The Everyman Palace: A Theatre for Everyman

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.

Fidget Feet: Taking to the Skies

Fidget Feet dance company heads to Cork on the 23rd, bringing with them a double-header of aerial dance shows. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with dancer and creative director Chantal McCormack Daly.

Pursuing a labour of love is a tough business, as any creative or media individual will tell you. It is quite something else, then, to effectively blaze the trail for it in your home country. For Cork musician Jym Daly and Donegal dancer Chantal McCormick-Daly, it’s been a consuming passion to establish their company Fidget Feet, and bring the thrill of aerial dance to essentially a new audience, one largely built up from scratch in their own case. It’s a process Chantal is evidently proud of. “Fidget Feet received its first commission in 2004 from Customs House in Newcastle, in the UK, to create a solo show called I Can’t Handle Me. Previous to this, we toured Ireland with support from local arts offices, to village halls, churches, anywhere that would take us, with our first shows in 1998. I trained in dance in the UK, and the reason we set up Fidget Feet is we wanted to move home to Ireland, be the first aerial dance company here, and bring what we’ve learnt in the UK to Ireland. We had to wait till Circus became a recognised artform by the Arts Council, before we could move home in 2007. Since then we’re now the leading aerial dance company in Ireland, funded by Arts Council, Culture Ireland, Donegal County Council & Limerick City & County Council. We’re the resident company at Irish World Academy of Music & Dance at the University of Limerick, & our permanent home is at the Irish Aerial Creation Centre.”

The process of establishing a regular touring schedule, effectively building something new for themselves in terms of booking, scheduling and venue liaison, was the foundation of their activities, one laid carefully over the course of years. Chantal is grateful to their Leeside home, the Firkin Crane Theatre in Shandon, in particular. “We’ve been touring successfully since as early as 1998, so the relationships we built since then, we still work on, we build trust with venues, working together to build audiences. Firkin Crane was one of the first venues that supported Fidget Feet, offering us residencies to create work since 2001. Without their support we wouldn’t be where we are now, and we’re excited to be coming back.”

In June, the company will be hosting the annual Irish Aerial Dance Festival in Letterkenny. How did the concept come about and how has it been to see grow the last few years? “I went to the original Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado in USA in 2005, funded by a travel grant from Arts Council. There I trained for two weeks, working with amazing teachers, and I wanted to bring something like this back to Ireland. We started with funding from Dance Ireland, and in Dublin Dance House, we ran weeklong Aerial Forums once a year for three years. Then we partnered with Donegal County Council & An Grianain theatre, moved up to my home county and started running the Irish Aerial Dance Festival there with funding & support from these partners . In year one, we had forty participants for one week, with six teachers. Now we have over twenty teachers, and over 170 participants. Shows, workshops, symposiums and lots of fun. It’s in its eighth year this year, and we have plans to expand, if we get the funding, to make it into a programming festival, so it becomes a platform for national and international circus companies to show their work. We aim for this by 2019, the festival’s 10th anniversary. It’s a dream come true to see it grow and for it to be at home. When I was growing up in Donegal, I knew I wanted to be a dancer but there was not much for me to do – so now we are offering this to any young person that would like to have a career in the arts & circus.”

In 2015, Fidget Feet opened the Irish Aerial Creation Centre in Co. Limerick after garnering funding via Arthur Guinness Projects in 2013. Chantal takes us through the process of planning and creating such a centre, and tying it into the group’s community engagement goals. “It was down to a trip to Montreal in 2008, to the Cinars festival, & we had a tour of Cirque De Soleil’s headquarters, and I thought, ‘Ireland deserves something like this. Much smaller, but a space!’ (laughs) So I had a bee in my bonnet to find a space. We got LEADER funding in 2012, to write a feasibility study on converting a barn into a creation centre in Westmeath, where we were based. In 2014, we were offered the Guinness award of €45,000 seed money to find a space. We were resident company at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance in the University of Limerick, so I talked to Michael O’Sullivan, the director, if we could move the Creation Centre idea to Limerick, could we be partners, and could we teach aerial dance to the Academy students. He said yes, so we found a warehouse space near the University, and moved in 2015, with support from Limerick City & County Council for three years. With the addition of the Arts Council’s supports for professional development and training at the centre, we had our partners. Then with a Small Capital Grant and McManus funds, we were able to kit out the space. We are so thrilled to have been granted €350,000 plus, in March, funding from Limerick City & County Council to move into a new building in the city of Limerick by 2019. So it’s all go, go. go!”

The group is touring Ireland this month, and after all that’s been accomplished and what they’ve set up for aerial in the country, how is it for Chantal to still get into the spaces and rooms around the country, and further afield, and just perform? “I’m a mum, and I thought maybe with these three businesses, and being a mum, that maybe I don’t need to perform too. But my heart is all about creating and performing, that’s why I do everything I do, without that chance to perform my heart amd soul would be lost. So I have to choose when I can perform, so not all the shows & not all year. I have a great team of performers & a small team in the office (three of us) so together we try to make it work. Lots of late night admin work for me!”

The group performs two shows at the Firkin Crane on the 23rd of this month, for two distinct audiences. The early show, Strange Feathers, is for a younger, formative-years audience. “I went to India, and did a course called Next Generation, where I met my Icelandic partner, Tinna Gretars, from Bird and Bat Dance Company. We hit it off, and together we choreographed the show in Ireland and Iceland. Riverbank in Ireland supported the show and we premiered it last year there. In Iceland we did a small tour with Culture Ireland & Icelandic support, so we’re thrilled to be taking it to so many Irish venues. I have always wanted to make an aerial dance piece with music for the early years. For kids between eighteen months and seven years old, it’s a beautiful, magical piece. If anyone like The Elves & The Shoemaker, they’re going to love this too. Lovely music and the story of two little birds learning to fly, the audience sitting on cushions right in the action, if they arrive at the venue early they can make a mask to watch the birds… It’s all about magic & imagination, and for parents & children to enjoy together.”

Likewise, evening show Hang On is more of a sweeping drama, telling of the ongoing struggle between genders and the precarity of love. “Hang On is one of the shows we have toured internationally since we made the half-hour version in 2010. We have now extended it to fifty minutes, and added some projection. It’s about male & female meeting, and how we compete, struggle, draw lines apart, and then find a way to work together. But even then, if you find your true companion for life, the fear of losing them can be overpowering… it’s a simple story, that everyone can identify with.”

It’ll be a chance to touch base with local arts centre and long-running partners ahead of an expanded schedule this year. “We have a few Irish and international shows planned. Hang On goes to Costa Rica in May, Strange Feathers tours Ireland again in October and November, then Norway & Denmark. We’re researching two new shows, Bingo Wings & Hip Opera, that we hope to create in 2018/19, and we hope to tour a new show, Second Coming in 2018. Hope to see you all in Cork!”

Fidget Feet presents Strange Feathers and Hang On at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Thursday March 23rd. For more information on show times and tickets, go to firkincrane.ie.

Rubberbandits: Horse Sense

After selling out one show and announcing a second for St. Luke’s, the Rubberbandits top off a banner year with a trip to Cork. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with Blindboy Boatclub ahead of their Leeside engagements.

It has to have been an exhausting year for Limerick comedy/performance-art duo The Rubberbandits. The duo of Blindboy Boatclub and Mr. Chrome, along with collaborators, have been at it for years, but their groundswell of support and grassroots influence has grown massively. Progressing from prank-calls and early tunes to post-austerity commentary, the Rubberbandits have made their thickly-accented voices heard, most notably the anti-materialism of 2012’s Horse Outside, and last year’s Dad’s Best Friend, a chilling examination of male mental health issues in modern Ireland.

The Rubberbandits’ Guide has just finished up after a four-episode run on RTÉ, that followed last year’s Rubberbandits’ Guide to 1916. A series of explainers, the show takes on overarching social and philosophical issues, from the nature of reality itself, to addressing Ireland’s changing attitudes to sex. It does so while taking in the spectrum of the Bandits’ self-created universe; the boys take slightly off-kilter advice from puppet odd couple Beckett and Joyce, and are witness to the ongoing self-inflicted suffering of the Trout of No Craic. But rather than an exercise in injokes, the Bandits cast their net out wide in balancing comedy and comment. The Irish pub/nightclub is recast as Attenborough-esque point of observation; reality stars sit befuddled as the pair test their perceptions of reality; and the early internet is characterised as a pond, replete with various dodgy activity in the reeds and pirated Metallica C.D.s floating at the surface.

The duo have dealt with RTÉ before in different capacities, but the question is, how different was it to get a show as far-reaching as Rubberbandits’ Guide to RTÉ, getting stuff green-lit, etc.? “We had complete creative control with the show. That’s the only conditions we’d work under. We know exactly what we want to do and how to do it, we rarely need outside help. At this stage, we’ve proven ourselves internationally enough for RTÉ to fuck off and leave us to our own devices. That’s what we did.”

An underrated aspect of the Guides has been the soundtrack – metal veterans Deftones, Nigerian synth-funk maestro William Onyeabor and vaporwave figurehead Macintosh Plus feature prominently, among others. Who managed to sneak those past RTÉ’s music department? “We had full creative control. RTÉ is great for music, in fairness, they have a blanket licence on everything except The Beatles. I’m a huge music fan, obviously. I love how a piece of music can change the tone of a scene on TV. We also knew that there were no plans for a DVD release, which would have meant losing the music in favour of library tracks, so we went mad with tunes. Picked some savage stuff for it. Samuel Beckett shooting James Joyce in the head while he’s listening to Deftones is what the TV license fee was made for.”

Another major piece of the Bandits’ year was providing ITV’s comedy contest show Almost Impossible Gameshow with play-by-play commentary and colour analysis. Blindboy addresses the subject of any concerns from producers unaccustomed to the duo, as to their voices, senses of humour, etc., while breaching how MTV been to deal with, for the American adaptation. “The UK version was great craic, we got to be very subversive with our humour for that. The American one that’s showing on MTV at the moment is a pile of shit, I won’t even watch it. We just did it to earn a few quid. The type of thing we were going for just doesn’t work with Yanks.”

But more so than any professional aspect of the duo’s body of work, the defining aspect of the year for the Bandits has to have been their increased visibility in Irish media, pertaining to mental health and the crisis we have at present. It’s a topic that official Ireland stayed silent on for a very long time before public discourse finally necessitated that discussion. Blindboy talks about how that has changed, and the Bandits’ role in that discussion, looking back on the last 12 months in particular. “We view ourselves as socially engaged artists. We view art, not just as a way to affect social change. The mental health crisis in Ireland is something that affects ourselves and all of our friends. So fuck that, if no one else was going to talk about it, then we would. None of the stuff that I say about mental health is novel or original, I’m just regurgitating what I’ve read from psychology books. We should be asking why our politicians aren’t informed on this stuff, rather than focusing on why I am.”

The other question pertaining to the topic is the now-hackneyed assertion that “the man with the bag on his face makes more sense than the man in the suit”. Boatclub and Chrome have utilised the lines between comedy and commentary expertly, but what further role does Blindboy see for artistic practice in Ireland as a tool of discourse and change, given the relative lack of support from officialdom, and where does he see the discussion going? “I think, with the internet, artists don’t need any support to get their stuff out there. To earn a living they might need support, but to create change, all you need is a message and the Internet.”

Boatclub and Chrome have been practicing artists from a very young age, and they’ve changed medium with the times, turning juvenile scutting into a fully-fledged, ‘dole-queue Dada’ artistic school of thought. But where next for Gas Cuntism? “We haven’t a clue, that’s half the craic. We’re both fairly handy visual artists. I can paint, and Mr. Chrome can sculpt. I’d say we might give that a lash. But there’s still loads to be done with music, theatre and writing.”

After selling out their first date on the 22nd of this month, the boys are playing St. Luke’s for a newly-announced second show on the 21st. After the big year it’s been, what can we expect from the live show this time around? “Two apes from Limerick wearing plastic bags on their heads, singing a load of songs about greyhounds, and a shower of eejits from Cork in the audience loving it.” And as an arguable career year comes to a close behind them, Blindboy is to the point about what further to expect from the Rubberbandits in 2017. “I’m writing a book and we’ll have a lash at a musical.”

Your writer and Blindboy have spoken before about Cork, before their Everyman performance of musical Continental Fistfight, and his feelings on the city. Blindboy further considers his relationship with the real capital, through the prism of his own home city. “Cork is class, it has the feeling of Limerick about it. But ye’ve a better buzz and ye have yere shit together. It’s like watching an older brother get a mortgage, while we’re still smoking rollies and combing our pubes.”

As our interview time draws to a close, one question remains to be asked, and that’s the plight of the Bandits’ close associate (and Salmon of Knowledge relative) the Trout of No Craic. Seemingly mired in his own ever-worsening misery, he reached his nadir during the Guides series, engaging in sexist & transphobic outbursts, and letting his various urges destroy his relationships. Blindboy, with a heaving sigh, simply proffers: “He’s trapped in the prison of his own negativity. The key to his escape is compassion, but he’s too busy sucking boobs for that.”

The Rubberbandits play St. Luke’s on the 21st of December, with CCCahoots in support. Tickets €25 from uticket.ie.

Painted Bird Theatre: Toil and Trouble

As Painted Bird Theatre gets ready to present ‘Toilers’, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the company’s Thomas Conway about its muses, and the weight of history.

At the outset of the state’s history, and thus that of the narrative surrounding arts in Ireland, for better or worse, dozens of great female playwrights and novelists proliferated through the halls of native creative endeavour. Working in their communities in numerous roles, they strove to advance feminism, Irish independence, and ultimately, greater social equality. As time went on, and independence was won, however, these voices began to fall silent, in part due to the passing of time, but equally owing to cultural pressure from a Catholic church that seized Irish society in exchange for perceived stability. Among those are Suzanne R. Day, suffragette, pioneering poor-law guardian, and playwright/novelist whose works set a precedent for Ireland’s modern literary greats. Day’s published works are few, but vitally important to Irish theatre and literature.

Painted Bird Theatre seeks to rectify this loss to posterity by creating Toilers, a piece centred around her lost play that speculates and builds a contemporary narrative that ties Day’s spirit to modern struggles, happening as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival throughout the last week of June at the Cork School of Music. Thomas Conway, Painted Bird dramaturge, explains the premise. “Developing this piece, we have worked closely on several of the plays Day co-wrote with Geraldine Cummins, but we’ve chosen to recreate the one play that we have not been able to find. What we present is speculative, based on the brief descriptions of the play that exist. But our speculations are informed by everything that survives of her writing.”

The Painted Bird presentation of Toilers sees the concept of the original play, sourced from existing reviews and documents, presented within a meta-narrative, with three protagonists working to reconstruct it and tease out its relevance to the present. “We are not so much presenting the play’s narrative within a framework. Rather we are telling the story of the play and setting out the stakes for the writer in bringing this play to its original audience, before speculating in what the play itself consisted.”

Day’s creative work and imaginative writing was intricately tied into her identity as a suffragette and poor-law guardian, as well as her work for social reform in Cork. It seems timely to revisit it now, as women still fight for reproductive rights and gender parity in workplaces, over a hundred years since the play debuted. “What we create has its own coherence and integrity, but it also seeks to resonate with the audience and the challenges they confront daily. These challenges oftentimes relate to inequalities, one of the most vexing and persistent being those related to gender. In this respect, what we do needs to take its place alongside those other activities promoting gender equality, the most far-reaching of which is the work #wakingthefeminists are undertaking for gender equality in the theatre.”

As with other female playwrights, Day has been acknowledged as a precursor to more celebrated male playwrights, such as Sean O’Casey and John B. Keane. Conway discusses how the theatrical community can help that generation of women gain their rightful place in the Irish canon alongside their “accepted” male counterparts. “Toilers was said at the time to be the first play set in a slum depicting urban working-class lives. It was also known to be the first to deal with prostitution. Today’s audience would prefer to know about these lost plays, the circumstances of their first performances, the climate of ideas and feelings from which they emerged, just as much as to experience the plays themselves. As theatre-makers, we need to bring together in the same event these several levels, these parallel strands of narrative, and to find a form that gives audiences access to these levels.

The production speaks to the desire of young people to remake the world in ways that they themselves determine, whether it is along gender lines, racial lines, socialist lines, or other means. Young people today can reach for social media, film or music to confront powerful elites and to change societal attitudes; they an also create a theatre piece, just as the protagonists of the play do. How did that premise come about? “The other story we are telling, perhaps the most important, relates to the protagonists – three women in their twenties – and what’s at stake for them personally in the presentation. These stakes relate to their personal investment in Day’s story and in reconstructing her lost play. This is the idea we set out with. If Day’s story cannot chime with these young women, we cannot get Day’s play off the ground, and we’ve been guided by that premise at every step.”

At a time when people are alienated from officialdom, instistutions and authority figures – where the #repeal movement sees many young people try to change things from the bottom up, and relying on personal narratives and creativity as their means – how does Conway see this push for social change being reflected in the Irish arts? “We are a generation of citizen-artists and we bring politics within the scope of our art, not as political issues, but in the implications of the forms we find. We confront ourselves and audiences within the same ethical space and together refine questions about the future than provide answers.”

Toilers will be part of Midsummer Festival this year, and it’s clear that its collaborative nature is fertile ground for exploratory productions such as this. “The programme is committed to collective values that makes us excited to be part of it and to experience the other parts of it. We are hurtling towards a more unstable world, but thiis year’s festival goes to prove that Cork people, for one, are wide awake and eager to celebrate humanist values and wider identities.”

Toilers won’t be the only Cork-centric piece that’ll be emerging from the Painted Bird company this year, as the ensemble prepares to delve further back into history to explore its humanity. “We are working on a brand new work based on Cork peoples’ connection to the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. Our Own Battle will present three statements from three men over three days in Kinsale this coming December.”

Toilers runs at the Stack Theatre at the Cork School of Music as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. Doors at 6pm (15 – 18 June), 7pm (23 – 25 June) and a matinee showing starts at 2.30pm on 25 June.