ON THE night of Thursday February 1 1996, Galway’s newly refurbished Town Hall Theatre officially opened with the world premiere of Druid’s production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
That celebrated production famously went on to take the West End and Broadway by storm, and announced McDonagh’s arrival as a writer of brilliance, setting him on the path to international success on both stage and screen. The Beauty Queen also proved to be a marker of things to come for the Town Hall itself. The venue has since become established as Ireland’s busiest and arguably most successful regional theatre.
Today it is at the epicentre of Galway’s cultural activity, including the city’s major international festivals, and hosting work by professional and amateur performers, companies, musical societies, and arts organisations from across the city and county, as well as visits by leading international artists and ensembles.
Among the attractions for 2016 are shows from The Abbey Theatre, Decadent, and Branar Teatar do Pháistí. The Town Hall is especially pleased to have Druid return in September to present a new production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane starring Marie Mullen as Mag (the role initially played by Anna Manahan ) and directed by Garry Hynes.
Before that, on Monday February 1 2016, the Town Hall will mark its landmark 20th birthday with a celebratory concert featuring guests from the world of folk and traditional music, theatre, and the arts including Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Dermot Byrne and Floriane Blancke, and John Spillane. They will be joined by special guests from Druid, Decadent ,and the Patrician Musical Society – the first company actually to perform at the refurbished venue, in the autumn of 1995.
'Mike Diskin’s work laid the foundation for success'
Musing on the venue’s ‘20 years a-growing’, Town Hall manager Fergal McGrath saluted the work of his predecessor, the late Mike Diskin.
“The first thing that springs to mind is how the Town Hall has grown and expanded and is so busy," he says. "That is a testament to Mike Diskin’s work who was manager for 14 of the 20 years. He had great artistic vision, understanding, and empathy combined with good administration skills. Mike’s work laid the foundation for the success of the last 20 years. It’s now a very successful venue which has attendances of 90-100,000 in a year.
"What is impressive in that is how much the local input has contributed to that growth and development. The Town Hall is so fortunate to have a necklace of key festivals across the calendar; GIAF, Film Fleadh, Cúirt, Baboró, etc. In each of their categories Galway has the best in class. The work of the locals has been very important, both from the amateur and professional sectors -the amateur sector in Galway is really strong. That local dimension to the Town Hall’s success has been absolutely critical.”
As well as staging work from local companies and festivals, the Town Hall actively scouts shows from further afield. “Even though we have the bonus of so many local festivals and companies offering work, we also look at work that is touring," says Fergal. "If it is a fit with the venue, or it’s something we think our audience will like, we’ll take it in, and we also go out and look for work from different artists and companies. We’re part of a network of venues and we work together to encourage companies to create work that can tour to all six of us and we try to influence Arts Council policy to ensure that there will be the funding there to enable companies to tour. We’re working on multiple levels continuously trying to ensure that we have the range and quality and volume of work that Galway audiences will be drawn to see.”
Should the Black Box be replaced?
The Town Hall’s second venue, the Black Box, has recently been the subject of some speculation with suggestions that it could be the site of a new cultural centre for Galway. I ask Fergal how he sees the venue’s future role.
“The Black Box has been an important part of the Town Hall’s development,” he replies. “In recent years the programming there has been mostly music and comedy. We’ve invested in new seating so it is more comfortable and in other aspects of the venue but it remains a very basic building and in our view it is not up to international standards in terms of the best conditions to view theatre or whatever. We feel it needs to be revamped, either be renovated or replaced.
"My own personal view is it should be replaced and, if it were, that could be with a bigger and better venue that would be more audience and artist friendly and would have more services and facilities. There are different arts communities in the town that are still not serviced in terms of facilities, dance for instance. Two years ago I put a list together for the Galway City Council and said ‘if you’re serious about 2020 here are the things that are still missing for Galway and several of these might coalesce together under the one roof.'
"The city council have been developing their agenda, and a new library is on that and a visual arts space. The conversation is ongoing. My hope would be that in five years’ time Galway will have filled the gaps in its cultural infrastructure regardless of whether we win the 2020 nomination or not, and that those facilities include a revamped Black Box, with bigger capacity and much better resources.”
Getting back to the local dimension in the Town Hall’s work, Fergal takes considerable satisfaction in witnessing the burgeoning career of director Andrew Flynn and Decadent Theatre Company, which has risen to national prominence via a succession of productions at the Town Hall.
“Andrew Flynn learned his craft with Druid as assistant director on The Leenane Trilogy and he has been one of Galway’s greatest assets in theatre in recent years through his work with GYT, where he has nurtured future theatre makers like Jarlath Tivnan and we’ve seen Decadent going from small to larger scale productions which are now touring the major towns and cities. Andrew’s success is something the Town Hall would be very proud of and it’s something we’d like to highlight on the night of the concert.”
As the Town Hall prepares to celebrate its 20th birthday, how does Fergal view the years ahead?
“This is a busy, busy place," he says. "We run three stages in two buildings. Recently we’ve also seen Margaret Nolan curate a series of terrific art exhibitions in the Town Hall bar. We’re open 363 days a year, 18 hours a day, there’s never a dull moment. Looking ahead, the basic vision remains the same, to have maximum audiences for optimum programme.
"I also want the venue to have the resources to support visiting but especially local artists and arts organizations. With a revamped Black Box, whether or not that would be run by the Town Hall, there could be a seismic change in cultural activity in Galway. There was a lot of lobbying to get the Town Hall up and running 20 years ago. That work and investment was a vote of confidence and that confidence has been proven correct but now we have to look forward to the next 20 years.”
The celebratory all-star concert takes place on Monday February 1 at 8pm. MC will be Little John Nee. Tickets are €20 from the Town Hall box office (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).