Theatre & Arts

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Top director discovers his northern soul

Jimmy Fay has taken the rare step of moving from Dublin to Belfast and one of the most exciting theatres in the land

Colin Murphy

Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30

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'The road from Dublin to Belfast is longer than the road from Belfast to Dublin," says Jimmy Fay, wryly. He has just taken up the position of executive producer at Belfast's Lyric Theatre (www.lyrictheatre.co.uk). It's a relatively rare move north for a leading Dublin theatre maker, though northern voices have long been influential in southern theatre.

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The Dublin theatre audience will head west in July for the Galway Arts Festival, or south to the Wexford Opera in October, before it will head north to Belfast. It's missing out. Not only is the Lyric one of the leading theatre companies on the island, regularly featuring in the Irish Theatre Awards, but the company has its home in one of the best theatre complexes.

Just two hours from Dublin, with an all-night hourly bus service, it's perfectly feasible to go to the Lyric from the capital for a show and come back that night. And it would be similarly feasible for Fay to run the Lyric from a home base in Dublin, but he doesn't want to: "I want to live in Belfast while I'm at the Lyric. I need to wash Dublin out of my hair. And it means so much to me, to be a part of Belfast life."

As a freelance director, he has been working in Belfast since 1999. In 2012, he directed Owen McCafferty's Quietly, a play about the possibility of reconciliation in the north, for the Abbey (it was extremely successful), and immediately followed that with a seminal early play about sectarian division, Mixed Marriage by St John Ervine, for the Lyric. So when the opportunity of running the Lyric came up, he felt he had effectively taken a crash course in the north's community politics.

Fay has been prominent in Dublin theatre since the early 1990s, founding both Bedrock and the Dublin Fringe Festival and going on to work extensively at the Abbey. "I always wanted to direct, always had that grá. I wanted to investigate the world through putting on shows."

In his early twenties, with Bedrock using Fás schemes to put on shows, he realised that directing could actually be a career. Later, at the European Directors' School, his eyes were opened by "how seriously other cultures (especially from eastern Europe) took theatre; how it was part of the fabric, not only of the culture, but also of the politics".

Fay delved into the European avant-garde with Bedrock but he has always kept a shrewd eye on the audience, and was able to deliver mainstream as well as fringe theatre. At the Abbey last year, he brought an engaging (and appropriate) music-hall quality to The Risen People; previously, he brought a necessary light touch to the Abbey's series of Sam Shepard plays. The Lyric will presumably be hoping that he can bring some of the success of Ross O'Carroll Kelly with him too – he has directed each of the three of those plays so far. Despite such success, he realised in his thirties that "directing in Ireland was a lemming's career": at some point, most directors run over the cliff, exhausted by lack of opportunity and security. Bedrock lost its Arts Council funding, as part of a cull of independent companies provoked in part by austerity and in part by a desire to forge a new model for the sector.

"I felt like I was starting again, a bit, in this career," he recalls. It was a disconcerting realisation for a man turning 40, but in retrospect he sees there was opportunity in the crisis. "It strengthened me. I became less worried about what people thought."

The trick will be to draw on that resilience as he navigates the cultural and political challenges of a new theatre in a new city, yet to still keep a shrewd eye on what the audience does think. His first test comes with his first production, in August, when Selina Cartmell directs Punk Rock by Simon Stephens. In the meantime, the New Theatre's production of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which Fay directed, is playing the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris next Friday and Saturday (www.centreculturelirlandais.com).

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