Galatea Coda

Although my reason for being in Ireland this month was to join the tour of “Galatea,” I was hoping I might also have the opportunity to see a bit of someone else’s theatre as well. So after my show closed in Derry, I made my way to the town of Enniskillen, not too far from Sligo, home to the new “Happy Days” Samuel Beckett festival. (The playwright went to school in the town.) There I saw Robert Wilson‘s production of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which he has been touring for the last few years; this was his only Irish appearance.

Idiosyncratic and brilliant, it draws its audience in with a stupendously loud crash of thunder and an extended rainstorm on a monochromatic set that tells you this performance will not be a brief one. Krapp appears in whiteface. He moves about the stage slowly. He eats a banana, and then another one. And then, after an eternity of moments has passed, he speaks.

This is theatre that is unabashedly theatrical, and it is remarkable to watch Wilson, who is now 70 years old – about Krapp’s age, come to think of it – carry it with such aplomb. The enthusiastic applause from the audience suggests that he hit his mark perfectly, and on emerging from his black and white world into the wildly green Irish countryside all I could do was try and process what I’d seen.

Wilson’s website offers additional images from the production. Of course, they don’t do justice to the show, but they do give a small sense of what it’s like. If it should be playing somewhere nearby, go see it!

From Enniskillen I made my way to Dublin, where I paid a visit to the Smock Alley Theatre, tucked in a tiny road on the edge of Temple Bar off the river Liffey. The Smock Alley prides itself on being one of the oldest theatres  in the English-speaking world, having been established in 1662 after the restoration of Charles II,like the Drury Lane in London.

I had seen shows there in years past, but this was my first chance to see what the place looked like since a major refurbishment that was completed earlier this year. As it happens, a young new company called Ramblinman was offering a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” which I thought would be fun to see. (Last year, I saw a production of “The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Abbey.)  It seems that in Dublin as in Ottawa recent graduates from acting programs find that the most opportune way to get on stage is to produce. In this instance the actors brought great enthusiasm, talent and energy to the play, and though one could quibble about certain choices they or the director made I found myself excited that they were having a go, and if I were living in Dublin I’d be very interested to see what they come up with next.

Finally, a friend suggested that I indulge in a midday excursion to the National Concert Hall – largely because the first item on the program was The Beautiful Galathea by Suppé.  The concert was delightful – a fitting coda for the tour.

Galatea Returns to Derry

The Irish version of Galatea had its roots in Derry and the Sole Purpose production was welcomed home with gusto.

As was the case last year, the performance at the Derry Playhouse was part of Foyle Pride, and the audience was in a warmly embracing mood, cheering the actors – all from Derry themselves – with as much pride and affection as they could muster. This provided a wonderfully warm and satisfying close to this year’s tour.

Once again, I had the chance to speak with audience members and get a sense of what this play has meant to them. There was a formal Q&A talkback after one performance, with questions for both myself and the actors, but I also spoke with people during the interval, after the show, and even in encounters on the street – and was again struck by how much this was a Derry story now, not (only) a Canadian one.

The Foyle Pride parade, now in its third year, is rapidly becoming a “normal” event in the city’s calendar, with the mayor and other politicians marching, face painting for kids, music and speeches, a tiny band of protestors waving their placards from across the street, and a rainbow flag that stretches as far as the eye can see. This year’s theme was “Exploring Identity,” and it was so clear to me from the comments I heard that “Galatea” was very much a part of the festival’s theme. I’m delighted to have been able to join the tour (thank you, Canada Council!) and grateful to have been made so welcome by my Derry friends.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hope that this production of Galatea will encourage Sole Purpose, its financial supporters and the community at large to ensure that something theatrical continues to be an integral part of Foyle Pride in the years to come – and that henceforth it will be Derry’s own playwrights who get to share their work with their friends and neighbors.

Thoughts from the Galatea tour

I`m back in Derry again as the Galatea tour winds up this week and have savored the feeling of being “home” again. It was while living here in 2010 that I first met Pat Byrne of Sole Purpose Productions, and it’s felt like putting on a favorite pair of old shoes again as I wander along familiar roads, revisit the landmarks of my time here, and reunite with old friends I haven’t seen for a long time.

It’s also been a chance to reflect on what may be the most interesting part of the tour, which has been the visits to a couple of smaller towns in Northern Ireland – Newtownabbey, a largely Protestant community of some 80,000 just north of Belfast, and Strabane, a Catholic border town of 20,000 a short drive south of Derry.

The towns themselves are studies in contrasts that were reflected in the tour. One of the sponsors of the tour is the Rainbow Project, a Northern Ireland organization that provides a variety of services to local gay and lesbian communities. From the start the group has been a strong supporter of the production and tour. I suspect that this is both because the story presents its story of two gay couples in a healthy and positive light – which perhaps is not as commonly available here as one might wish – and also because the project has provided an opportunity for community building over the last year.

Perhaps because of its proximity to Belfast or perhaps because of a fairly conservative hue to its population, Newtownabbey doesn’t seem to have a well organized local gay and lesbian community, and this was reflected in the modest size of the audience that turned out for the show. In contrast, Strabane has a well established local group who were out in force, as was the vice-chairman of the Strabane District Council, all of whom went out of their way to offer me a very warm welcome to their community.

Damian Friel and Alex Wilson in the Sole Purpose production of Galatea

For me, the most profound realization about this production has been the degree to which it has helped to galvanize the community here. One might not have expected this; while I think the play does provide a positive portrayal of gay life to its audiences, it’s hardly an overt political piece. But the community has adopted the show with gusto and I think the production has made a modest contribution to its evolution in return – whether by its simple presence in a town like Newtownabbey or in how it’s inspired some of the audience members I spoke with in Strabane.

I am hopeful for a lasting effect as well. The play itself wraps up at the end of this week here in Derry, but I suspect the community will continue to enrich itself theatrically. Sole Purpose held a writing workshop for the gay and lesbian community, and I can imagine organizers in the future arranging to present the work of local playwrights in the towns we’ve toured. I look forward to being in the audience when that happens!

An Arts Court Update from the City of Ottawa

I know there’s no causal link between my post yesterday on Arts Court and this document – heck, I’m writing this from Ireland so am definitely just a distant observer – but there is clearly a hunger for information about what’s going on at Arts Court. Those involved with the issue at the city appear to understand this and have issued the following document, which I saw after Lynn Cox posted it on the Facebook group I mentioned yesterday.

Arts Court Update

The document certainly goes some way to answering the kinds of questions that are out there, although some of the answers are very plainly of the “Stay tuned – we’ll let you know” variety.

Of note, as Riley Stewart observed in a comment yesterday, is that the City plans to issue a “Request for Proposal from the local not for profit arts sector” in September to run the facility, and there is a nod to the need for consultation with the arts community going forward.

In particular, the City will be hosting “an informal information session” on Friday, September 7 at 10 am in the Arts Court Library.  I expect quite a few people will want to attend, though I imagine some who would like to go may be unable to get off work to do so. I plan to go – what questions would people like to have addressed?

What’s New at Arts Court?

What’s new at Arts Court?

No one seems to know.

It’s been some months since the serious challenges facing the facility became known, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post, and it’s been a month since staff were let go and the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation officially announced its demise.

So now what’s happening?

Um.

It’s been awfully quiet, with no real news about how the facility might be managed in the future or what’s going to happen to the proposed new addition to the facility. Which leads many people to assume that no news is bad news.

The theatre has been meeting its existing commitments through the summer – “My Name is Asher Lev” opens tonight for a run through August 25th – and the City of Ottawa proclaims that it’s available for rental after September 1, though there’s no information about who’s actually managing the place and there’s certainly no news about what’s happening to the capital project.

The arts community continues to ask questions – there’s a Facebook group called the Phoenix Project, for example – and there’s a petition calling on the city to ensure that the facility remain accessible to users.

And there are various rumors with varying degrees of credibility as to potential white knights who might step in to save the day.

So what’s really going on?

Anyone?

Hello?

Galatea in Belfast

Galatea (Northern Ireland)The Sole Purpose tour of Galatea opened in Belfast on Friday, and – biased as I am – I thoroughly enjoyed the production. Patricia Byrne first presented the play in Derry last summer as part of Foyle Pride, where it sold out the Derry Playhouse, and decided to take it on tour this year.

To kick off the tour, Pat decided to open in Belfast, and to do so in conjunction with Belfast Pride at a wonderful new venue, Upstairs at the MAC. The production has evolved a bit since last year. One of the four actors was unavailable, and the new fellow did very well indeed. Pat introduced a couple of interesting new touches, including some fun musical references to “My Fair Lady” and some bits of business that fleshed out the characters a bit more.

As for the actors, the veterans all seemed more comfortable with their roles – they really seem to have become better acquainted with the characters – while the new guy brought an entirely new spin to the character of Harry. This is one of the bits about theatre I always enjoy: different productions see new and varied things in the scripts. But in this case, Glen Tilley’s interpretation of Harry was a bit harder and sharper. (Last year, Frank Rafferty’s interpretation was of a sadder, more hesitant and “older” man.) I think both versions work perfectly well and highlight different aspects of the character.

Of course, when there’s a new actor and a new version of the character, then the relationships have to adjust as well. And the other three actors (two, really, as Alex Wilson’s Freddie never really crosses paths with Harry) step up and adjust accordingly.

Pride is a big-deal good time in Belfast – over 20,000 at the parade and festival in a city of half a million – with mothers giving their young kids rainbow flags to wave and little old ladies smiling and dancing to the music. (The very few people protesting Pride – no more than a dozen – were confined to a small fenced-in area in front of City Hall and surrounded by police officers.) So in a city like this, it’s no surprise that the audience at the MAC was very warmly supportive of the production. The tour now moves to a couple of smaller – and presumably more conservative – towns in Northern Ireland, so I will be interested to see how the show is received there.

Postscript: a friend in Belfast has passed on a local review of the production.

Upstairs at the MAC

I’m in Belfast for the opening of the Northern Ireland tour of Galatea. The tour has been put together by Sole Purpose Productions from Derry and will be playing in a number of venues across Northern Ireland during August, and thanks to support from the Canada Council I have the opportunity to spend some time with the company and observe the performances.

As I’ve been looking forward to the tour, one question on my mind has been: what would the Belfast venue be like? In a word: fantastic.

The MAC – it stands for Metropolitan Arts Centre, but no one calls it that – is a brand new facility in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter just north of the city centre. The MAC, with its motto of “selecting, creating and mixing up music, theatre, dance and art,” has instantly become an anchor in the neighborhood, which is clearly among the most vibrant in the city. It’s a thoroughly modern six-story building looking out on a little square with two theatre spaces (Downstairs, seating about 350, and Upstairs, seating about 100), as well as three galleries, a dance studio, modern rehearsal rooms, meeting spaces, offices for resident companies and artists, and a café in the lobby that seemed to be throbbing with people throughout the day during my visit.

I couldn’t help but think of Arts Court in Ottawa, of course, which aims to fill a similar function. The facility has lately been a source of some concern in the community and the foundation that ran it has been dissolved by the city, leaving the future management of the building in limbo. If and when the parties concerned solve their issues, I hope that they’ll take a look at what the MAC has done – it’s an inspiring model.

More on Galatea in my next post…