(Mary Leland’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/1; Photo: Gare St Lazare’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s How It Is. Photograph: Clare Keogh. )

Theatre scene that thrived before pandemic is busy planning for return to work

“This is a funny old place to start,” says Sophie Motley while she awaits her return to Ireland as the new artistic director of Everyman Theatre in Cork. “There’s this theatre, so iconic in the city, and none of us can be in it!”

A Shropshire lass who took her degree in drama and English at Trinity College Dublin where, with Sarah Jane Shiels, she established WillFredd Theatre and held a variety of positions with, among others, Rough Magic, English National Opera and the Abbey Theatre before moving to the UK as artistic director for Pentabus in 2016. She’s bustling with ideas but taking a long view, understandably as in January Everyman chief executive Seán Kelly issued an appropriately dramatic statement: “The doors are closed; the Everyman remains open.”

“There’s always some form of engagement going on but not in the building,” says Kelly, speaking about the difficulty of formulating outline plans for the year “when we don’t know exactly what the Covid protocols are going to be”. One solution was an audio stream of rehearsed readings (to be repeated from March 1st) and the digital preview from Gare St Lazare of Samuel Beckett’s How It Is as the delayed third episode of a three-year residency, streamed from a rehearsal studio space in Paris in January.

At the Opera House, chief executive Eibhlín Gleeson admits to something of the same frustration in a situation of constantly moving parts. “It’s the uncertainty that is the cancer in all this.” she says, as well she might, given that she has the biggest space to fill in Cork, presenting all levels of venue-based entertainment in a 1,000-seat auditorium where the pandemic closures created a cascade of cancellations. So while she says 2022 is filling up nicely, her strategy for 2021 is cautious.

“My system now is to plan on a seasonal quarter-by-quarter basis, with this winter-spring being the most difficult, the dark before the dawn, I hope,” she says. Essentially a civic theatre, the Opera House enjoys a “high-functioning” relationship with City Hall, which provides an annual subsidy of €250,000, to which is added this year’s increased Arts Council grant of €179,000. The building is probably the best-equipped venue in Cork in terms of digital adaptability, which allows Gleeson to say that streaming is there to stay.

The Opera House also partners with University College Cork in an educational collaboration offering internships, residencies and postgraduate studies. Working online with the college’s department of theatre staff, Gleeson is mentoring the next generation of arts managers and technicians who, she believes, will see the Opera House “come out of these very, very difficult years in a way which will completely inform their understanding of theatrical production”.

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