When Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre opened its doors in 1990, few would have dreamt it would become one of Ireland's leading venues for performing and visual arts, or that the tiny building would find such success that Meryl Streep would come just to visit. Then again, the OMAC has always been full of surprises.
‘One of the things you can say about the OMAC is that it is one of those few situations where size and significance are not related,’ says director Anne McReynolds, looking back on the art centre's history.
From the outset the OMAC was unique on Belfast's cultural landscape. By dedicating part of the ground floor as gallery space, the OMAC was closer in identity to multimedia arena than an average arts centre. This innovation was coupled with the introduction of an education and outreach programme, which made an immediate impact on the local community.
‘When the OMAC started the Outreach programme it was seen as almost radical,’ McReynolds insists. ‘Now all the theatres have one, but the OMAC was doing this long before it became fashionable. We have always believed passionately in the power of art to transform and to heal - art as a way in which individuals in society can move forward with their lives.’
Refusing to be overshadowed by older, more successful siblings the Lyric Theatre and the Grand Opera House, the OMAC soon established itself as one of the leading venues for original and cutting-edge drama. To do this reguired taking certain risks.
‘When we booked Hurricane, Ransom Productions barely existed,’ recalls McReynolds. ‘This was the first thing Richard Dormer had written but when I read it I thought, 'This could really be something!' Sitting in the audience, watching something spine-tinglingly amazing happen onstage - there was nothing quite like that, especially on the first night. It was a risk but it was a risk which paid off.
‘We are committed to the development of art, not just with theatre but across the art forms. Sometimes it's just giving artists a space where they have a little bit of room to try something out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but you have to take those risks.’
McReynolds' instincts are well-honed. Dormer's tribute to Alex Higgins was a smash hit for the OMAC. Other plays such as Trevor Griffiths' Who Shall be Happy and Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs were inspired choices for the OMAC's line up for the Belfast Festivals of 1996 and 1997, and helped cement the centre's reputation as the home of edgy, quality theatre.
Some of the most intense theatrical experiences at the OMAC have involved strong actor-audience rapport. The humble size of the OMAC's stage and its proximity to the audience creates an intimacy which any actor worth their salt can exploit.
Bruiser Theatre Company, whose inventive productions have repeatedly thrilled and charmed the regular OMAC audiences, understand this.
‘OMAC is the natural artistic partner for Bruiser,’ insists Stephen Beggs, Bruiser's Company and Production Manager. ‘There is no other performance space like it in the country for atmosphere or quality of experience. It is a very special place.’
What happens, then, when the OMAC shuts up shop and moves to its new home in a purpose-built space, nicknamed the MAC? With 1,000 square metres of gallery space, two theatres (one 350 capacity and one 120), workshops, education rooms, a dance studio and a bar/café, will this new landmark building in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter swallow any sense of intimacy? McReynolds admits that she has her worries.
‘On the one hand we'll try to preserve that intimacy but on the other we have got to collectively appreciate that change has got to occur and change is difficult. One of my main challenges is to try to transfer the "OMAC factor" from here to the new space.’
What is the OMAC factor? Is it that intangible quality, the unique atmosphere that people like Beggs delight in, the aura of the venue? With other theatres in Belfast undergoing similar change, does McReynolds feel they are hungry for some of that special OMAC factor?
‘One of the advantages of there being a poor infrastructure in Belfast was that the theatres were all doing their own things. But now the Opera House has an additional small space and The Lyric is building a smaller space,’ she says - with a hint of frustration.
‘We've always advocated working with our partners within the sector and we all need to not step on each other's toes. The Lyric is a producing theatre; it needs to produce. The Opera House is a large-scale, 1,000-seat theatre that brings in work from outside NI and occasionally gives a larger stage to local work which deserves it. The OMAC is a receiving theatre, it needs to receive and work with the independents. We need to stick to our territories and work together.’
Whether the OMAC factor can be carried forward into the MAC is yet to be seen, but there is no doubting that the tiny arts centre is no longer the Cinderella of NI's arts scene. With the MAC it is taking its place alongside the big players.
Excited and proud, McReynolds confesses, ‘We've had so many disappointments over the years in the lead up to the creation of the MAC. Now, sitting here on the cusp of the most exciting part of the process, working with architects and exploring how this place will look, is like a dream come true.’