Karl Shiels is a broken man.
It wasn’t the six-month, unpaid labour of love installing Dublin’s newest fringe theatre, the Theatre Upstairs at the Plough pub on Abbey St, that broke him. The excitement in the theatre community and rave reviews had long since repaid that.
It wasn’t the bleak midwinter, when burst pipes cut the water supply, and closed the theatre down just after it had opened, that broke him. He gritted his teeth and, eventually, like the rest of the country, his theatre was back on the road.
It wasn’t the sucker punch of being asked, one day, for his theatre licence, that did it. That stunned him, all right. A theatre licence? In 2010? Who knew? But Shiels learns quick: he shut down his theatre (again), went cap in hand to the courts, and emerged, waving a licence, to reopen his theatre (again) mere weeks later.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So when the lead actor in a recent world premiere at the Theatre Upstairs pulled out the weekend before the show opened, Shiels barely felt the blow.
Others might have reached for the bottle; Shiels reached for the phone. A day later, he had a new cast member for Jimmy Murphy’s play, What’s Left of the Flag: Gerard Byrne of Fair City fame. Not merely did Byrne learn the part in a couple of days, he was “scorchingly convincing”, wrote Emer O’Kelly, in the Sunday Independent.
Other reviews were similarly enthusiastic. So it was galling for Shiels to welcome into the theatre on Monday last an audience of one. Still, such is the nature of lunchtime pub theatre; similar stories are told of the early days of every great fringe venue.
Shiels had taken some blows in the past six months, but he had proven well able to ride them. At a time when the Arts Council was closing down theatre companies by withdrawing their funding, Shiels and his colleagues had created a new theatre without even reference to the Arts Council. They were making things happen in a city that had suddenly found itself moribund.
And then, at the end of last week, Shiels got a call from his landlord. The Theatre Upstairs was to be turned into apartments, he was told. He was given a week’s notice.
Today, after the final performance of What’s Left of the Flag (at 1pm), Shiels and colleagues will strip out the set, the €4,000 worth of electrics and other fittings, and their collection of recycled set materials, and transport them to some friend’s shed somewhere. And the Theatre Upstairs at the Plough will be no more.
They had world premieres lined up till early November, including a new play by Eugene O’Brien, the writer of Pure Mule and Eden. They had been booked for the Dublin Fringe Festival in September. They had been offered new plays by prominent playwrights such as Mark O’Rowe, Donal O’Kelly and Deirdre Kinahan.
There was a buzz about the space that echoed the vibes coming from the Project Arts Centre, where the Project Brand New and THEATREclub collectives have been making noise with their no-budget new-theatre initiatives.
Along with a cluster of companies making work in unconventional places and unconventional ways, like Brokentalkers and the Stomach Box, these collectives of poorly-paid performers and producers have been stirring up a Dublin theatre scene that had largely stagnated during the latter years of the boom.
The Theatre Upstairs had quickly put itself at the vanguard. It may surprise those outside of Dublin, but the city has been critically lacking in cheap theatre spaces in recent years; the pub theatres were all colonised by comedy, and other venues were expropriated by developers and corporate interests.
Rising property values and wage rates squeezed the life out of do-it-yourself theatre. The collapse promised a boon to struggling theatre companies: the prospect of free or cheap spaces in which to stage plays, again. The Theatre Upstairs led the way.
How bitterly ironic, then, that at a time when the city is littered with the carcasses of unfinished apartment blocks, when the arts find themselves newly valued as a meal ticket for Ireland’s “creative economy”, and when the country is crying out for entrepreneurial flair, that Shiels and his fellow entrepreneur-impresarios should find themselves evicted.
As one supporter put it on their Facebook page, quoting Joni Mitchell: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”
So Karl Shiels is broken. Almost. He is depressed, shocked, angry, he says. He can’t think much beyond getting the theatre stripped out and their stuff stored somewhere. Then, he and his colleagues will sit down, quietly, and go through their options.
There must be dozens of suitable spaces in this city (they insist on staying northside); between knocking on doors and social networking, they hope to find one. (Might
Fiach Mac Conghail at the Abbey consider adopting them to fill the struggling Peacock for a while?
They’ll keep the Theatre Upstairs “brand”. “Even if we end up in a basement, it’ll still be Theatre Upstairs at the Basement,” says Shiels, determination breaking through the despondency.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If they survive this one, expect to be hearing about Theatre Upstairs for a long time to come.