Saturday 14 December 2019

Beautiful dream of city of culture: the city as stage

Tom Swift offers a unique vantage point on Limerick
Tom Swift offers a unique vantage point on Limerick

Colin Murphy

Limerick readers are advised to gather at the old Belltable Arts Centre on O'Connell Street on any evening between now and next Sunday, at one of three start times: 6pm, 7.30 and 9pm.

From there, you will be lead a short walk to a secret location where you will get a unique "vantage point" on the city, as part of Beautiful Dreamers, a City of Culture collaboration between theatre companies Performance Corporation and Anu Productions. (Book tickets at www.beautiful-dreamers.com.)

Writer Tom Swift (of the Performance Corporation) has been at large in Limerick over the past year, interviewing people and creating characters, scenes and dramas out of their testimonies. Director Louise Lowe's task has been to knit these together to give a sense that "the entire city is at play."

Lowe wants to bring her audience into a conversation with the city; if you wish, you can contribute directly to that conversation.

"It's perfectly fine to just be a voyeur, to come and watch," she says; but the audience will have the opportunity to respond too.

The enigmatic aura is deliberate. "It's really hard to describe without giving too much away." No matter: based on Lowe's track record (allied to that of Swift and the Performance Corporation), this will be a must-see.

A fourth-generation inner-city Dubliner, Lowe left school early and married at 18. By her mid twenties, she was back in education, studying drama at Trinity and then in Maynooth, where, on her first day, she fell out spectacularly with a classmate over the question, "what is art?"

Next, she went to one of London's top theatre schools, Central, to train as a director. She joined the Abbey as an assistant director but left to set up Anu Productions with designer Owen Boss - her one-time Maynooth antagonist.

As Anu, they quickly made a name for themselves producing site-specific theatre. But Lowe sensed she was missing something.

"I felt I was making massive projects but the core idea was being lost." So she approached performance artist Amanda Coogan and asked Coogan to mentor her.

At Coogan's performances, Lowe had felt that "me being there mattered." Coogan achieved a "communion with her audience" that Lowe sought in her own work.

That insight led to the Monto Cycle, a sequence of four shows staged in "real" locations in Dublin's north inner city. Each show played to just a handful of people at a time, with audience members often separated.

"We were trying to create an experience that felt real for the audience," says Lowe. "I wanted to create moments when they could be themselves in that environment, and not feel like other people were watching."

The only downside to the Monto Cycle was that its nature precluded it from playing to large audiences. But Lowe also has ambitions to make work on an "epic" scale.

Last year, Anu won a tender to create a work in a preserved tenement building on Henrietta Street. A collaboration between Dublin City Council, the Irish Heritage Council and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Dublin Tenement Experience was a superb fusion of the diverse interests and resources of its collaborators.

The "experience" was artistically challenging and historically authentic, and yet viable as a work for a mainstream and tourist audience.

Some theatre folk might be dismissive of "museum interpretation." Not Lowe. "Audiences are audiences," she says. She was thrilled to reach "an entirely different demographic" with the show. That kind of ambition helped Anu reach a total audience of 38,000 people in 2013.

In January, Anu will go a step further in terms of scale and venue when they take up a three-month residency at Collins Barracks. Working with the National Museum and National Archives, they have been granted access to the original dorms of Irish soldiers who shipped out to Gallipoli in 1915.

That's the unique combination that you get with Anu: historical insight; exciting artistry; and an intimate theatrical encounter with something previously hidden.

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