Nation to lose 'Factory' of the arts with Nama eviction
There is a ghost called Thomas in casting director Maureen Hughes's office.
He isn't alone, however. If students are to be believed, Thomas is one of a myriad of spectral apparitions who roam the corridors between rehearsal studios, critical of the fact that there's a piano in the bathroom and sofas on the hallways, among other charming oddities.
"I admit I did get the best office in the building," Maureen says as we head ever upward to her comfortable loft-style work space.
In the inner room on the wall to the right is one of those Last Supper murals. Closer inspection shows the faces to be members of the Love/Hate cast – with Aidan Gillen's John Boy pictured with his on screen brother, Hughie Power, played by Brian Gleeson. "It was on his wall in the series," says Hughes, "and when he finished there was nowhere for it to go – it's such an odd shape – so I said 'I have the perfect place!'"
Maureen's office is one of a row of buildings – facing onto Dublin's Grand Canal basin, close to Google headquarters and Facebook's offices – which currently house the extraordinarily successful "Factory".
The brainchild of film directors Kirsten Sheridan, Lance Daly and John Carney, just a few years after its conception in 2010, The Factory is now named as one of the docklands' existing "cultural assets".
In the words of its founders, it is "a place for film-makers, created by film-makers". A place where "collaboration trumps competition. A place that breeds ideas. A place with the facilities and resources to take those ideas from their initial concept all the way through development, filming, post production, audience testing and promotion".
The idea of The Factory is so simple and yet the impact on the industry has been immeasurable. Within these walls Oscar nominees mentor novices and award-winning writers and directors share their expertise.
Currently there are 11 independent companies – all associated with the arts – working out of The Factory. The building hums with creativity, collaboration and hard work.
Students of its famed Programme for Screen Acting (the only one of its type in the country) hang out with experienced actors, directors and producers, gaining advice and experience that previous students of the arts (like myself) could only have dreamed of.
They tell me that that most amazing thing about The Factory is that "all aspects of the industry are here under one roof. You might start wanting to be an actor for instance, but after a while working with everyone here, you could discover that producing or directing is really your thing".
For people interested in all aspects of film work, The Factory is Nirvana. It works because it is a labour of love.
Says Sheridan: "There are no board member fees. No company director fees. It's a huge amount of energy to make it grow while you're fire-fighting by paying a high rent. But we save money when people like Brendan Gleeson, Saoirse Ronan, Cillian Murphy and Danny de Vito all come in to talk for free. Our actors' studio meets once a week and is totally free to actors who have a lifetime membership.
"This industry can be a lonely place," Maureen tells me. "And yet it's very collaborative, it's not like painting or sculpture, where you can work alone. There was a need for this building, a need for a home for the acting community."
Practically every famous Irish actor you've ever heard of has been to The Factory meeting with students, encouraging young wannabes to get involved. "Jack Raynor for instance," says Hughes, "used to just come in and hang out so eventually we auditioned and cast him in Dollhouse." (Directed by Kirsten Sheridan).
"And from there he went on to star in Lenny's [Abrahamson] What Richard Did." (Raynor is now a bona fide Hollywood heart-throb, starring in the latest Transformers movie).
The building was originally rented to The Factory by the beleaguered Johnny Ronan of Treasury Holdings and is now under the control of Nama. In an economy where it can be very difficult to make any type of living in the arts, Sheridan tells me that they can employ up to about 25 directors, writers, producers and various artists – who come in to teach the various aspects of the acting programme and the other workshops and programmes.
Sheridan is proud of the fact that The Factory is a "rent-paying tenant fulfilling an artistic and creative brief in the [Docklands] development plan". And indeed, the Docklands SDZ plan says that "making space for artists and the production of artistic work will be central to the reinforcing the areas existing cultural assets and fostering a creative quarter".
Which is why it makes absolutely no sense that The Factory's occupants – who add so much not just to the cultural climate of the surrounding area but to the creative output of the country – have been told they have to be out by the end of August at the latest. "We are being evicted to leave the building vacant," says Sheridan.
Downstairs I chat to general manager Paul O'Connor, who fills me in on the shock everyone got when negotiations under way at the end of 2013 – which would have seen The Factory stay put for the foreseeable future – suddenly changed to "we want the building cleared".
It seems incomprehensible – and downright stupid – that a Government which depends on arts and culture to promote the Irish "brand" abroad is comfortable with giving Nama the go-ahead to evict one of the country's most successful artistic creations from a building under its remit.
The students are disbelieving. "I can't imagine how anything else could work in this building," says one referencing the fact that in its previous incarnation as a recording studio, people like David Bowie, Johnny Cash and U2 worked there. If these walls could tell stories ...
Outside the iconic building, we stop to take a few pictures and award-winning film-maker Shimmy Marcus points out the garden to the side that Maureen created in order "to add a bit of green to the place".
"When we got the news in January," he says grimly, "we sort of lost a bit of interest in it." While Maureen, Paul and Shimmy pose for pictures, I stare at the soon-to-be-vacant building and wonder what sort of lunatics are running this country. "My God, Carol," says Maureen, "you look as if you're about to cry." I just might, I think. It seems the only rational response . . .