Next stop in MEG’s series of interviews with theatre venues across Dublin, Gillian Greer sat down with Laura Honan and Karl Shiels of Theatre Upstairs to talk about Dublin’s hottest hub for new theatrical voices.
Theatre Upstairs – how and why did it all start?
Karl Shiels: Because we had to. I felt that there was no other space in the country that was working towards the nurturing of playwrights and actors. A lot of companies were trying to do it for themselves but there was no space to go. So, what we tried to do with Theatre Upstairs is to establish a theatre in which emerging artists, playwrights, actors, could get a shot and tell their tales.
Laura Honan: Within the first six months we realised that we only wanted to stage premieres and I understand that we are the only theatre in Ireland who are doing so… solely new writing, primarily Irish.
And what’s the significance of that?
Laura: Well for us that was what made it exciting. We had excellent shows, like Rise Production’s Fight Night – a fantastic show, but at the same time it wasn’t as exciting as trying something out for the first time ever. The significance of that was the excitement of it. And to follow on now it’s become really important to us, because that is needed. And I think the more you see Sickle Moon Productions rising, Fast Intent rising, The Cup Theatre Company rising and continuing to produce new work, other companies are inspired by that and see that you can create a company, a recognisable brand and we can do this ourselves. It just keeps growing and the standard this year has just been amazing.
And there is always a risk because no matter how good a script is, sometimes it doesn’t reach the mark and you can’t do anything about that, because that’s the risk when you deal with new work that’s untested, and with new companies who have never produced before. There is that risk – at the end of the day we can’t design, direct and produce every show that comes in here, we can only guide people so far. But the times when it does pay off, totally makes it worth it.
Do you have a manifesto or aim?
Karl: Excellence. New, primarily Irish writing. Solely world premieres of talented, undiscovered people, who write excellent plays.
Laura: And this year we tried to push that more by establishing a company in residence, which is very important to us.
Sickle Moon Productions was selected as your first Company in Residence for 2014 – Why Sickle Moon?
Karl: Sickle Moon happened very quickly. Finbarr Doyle, one of our finest actors, approached me for advice and I thought – you know what you should do, get a show out there for yourself. I gave him the short story, Conversation with a Cupboard Man and told him that we had a slot available, so within three or four hours – genuinely – he came back with a director, designers and a company. Jeda de Brí was on board to direct; Aoife Fealy, Eoghan Carrick and Ste Murray were the design team and Sickle Moon Productions – as a theatre company – were formed. It was that fast and they were do-ers.
Laura: One thing that people may not know about Sickle Moon is that they have been at the forefront of gathering the really exciting emerging designers for their productions. They were the first company in Theatre Upstairs to ask Ste Murray to come onboard for visual design, a combination of photography and graphic design. Subsequently, about 80% of the visual design at our venue this year has been Ste Murray. Conversation with a Cupboard Man was also Eoghan Carrick’s first lighting design for Theatre Upstairs and he has gone on to become the most frequently requested lighting designer in Theatre Upstairs – creating truly innovative designs, again and again.
Karl: I totally and utterly believe that Ste Murray should be recognised for what he has done in relation to Irish theatre. It’s beyond the call of what any other visual designer is currently doing in Irish theatre, in terms of the sheer quantity and continuous high quality. He has designed some of the most beautiful images we have seen in this space.
In the grand scheme of the Dublin theatre scene, where do you believe Theatre Upstairs slots in?
Karl: We slot in because as far as we’re aware we are the only theatre in the entire country that is producing solely original work – that’s it. There’s no one else out there like us. Much like the Viking Theatre in Clontarf, we are an independent theatre and do not receive any public funding. We do not charge any rental costs at all for Theatre Upstairs, companies can create work without putting themselves into debt for it, this is vitally important to ensure the right work is reaching the stage, not the companies with the deepest pockets. This policy combined with our dedication to staging premieres of new work, makes us totally unique within the Dublin theatre scene.
The Theatre Upstairs space underwent a transformation recently, how do you think the refurbishment will affect the work you produce?
Karl: It has to be better. The design team has to step up to the space. It will put a level of pressure on the designer that has never been there before. We will not accept mediocrity.
Laura: And anyone who comes to see Tales from Briar Hall, from a purely design and staging and direction point of view, will be really inspired as to what is possible in small scale theatre.
Is Theatre a Dying Art?
Karl: Theatre will never die. The only thing as old as theatre is prostitution, and it’s similar because sometimes you work like a whore for nothing. People will always want to be entertained, to be told stories. The only thing is that your stories have to get better. They have to be told better and with higher production values. So I would say theatre would never, ever, ever die – it’s going stronger. What theatre offers and what Theatre Upstairs offers is the intimacy of storytelling told on your doorstep. You can see, feel, smell – it’s scratch and sniff theatre. It’s live performance, the beauty of live performance.
Laura: And personally I think the underbelly in Ireland is really rising now. You can see so many new writers emerging, so much talent bubbling up to the forefront. Time after time these small shows are hitting out and I think it’s a really exciting time to be part of theatre.
Karl: The people we decide to work with have a hunger – a hunger to tell their tale. And they’re do-ers. They will make it happen – come what may.
Laura: And remember – there’s no hiding in theatre.
Rabble-rousing stuff from the good folks of Theatre Upstairs.