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What happens when the arts just stop?
Druid Theatre founder Garry Hynes warns that unless the Arts Council rethink their recent funding cuts, Irish theatre – and Irish culture – could be damaged for good.
Joe Jackson, 26 Feb 2003
Garry Hynes is angry as hell. And not only that. She’s willing to speak out in a way that too few artistic directors, theatre directors, actors or, let’s face it, most people who work in the theatre are willing to do. Because they don’t have the balls. Or they are scared. Or both. People who work in theatre, as Hynes herself admits, are too often politically impotent, rendered null-and-void at this pivotal level because of their basic inability to group together, lobby politicians, strengthen their public profile and organise themselves to fight cutbacks in their profession in the same way that, say, workers in health and education do.
These, then, are some of the reasons Garry is enraged and saying there is “a general erosion of spirit” in Irish theatre, a world in which she’s worked since her college days in DramSoc in Galway where she also formed Druid in 1975. In other words, a world to which the woman has given half her life.
So even though we met, basically, to celebrate that journey and plug her latest directorial works – such as The Good Father at the Project, Sive soon-to-be staged at the Gaiety and, likewise, Crestfall, a new play by Mark O’Rowe which will soon open at the Gate – it fast became painfully apparent that Garry is most passionate about one subject right now: namely, that Druid’s future, plus the future of many other theatre companies, and even the livelihoods of actors, directors, designers and so on, have been maybe even terminally damaged by recent cutbacks in the Arts Council.
“Theatre gets to be a tougher profession the older you grow, that’s what I remind people now,” says Garry. “The truth is that during the first ten, fifteen years you’re waiting for your break and you live on very little – optimism, mostly. But the older you get the more you realise there are few people who manage to earn a decent living out of this profession.”
The older you get in theatre the more your face, heart and soul are slapped by savage realities such as the fact that not only is the pay crap and work intermittent, but lending institutions such as banks invariably say, basically, “fuck off” when you try to get a loan to buy a home or apartment.
“Those are the realities of life in the theatre as well as the fact that even getting car insurance can be a problem,” Hynes responds, admitting that she has watched many people who were once young and idealistic slowly be broken by these realities.
“As I say, hope and optimism carry you through when you’re young. But as I’ve gotten older I have noticed that actors, directors, designers, whoever are gradually beaten down and, too often, broken. And why wouldn’t they be, at 40, 50 when they are being paid exactly the same money they were being paid at 20? Even though, now, they often have families to support? And they can’t contribute to a pension scheme, they have no financial security at all. Theatre is a dreadful profession along these lines.”
Garry’s anger is shot through with palpable sadness.
“We say we laud our artists, celebrate them, make them part of our culture, yet we under-fund theatre to such an extraordinary degree,” she continues. “We say, ‘you’re valuable to us but only when you’re working and we don’t really care that you are six months unemployed between shows and have to sign on the dole’. It’s abhorrent. So, in effect, we take people who themselves are taking real emotional risks – and have to so they can remain open as actors – and we don’t pay them properly. There should be, for example, pension schemes for actors. And as a profession we do have to become more vocal, get a higher profile. Every other sector is organised and can argue its case, we’re not very good at doing that. We need to get better.”
That said, surely Garry knows there will always be young, idealistic people starting out in Irish theatre and willing to sacrifice maybe more than they realise on this particular altar.
“But we can’t have a theatre that is made up of just young people working for very little,” she responds. “And we have to protect people as they go through their profession and gain experience. We need those people maybe even more because they have, already, contributed greatly to theatre. If theatre and culture, at this level, is really valuable, as we’re told it is, then we need to pay for it. And I know it is difficult when there are cuts in such fundamental services as health and so on. People, naturally enough, will say ‘at a time when we don’t have money for hospitals and a proper health service, how can you possibly argue for more money for theatre?’ You can. And you should. And it’s really unfair to put one up against the other. The health of our cultural life, as a country, is, in my belief, as important as our actual physical health.”
That is totally true. But seeing as though I have given Garry so much time to argue, selflessly, on behalf of so many people in theatre, let’s end by bringing it all back home and look at how those Arts Council cuts are endangering the world famous Druid theatre company itself.
“We’re in a situation where, for twenty years, Druid toured all over Ireland and we can’t do that anymore – why?” Garry explains. “Why has our touring grant been taken back leaving us only able to tour to those places which guarantee the costs of that tour? So we’re playing to bigger houses in the main areas and can’t go to smaller venues in Clifton, wherever, because they don’t have the money to pay the costs of it. Has the decision been taken by the Arts Council that there is to be no more touring? Or can the only touring that goes to those areas be cheap touring by young companies where people are working for nothing? What is the strategy, what is the logic, I don’t understand it.”
Over to you guys in the Arts Council, I guess. And I will happily give the Stage column next month to your reply to this cry from Garry Hynes, myself and, I guess, everyone in Ireland who really gives a damn about theatre.