Stage: 'There's a whole generation who never thought it viable to stay in Limerick'
Through a busy hotel restaurant in Limerick, a waiter searches for an available table. We find actor Liam O'Brien, stealthily arrived as if through a secret door, already acquiring a spot.
O'Brien, a founder of Bottom Dog Theatre and its regular producer, has a businessman's suave. Whether greeting the hotel's proprietor (one of his theatre company's business partners) or listing off funding figures, his producer style is diplomatic and researched.
Those skills may have developed out of an acute survival instinct. "We've never had any regular funding, at all. It's rare that we can plan ahead", he says, preparing for the launch of Bottom Dog's ninth season.
On his route to the stage, he attended the local stage school, Expressive Arts ("They treated you like little actors. It was never the jazz hands-Billie Barry thing"), and later Trinity College, though he had to leave his course due to illness. "I intended to go back but I started working with Island Theatre Company."
Island Theatre emerged in the mid-1990s and was Limerick's leading company until its funding was cut in 2008. At the age of 19, Liam was cast in their production of Mike Finn's play Pigtown, a nostalgic journey through the city in the 20th century. It remains a significant event in local memory.
"In the 1960s and 1970s, Limerick was this immense theatre town. People kind of forget that. Pigtown felt like the first time in years that people went back to the theatre.
"It was about Limerick, and had a great script, cast and direction. But what I think made it so successful was that Island could afford to do long runs. In the first year, we were already booked for four weeks with an extension of one week. It allowed for word to get out there.
"What happens now in regional theatre is that a touring show will be here for one, maximum two or three nights. There isn't time to spread word of mouth."
O'Brien considers the company's closure as a major loss to Limerick's theatre industry.
"To go to work every night as an actor, and at the end of the week pick up your cheque - that hasn't existed in Limerick since Island. I feel there's a whole generation of people after me who never considered it viable to stay in Limerick."
He's determined to disprove that theory. O'Brien could likely get work anywhere. A casting agent who saw him in a Manchester production of Brian Friel's Translations got him a part in Emmerdale for three years. He's performed in the West End production of The Rat Pack. From a causal conversation with members of the UK company Propeller at the Galway International Arts Festival one year, he landed the clown role of Feste in their international tour of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. But Limerick is the draw for him: "I just want to work with people based here.
"After Island, a group of us knew that we had to keep things going. There's a line about Limerick in Pigtown: In this town, the bottom dog is always the bottom dog."
Bottom Dog's record reads like a survival guide to theatre-making - each production seems to have been made possible by diverse grants. Their upcoming production of Eric Bogosian's Drinking in America, a one-man play in which O'Brien will play 12 damaged characters, has been funded by a new source, the Limerick Theatre Bursary, totalling €500. That will be used to pay a director and musician. O'Brien is taking a risk on box-office takings to pay himself.
"It was on the shelf when I heard Donald Trump say 'make America great again'. I thought: 'I'm pretty sure someone says something like that in the play."
Bottom Dog will also produce John Murphy's 2006 play Smallone, chosen for revival by its actor Michelle O'Flanagan. "John wants it to be a totally different production. The key to that is doing it somewhere on location; it's set in a bedsit".
Beyond that, O'Brien is hoping to receive an Arts Council Project Award to stage a new play by Myles Breen later in the year. "We're hopeful because they've already invested a development grant in it. Otherwise, the script will sit on the shelf; there are five actors in it and a very esoteric stage design."
Did the Limerick City of Culture do anything to improve artists' ability to work? "It certainly got people motivated again but they should have kept some money in the pot. I think the ball was dropped because they were using it as a template for the European City of Culture 2020 bid.
"There was talk of continuing some projects into 2020 regardless of additional funding but there wasn't a lot of consultation with the artists themselves.
"Then, a lot of councillors got involved for the first time and said 'we're not happy about that - let's talk to the artists'. Now, the council's agreed to approve a budget going forward that increases funding to the arts in Limerick."
That seems a promising sign towards a stable infrastructure. O'Brien, certainly positive, would be easily satisfied. Thinking back on a shrewdly organised tour of Bottom Dog's production of Tom Mac Intyre's What Happened Bridgie Cleary, he smiles. "Everybody got paid. That's my proudest moment."
Drinking in America runs at the Belltable in Limerick from February 7-9, before heading to St John's Arts Centre in Listowel (February 11), and Friars' Gate Theatre in Kilmallock (February 17)