Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Thursday, 17 April 2008
Arts Council of Northern Ireland: Review of Drama and Development of a National Theatre of Northern Ireland
17 April 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Ms Gilly Campbell ) Arts Council of Northern Ireland
Ms Roisin McDonough )
Ms Nóirín McKinney )
The meeting resumes with a presentation from senior representatives of the Arts Council, on two items: the review of drama, and the development of a theatre initiative. Drew McFarlane and J J Murphy have highlighted the issue of a theatre initiative; other people have also expressed views on how that might be taken forward. The Committee has asked the Arts Council to make a statement on its drama policy and its review of drama. I ask Roisin McDonough, chief executive of the Arts Council, to introduce her colleagues.
Ms Roisin McDonough (Arts Council of Northern Ireland):
Thank you, Chairman. We are grateful to the Committee for inviting us to share our drama review and strategy with members.
We have brought some information and a copy of our PowerPoint presentation. We have already sent the Committee our drama funding policy and other funding policies. Therefore, members have received a fairly comprehensive suite of information.
Let me introduce Nóirín McKinney, director of arts development and Gilly Campbell, arts development officer with particular expert responsibility for drama and dance. All three of us will address the Committee
We will begin with an overview of drama. The drama sector comprises venues, venue-based companies, independent production companies and individual drama practitioners: actors, technicians, directors, designers, producers and playwrights.
As members will know, Northern Ireland has fostered the talents of several generations of drama practitioners, many of whom are of international stature. Performers include such famous names as Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, James Ellis, Colin Blakely, and Adrian Dunbar, and there are writers, such as Brian Friel, Owen McCafferty, Gary Mitchell and Marie Jones. However, drama in Northern Ireland rarely produces work that enjoys success overseas, although recent exceptions to that include, most notably, ‘Stones in His Pockets’ by Marie Jones, which was originally produced at the Lyric Theatre, and ‘Hurricane’ by Richard Dormer of Ransom Productions. We have independent companies, such as Tinderbox Theatre Company and Prime Cut Productions, which regularly produce new, contemporary plays, and companies such as Kabosh Productions and the Bruiser Theatre Company have developed their own distinctive physical and visual style.
Belfast has several established venues, including: the Lyric Theatre, about which we will speak in a moment; the Grand Opera House, which presents major touring productions from home and abroad; and the Old Museum Arts Centre, which, as the Committee will know, is due to be rebuilt in 2011, with a new 350-seat receiving theatre. Derry, meanwhile, has the largest receiving theatre in Northern Ireland, the Millennium Forum, with the main house seating over 1,000 people and a studio area seating over 100.
We have an extensive network of regional venues, including the Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen, the Burnavon Theatre in Cookstown, Clotworthy Arts Centre in Antrim, the Courtyard Theatre in Newtownabbey, the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn, the Market Place Theatre in Armagh, the Playhouse in Derry and the long-established Riverside Theatre in Coleraine. As members will know, new arts centres have opened in Ballymena, Omagh and Strabane.
We also have a lively youth drama movement. For example, the Ulster Youth Theatre made household names of performers, such as Susan Lynch, Conleth Hill and James Nesbitt. The development of youth drama continues apace through the efforts of the Ulster Association of Youth Drama. Furthermore, as members will know, there is new emphasis on drama at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster’s Magee campus, which is also fostering another generation of practitioners. The Committee has been interested in, and supportive of, both amateur and community drama, which remain hugely popular. Indeed, I understand that the Committee listened to a presentation this morning from the umbrella body for amateur drama.
To give the Committee some details, Northern Ireland has 21 drama production companies and 19 theatre venues, which I mentioned. The work of the Northern Ireland Theatre Association, which is the umbrella body for theatres and venues in Northern Ireland, has 44 members, so it is a very healthy organisation.
What are the audiences for drama like? Our research shows that about 150,000 people a year attend what we call “professional drama”. The contribution to the economy through spend on drama is around £2 million, and 350 individuals are employed on a full-time, part-time or contract basis. That is very important. When Drew McFarlane of Equity came to talk to the Committee, he would have talked about the low-wage economy and the need to invest in drama. However, as everyone around the table would agree, it is also very important, in terms of cultural tourism, to be able to offer a dynamic, vibrant and healthy cultural product to visitors.
Amateur drama has about 3,000 participants. They produce roughly 200 plays a year, which are watched by approximately 250,000 people. I am giving high-level figures to give the Committee a keen feel for what the sector is like.
It is especially important to look at the contribution that drama makes to young people’s skills, personal development, and also to their own sense of self and their self-confidence. We are very pleased that drama is now a statutory part of the school curriculum; it is an important, progressive dimension to the curriculum.
More than 3,000 young people participate in drama outside the school system, and the Arts Council believes that to be a healthy figure. I mentioned the range of courses available in the two major universities. Moreover, the course at Belfast Metropolitan College provides a progression route for people undertaking a diploma, who, if successful, can convert to the drama degree at Queen’s University.
When the Arts Council decided to review drama and develop its own strategy in order to grow drama in Northern Ireland, it opted to have it independently procured. I have given the Committee the terms of reference for the drama study but I will outline some of the highlights of that. We wanted to ascertain the health of the drama sector here, particularly in an international context, and to assess current and future needs, what role we could play in development and identify any gaps in provision.
We also wanted to identify other groups who support drama and examine the Arts Council’s relationships, not only with the drama sector, but with local authorities — who are significant players in that arena — and the BBC, because there are particular issues there. The aim was to achieve better working co-operation.
We asked the consultants to deliver a drama strategy, with timelines and costings, for the period 2007-11 — a period in which one might reasonably expect something could be achieved. We asked them to benchmark against existing strategies in the rest of these islands and outline performance measurements by which we could ascertain progress. All of that had to be considered in the context of Government priorities with regard to access, social inclusion, and indeed, Northern Ireland’s growing multicultural society.
Finally, it was important to understand how people will acquire and maintain skills and continue their professional development in all aspects of drama production.
The strategy and review were wide-ranging, and consultants examined repertoire, new, classic, and current productions. Northern Ireland has some good examples of site-specific projects and, therefore, that area was considered. We asked the consultants to examine youth theatre, theatre and education, Irish language drama, the role of festivals, television, radio and film drama, and to identify potential opportunities to grow the drama sector. The contribution of amateur and community drama to overall provision and their relationship with the professional drama sector was examined. Those were the genre and art-form considerations.
We also asked them to assess employment opportunities, working conditions for local professionals and the economic viability of the drama sector. I have already referenced the training routes considered.
Consultants considered capital requirements for buildings, including new facilities, refurbishments, repairs and maintenance. Therefore, again, we examined it in the round.
They examined access for audiences as well as their development, participation, preferences, demand and appetite for drama.
Regarding regional development we asked them to look at the role of local authorities and we asked them to examine touring provision to the regional venues, whether that provision was for companies based in Northern Ireland or, indeed, companies from elsewhere, and the impact that that had.
Internationally, we asked them to assess the reputation of Northern Ireland abroad looking at its drama product and its practitioners. Touring outside of Northern Ireland is critical and that includes cross-border activity, North/South and east-west.
Finally, we asked them to look at how stable organisations were within the sector itself. Are there issues around leadership, governance, and staffing? How well were companies able to market their product and engage with their audiences? What financial requirements did the drama sector have and what was its ability like to earn its own income?
Chairman, I want to make another few points to convey to you the depth and extent of the terms of reference for this study. The contract was awarded to Scottish Cultural Enterprises at a cost of almost £35, 000 and it delivered the results in the summer of last year. It analysed the primary data from each of the venues and the companies to produce the big thick document that you have in front of you. The survey at the back contains information gathered from those venues and those companies, which is used to inform the strategy.
A survey of the sector was undertaken with a number of focus groups, and you can see that it was benchmarked against best practice elsewhere. The consultants held 37 meetings with theatre companies and venues, and 18 further individual interviews were carried out with the resource umbrella organisations. They talked to the education and library boards and with 12 of the local authorities. Everybody was afforded an opportunity to respond and give their views.
An extensive list of consultees is included in the main document, and it covers all the usual people that you might expect. Although not everybody was in a position to respond to consultants, the Arts Council felt confident that there was sufficient depth and breadth to sustain the robustness of the findings. I am going to hand over now, Chairman, to my colleague Nóirín McKinney who will talk us through what the sector said to the Arts Council through the consultation process.
Ms Nóirín McKinney (Arts Council of Northern Ireland):
Thank you. Chairman, as Roisin has said, you have that detailed document containing the in-depth research analysis, so there is a lot more material in there for your consideration, but I will give a very high-level summary and overview.
The sector told us, as you might expect, that funding is the key issue — no surprises there. The Committee is well aware of the state of Government funding for the arts in Northern Ireland, and that has impacted significantly on this sector’s development and growth.
A big issue is access to rural areas and to community venues, and, as Roisin said, touring. How do we get quality product out there regionally? Given the rural nature of Northern Ireland, transport continues to be a problem in terms of access to venues. Touring is very much about getting professional theatre out there, outside of Belfast and Derry, and being able to do that, which, of course, comes with a price.
The issue of investment in companies and venues, especially outside Belfast, was highlighted. That covers the whole gamut — admin support, programming, funding for high-quality productions and marketing. Those are some of the resource issues.
What people in the sector and beyond want to see is the best from the international arena. It is not just about growing the sector at home and growing our companies, but also about bringing in the best of international drama which will benefit audiences and provide a benchmark for the sector here.
We were also informed that there was a lack of jobs and full-time employment opportunities for actors and those involved in other elements of the theatre. Concerns were also raised about poor wages and the opportunities for developing local talent. Equity’s latest estimation of the average wage for an actor in Northern Ireland is £5,000 per year. That gives the issue some perspective.
The loss of talent needs to be stemmed. Roisin mentioned wonderful actors such as James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson who have international careers. However, one cannot aspire to that level and remain in Northern Ireland. Actors must go outside Northern Ireland when they become international stars. A progression route is required here for nurturing people who have potential. Such a route is not available at the moment, and we are losing a lot of our talent base as a result.
There is also a need to nurture our talented local playwrights. I am sure that the Committee is aware of the wonderful work of the likes of Owen McCafferty. Last year, we staged his ‘Scenes from the Big Picture’ to great critical acclaim. It was one of the most expensive and ambitious productions that we have staged in Northern Ireland, and credit must go to the theatre company Prime Cut, which has some wonderful talent. Last year, the Arts Council was able to give Owen a major award of £15,000 to enable him to take time out to develop his technique and writing skills and to look at different approaches to writing plays. That sort of opportunity is essential, but rare.
Roisin mentioned Irish language productions. There is one Irish language theatre company in Northern Ireland — Aisling Ghéar — and there is an appetite for more.
The Arts Council would like to see greater involvement by the BBC. Through BBC Northern Ireland, there is a huge potential for more use of local crews, actors and playwrights. There is an ongoing challenge to maximise those opportunities.
Training progression routes across all theatre disciplines are not available. It is important that training is available to help actors hone their professional acting skills, but it is also essential in such areas as stagecraft.
The Arts Council allocates money to drama through its three main programmes: the annual support for organisations programme (ASOP); the lottery programmes; and the support for the individual artist programme (SIAP). We have not yet made any lottery project funding for the financial year 2008-09. One company received £30,000, which was funded through a particular lottery scheme. Also, we have not we made any SIAP awards. The full year’s figures are not in the table that has been provided to the Committee because the year has just started. However, we expect our allocations to the sector to be in line, at least, with those made in 2007-08.
Gilly Campbell will talk more about the allocation of £145,000 shown in the table under the heading “other”. That was an allocation to develop some of the recommendations in the drama strategy.
The reduced ASOP allocation from 2006-07 to 2007-08 is due to two factors. In 2007-08, we decided that we could not directly fund the regional theatres from ASOP, and they had to be moved to another programme under lottery funding. We did not have enough resources, and our objective was to protect the independent sector. We decided that the local authority-owned venues and the Riverside Theatre, which is a university venue, had more capacity than the independent sector to raise income. There is, therefore, a drop in allocations, but we are still funding those clients.
We know that the Committee is particularly interested in hearing about our support for the amateur drama sector, so I will explain our main mechanisms for doing that. Members will be aware of Awards for All, which is a multi-lottery distributor’s programme administered by the Big Lottery Fund. However, all applications come to the Arts Council for final decision. We make a lot of allocations to amateur drama groups, across a good regional spread. We cover a range of items for the groups, such as venue hire, publicity, props, scenery, artistic directors, choreographers and musicians. That is an important support mechanism for the amateur sector.
The Arts Council has been a long-term supporter of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals, which gave evidence to the Committee in an earlier session. The AUDF receives a hugely important annual grant of between £10,000 and £11,000. Our support is largely for the Ulster Drama Festival, the Northern Ireland one-act finals and the Sean Hollywood bursaries.
It is also important to mention the Ulster Association of Youth Drama, which presents innovative programmes and services to sustain and develop the youth theatre sector. It provides a host of services, from mentoring to leadership training. It runs a drama-fest and a drama week and exchange, which is a series of regional celebrations and an opportunity for youth-theatre practitioners to network and discuss and explore ideas. It provides an information and advice service, a directory of tutors, and it makes awards through bursaries to attend international training programmes.
The Arts Council made a capital grant of £475,000 to Belvoir Players, which opened as a rehearsal studio in 2000. As you know, that is recognised as one of Northern Ireland’s leading amateur theatre resources. It is hugely important, and it actively engages with groups and committees in various communities. It has responded to the demand in the arts community, particularly in the Belvoir estate. It has an excellent regional and local profile and is seen as a model for amateur theatre.
Another example of our support to the amateur sector is the £150,000 we gave to the Mid Ulster Community and Arts Trust, which is located at the Patrician Hall in Carrickmore. Its programme is completely community-based; it is important in making the arts accessible to elderly people, rurally-isolated people, disabled people, teenagers and early-years groups. Professional artists and touring performances can showcase their work to the community. That organisation gets important regional support.
As Roisin McDonough said, we asked Scottish Cultural Enterprise to benchmark us. It benchmarked us in policies and strategies and in the budgets across these islands. In 2005-06, which was the last full year for which figures were available when Scottish Cultural Enterprise did its comparator, Northern Ireland put £1·05 per capita into drama. That compares with the Republic of Ireland, which put £3·32 per capita into drama that year. The amounts of money per capita that were put into drama in Wales and Scotland fell between the amounts per capita that were allocated in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland put 23·7% of its arts-form budget into drama, which is comparable to the proportion that was spent in Scotland, but significantly less than Ireland and Wales.
We are working through the recommendations in the Scottish Cultural Enterprise report: Gilly will talk about those in more detail in a moment.
The first recommendation — and possibly the most important strategic development — is the development of a building-based theatre company in Belfast that would be equal to the best of the repertory system on the mainland, and we do not have that at the minute. The consultants have pointed out — and the Arts Council agrees — that the Lyric Theatre has the potential to achieve that status, but that it will require considerable organisational development and a transformation of its funding base. We are lagging well behind. We have a fledgling model, but it needs a huge amount of development.
It is recommended that we work closely with the Lyric Theatre towards a balanced repertoire, and Gilly Campbell will talk in more detail about that. Other recommendations included a comprehensive community outreach programme; training opportunities for recent graduates and entrants; a training company or a young company initiative; programmes of talks and discussions; touring, which is an important component to regional venues throughout Northern Ireland; to act as ambassadors for Northern Ireland at international drama showcases; international co-productions, which is quite ambitious; and a programme of visiting companies with a strategic approach to audience development.
The Arts Council cannot progress that objective on its own. It must work closely with the Lyric Theatre. There is also a challenge for Belfast City Council to provide core funding if we are to achieve that vision — and Gilly will put the national theatre idea into context.
The second recommendation centred on new writing, which I have already mentioned. However, there is a real need to grow our talent pool, and resources must be put behind that.
The third recommendation looked at resource sharing. When undertaking their research, the consultants were struck by a couple of points: the duplication of functions between several companies, particularly in the Belfast area; and the opportunity that might be presented by the opening of the Museum Arts Centre when the Old Museum Arts Centre moves in 2011. That will bring together some shared resources, cut down on administrative costs and have joint marketing initiatives, promotions, etc. The Arts Council will be taking that situation forward with several partners. However, finance would be required to carry out a feasibility study.
Recommendation four looked at continuing professional development, which I have also mentioned. Training is essential for career development, and we do not have that here. There are excellent models across the UK and, at the very least and as a small step, we want to provide bursaries for training to enable people from here to avail of the best that is available elsewhere. We simply do not have those facilities at home, and we are looking at the resources needed for that.
The fifth recommendation centred on regional theatres and audience development. There is demand, appetite and a real issue for the regional theatres in respect of their programming and the quality of drama that our audiences can access regionally, and we must try to address that situation. We have some ideas about a challenge fund, which will need resourcing.
Recommendation six focused on the links between amateur and professional drama, and more work must be done in that area. There may be the need for a feasibility study. We will also look at the role of the Northern Ireland Theatre Association (NITA) and how it can help to build the links between the amateur and professional worlds.
We also need to address the core funding issues, which I have already mentioned. We have been able to do some work on that this year, with the 1·7% increase that we were grateful to receive from the Assembly for the arts. We put 1·6% of that directly into our core arts organisations. We have been able to stabilise some of the drama companies, but that most go on in an incremental way over the next few years.
The final recommendation looked at enhancing the capacity of NITA, which is a membership organisation consisting of 44 members. It has huge potential to assist the Arts Council in developing across the range of those recommendations and develop its own capacity to help the sector to strengthen and grow.
Although we have not broken down the figures for every recommendation, Scottish Cultural Enterprises have stated that the total recurring new investment cost would be around £700,000 and that there would be a one-off new investment cost of £85,000, which would be spent on feasibility studies, with the remainder spread across the development of the Lyric Theatre, new writing and the touring challenge fund.
Ms Gilly Campbell (Arts Council of Northern Ireland):
While the Lyric Theatre is closed, the company will enter a challenging and exciting period, mounting an off-site artistic programme for the next two years. It is envisaged that the new building will reopen in spring or early summer 2010. The purpose of an off-site artistic programme is to maintain the name, profile and expertise of the company while building works proceed.
The Lyric has been operating in its present form since 1968, and its general audience base has remained loyal down through the years. At present, it is vital that the company retains and increases its profile during this challenging period. Maintaining relationships with the artistic community — including actors, writers, directors and designers — and allowing projects to develop is essential so that contracts and good will remain alive and are ready to be reactivated when the theatre reopens.
It is also vitally important that the accumulated management, technical and artistic expertise of the company is retained through continuing practice.
This year, the Lyric will present an innovative and substantive artistic programme. The programme starts off with ‘The Parker Project’: a play that will address and re-contextualise Stewart Parker’s work for a contemporary audience by presenting his first major play, ‘Spokesong’, and his last, ‘Pentecost’. ‘The Parker Project’ will be presented for four weeks during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, before it transfers to Dublin.
‘Pump Girl’, a new play set in a petrol station just North of the border, by a new playwright called Abbie Spallen will also be produced and toured regionally to venues including the Strule Arts Centre, the Burnavon in Cookstown, the Alley Theatre in Strabane, the Ardowen in Enniskillen and the Market Place in Armagh, as well as three venues in the Republic of Ireland.
The Lyric will also develop and produce a community play, which will tour both community halls and centres in Belfast. The company has approached Marie Jones to write or adapt an existing play. The company will also produce and tour Friel’s most recent play, ‘The Home Place’. After staging the play at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, the company hopes to tour it regionally and throughout the Republic of Ireland.
The Lyric will work with six different groups of young people to present six plays about experiences, folk memory and cultures of the Ulster-Scots community. Drama has not traditionally played a major part in the life of communities that share the Ulster-Scots heritage. However, the Ulster-Scots Agency has now commissioned six new plays for children dealing with the following themes of culture and heritage: ship building, the linen industry, schools and education, the Second World War, rural life and agriculture, and a Christmas story. The children will be drawn from the following school-catchment areas: Ballyhackamore, the Shankill, Fortwilliam and Sydenham. All activities will happen outside school hours.
The current closure of the theatre has allowed, and encouraged, the Lyric to regenerate its profile. Now more than ever it has to actively present work to its loyal and also to its new audiences on a regional and Ireland-wide scale.
This year’s collaborations with both the An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny and Dublin’s Rough Magic will see the Lyric touring throughout both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland venues to deliver high-quality drama productions.
We had a recent meeting with Drew McFarlane of Equity, which was very positive. Essentially, Drew stated Equity’s policy to promote and develop touring in Northern Ireland to generate employment for actors and other theatre practitioners, which is why it had proposed the Scottish national theatre model.
In discussion with Drew and other Equity members, it was agreed that the Lyric Theatre may be the model or the future conduit for that policy, but the Lyric would need to be sufficiently resourced to do that.
Turning to the capital update and the future revenue implications for the Lyric Theatre, the cost of the capital project is £15·32 million, and several funding organisations — specifically, the Arts Council, DCAL, The Garfield Weston Foundation and the Lyric Theatre — have stumped up the cash for that. The situation is that planning approval is expected in April or May 2008 and construction is phased to commence mid-2008. We hope that the project will be completed in early 2010.
We have considered the anticipated needs of the drama sector for 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12. Noírin mentioned ASOP, which is the programme through which we fund our core drama clients. We anticipate needing to develop that sector — which includes the Lyric Theatre and our other core drama clients — hence the increase in the anticipated needs for it over those three years. It will be essential that, on top of an inflationary increase, we will be able to obtain other development-type funds.
To give an example of what that entails, the £290,000 needed in 2009-10 under the “other” category includes £50,000 for an education and outreach programme in the Lyric Theatre; £40,000 for the Northern Ireland Theatre Association so that they can provide training, resources, facilitation and advocacy for the sector; and £100,000 for touring. It is essential that we invest in our companies so that they can tour their theatre shows throughout the regional venues, as well as internationally. Furthermore, as both Roisin and Noírin said, we must support new writing and enable our artists to develop their craft, so that we will have the Brian Friels and Owen McCaffertys of the future.
Therefore, £290,000 will be invested in special initiatives during 2009-10. That amount will be reduced by £50,000 during 2010-11, removing the cost of the education and outreach programme for the Lyric Theatre but retaining the high-level figures for the other initiatives. The same sum is anticipated to be needed during 2011-12.
SIAP is about increasing opportunities for our individual artists. Many writers work in isolation and still need to develop their talent even if they are not receiving a commission from a theatre company, so we provide bursaries through SIAP in order to assist those writers with developing their work. The Committee will be aware that our lottery funds have dwindled. We expect that to continue; nonetheless, we anticipate the desire for more lottery money, to enable our core existing theatre clients to produce and tour work.
We have considered how the Committee could help us. Obviously, we want to test our ideas with the Committee and answer members’ questions. The Chairperson and I recently discussed raising the visibility of theatre, however, we were mindful of the costs and the logistical issues surrounding the production of a significant theatrical experience at Stormont estate.
Having subsequently considered that issue, I want to give the Committee an example of how that could work. There is a wonderful theatre company called Kabosh that has produced three-to-five-minute short pieces, which they perform in work places, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, or anywhere. The aim of those pieces is to give people a short, immediate theatrical experience. We wondered whether that is a possibility that could be considered, which is relatively inexpensive because paying for the actors is really the only cost. They are quality actors and the pieces are very short, however the performances would ensure that theatre is profiled in Stormont estate.
They should come up here on a Monday or Tuesday morning. [Laughter.]
Mr K Robinson:
They would have difficulty, as they would be up against the professionals.
I could not possibly comment. [Laughter.]
We know how supportive the Committee is of theatre and of the arts in general. We are happy to facilitate members in any way if they wished to see particular pieces of theatre. We would be happy to advise members about up and coming events that they wished to focus on, or if they wanted to go out and see more theatre to get a real sense of its dynamism and vibrancy as well as its problems.
Recently, we met representatives of the Lyric Theatre to discuss their plans for moving from the old building into the new one, and how the theatre would maintain its profile. They said that they would be delighted to come here if that was the Committee’s wish.
The challenge for us all, if we are to grow our drama and theatre sector, is that we must provide the appropriate resources. We have already given the Committee some of the indicative costings of the measures that the consultants believe to be essential. The Arts Council board supports what we have just articulated in respect of future priorities and some of the resources that are required. We want to work with the Committee and the Minister to determine whether we can secure extra resources, for drama in particular, bearing in mind its huge importance to us all.
OK. Thank you, Roisin, Noírin and Gilly. That was a very comprehensive presentation, which was worth waiting for. I do not want to go too quickly from general questions to specifics, but we heard this morning from the representatives of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals, who told us that they do not think that they are going to get their money this year. That support amounted to £10,000 or £12,000, and they talked about flying by the seat of their pants, and about being in real difficulty. That may be a misunderstanding on their part.
Ms Gilly Campbell:
That may be a misunderstanding. Through our annual support for organisations, or ASOP funding, the AUDF originally received a grant through a lottery initiative — the multi-annual funding programme. That came to an end after three years, as it did for several other organisations. Therefore, we asked the AUDF to apply to the main lottery project funding stream, which is the most appropriate funding stream for the type of activity that the AUDF delivers. For example, bursaries are given to certain individuals, and lottery funding is our route for that type of initiative. The AUDF application is on my desk for assessment along with the other lottery-based applications.
Thank you for your presentation. I shall ask the Chairperson to bear with me, because I have a number of short and specific questions. I am delighted that there is a strategy for theatre. We had a previous discussion about other arts sectors. I know that the Arts Council has a funding policy, but is it your intention to develop other strategies? I heard that there was a strategy for dance.
Therefore, is it your intention to develop strategies across all sectors of the arts?
We have a rolling programme to develop art-form strategies for particular genres. We are currently commissioning an opera strategy and a significant review of the whole visual arts sector. We have a timetable for the lifespan of our strategy, which will result in the development of strategies for particular art-form areas.
That is important. We talked this morning about the need for strategies for museums and other areas that are under the DCAL umbrella. Can the Committee be consulted when those strategies are being devised?
Was an equality impact assessment carried out on the strategy?
Is that buried at the back of the document?
No. We did not bring a copy with us today. We have a policy-screening process, and we carried out an equality impact assessment. The details of the consultation on that assessment would have been announced on our website.
When things are put on websites, I never see them.
It would useful for the Committee to have a hard copy of the EQIA.
Page 10 of the research mentions amateur and community drama. It states:
“Amateur drama tends to be rural, focussed on “classic” text based work and emerging from Unionist communities.”
Obviously Carrickmore has just become a unionist community, which I am delighted to hear.
I am surprised by that; I did not think that it was like that.
Dungiven is following suit.
The research goes on to say that:
“Community drama tends to be urban, focussed on new or devised work, and emerging from Nationalist communities.”
That is the perception of drama organisations.
The next paragraph states that:
“Some organisations, however, did not endorse these characteristics.”
Obviously, those statements are not 100% true, but there is clearly an issue of some sort if organisations are making those comments.
Page 29 states:
“Ulster Scots community is strongly Protestant,”
— it is not 100% Protestant, but I take the point that is being made —
“and does not consider itself to be “theatrical”.”
It is as if the Protestant community shies away from theatre to an extent. Again, that comment is not 100% true, but there is an issue there.
The research continues:
“The art forms with which Ulster Scots has most affinity are music and storytelling, rather than drama.”
I asked about the EQIA because that issue of lack of engagement in drama has emerged in the research, and it also arose when DCAL was involved in work on the Future Search initiative and the strategy — I cannot remember what it was called.
Was it the Unlocking Creativity strategy?
It was called something like that. A series of working groups was established that met at the Interpoint Building. Anyhow, one of the working groups dealt with access, inclusivity and equality, and that issue was raised in the group’s meeting and was then lost — it dissipated and did not go anywhere. I turned up to one meeting, but no one was there. I was disappointed to find that it was all over.
I will be interested to see the outcome of the EQIA, but work needs to be done to unlock the Protestant/unionist community’s interest in theatre. Consider the number of theatre companies in west Belfast: the Double Joint Theatre Company, if it is still going, and Justus Community Theatre, and so on. It used to be on the go at one time, I think perhaps it may have packed up.
They both have.
Both of them? I had not see any grants from the City Hall — that is obviously why. I should also mention the Theatre on the Rock in Whiterock and the Aisling Ghéar Theatre Company. An attempt was made to cultivate drama in west Belfast, but that effort was not replicated across the city. How will that issue be addressed? I know that the Ulster-Scots Agency is doing some work in this area, which is good, but more needs to be done.
I have a few more questions, but could you respond to that question first, please?
To return to your first point, the research reports on people’s comments and perceptions, so you are right to highlight the fact that not everybody necessarily agrees with them. We are very conscious of the differential development within the sector. Nelson, you will be aware that we have worked with the Ulster-Scots Agency, and difficulties have arisen — but not through any lack of willingness on the part of the agency or ourselves.
The Arts Council has tried to employ somebody, on a part-time basis, to work with the Ulster-Scots cultural community to develop an agreed programme of activity that was located in a piece of work that was commissioned a number of years ago. It was a strategy to develop the Ulster-Scots cultural community, an element of which was drama, as well as the other art-form areas. That position has been advertised twice —
I can save you a bit of time — I had a meeting with Damian and some folk from the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council on Monday. Some progress has been made on that.
Indeed — that is the principal route through which the Arts Council will have a dedicated focus and some resource in order to take that forward. We have tried for a number of years, but with no success. That will mirror and also reassure other members of this Committee that we are employing a language arts officer for members of the Irish-language-speaking community who are engaged in the arts. The council very much wants both communities to develop their access to and engagement with the arts.
Those are the current proposals. The council works on those in conjunction with the agency as well as Foras na Gaeilge, and we will have a small pot of development fund money available to stimulate activity. However, the main goal that we want to achieve over time is to remove the differential access. It will not need development funds forever, but people will be perfectly able to access all our mainstream opportunities and supporting funds.
I welcome that. I had a conversation on Monday about how that post might be filled. There is a deeper issue, however. There are very few people from a unionist background in theatre in Northern Ireland. There are people from a Protestant background — Marie Jones is, but she has said quite openly that she is certainly not a unionist. Gary Mitchell is the one exception who says quite unashamedly that he is British and not Irish, and is from a unionist background.
The Lyric Theatre was established with a particular ethos. While that has changed over time and is now much more mainstream, there is still a legacy of issues that need to be addressed. Others in the unionist community share that concern. I would like to something that covers issues of concern to the broader unionist community; it is more than just an Ulster-Scots issue.
I will have further questions about this policy — we received the document only today, and I would like to go through it properly.
Bear in mind that the information was provided by the theatre companies themselves.
I appreciate that. I saw the comment about the Lyric Theatre marketing itself not only provincially but Ireland-wide. Do we look at the market for theatre-going across the water in Scotland? If you are in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre, you are closer to Galloway than Galway. How is that reflected in the document?
I also noticed the reference to the University of Aberdeen’s Scottish and Irish studies project. I am always concerned about projects that are like a stool with two legs; they would stand up better with three legs. Northern Ireland should be there, in addition to Scotland and Ireland. One of the flaws in the Aberdeen project is that it simply looks at Ireland as a whole and does not reflect the differences in Northern Ireland.
Belfast City Council is doing a grand job in supporting the Lyric Theatre.
Do you wish to declare an interest, Mr McCausland?
That might well be in order, and I would not be the only one.
There is a danger of expecting too much from Belfast City Council insofar as those who go to the Lyric Theatre are from Lisburn as well as from Belfast. People come from other council areas, too, including some from as far away as Newtownabbey, Newtownards, and even Comber or the Ards Peninsula. People who go to the theatre in Belfast come from a wide area. Belfast City Council is a narrow area geographically and is not a big metropolis such as Manchester or Birmingham, which cover much wider areas. Belfast City Council is doing a good job and will do an even better job, but there is a danger of over-expectation.
I believe that a line of communication is open.
I have four general questions. The Arts Council speaks of growing audiences and increasing participation. How important is it to the council to attract families and encourage them to attend performances? Secondly, I am keen to know what relationship the council has with young farmers. I am thinking here of the earlier question about amateur dramatics. Thirdly, what adverse effect would an economic downturn have on the number of people attending plays and drama groups?
Finally, the discussion paper ‘Development of a Drama Strategy’ claims that there are no “drama types” involving Ulster Scots. Reference was made earlier to six dramas for schools, all of which, I believe, are in urban areas. It is important to interact with rural communities. I say that not because I represent Ards or Strangford, but we are a hotbed of Ulster Scots. For that reason, it would be logical to have a relationship with a school in that area, or with a school from north or east Antrim. I am disappointed that all the school drama venues are town-based, and I would like to see a more binding relationship with rural communities.
Mr K Robinson:
My point follows on from what Nelson was saying. The Arts Council is missing a tremendous opportunity because there is an entire audience that is not being tapped into because they are Ulster Scots. They are not being tapped into because they are Protestant/unionist/loyalist — attach to them whatever label you wish. Those people do not see themselves portrayed in theatre; and, when they do, they tend to be stereotyped — and stereotyped negatively. Who wants to go to a theatre to see themselves lampooned, castigated or, worse still, trying to be re-educated? Such people feel that they have a vibrant community.
Perhaps in the past, because we were building ships and aircraft, we did not have time for the theatre and the arts. Now we have a bit more time on our hands, and there is an emerging group in that community that wants to become involved in theatre. However, they are certainly not going to attend the sort of theatre that has been traditionally served up to them — whether we speak of the narrow banding of Ulster Scots, or look more widely to those who are beginning to reflect the common 5ft 8in of the Ulster Prod, for want of a better title, who feels that there is nothing for him in the theatre.
There are some active amateur theatre people in my own constituency of East Antrim, but they are only scratching the surface and not getting below the skin of these people. Some playwrights are now beginning to acknowledge them. An example that struck me was the recent Dan Gordon series, in which he sweated blood and tears to try to turn around a group of young men in the young offenders centre. There was a raw talent in that centre, and, eventually, it came to the surface. Gordon was examining my community, and suddenly I thought to myself that I could understand what he was saying and that that was the first time that anyone had told us what we are about. Such people coming out of our community provide a status for the arts that the Arts Council needs to tap into quickly or it will start to evaporate again.
Gordon tells it as it is. He did a wonderful programme about Mersey Street in east Belfast. Wallace will agree with me that he had it down to a T. The people in that programme are the same as the people that I meet, talk to and go to football matches with, and they were acknowledged for the first time.
Around the time of the Twelfth he also did a programme about the bands, which was the first positive programme that I had seen about that subject. It was about what makes the bands and individuals tick. All previous programmes that I saw simply focused on a Lambeg drum, claimed it was theatre and lampooned them.
The Arts Council needs to find a way to tap into that audience, which is open to being involved in theatre. However, you have to listen to what it is and not tell it what it is. That is how that change can be effected. I want to hear your views on how you plan to effect the change from what you are trying to push out to the public to what the public wants you to understand, to portray, and so on.
You are referring to reflections or representations of the Protestant/unionist community.
Mr K Robinson:
The classic example is ‘A Night in November’ by Marie Jones. In that play, the character suddenly discovers who he is, as opposed to who he thought he was. It is about identity. Unionists who go to certain plays feel almost as if they are wrong to be unionists; they are almost made to feel guilty.
Marie Jones is not the only person involved in the arts who is from a Protestant background. David Grant was interviewed for the book ‘Further Afield: Journeys from a Protestant Past’. He basically said that he used to be, but that he is not any more. People go into the arts and the theatre and they give up what they were. The rest of us who have not given it up go to certain plays and feel uncomfortable. It is an institutional issue. The report entitled increasing creativity or whatever it is called missed an opportunity to address such issues.
That was the Unlocking Creativity strategy that was produced with the help of the Future Search Creativity in Education Group.
I will hand over to Roisin and the team to address the points that were made by Jim, Nelson and Ken.
This is such a huge issue. Dan Gordon attended our Arts Council conference in November 2007. He showed and shared with the audience his working practices from the prison series, which were wonderful. We support the Prison Arts Foundation, which Dan had a contract with, and we supported him in that piece of work. It was a wonderful television series, and it did a huge amount of good.
In such cases, the job of the Arts Council is probably to try to create the conditions for, and to facilitate, the production of excellent theatre that people can enjoy. Of course, everyone has different tastes. We do not tell our companies what to produce or how to produce it. However, we do have dialogue with them.
On some occasions, people will be offended, on other occasions, they will be challenged. We have supported a broad programme of work, including all of the Gary Mitchell plays. We can cite other examples of people coming from different traditions and wanting to express the reality of those traditions, be that in a contemporary or new writing format, or, indeed, even in a classical format. It is a mix, and you are quite right that there is a development opportunity, and potential for a growing audience out there.
It is, however, very difficult to get the audiences, and our theatre companies and venues struggle with that. We have created Audience Northern Ireland, which is the audience development agency for the arts, and we have given lots of our companies and venues audience development grants, over and above the usual marketing and promotion support that we give. We are very conscious of the need to build and maintain audiences, but that is affected by a complex mix of factors, such as not being able to invest in touring an excellent product, because often excellence is not axiomatically associated with high cost, but often is. For example, it is easy to stage a two-hander or a one-hander; Marie Jones’s play ‘A Night In November’ has been very successful, but it is a small-scale production. On the other hand, some of the Gary Mitchell work is more expensive to stage, or indeed Owen McCafferty’s work, which portrayed a day in the life of Belfast. How much did that cost?
Ms Gilly Campbell:
We provided a grant of £78,750 for that production. The entire cost was £203,608.
That was for one piece of theatre, so you can understand where the real pressures are, not only on our budgets, but in relation to the total cost of staging such productions.
Regarding the need to encourage families to participate, it is part of our audience development strategy to try to encourage people with families to feel comfortable. We have a number of excellent family-friendly arts organisations, including festivals, but also some of our theatre companies — I am thinking of theatre and education work — and, indeed, some of our other productions, who encourage family participation. That is a very important audience to us.
Nóirín will answer the question on cross-border touring, and whether that extends to the rest of the UK as opposed to the Republic.
In relation to Mr McCausland’s point, the Arts Council has for many years been involved in a cross border touring scheme between the UK regions. It does not include the Republic of Ireland. It is incredible value for money; all of the UK arts councils contribute a sum to a central pot, and that enables touring from all of the national companies across the UK to respected locations. It is also an incentive for the big London companies to stage shows outside London and tour regionally. The Arts Council of England is a major funder and puts in more than the other arts councils.
Through that scheme we get fantastic product coming in. During the festival, we can get, for example, the National Theatre coming with ‘The History Boys’. A lot of the opera provision at the Grand Opera House is brought here under that scheme. It is heavily subsidised, otherwise we simply would not be able to get that quality of production. Our problem is that, unlike the other regions of the UK, there is no company here of high enough quality in any of the art forms to tour those other regions, although that is an ambition.
The report looks at economies of scale on the island, which of course does make economic sense. However, our real ambition is to develop the Lyric Theatre in the way that we have been discussing and in the way that we would aspire to. We would then have a company that could perform on a UK-wide basis, so that we would not just be receiving the best of the UK, but would be able to tour our companies as well. I am afraid that we are a long way off from that.
I will make some comments related to what Roisin has said. Obviously, when we receive applications celebrating particular identities, we respond to them. I take the point that more development work is needed and that it does not solely involve drama — we have supported ‘On Eagle’s Wing’, for example.
There has been quite a bit of work in Derry on the revivals of Farquhar. Nelson, if we receive applications, that would be a priority area. However, as Roisin said, we cannot dictate the programming, and we accept that the orientation in the report could be strengthened on that aspect of identity.
I asked Gilly a question about the schools, urban and rural.
Ms Gilly Campbell:
The Ulster-Scots outreach programme is funded by Belfast City Council, which is why it has targeted those areas.
He is asking us to support him, so now we are asking him to support us. It is only right that it is put on in Donaghadee or somewhere similar.
Essentially, it is a partnership with local government.
Ms Gilly Campbell:
When a company — whether it is based in Belfast, Derry or Portstewart — goes to other areas, the local authorities usually buy into a particular product. That is an ideal project to be developed —
Did Belfast City Council initiate the project with the Arts Council?
Ms Gilly Campbell:
No; the Arts Council is not directly funding it — it is a Belfast City Council project with the Lyric Theatre.
I am keen to see it replicated because then I would know how it works.
It would be interesting to see it replicated.
The Theatre Association does not have a high profile in minds of Committee members, and it is an organisation that the Committee should seek a presentation from. It has 44 members, so it would be good to hear about what they do and find out about their vision of the world. We will return to the issue of how we can help.
The Committee should engage more with the Arts Council about drama: we want to know about — and receive invitations to — key performances.
Mr K Robinson:
Was the Arts Council involved in the extremely successful musical ‘On Eagle’s Wing’ at the Odyssey?
Yes; we supported the commissioning of it.
Mr K Robinson:
That musical hit all the right buttons — I saw people coming out after it with tears in their eyes.
The audience at that musical were from what I sometimes describe as “middle Ulster” — nice, decent Ulster folk, many of whom do not go to the theatre. The musical was about us — it was our community on the stage. That never happens unless our community is being criticised or demonised. Those people suddenly felt that they belonged.
That also happened when we visited the Arts Council to discuss lottery funding for bands; we emerged from the Arts Council building and a member of one of the bands said that we had finally been accepted because we had had a meeting with the Arts Council.
Is there a DVD of ‘On Eagle’s Wing’?
We do not know who has the production rights.
There is an opportunity for the arts and theatre sector to open up to a new audience and to make money. That issue should be touched on in all the Arts Council strategies from now. Could a piece of work be done in-house or some thought be given on how to create an appendix or addendum to the strategy to look at that? We are saying that, but some will say that they would expect us to. Although there was not unanimity, there were certain voices in the arts and theatre sector saying that there is an opportunity. If the audience increases, everyone is a winner: we feel better because we do not feel that our community is excluded, and the people who count the box-office takings are delighted because there is more money coming in. The Arts Council can say that it has done its job because audiences in Northern Ireland have increased and everyone is happy. However, that is touched but skirted around.
Could something be done as an appendix to that, perhaps through bringing together a small group of people to work on it with the Arts Council, and produce a supplement that would tease out that aspect?
This particular piece of work has concluded, and our council has agreed the principle recommendations. However, we are open to suggestion.
When we undertook our audit and needs analysis of the arts of Irish and Ulster Scots — and that covered not just Ulster Scots, but perceptions of associated issues — we made an extensive study that touched on many points raised. Mr McCausland would be aware of that. Today’s discussion is art-form specific, and concentrates on drama: however, this was a much wider study across all the art-forms. We are following through on the recommendations of that study. We are giving it expression by employing a dedicated officer, who will meet with the relevant actors, advance the strategy and stimulate activity.
We are the first council to have done this, and we are pleased to do it. It is a significant step forward, which goes part of the way to meeting needs. It is a long, slow developmental journey: there are no quick and easy steps. The Arts Council is often criticised because of the several million pounds of funding that we have put into bands. We are proud to fund bands: but the Arts Council does draw criticism.
We want to stretch people’s experience of the arts. Where a particular musical tradition exists; that is a positive and healthy basis on which to build experience of other art-form areas. Therefore, we are keen to develop that tradition, through bands and other aspects of the arts. However, we expect that the officer who will be appointed will have a critical function in that respect. We have already made a study —
Was that the John Edmund study?
Yes. Not much has altered since that.
Absolutely. I did not understand that the new appointment is to push forward that aspect.
It is to push forward those priorities and needs.
Occasionally, when I raise issues with the Arts Council about promotion of drama and theatre, I receive the response that that role is more properly for local government. Please define what the Arts Council expects of local government. Whose job is it to nurture, encourage and assist development of the arts?
Our proper preserve is that of theatre companies, which have the capacity to create their own new work or productions that can tour. Obviously, we have a critical role in nurturing individual artistic talent; which we achieve through SIAP.
We view our work with local authorities as a partnership. We have worked to provide a network of provision across Northern Ireland, and we are involved, in varying degrees, with local authorities to co-fund particular organisations. That is a big issue in Belfast, where the concentration of population and artistic companies is situated. The Awards for All programme is the correct funding route for small, local, grassroots arts organisations. However, we would expect local authorities that have provision to employ arts officers, and we work with those officers in the Forum for Local Government and the Arts. The Arts Council has funded a dedicated full-time post in NILGA as an arts co-ordinator for all local authorities, so that we can work better together and grow that forum.
There is no easy answer to the question. Participation will vary from one local authority to another. Some are better than others. However, we believe that where there is localised arts provision, it must be the role of the local authority to at least provide some support.
I wish to follow up on Barry’s point; and my question is about arts promotion, which is an issue that I have raised before. If the Arts Council became aware of a large area in which there was no arts provision, would you take a proactive lead and get in touch with the local council to voice your worry that there was no drama, music or any kind of theatrical venture in that area?
Our officers, such as Gilly Campbell, who cover the various art-form areas, regularly meet arts officers or people in local authorities, many of whom require support to programme venues. We give guidance and advice on that and make suggestions about where they might be able to get product. We are always trying to encourage greater co-operation, not only between our companies, in this instance, and the venues, to get their work shown, but to encourage local authorities to stretch their programming and put on activities in areas where not much drama, visual arts or music is provided. We are active in making suggestions to them about how they can connect that so that local people have access to the widest possible artistic engagement.
May I make a finer point? What happens if a member of the public complains about the lack of local arts provision and wants to know who is going to do something about it, because he or she has to drive to Belfast, Coleraine or Enniskillen?
Ms Gilly Campbell:
It is about broadening our knowledge base. I often receive phone calls from people throughout Northern Ireland, asking, for example, whether there are any dance classes or drama classes for their children. It is also important to note that we score clients higher under certain lottery schemes if they tour, produce inter-generational programmes or have projects that increase participation among children and young people.
We give higher marks to projects that happen outside Derry and Belfast.
I thank Roisin, Noírin and Gilly for coming along this afternoon. It has been a great engagement, and I am glad that Hansard has been here to cover the session, because we will have a reference document to help us to go forward.