Irish Language Theatre
January 12, 2012
No one could accuse the Irish of passing up on a little flagellation when their mother tongue is involved. And it’s easy to tut and nod along with the naysayers when looking specifically at theatre ‘tri ghaeilge’. In 2007 An Taibhearc, the countries national Irish language theatre was shut due to fire and since the present government reneged on an agreement made by the previous one (to split the refurbishment costs three ways) it remains closed. The Abbey Theatre has mounted just one full-length production in the past 15 years (Aodh O Domhnail’s Idir an Da Shuil, in December) while you’d have to go back to the 1960s to find the last in-house production on its main stage. And although The Arts Council says that it is in no way unwelcoming of Irish speaking applications, Foras Na Gaeilge’s 2007 calculations revealed that they gave a pitiful 0.001% of their total budget (€216.56 million) to theatre practioners working through the language.
Facts like these would make you think that, just like poor Peig Sayers at the start of her much maligned tome, theatre through Irish ‘has one foot in the grave and the other on its edge’.
Yet ask the artists themselves and they’ll tell you it’s never been healthier. The person with the most important theatrical post in the country, Fiach Mac Conghail, is a vehement and passionate Irish speaker; there are more companies operating through the language than there has been in years and, most importantly, there are people working within the industry, regardless of language, who are looking at new ways of presenting plays through Irish.
So what do they believe the problems facing them to be?
“You see the real state of the Irish language when you try and perform through it in front of a general audience” says Manchan Magan, who won the Stewart Parker Irish Language Award in 2009 for Broken Croi/Heart Briste. “You are faced with these blank, zonked faces. To see the guilt, silence and intelligibility in their eyes, it’s just so disheartening.”
Added to the limited vocabulary is the issue of dialect- or the different canúinti, which confuses an already hesitant audience who then become less willing to fork out for a ticket for something they fear they should, yet don’t, understand.
Magan believes that we need to simplify the speech to give the audience the confidence to go with the work. “There is an undercurrent of around 800 words that every Irish person knows, but might not be aware they know. Play a game with their self-confidence and see where you can take them.”
“We need to see it less as a barrier and more as a challenge” agrees Mairead Ni Chroinin, Co-Director of Moonfish, a Galway-based, bi-lingual theatre company. “If you are speaking a language of motion and image, rather than just the spoken word, it’s easier to travel over boundaries.”
European audiences are a lot more open to modes of translation, be it through audio or surtitling, which Moonfish opted for for their 2009 production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (Namhaid Don Phobal). Where a person fluent in both languages used power point off stage so those with little or no Irish could read along as the action occurred.
Surtitles don’t work for children. So for companies working with young audiences-companies like Fibin, Branar and Graffiti- the physical expression (song, movement, puppetry, shadow play) become important.
“What we found was that children were fluent in the emotional language of a story,” says Marc Mac Lochlainn, director of Branar. “Yet they weren’t able to express themselves in Irish.” Since children have a natural ability to pick up on emotions, and are closer to body language than they are to actual words, Branar stick to this mix of movement, script and puppetry “so that they will be able to look at the story and understand the feelings and the essence of it.”
The whole area of theatre made specifically for children through Irish seems to be flourishing. “The work they are doing is very significant,” says Deirdre Davitt, programme manager at Foras na Gaeilge. “Branar and Graffiti have been pioneering theatre for pre schoolers that is recognized at a global level while Fibin have been invited all over the world, to Brussels; to Paris and most recently to Malawi to put on these fabulous shows with giant life size puppets.”
There is a belief that the Arts Council practices a policy of cultural apartheid, where they fund English language theatre and leave it to a number of other bodies to pick up the Irish language slack.
“They need to look more seriously at what is happening in Irish,” says Davitt. “To realise the quality of the work. Young companies need the support at the beginning so that their ideas come as far as a production.”
Davitt ventured into the area of funding out of necessity. “Companies were going from Billy to Jack, getting nowhere.” When Bord Na Gaeilge was turned into Foras Na Gaeilge in 1999 she had a far bigger budget to give small grants, to companies, or venues, per anum.
Theatre is a minority art form. Irish language theatre is a minority of a minority. So new writing is something that needs to be fostered and developed so in the next few years we don’t just have one writer we can turn to but a number of writers.
This is a key point being addressed by Aideen Howard, Literary Director of the Abbey Theatre. “It isn’t adequate to push one play out into the world unless you are able to sustain this activity with another play every two years.” Admitting that the Abbey’s record has been slight of late, she wants to create a tradition of new work being developed for the national theatre. “My ambition is to insure that of the six playwrights who take part in the New Playwrights Programme each year, at least one will be working through Irish.”
They have taken a number of proactive approaches to actively communicate with Irish language playwrights. They staged a series of short play readings, directed by Paul Mercier, called Gach Ait Eile. Three 20-minute pieces commissioned from three separate writers in three separate canúint. “ This allowed us to connect with the writers that were out there already,” says Howard. “To see how they wrote, rewrote and what they were writing about. “
They then approached writers who were writing in the language, but not necessarily for the stage, through a workshop called Bi ag Scriobh. “It was amplifying our regular, unsolicited script process,” says Howard. ‘Ramping it up and saying “come show us what you have got’.”
At present they are working with at least three artists to develop shows. But there needs to be an artistic impulse behind each commission. “It can’t just be some token gesture.”
For Ray Yeates, Artistic Director of the Axis Theatre, it’s all a matter of audience. “If someone approaches me with an idea, as an artist, I am dying to hear all about it. But then I have to change my hat and ask, ‘who is going to go? Why would they go? What are we going to do to insure they go?’ Cause it is absolutely useless if the audience doesn’t show up”.
When he started in Axis her realized that people would come from the Southside to Ballymun for a play in Irish. “At first it was a big struggle. But eventually people began to find the venue.” He put on an Irish language event with every performance to attract audiences and actively sought out and invited practitioners to perform in the venue, hosting the only professional Irish language theatre festival in the country, Borradh Buan, since 2005.
“There are some exiting practitioners working in the area” he says. “They are very small but the are very good.” By uniting the separate pockets around the country he believes they could establish a circuit for plays, collaborations and co-productions; “If you decrease the competition and increase the networking we can exploit each others audiences.”
Magan believes it is make or break time for theatre through Irish. “All it needs is one innovator. One Michael Keegan Dolan, one Mikel Murfi, to come up with a dynamic, innovative story and the whole thing could really take off.”
“It’s going to take a singular commitment” says Yeates. Because the practitioners themselves can do better elsewhere we need to create an environment where their work can be rewarded with a steady paycheck. Amharclann de hide trained actors so that they could speak Irish to a professional standard, TG4 gave them the work that put bread on the table. What will a commitment to theatre get them?
“There are few opportunities to work in English, less in Irish. Why would you do it? You’d have to be mad” concludes Yeates. “But there are still a few mad people out there. For my part I am always going to help them.”