Sunday 21 January 2018

Michael Colgan: 'I'm a traditionalist ... I don't want to see Torvald from A Doll's House in spandex and a cape'

As he prepares to exit stage left, Gate Theatre chief Michael Colgan tells our reporter why, after 33 years of rubbing people up the wrong way, many in the arts community will be glad to see the back of him

Michael Colgan. Photo: Damien Eagers
Michael Colgan. Photo: Damien Eagers

kirsty Blake Knox

There are a lot of people who can't wait to see the back of Michael Colgan.

After 33 years as one of Ireland's most successful theatre producers, Colgan will retire from Dublin's Gate Theatre on April Fool's Day.

His career has been filled with many highs; there have been critically acclaimed international tours, an OBE and a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts.

He's been lucky enough to have worked with some great writers and he's also managed to keep a theatre in the black for a third of a century.

But, perhaps inevitably, he's rubbed a good few people up the wrong way over the years.

"You go from the shiny pin to the rusty nail very quickly," he says. "The Irish Times Theatre Awards people, the critics and the Arts Council - they won't miss me at all. And that's fair enough... I still have my gang."

Though popular with punters, Colgan's brand of theatre isn't in vogue with the bien pensants these days.

He says he is an unashamed traditionalist, who likes classical theatre and the "well-made play'". He likes a solid fourth wall, structure, "strong writing and strong actors".

"What I don't like are de-constructed plays," he says. "I don't like seeing Torvald in A Doll's House dressed in spandex leggings and a cape.

"Or End Game set in an abattoir. I have no interest in seeing an all-male staging of Bernard Alba, as opposed to Bernarda Alba. That might be other people's interpretations and that's fine. But that's not me - it's not what I'm about."

He acknowledges that sort of theatre show is in the ascendancy.

"That may be the future of theatre but it's something I have no interest in. And, I hasten to add, the people who make that sort of theatre have no interest in me.

"So this is a good deal for everyone," he says, moving around the foyer. "I'm getting out at the right time."

Colgan may like to stress how much of a traditionalist he is, but, in reality, he isn't that traditional at all. He pioneered and championed Beckett's work at a time when it was considered box-office death.

When producing festivals consisting only of Beckett's works, he was shrewd enough to add some glamour to the spartan texts by inviting Oscar-winning actors to take part.

He also knows what his audience likes. So, for every Eh Joe at the theatre, there's got to be A Christmas Carol or A Month in the Country.

"We get 20pc of our turnover from the Arts Council, but the rest is from regular punters," Colgan says. "They are our backbone."

Colgan is the highest-paid arts practitioner in the country with a salary of more than €200,000. Some have criticised him for taking such a sizeable cut.

"I've never set my own salary," he says. "I've never negotiated my salary and I've also never queried the terms that I was offered.

"The board have been free to get rid of me with immediate effect at any time in the past 33 years."

We wander over to his office in Cavendish Row - plastered across the walls are annual wall planners spanning each of those 33 years. They are highlighted in different colours with notes dashed down the margins. There are also posters of different productions, and stacks and stacks of old programmes and books.

"This is only half of it," he says. "I didn't want to be like a Lehman brother running out with everything crammed in boxes, so I have been taking a photograph every second day and a book every third day for the past year."

It isn't just the theatre that Colgan is leaving, it is the network of people working there, too.

"I've lit fires here, and it is very much another home for me," he says. "Leaving the space is one thing but on top of that, it was knowing you could never be lonely.

"There are over 300 people at the show and a whole load of actors who you can go down to the bar and have a drink with. So your whole life is here."

Given how attached he is to the Gate, I wonder if he was upset by the way in which the Gate board announced his retirement last June via recruitment company Amrop.

A statement paying tribute to his career was only issued after his retirement had been widely reported in the press. For many, it seemed a day late and a dollar short.

"I would have liked more, but it is what it is," he says, shrugging.

He's unsure if the board are planning a farewell 'do' for him either.

"I don't know if they have anything organised," he says. "But my gang will have a get-together in Chapter One, and then a few others pals, including Michael Gambon, will join me at another gathering - a lunch."

He moves over to his desk, picking up an A4 sheet of paper on which he has written his final programme introduction for the Beckett Friel Pinter Festival.

Upstairs, his successor Selina Cartmell is already working away.

While Selina has attended rehearsals and opening nights, Michael says their professional interactions have been minimal.

"I think people will be knocked out by Selina. I think she's doing her own thing, and I think she's going to be fantastic.

"We are not doing any sort of shadowing thing," he says. "She hasn't asked me a single question, I thought she would have 700, but she knows what she wants.

"There is no joined-at-the-hip or working together. We are very different; I'm male, she's female, I'm Irish, she's English. There is a generation between us and she is also a working director and I am not. So we are different on many levels. And I think that's a good thing."

And there are other differences - Selina doesn't seem to relish working a room in the way Michael does.

His opening nights are a spectacle in themselves. He's always shouting welcomes, telling anecdotes, giving soundbites and shoving people to their seats.

Selina has been keeping a much lower profile. When I asked if she was excited about taking over the theatre at a recent Abbey opening, she nodded politely before excusing herself with, "I'm afraid I can't say anything else for the moment."

Perhaps that will change once Colgan has moved on.

Having talked about his love of the theatre, Colgan starts recalling some of the onstage and offstage calamities down the years.

There was the time Donal McCann was nearly arrested before a show, the night the safety curtains jammed mid performance, and a food fight with Tom Murphy. There was also the infamous pigeon culling ahead of a staging of The Birds, after the flock contracted psittacosis. New birds were drafted in at the last minute, but they lacked the "commitment and discipline" of the previous team.

Lights blew during Waiting for Godot and there was even a bomb scare in the middle of A Doll's House.

"A woman called in saying there was a bomb. I asked, 'Did she have a Northern accent?' They said no. So I asked, 'Are you sure it wasn't Garry Hynes?'"

And then he laughs, leaning back in his seat. That's part of Michael's appeal - he takes his work seriously, but not himself. He has a surly petulance that's very entertaining.

Our photographer starts bossing him around, trying to get a good shot. He asks Michael to place his hands in prayer and look pensively out of a window.

"I'm not doing that," he says.

When the photographer asks why, he replies: "Because I don't want to look like a total d**khead."

"Bit late for that," is the answer back and Michael starts laughing again.

Four new portraits have recently been unveiled in the foyer of the Gate. They are of Michael's favourite playwrights: Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Brian Friel.

The paintings hang in between the busts of previous board members Lord and Lady Longford and the founding artistic directors, Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards.

Michael doubts his own bust will be added to the collection.

"I don't think so, pal. I don't think anyone wants to see this in bronze," he says, pointing at his mug.

When actor Emmet Kirwan appeared on the Late Late Show a few weeks ago, he referred dismissively to "dead white men plays" and the Gate in the same breath.

Looking at the portraits, Michael acknowledges truth in that criticism.

"That is accurate but these are the playwrights who were the most supportive to me during my career, and who I drew most heavily upon.

"I know they are all dead white men so I'm not sure how long they will last on these walls. But it's nice that I got to pay homage to them before I leave."

After the launch, several of the Waking the Feminists crew criticise the paintings, and Colgan's final programme, pointing out the lack of female voices. They have a point - Michael's valedictory festival could not be described as innovative, and it contains no female writers. But it is what it is; a retrospective of the playwrights who mean most to Colgan - and, probably, also to the Gate's audience.

In the past few years, it seems every outgoing artistic director is to be defined by whatever weaknesses can be identified - we have seen this in the Abbey as well as the Gate.

But, whether people want to admit it or not, Cartmell will be building on a legacy Michael founded, just as he built upon that of Mac Liammóir and Edwards. She might take it in a different direction, but his tenure is built into the fabric of the theatre. You can't overlook that - especially when he delivered so many productions that were both commercial and critical hits.

As he clears out his desk, I ask him what's next. There are a few arts TV programmes, and a few business ventures. He has also founded his own theatre production company, Claire Street, and will be doing more radio work. But he will be taking things at his pace.

"It's the same with older football players," he says. "You stop running around after the ball because you know where to stand."

While the Arts Council, and the critics, may not be sad to see him go, the rest of us will miss him standing at the top of the stairs on opening night shouting at everyone as they walk through the doors.

"It was a gift to look after the theatre for so long. And it's an honour to hand it over again."

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