I spoke at the All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference in Limerick, 2014. I was one of five keynote speakers in the Keynote Fragments session of the conference, along with Zoe Seaton, Marc Mac Loughlainn, Gina Moxley and Annette Nugent.
Here’s, more or less, what I said:
Róise asked me to imagine the ecosystem in which Dan Colley would thrive. I I didn’t exactly leap at the chance. The problem was not imagining it but recommending it. In the context of limited resources, and there has always been limited resources, any model anyone proposes is necessarily going to be at the expense of something else – the status quo or another possible model.
And that which it’s at the expense of is naturally going to be something either: a. I don’t value, or b. I don’t know about. And, given where we are, whatever the model, it’s going to be at the expense of some of the people I’m speaking to.
And that’s difficult for me. I’m just an artist. I’m just trying to make work. Like a lot of you, I’m just trying to get in a room with the right people, the right circumstances and with the right resources. What I do shouldn’t have any negative impact on what you do. I don’t want to tell you that your work is expendable in favour of what I know and like.
I don’t want to tell you that your bit of the sector is wasteful or that your conception is outdated. That’s not my job. What could I possibly say about the superstructure that doesn’t clumsily undermine its supports?
I can’t say anything.
What I can talk about is about my particular situation.
What I can talk about is my own practice and where it came from.
What I can talk about are my expectations for the future and perhaps, from all of that, general conclusions may be drawn.
They say we invent fictions to get at the truths we can’t tell ourselves.
Well, perhaps we talk about the particular to illustrate the general we can’t tell ourselves either.
I think that’s what this “snapshots of where we’re at” is for, I think that’s why we’re doing this near the beginning of the conference, so as to inform the more macro-level conversations that will follow it.
And yet, having said all of that I will finish by making a case for routine revolution.
A case for regular upheaval.
A case for systemic change that’s built into the system.
And a consequent offer to you manage your expectations my generation’s have done – to have no expectation of permanence. And how that can be a good thing.
I don’t want to tell you that your work is outdated or your position is unsustainable, but you should assume, that if it isn’t already, that it will be.
We all should.
My name is Dan Colley and I’m a director, dramaturg and drama facilitator.
As a dramaturg, the artists I’ve worked with include WillFredd theatre, Sugarglass Theatre and Louise White.
As a drama facilitator I work mostly with young people. It ranges from hour-long Saturday evening drama classes, to week-long workshops at the National Youth Theatre Festival. This is an aspect of my work that’s essential to my ecosystem. It’s a frequent challenge to illustrate ideas about the artform, to explain things that I might otherwise take a writ. It’s also where I make a considerable percentage of my income.
As a director, I primarily work with Collapsing Horse theatre company. We have produced three pieces to date and by then end of the year will have produced 4 in 11 venues in the since our first show in April 2012. We will also present a work-in-progress of our fifth piece, which we hope to produce next year.
This month we will mark a new departure for us as we curate a mini symposium, in association with the Trinity Department of Drama, entitled ILLUSION (and the thing you can’t fake). As part of that we will be presenting the acclaimed Les Enfant Terribles’ Ernest and the Pale Moon a company that has had a huge influence on us, have sold out their Edinburgh shows and toured all over, but never had an audience in Ireland.
We will also be doing our first international tour when present Human Child and Bears in Space in Underbelly in the Edinburgh Fringe programme.
At age 18, having left school in Dublin in 2005 at the centre of the economic boom, I ran towards the periphery in order to become an adult. I went to Galway.
Graduating in 2009 with a degree in English and Philosophy, I returned to a very different Dublin. In the wake of the crash, the conversation was much altered. In spite, or perhaps because of this, there was an extraordinary boom in the theatre.
In 2009, the graduating class of Willie White’s directorship of Dublin Youth Theatre were presenting in the Fringe,
it was Róise Goan’s first programme as the director of that festival – one that would become a nourishing year-round institution over the subsequent 5 years,
Anú were presenting their first work off-site,
a retail unit in Temple Bar was an all-ages arts space,
Brokentalkers were moving from the fringe to the left-of-centre,
Flemish teenagers were making a mess in the Project Arts Centre
and we were soon wondering if we had reached “peak down-stage-left microphone” – a kind of shibboleth of the post-dramatic.
Loughlin Deegan, at the time director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, later told the participants of the Next Stage, that he thought Ireland was going through a revolution not seen since, perhaps, Druid in the seventies. And I liked that.
In some ways, Dublin had become a place where people’s expectations had changed. There were no guarantees of security (unless you were a bank) and so there wasn’t the same expectation that you would seek it out.
The draw of “the job” had lost its sheen, lost some of its cultural potency and in theatre and dance we grappled for a new identity.
In the period between peek and crash, while I was at the peripheries, Dublin had become more like somewhere I wanted to be. More like Galway.
To take my place among all of this, guided by an instinct that playwriting was dead, I started calling myself a dramaturg.
Or at least, if playwriting wasn’t dead, the notion of the solitary genius, sitting in front of a typewriting and tapping out a work of literature to be handed over to a director in order to stage – was dead.
To be replaced, perhaps, by this idea that a group of people could work together and their synapses would just fire in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise had those people not worked together – that a group of people were more creative and intelligent than its most creative and intelligent member. Not a new idea by any means, but one that was going to be appropriated and made new.
So I figured if we were going to be making plays without playwrights, and directors would be creating the material in collaboration with performers, designers, non actors/ordinary people, bits of documentary material and viral videos from youtube, then there might be a role for somebody to stand on the outside of that, look at what it was doing and ask awkward questions.
My practice as a dramaturg these days can be summed up as “conceptual sparring partner” or “a critic who’s on your side” or sometimes “therapist”.
If I’m working as a dramaturg I’ll often come on board at the stage after applications and before research and development proper. My main role at this stage is to interrogate the artist’s impulse and help them explore its implications. There’s no particular skill to this but at my most helpful, I’m coaxing out spoken language that refers to their unspoken instincts, and helping them to see conceptual links or contrasts between the things they’re saying.
At my most helpful, I help artists find their questions.
At my most helpful, I’m opening up new conceptual avenues using language.
At my most helpful, I’m getting a sense of the vague feelings of an embryonic piece and suggesting ways to get at them.
At my most helpful I’m suggesting other things it’s like and letting them tell me the ways in which it’s not like those things.
I’m having a conversation.
Once in the rehearsal room, while the piece is in development, I’m there to be the first audience for it. I’m there to say if something is clear, or it’s ambiguous, if I’m asked.
I’m there to remind the artist of the questions they were asking themselves before we got in the room, when I’m not asked.
I’m there to have lunch with the artist when nobody else wants to, or when they don’t want to have lunch with anyone else.
I’m there to step back and start to help find ways in which the little pieces we’re making now, might become something that fits together later.
I’m there to help fit it together later.
From this practice a directorial practice emerged; one that facilitates others to do the creative work, one that starts from the assumption that somebody else in the room has a better idea.
In 2012, I directed the first show by Collapsing Horse, Monster/Clock, The whole thing was held together with shoe strings good will and suspension of disbelief. It was a surprise out-of-nowhere hit. I think it perhaps reminded us of the theatre we fall for as children – and people wanted wonderment and a laugh. And stories of good and evil a weirdly provocative in a post-modern world where there are now absolute truths.
Since then, Collapsing Horse has been my main artistic wheelhouse. But this too shall pass. I’m not building an institution.
Between 2009 and 2014, that generation, Ireland’s theatrical baby boomers, has come of age and is about to reach that inevitable bottle neck between “emerging” and “mid career”.
So far, and this is a story that will be familiar to a lot of people in the room, Collapsing Horse have been funding our shows through a combination of crowd-sourcing, box office returns, guarantees from venues and, this year, an artist in residency scheme in the Civic Theatre and South Dublin Libraries. We’ve had a lot of kindness from venues such as Smock Alley, Civic and the Fringe Festival and it’s Lab.
However, by far our biggest financial supporters are the people who work with us for free or close to free – and that’s not a source that will be available for much longer.
Thankfully, Collapsing Horse received our first ever project grant this year, so that we can develop a piece for 2015. But this is the first funding application we’ve done where I’ve said to myself
we can’t make this unless we get this.
And the day we got the word, we were ecstatic but it was tempered by seeing the people around us who hadn’t been successful,
and knowing that that’s been us before and it will be us again.
We know that we can’t rely on project funding, that’s its nature.
And we’ve been told that “the books are closed” on regularly funded companies from the Arts Council, that we shouldn’t expect to be full time artistic directors of the companies we found – those days are over.
So, considering that fact, here’s what I don’t hear people saying enough, which I feel my generation always understood:
I never thought I’d make my living as an artist, no one ever told me I would. Mostly, they told me that I wouldn’t.
There have been very few places and times in HISTORY where artists, setting out on a career, could have reasonably expected to make their living from art.
I have no expectation of that.
I expect to have to teach.
I expect to want to teach.
I expect to have to take jobs that are for my pocket.
I expect to pursue projects that are for my soul.
I expect that sometimes they will be the same thing.
I expect there will be years where I have not earned as much as the year before.
I expect there will be decades where I have not earned as much as the decade before.
I expect to sometimes be on social welfare.
I expect to rent.
I expect that I will have to crowd source for funding.
I expect the moment will come, more than once, that I can’t bear to ask friends for money.
I expect there will be years that I have to find ways to make work without any money
I expect that will have implications on the art and the scope of the work.
I expect there will be years, like this year in which I’ve been awarded my first project grant for development, where I really get to work with the time and collaborators that money can buy.
I expect that I will one day be considered out dated and over funded.
I expect to make a comeback.
I expect to never forget that it’s some kind of privilege to be able to do the thing I love
and for that thing to be making things.
Actual, living, tangible things that can be interacted with by other people – shared with other people,
things that would not have existed but for my effort, my experience and my talent.
and that it’s a privilege to be able to do that.
I have no expectation that I’ll be doing what I’m doing in 25 years, only better resourced.
I have no expectation that I’ll be able to support a family on what I earn from art.
I have no expectation that my artistic impulses will be nurtured through development, production and be presented to Irish audiences.
I have no expectation of working as a dramaturg or director in the Abbey or the Gate.
I have no expectation that I’ll want to.
I have no expectation that I’ll be making work in this country.
I have no expectation that theatre is the medium I will be working in.
So I’m looking at the broad spectrum of sources that the world has to offer. I mean sources of funding, sure, I mean touring, yes. I mean hoping that the IETM drink leads to a co-production in 10 years time sure, but I also mean the broad spectrum that the world has to offer in terms of satisfaction, that particular satisfaction of making – I’m looking for it inside this country and out. Inside this artform and out.
And that’s the flip side of not feeling entitled. It’s not feeling obliged either. It’s the other side of having low expectations for your ability to create in a particular sector in a particular country, is that you’ll look for places where your expectations can be higher.
And that is, in some way, the story of this country.
The people who have the most to gain from change – the young people and the weirdos – they leave .
They’re given no promises and so, feeling no obligation, they go. And who’s left are people with a vested interest in the status quo.
But surely we can all agree
That the A1, GOLD STAR, BEST POSSIBLE OUTCOME for a generation of artists,
is to inspire and provoke and equip the generation coming up behind us
to one day realise that we’re old fools.
That’s what we should really be striving for – putting ourselves on the bench.
The work you do today should be seen in 25 years as dated, past. Respected, studied, but ultimately, necessarily, by definition, over.
The next generation should burn it to the ground. With respect, with deference, with high quality recordings, writings and criticism in the can,
they should burn it to the ground.
You should join them. Or if you can’t bear to join them, step aside. Be in the wilderness for a while and build the machinery of the next revolution, because there’s always another one. You broke rules and changed things to get where you are.
Why are you surprised when that which you built yourselves to the centre of
is dismantled by new people who want build themselves into a different centre, 5 miles down the road?
That’s the way it’s been and it’s essential to the ecosystem that it continues.
Forrest fires, new clearings, new seeds fertilized by the ash.
SO, Given that change, revolution, paradigm shift is BUILT IN to the process, why is it not built into the system?
I’m going to throw some things into the suggestion pot and we may consider them as the weekend goes on.
Let’s talk about inciting revolution.
Let’s talk about building systemic change into the system.
Let’s talk about clearing the coast so that the next wave can actually break on the shore each time.
Let’s talk about term limits for artistic directors. Say when you’re going to go at the beginning of your tenure, not towards the end. Say how long you’re going to be there and what you’re going to do, and go either by the time you said you would or when you’ve done what you said you would – whichever comes first.
Let’s talk about a year of guest curatoriships. Where in, say, four curators take over the programme for four seasons of a given year. My personal suggestion would be the year 2016.
Let’s talk about giving the production budget of one show in the Abbey and the Gate and awarding it in the manner of a Project Grant: that is to say, by application to anybody who has an exciting, feasible idea for their stage.
Let’s talk about Resident Counter Directors rather than resident Assistant Directors. People you hire to frustrate your mission rather than help it.
Let’s talk about winding down organisations and winding others up in the full expectation that they will be wound down too? In 2 years? In 10 years? When its mission is complete. When its time has passed. Let’s not be sentimental or preservative about this, essentially, ephemeral artform. Build it in to the DNA of your company’s creation. You knew it was coming, you knew when, now let the next guy have a go. She probably has a better idea than you.
Let us temper our positions with the same humility of the first day of rehearsals. To say clearly and loudly “I don’t know what this is yet, but I know why we’re here and I know when it’s over”.
I’m not advocating a particular aesthetic here, or a method of work. If well made, playwright lead, naturalistic drama is the next thing – let it be the next thing.
I’m saying that if that’s kind of work you make or curate,
that you be prepared that it will, one day, not be resourced the way it once was.
I’m thinking of a system prepares you for that.
I realize that, in starting by saying I didn’t want to propose a model because it would be at the expense of at least somebody I’m speaking to, I’ve proposed an ethos that will be at the expense of everybody I’m speaking to…
But actually it’s an offer and here it is:
To give up your expectations for longevity in what you’re doing now
Given those low expectations, let us be prepared to lose people
But also be prepared to welcome them back
Because there’s always the possibility of being resourced to tune of your art’s needs but never the expectation that it aught to be, or will be permanently.
Because we build systematic change into the system, because we insight a series of never-settling, tumultuous revolutions.