Gate keeper in the spotlight
In a career spanning 30 years Michael Colgan has brought some of the greatest plays to the Irish stage. He's suffered personal heartache along the way, but as Barry Egan finds, the fire in his belly is raging more than ever before
On the morning of July 17, 1950, there were no beds in the Coombe when Josie Colgan went in to give birth so her mother brought her home to the Liberties. Some hours later, the Coombe sent a black doctor to the house – to add to the already mounting drama, all the lights went out and Josie's younger brother had the embarrassing job of holding a torch.
"I was born into the spotlight," Michael Colgan – the very same baby – says with a smile. In a sense, the artistic director at The Gate has perhaps never left the spotlight since that moment 63 years ago.
He has put on some of the greatest plays ever seen on the Irish stage: the first Beckett festival in 1991, Three Sisters with the Cusack sisters – Sorcha, Sinead and Niamh – in 1990, the Pinter Festival in 1994, A Streetcar Named Desire with Frances McDormand in 1998 and Faith Healer with Ralph Fiennes in 2006.
Colgan also befriended many of the world's greatest talents – Brian Friel, Fiennes, John Hurt, Michael Gambon, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett.
The last of these he remembers with a fondness, not least going over to meet him in Paris in 1984 and the receptionist giving him a note that "Mr Buckett had called and he would ring back later." He didn't say when. So Colgan waited and waited in his room. Eventually when Mr Buckett did ring, Barry McGovern – who Colgan had gone over to Paris with – started to knock at the door.
"Barry kept knocking at the door and I was too frightened to put the phone down to open the door for Barry because Beckett was telling me where in Paris we were meeting. He rolled his R-s. So I couldn't really understand where he was saying we should meet up, but I pretended to." Despite this, he managed to arrive at the right place, Hotel PLM at Boulevard Saint Jacques, the following day. He and McGovern arrived over an hour early – "We were Waiting For Beckett," he says.
I'm waiting for Colgan today in the foyer of the Gresham on O'Connell Street in Dublin. After lunch, he takes me to the famous theatre where he's been artistic director for 30 years. As we walk up the steps I ask him was there ever a point in those three decades that he felt like leaving The Gate? "No. No. No. You even saying that sounds like you are speaking a foreign language."
Is 30 years in any job not a long time?
"Oh, I don't think it is long enough. This might come as a surprise to the people out there who have had enough of the plays that I do – or the people out there who want to get rid of me – I find that the fire in my belly is raging now more than ever before. I have a love of The Gate. She is like my mistress. There have been very strong female relationships in my life – Susan, Marie Rooney, Mary Finan, Anne Clarke, Noelle McCarthy, who I went out with for six years – but I actually have this love for The Gate."
When the board asked him how he wanted to mark his 30th year at The Gate, he told them that now was not the time for partying "but I would like to buy my dearest mistress a new frock".
"And here it is. Look! There used to be a false ceiling – we have put a dome in," Colgan says, pointing upwards before we walk into another room where producer Alan Stanford is overseeing the rehearsals for Pride & Prejudice, which has its opening night on Tuesday.
For the next three hours, he switches between the roles of entrepreneur, artistic director, impresario and raconteur with a suitably theatrical ease. "This place is rife with memories, with everything. I feel like I'm in my second home in a way. I remember when my marriage broke up in 2000," he says referring to the break up with Susan Fitzgerald, who died earlier this year. "I would stay here," he says pointing around the room, "until 10.30, 11 o'clock at night. I was just surrounded by all those things which are detritus or the tokens or the icons of a life. Then there are photographs, as you can see, with Harold, with Ralph Fiennes, photographs of Susan and Stephen Brennan..."
I ask him was the break-up of his marriage to Susan the lowest point in his life.
He nods. "It was."
Then he adds: "I have to say, at the risk of causing a great deal of opprobrium, I was blessed that I never got depression. Of course you get sad when things happen to you..." he pauses: "The problem, like when Susan died, when you have children with somebody" – Sarah, Sophie and Richard – "you have the double whammy. You get the sadness of the thing itself and on top of that you get the sadness of the children you love, whether it is because they are witnessing a marriage break-up or a death. A much bigger effect on them was the death of their mother," Colgan says, choking up a bit.
Susan died on September 9 this year from cancer following a long illness. As Colgan said at her funeral at the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar, Dublin: "Knowing for two years that what she had was incurable, she never complained, never said 'why me', was never angry. She just took it all with her customary grace, elegance and style."
Colgan recalls the day when he went around to Susan's flat on Haddington Road to work on a TS Elliot essay together one afternoon in 1972 – she was secretary of the Trinity Players and he was the chairman, so they knew each other. And how not long after they became an item. "We fell into it," he says with a smile. "It just happened." Three years after that, they got married on September 6, 1975. They didn't get engaged. They decided to buy a redbrick house in Rathgar in May, 1975, rather than buy an engagement ring.
"I think Susan and I had a huge amount in common but we also had a huge amount of incompatibilities," he says. "First of all, she was very patient."
She'd want to be to put up with you, I say.
"Well, she did. Susan was very emphatic; she was a kinder person. She did a lot of charity work and she did a lot of work with the Samaritans. I have said this before: it is hard to live with a saint. She gave a huge amount to other people."
The house in Orwell Park in Rathgar (a grander one to the one they bought 12 years earlier in 1975) always had people in it, Colgan adds. "People staying all the time. Susan was like an Earth Mother. She was generous to people."
How did you feel when you left that house when the marriage broke up?
"I know it is a terrible cliche but I think you can grow apart. I think if you look at two parallel lines: the idea that after 30 years, if there is just a slight variation in one of them and they're not exactly parallel," he says.
Colgan says that friends of his have just rung him to say that their marriage has ended but that he didn't trot out the platitude that he was sorry to hear that. "Because you don't know that the person you're saying it to is sorry." He believes that is something that has come from the instruction, as opposed to teaching, of the Catholic Church: that when you go into marriage it has to be until you die.
"I will never get married again but if I was to get married again, I'd say: 'Til death do us part – if it works.' When I got married at 25, no one said to me: 'Do you not think you're a bit young?' And when I was married, I certainly wanted it to be 'Til death do us part'. But when you're 25 you don't know what you are going to be like when you are 50. I just think there are certain things that I wish – in terms of relationships and in terms of tragedy in people's lives – that I would like to do, undo the negative spin on these things. There is a terribly negative spin that people use – 'the marriage break up'."
I ask him to explain. Colgan says that film director John Boorman gave him a hug after his marriage ended. "He whispered to me: 'Ultimately, no one gives a damn about other people's marriages breaking up.'" Colgan says he would prefer, instead of people saying "Oh, your marriage broke up", to hear that "I got married to Susan, we had 28 years together – 25 of them married – we had three wonderful children ... Susan and I danced in every room in the house ... we laughed, we had a great time together and even when we were separated we were great friends".
The curtain has to come down sometime, I say.
"That's right. And sometimes it is better to come down earlier than later. It is not a failure. I am delighted I married Susan. I'm delighted we had three children. Similarly, when Susan left us, I didn't want it characterised by the fact that she lost 'her battle with cancer'. If you want to talk about 'she lost to cancer' – cancer lost to Susan. If you saw how she held herself through all of that, she definitely rose above it."
One of the many reasons I love Colgan is that he tells stories against himself. He recounts being seated next to Mia Farrow at his mate Boorman's house once upon a time. When she told him during dinner that "it must be wonderful to work in the theatre", he replied: "I'm actually more interested in music. I love Schubert and chamber music."
When Colgan then asked her had she any interest in music herself, Mia looked at him like he had two heads: "Well, I was married to Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen and Andre Previn."
He recalls his first day in the office at The Gate in 1983 and being knocked for six too. He picked up a dusty print-out in the photocopier. It was a recipe from Woman's Way. "I took it out and looked at it and let the dust fall down and I turn to Marie Rooney and said: 'We're in great shape.'" He was being ironic.
He is not being ironic when he says the aforementioned Ms Rooney and Anne Clarke became hugely important over the 30 years. "I have got a lot of credit, but I had those two. I have had a huge amount of support from people like Jim McConnell and Teerth [Chungh] has been huge support too. They are the rock that support me to do this. To do a job like this, you don't actually have a qualification. There is no school or course for artistic directors. A lot of what you are doing is actually the company you keep, the people you hang around with, and the people you work with," he says.
"Each year I get more enthusiastic and I can't explain that. I was blessed in so far that my career path was easy. I'd say there are people who are Trinity Players now who are more talented and more intelligent than I was. But I don't think they would fall into the career path as easily as I did. There wasn't a lot of people around then who wanted to work in the theatre other than people who wanted to act.
"The board members have always been supportive. The rock in my life, as well as in my work, has been Mary Finan. To have a best friend who is also on the board... but she was my best friend before she was on the board so I am not going to try to knock her off ... " the keeper of The Gate laughs.
'Pride & Prejudice' opens this Tuesday at The Gate and runs until January 18th. www.gatetheatre.ie