In August this year An Taibhdhearc will celebrate its 90th birthday. There are also changes afoot at the venue at board level and a re-casting of staff structures. Last week Aodh Ó Coileáin was elected chair of An Taibhdhearc and, following his accession, sat down with me to outline his vision for the Irish language theatre.
Originally from Dingle, Ó Coileáin is a broadcaster, film-maker, and lecturer who has also served as head of news at Radio na Gaeltachta and was co-founder of Irish language theatre company Na Fánaithe. His involvement in theatre began in childhood.
“At the age of nine I joined Siamsa Tire in Tralee as a boy performer and often toured the country with them," he tells me. "Then my voice broke around the age of 13 and they put me into stage lighting, so I lit a lot of shows. I first came to the Taibhdhearc in 1982 at the age of 14 to light a show, Spreading The News, by Lady Gregory.”
In 1986 Ó Coileáin returned to Galway to do a BSc but got a message from An Taibhdhearc to "come like a forest fire" because Leila Doolan was staging The Marriage of Figaro and a lighting man was needed. "I remember I turned up late for one rehearsal and got the sharp edge of Leila’s tongue," Ó Coileáin recalls. "Later that same night she heard I’d been awarded a scholarship and went out and got me a large cigar, so I saw both the soft and hard sides of Leila within the space of an hour. We’ve been friends ever since!”
In 1987, Ó’Coileáin and (the now Independent senator ) Trevor O’Clochartaigh founded Na Fánaithe and over the next six years, the company staged many fine plays and toured the country extensively. Na Fánaithe seemed to stand for a more progressive vision of Irish language theatre than An Taibhdhearc then did, and Ó’Coileáin candidly admits that for a long time he was a critic of the theatre.
'I had been critical of the theatre in the past but maybe now it was time to put my shoulder to the wheel and help out'
“In those years the Taibhdhearc was dependent on amateur actors,” he recalls. “Many of the shows were poorly attended and the quality of the Irish was uneven. There was a general feeling it was a closed shop, people stayed on the board for long periods and were mainly interested in staging musicals and operas rather than contemporary Irish language plays. There was also a lot of chopping and changing with different directors.”
Ó Coileáin goes on to say why his feelings changed and why he decided to join An Taibhdhearc’s board: “In 2014, my nine-year-old son Iarla was in An Taibhdhearc’s Christmas show and enjoyed it very much. I then saw the importance of the Taibhdhearc’s role in recognising and promoting young Galway talent. Iarla did a couple more Christmas shows and I was asked would I consider going on the board. I reflected that I had been critical of the theatre in the past but maybe now it was time to put my shoulder to the wheel and help out. The board is done on a voluntary basis and there is a lot of work involved.”
Ó Coileáin’s electionas chair is part of a changing of the guard at the theatre as several older board members have stepped down and new faces are being sought to replace them. “We’re looking to get younger people onto the board," he says. "Our doors are open and I think there should be a process along the lines suggested by Gaye Cunningham’s recent report on the Gate, which said board appointments should be open, transparent, and advertised, for a fixed term five years, draw on different professional skill sets, and there should be a code of conduct for directors.
"That would be the ideal but it’s not easy to fill all those criteria especially in the Irish language where you have fewer people to draw on. I’d like to see us being nationalised more, perhaps we could have board members in Dublin, Donegal, or Dingle who could attend meetings via Skype; we are the National Theatre of the Irish language and should spread our wings to represent that.”
Ó Coileáin outlines some of his hopes for An Taibhdhearc as it prepares to turn 90: “I see the Taibhdhearc with a role in enriching the lives of people through engaging in the cultural life of the nation and, in our case, the life of Galway and Connemara through Irish. We want to create opportunities for increased participation; I’d like to see us reinstate a youth company which could be a feeder system for the main stage. We want to encourage ambition, risk, innovation, excellence, and I think we will achieve that with our show for this year’s Galway International Arts Festival, Baoite by Darach Mac Con Iomaire. It’s full of action and intrigue and deals with topical issues like the decline of the fishery in the west of Ireland, oil exploration, IVF, and family stresses. It is dark and ambitious and I think it will make an impact.
“There are increasing numbers of Canadian universities teaching Irish and perhaps we could bring work to Canada. I also think it important to recognise and support the important contribution of the voluntary sector. I’d like us to see us bring plays from all over Ireland to Galway and we would publicise them, we don’t have the budget to pay all their expenses, but that would see us putting on more Irish plays and the venue being used more.”
In December, An Taibhdearc opted not to renew the contract of artistic director Anne McCabe. Aodh explains the economic reasoning behind this move. “At the moment we can only afford to do three productions a year with all the other costs of the venue and its staff. We used to get a grant of €420,000 but that has fallen to €320,000. Roughly half of that goes into producing plays; a play in GIAF costs well over €50,000. The theatre's budget cannot sustain two jobs at managerial level, and someone to manage the building and rent the facilities was a priority so we’ll be appointing a general manager shortly. We plan on hiring directors on a freelance basis to stage the Taibhdhearc's own productions.”
What plans are in hand for the momentous 90th birthday? “We hope to have a special night to mark the occasion,” Ó Coileáin replies. “The actual birthday is in August but many people are on holiday then so we might wait until September to celebrate. We’re thinking of tying in the musical tradition of the Taibhdhearc and include choral singing. There is also a long link between An Cead Cath battalion in Renmore, who as Irish speakers would have supplied many performers to An Taibhdhearc down the years, so maybe we can have the army band perform and also a number of short plays with special guests on the night.”
It seems there is much to look forward to from An Taibhdhearc in 2018. Ó Coileáin concludes our chat by expressing his excitement at the visit to An Taibhdhearc this weekend of acclaimed Russian company, Theatre U Mosta which will stage Gogol’s Marriage and Martin McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan [a scene from which is depicted above]. “The visit of this Russian company is very apt because Ó Conaire and Ó Cadhain were both heavily influenced by Dostoevsky and Chekhov," he says. "Ó Cadhain when he read them said ‘These are stories about my people’, and that’s what inspired him to start writing himself so it’s great to see U Mosta coming here.”