Staying centre stage

Loughlin Deegan tells Alan O’Riordan how the Dublin Theatre Festival is making the most of the city’s talent

FIVE years is a long time in the life of a theatre festival. Especially if those five years are Ireland 2007-2011. The Dublin Theatre Festival celebrated 50 years in 2007 and Loughlin Deegan came in as its artistic director at the crest of a wave of expansion, funding largesse (at least by Irish standards) and growing ticket sales.

Since then, it’s been a process not of decline per se, but of steering the festival through choppy waters. And now, handing the reins to his successor, Willie White, Deegan can probably allow himself to reflect on a job well done.

“I suppose it was an inverted tenure in terms of how others would run, gradually adding things and building over the years,” says Deegan. “But I think it worked out well. The increased focus that came with the 50th anniversary, and the additional funding, kind of concentrated the decision-making process. The changes I wanted to make in terms of the look and feel of the festival, the marketing campaign, re-engaging it with the city, all that was fast-tracked in that first year.”

And it all, by and large, remains for the 2011 edition of the festival. Deegan leaves an event that has turned very much to face its home city. The festival’s advertising campaigns don’t focus so much on individual shows, but on the audience, and the effect great theatre can have on people. And, having de-coupled from the Fringe Festival shortly before Deegan’s tenure, the festival now revels in what used to be strictly Fringe territory: off-site locations and groundbreaking works from home and abroad. There were big shows and new plays on the city’s bigger stages too, of course, but the festival also became a place where audiences could reliably follow emerging trends in venues such as the Project Arts Centre.

Deegan’s successor, White, is the outgoing director of the Project, something which Deegan sees as a good fit. “Myself and Willie worked closely over the years and I’d try to programme shows that chimed with what the Project was doing. The Project had been a Fringe venue, but when the two festivals separated, it came back into the Dublin Theatre Festival and opened up huge potential to programme new work, which is one of the things I’ve most enjoyed.

“So I think he’s a wonderful appointment, with his profound knowledge of theatre and the relationships he’s built up. He is in some ways responsible for the next generation of theatre makers we are seeing coming through, so he is best placed now to ensure they get access to the larger audiences and stages of the festival.”

Deegan himself played no small developmental role with Dublin’s young theatre makers. He began the festival’s Next Stage programme in 2007 to show a new generation the path to becoming part of the festival. Remarkably, nine directors from that programme have shows in the 2011 festival.

Deegan hastens to add that his is not making a virtue of necessity, programming Irish shows rather than international ones because of these straitened times. “It’s just that there has been an explosion of creativity and talent in Dublin. This work demanded to be taken seriously. It’s our response to the strength of Irish theatre.”

That strength is evident in new works from established names such as Rough Magic, with a version of Peer Gynt by Arthur Riordan; and Garry Hynes’s direction of Colm Toibin’s new play, Testament.

But it is that next generation which really stands out this year, productions by Brokentalkers, Anu, thisispopbaby, Corcadorca and THEATREclub that variously deal with institutional abuse, prostitution, alienation and drug use.

“There is a sense that artists are responding and that they feel more comfortable to question and engage with society at a time of crisis. During the boom we were constantly wrong-footed by how quickly things changed and perhaps artists too were caught on the hop.”

Audiences will have to move beyond the auditoriums of Dublin to see some of these shows, to the bedroom of an inner-city guest house (Trade by Mark O’Halloran, directed by Tom Creed) a Liffey-side apartment (Corcadorca’s Request Programme), or an old Magdalene laundry (Anu’s Laundry). For Deegan, this is evidence of a vibrant artistic community reclaiming the city.

“There is a move to take ownership again of the city, creatively,” he says. “The built landscape changed so quickly, and not often for the better, but now we can reclaim the city, the amount of site-specific work has increased enormously.”

Deegan’s excitement when he talks about younger theatre makers is palpable. It’s an enthusiasm which makes his next job a logical progression: taking the helm at the Lir, the country’s first national academy of dramatic art at Trinity College. Developed in a partnership between the college and the Cathal Ryan Trust, the centre is housed in a state-of-the-art building on Dublin’s Pearse Street that puts facilities for actors, designers, directors, writers and dancers all under one roof.

The centre will begin its courses in acting and writing plays (costing €9,500 and €9,000 a year, respectively) this year, with courses in directing, design and other aspects of performance and production following.

Trinity’s much-lamented decision to pull the plug on its acting course a few years ago has, then, been more than adequately made up for. For Deegan, coming to a start-up academy that is fully formed adds to the thrill. “We have an opportunity to establish Lir as an ensemble from the outset,” he says. “Most of the time you build these places up slowly, adding courses slowly. But here we can design courses from the outset with all the disciplines.”

If the young talent on show for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival is anything to go by, Deegan won’t be short on raw material at the Lir – and neither will the festival have to look too far in coming years for its next generation of writers, performers and directors.

- The Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 27 – October 16.

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