we survive.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ began production earlier this year, mining the troupe’s extensive and meticulously-kept archive, as well as engaging dancers and staff in new interviews. While the Ballet had chronicled itself in years prior in text form, the idea occurred to Foley amid unhappiness at how the history of dance had been documented prior. “I had gone to see another documentary about Joan Denise Moriarty, and I was appalled at some of the footage that was used. It was all very well to use old footage, but there was nothing new or progressive. Nothing young people can identify with, and go ‘oh my god, this is cool’. Young people see the fifties or sixties, and it means nothing to them. They can’t relate. Bring it into their world and let them have a look at beautiful dancers, doing beautiful things, to their kind of music. You’ll attract a new audience. And I looked at the archive we have, and I thought, ‘I want to do something different’, and show people what we have today. We are all only of our time. Moriarty had her time, she did things her way. This is my time, it’ll be over soon, and someone else will do it their way. You can only do what you can in your time, and make the most of that.”

While an extensive archive certainly expedited the process of production, the dig for material wasn’t without its surprises, especially when dealing with external footage and its owners. “There wasn’t much of a process as we have a huge archive. I knew we had it documented. I went to press clippings and marketing materials and they were all there. I had wonderful interviews with some of the dancers that we’ve had, big stars, from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, the Royal Ballet in London, the Met in New York. I knew I had all of this. And then, in the last two years, there was much more footage. Backstage interviews, interviews with the public. But once I had started exploring, I found some real hidden gems that I’d forgotten about. RTÉ came in and filmed me teaching with the Kirov Ballet when they were at the Point about twenty years ago, there was stuff from TV3. So, I was able to draw on all that.”

It’s a tall order, really: the Opera House’s capacity is about 800, all-seated, a challenge for any promoter to sell out on the local level in the current climate. For something as otensibly niche as a historical treatise on local ballet, though, it seems an even heftier challenge, one for which the venue was only more than ready, says Foley. “The plan was to screen it in the Firkin Crane, the 250-cap theatre where we’re based, and do all our classes and rehearsals. When I was speaking to the CEO of the Opera House, Eibhlín Gleeson, she said ‘no, this is your performance home, you have a great following, you sell out every year, I think you should have it here’. I thought, ‘oooh, it’s very big, will we get an audience, what if we don’t’, etc. And she said ‘no, we’re gonna do it here, and that’s it’. So I went with her gut instinct on it, and I’m pleased to say tickets are selling very well. The company and myself are used to the venue, we’ve been here for many years, so it makes sense that the showing is here.”

With the first twenty-five years of the group’s history now comprehensively catalogued, it’s time for the group to look at the future, both in the short-term and as the arts scene in the city changes alongside the city’s expansion. “We have the premiere on September 11th. On Wednesday 12th, we’re straight into rehearsals for the Nutcracker, which opens at the Opera House on the 8th of November. Nutcracker is always a sellout. There are plans afoot for ‘Breaking Pointe’, to bring it to Irish Arts Centre in New York for a screening, to London, to Cannes. But for now, we’re just focusing on the premiere and, getting that over the line.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ premieres on Tuesday September 11th at 7pm at Cork Opera House. For more info on Cork City Ballet, check out corkcityballet.com.