(Sara Keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 1/16; Aisling O’Sullivan, Cathy Belton and Derbhle Crotty in The Approach by Mark O’Rowe. Photograph: Patrick Redmond.)
It is the morning after the opening weekend of her latest theatrical venture and Anne Clarke is feeling tired but buoyant. The first performances in the Theatre for One booth, which had been waiting patiently in the foyer of the Abbey Theatre for performers to inhabit its intimate stage since September, finally welcomed audiences, many of whom – Clarke included – were experiencing live theatre again for the first time in nine months.
Despite her own involvement behind the scenes, Clarke “was not prepared for the overwhelming emotion that hits when you are so close to an actor performing a play for the first time in nine months. It was really quite overpowering.”
The staging of Theatre for One at the Abbey was originally conceived as part of the cancelled Dublin Theatre Festival in October. Its December premiere was being staged as part of a pilot for a return to live performance under Covid restrictions, which have been particularly harsh for those in the performing arts.
Clarke was among many in the industry who was vocal about the blanket closure of an “an impeccably well-run industry” that “is a more controlled and safe environment than vast swathes of other activity that was permitted when Level 5 was lifted. I acknowledge the importance that we all do our best to keep ourselves and others safe – and it was wonderful that as well as every shop, hairdresser and gym, that galleries, museums and cinemas were reopened. But the fact that the theatres – where health and safety is in the DNA of every production even before Covid times, where a show has already been risk assessed within an inch of its life before it opens – remained closed just did not make sense to any of us”.
Clarke, who served on the Arts Council’s advisory group for the Covid-19 crisis, was delighted to offer Theatre for One as an experimental example of how safe and efficient live theatre could be, not just for the artists she had commissioned to create the work but for the whole industry.
“I don’t think anyone wants to live in a country where you can do almost anything but not go to the theatre,” she says with the trademark passion she has brought to her collaborations with Enda Walsh, Mark O’Rowe and Paul Howard, among others, over the years. “I don’t think anyone wants to live in a country where theatre ceases to exist.”
While lobbying and campaigning for her own and her colleagues’ future, Clarke was busy making new plans too. When theatres were faced with closure in March, she says, “There were a few weeks when I, along with everyone else in the theatre world, was ‘unproducing’ our plans, to borrow a term from [Scottish playwright] David Greig.”