Northern Ireland’s arts sector has remained resilient in the face of Covid-19, with artists and organisations pulling together to ensure its survival. Jane Coyle speaks to the creatives who are continuing to back homegrown talent
Time is out of joint for the theatre world in Northern Ireland, especially for freelancers at the sharp end of the sector, a community recently described by Emma Jordan – artistic director of Prime Cut Productions, one of the region’s leading independent theatre companies – as “the backbone of the industry”.
While arts centres, theatres and companies struggle for survival, unsalaried artists – in the absence of a hardship fund – are having a particularly tough time. They are scrabbling to apply for meagre amounts of funding, universal credit and income support, frequently falling between the ill-fitting, interlocking bureaucratic systems of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Northern Ireland’s arts practitioners are a resilient, mutually supportive group. After years of dwindling public funding, significantly below that of their counterparts in Britain and Ireland, they have grown accustomed to making a little go a long way, producing high-quality work on shoestring budgets.
In mid-March, the first funding initiatives emerged from within the sector itself: Tinderbox’s Solo Art, set up by artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly and producer Jen Shepherd, and the Bread and Butter Fund for Northern Ireland artists, created by writer Abbie Spallen and writer/theatremaker Finn Kennedy.
Bread and Butter aimed to raise sufficient funds to award 50 artists a flat sum of £200 on a first-come, first-served basis. Far exceeding its initial target, the scheme received 342 applications over two rounds, of which 155 were successful. Both rounds closed after 30 minutes as the money ran out.
Solo Art, backed by company funds, private donations and BBC Arts match-funding, paid 100 artists a fee of £100 to create a small project in any genre for online screening.
‘We need to consider how we can innovate and turn the poison into medicine’ – Tinderbox artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly
Tinderbox’s O’Reilly views the current situation as an opportunity for new creative possibilities. “The communion of live performance has been removed, but rather than focus on what we cannot have, we need to consider how we can innovate and turn the poison into medicine,” he says. “Our Lucid programme is providing employment for 13 young artists through a documentary that charts their dreams in the absence of live performance spaces.”
Zoe Seaton, artistic director of Big Telly Theatre Company, one of Northern Ireland’s longest-established independents, is forging an exciting genre of immersive theatre, using digital technology to stream live performance into homes. Meanwhile, Nicky Harley, one of its regular performers, is leading a campaign to mobilise and connect the freelance community via a website and a registration system, which, within a week, attracted more than 1,000 signatories.
Like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland’s mainstream theatre has been badly hit. Belfast’s Grand Opera House is closed for major restoration and redevelopment. It is due to reopen with its popular Christmas pantomime in late 2020, just ahead of its 125th anniversary, but, as chief executive Ian Wilson confirms, it is unclear how – if at all – these plans will come to fruition.
The vibrant social and cultural hub at the MAC is strangely silent these days, but creative director Simon Magill is keen to reassure practitioners that better times are in store.
“When you’ve spent the greater part of your life creating or presenting live shared experience, these are difficult times. The cultural sector will be vital in the recovery and formation of post Covid-19 society and we’re looking forward to collaborating and presenting the work of Northern Ireland’s dynamic arts sector.”
Belfast’s Lyric Theatre would now be staging the keenly awaited revival of the punk musical Good Vibrations. Written by Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, and directed by Des Kennedy, it was due to transfer to Donegal and Dublin before opening the new Irish Arts Center in New York.
The Lyric recently produced Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama, a BBC Arts initiative comprising six short theatre pieces for television, created in partnership with BBC Northern Ireland and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. An impressive line-up of homegrown talent included Conleth Hill, Owen McCafferty, Emma Jordan, Lisa McGee, Anthony Boyle, Des Kennedy and David Ireland.
“In its 50 years of life, the Lyric had never closed its doors, until now,” says executive producer Jimmy Fay. “We’re still producing and hope to continue our online programme. But when all this ends, we’ll emerge to a different world and will have to figure out how to operate in a new future. Since time immemorial, people have performed and people have watched. We have to get back together to share stories.”
In May, ACNI put in place the £500,000 Artists Emergency Programme, and it has just opened a similar fund for arts organisations.
The selection process created apprehension, especially among freelancers unused to filling out public funding applications. Drama and dance officer for ACNI, Caoileann Curry-Thompson, held a webinar to explain the methodology and calm nerves. A week or so later, the fund was closed to deal with the colossal number of applications, at which point more than half the money was awarded to 88 artists.
Several anxious weeks later, it reopened, augmented by £50,000 of Arts Council National Lottery funding and £25,000 from the Department of Communities. In total, more than 300 submissions were received and 238 awards given to writers, composers, theatre practitioners, community and visual artists to support the development of projects and professional practice.
“The threat to theatre is existential, says Curry-Thompson. “The Northern Ireland theatre scene is small, so the human impact is raw and immediate, and felt most severely by our cherished artists, co-workers, collaborators, friends.
“We opened the programme knowing that, if we wanted to secure the future of the sector, the priority was helping independent practitioners keep the wolf from the door. The volume of applications reflects the need in our sector and also indicates how marginalised and vulnerable theatre professionals are. The precarious nature of the work makes access to mainstream forms of support difficult; indeed, we have seen widespread ignorance of the insecure, hand-to-mouth nature of our artists’ work.
“Theatre faces a deep under-appreciation of the arts and workers, who devote their lives to exploring humanity and enriching lives, delivering an enormous return to society and the economy in return for a relatively small public investment.”
In April, Theatre NI and Dance Resource Base merged to form a new resource organisation called Theatre and Dance NI. It is working with others in the local sector on a document laying out five needs for the industry, to be sent to the Northern Ireland Executive. It is similar to a document that was shared by UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre with counterparts in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
‘The Northern Ireland theatre scene is small, so the human impact is raw and immediate’ – ACNI drama and dance officer Caoileann Curry-Thompson
“We are working to ensure our sector has a voice and is not left behind,” says executive director Niamh Flanagan. “We are engaging at all levels about the perilous position of freelance artists, arts organisations and venues. It’s long past the time for the sector’s true value to be acknowledged, for its organisations and workers’ rights, health and well-being to be protected and supported appropriately.”
Ali FitzGibbon, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, has lived in Northern Ireland, and worked in its art scene, for more than 25 years. She believes the sector has long been subjected to deferred and broken promises by politicians, public servants and local authorities.
“Covid-19 is shattering already fragile livelihoods, community relationships and ecosystems. Even the largest and most resilient organisations will not survive,” she says.
“Northern Ireland political representatives have, as yet, given little more than lip service to dealing with the situation. They stand guilty of inaction in the face of an immediate, long-term human cost among a precarious workforce.
“The Northern Irish context is further damaged by the absence of a coherent collaborative approach between the culture administrations of the UK’s four regions. We need to address the social welfare and national recovery policies necessary to recognise theatre and the arts as working across administrations, and to acknowledge the nuance of the different devolved administrations. England-centric, unrepresentative Digital, Culture, Media and Sport taskforces won’t cut it.”
Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama is available on BBC iPlayer