Saturday 20 January 2018

Theatre: No looking back for a 'fab at 50' Project

Wilde stuff: Pan Pan rehearsing 'The Importance of Nothing' which runs as part of Project 50
Wilde stuff: Pan Pan rehearsing 'The Importance of Nothing' which runs as part of Project 50

Maggie Armstrong

This November we're left with little option but to join the love-in at Project Arts Centre. It would be more fun to talk through the low points of Dublin Theatre Festival, or chew apart the recent ousting of the brilliant Emma Rice from Shakespeare's Globe.

But a rare thing is happening in Temple Bar. Project is marking 50 years in existence. A special season, Project 50, features new work from theatre, music and dance veterans including Rosaleen McDonagh, Roger Doyle, Olwen Fouéré, John Scott, Jean Butler and Pan Pan (who we'll get to). Unscrew that Prosecco, Project, it is amazing you survived Ireland.

In November 1966, a group of men and Edna O'Brien (does that combination sum up the 1960s?) created a three-week festival at the Gate, Project 67. Pinter plays were put on, Luke Kelly performed, a PR stunt went off as O'Brien carried copies of her banned books through airport customs before chairing a debate on censorship with Hugh Leonard.

Artistic freedom was a core virtue of Project, which lived a gypsy life in found spaces on the north side until the late 1990s, when it settled on East Essex Street, with a steady income from the State.

What's really striking is how the aims and vision of its founders - who are now in their 70s and 80s or have died - match those of Project today. In November 1966, the late theatre director Jim FitzGerald planned for a theatre "based on an aesthetic, rather than box office", one which had "room for every cross-fertilisation process". Project 67 would be "a theatre in which everything happens all the time". A theatre which "has to be what everyone else isn't".

Half a century on, that vibe gets under your skin when you walk through the doors. Everything happens here, all the time. You won't warm to every piece of contemporary dance, experimental opera, post-dramatic situation, dark comedy, recherché post-show discussion, obfuscatory concept album or drunk old guy you meet there - but at least Project is what everyone else isn't.

Throw in pride and politics in 2016 -because there can't be another State-funded building whose man in charge (Cian O'Brien) has a double life in drag, or one that had 'Repealthe8th' painted in cheerful pop-art across its front, and drew more criticism for painting over it than for having it up there in the first place.

So to Pan Pan, the signature dish of the season. Gavin Quinn, artistic director of Pan Pan, says that Project is not just his favourite theatre, "it's the only one", or at least, "it's the only one where you can do whatever you want".

When Pan Pan formed in 1991, most theatre in Dublin was literary theatre - "acting from the neck up", Quinn remembers. In 1994, Project gave Pan Pan a stage to produce their "deaf opera", Martin Assassin of his Wife, in the old premises on East Essex Street. "There was a bucket that held the drips as they came through the ceiling. It was more rough and ready, but had a great atmosphere.

"There was a sense of it being a public space, not a private space. It's a centre, a kernel, a beacon."

Pan Pan have since staged an enormous amount of work at Project, who have now asked them to curate 'One Time Season', with four pieces by the Brussels-based company Random Scream, and Pan Pan's new comedy, The Importance of Nothing, inspired by Oscar Wilde. The cast include Mark O'Halloran, Andrew Bennett, Una McKevitt, Judith Roddy and Dylan Tighe. It is set in an anti-homophobic therapy workshop in a modern-day prison. Quite.

Like you get on a good night at Project, Pan Pan's work is often unpredictable, always offbeat. They previously set A Midsummer Night's Dream in a nursing home. For Beckett's radio play All that Fall, they sat the audience in rocking chairs (it heads to the Duke Theatre on Broadway next week). For Beckett's Cascando, they put everyone in black capes and headphones and created a tunnel, an experience very close indeed to death.

As for The Importance of Nothing, Quinn says "it's not a commercial show, it's an experiment" and "a more contemporary form of comedy".

One question for Pan Pan, and for Project at age 50. Why this relentless urge to push the form forward, to create the uncreated? Novelists aren't expected to reinvent writing every time they start typing.

"We don't want to repeat ourselves," says Quinn. "That would be a museum. It's easy to just go and put on the same things. You're trying to keep ahead of theatre, make it interesting for an audience."

Why, I ask.

"The theatre is more conservative than the audience - it's not the opposite way around."

'One Time Season' takes place on November 12 to 19 at Project Arts Centre

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