Theatre in Northern Ireland 3

The contemporary theatre of Northern Ireland

Independent theatre companies in contemporary Northern Ireland
Since the 1980s, a succession of independent theatre companies has appeared in Northern Ireland. These include Field Day Theatre Company (founded in 1980), a leading originator of new writing, including works now acknowledged as classics, and Charabanc Theatre Company (1983-1995), pioneering independents who also brought the situation of women in Northern Irish society into particularly sharp focus.

Big Telly Theatre Company (founded in 1987), Northern Ireland’s only permanent professional theatre company based in the regions, has a multi-media focus. Replay Productions (established in 1988) are Northern Ireland’s best-known theatre-in-education company with a strong track record in new writing.
Tinderbox Theatre Company (founded in 1988) are devoted to challenging new writing, while DubbelJoint Productions (1991) are an independent company premiering new work absorbed in the ethos of its strong west Belfast roots.

Writers whose works have been premiered by independent companies in the twentieth century and into the twenty first include Rutherford Mayne, Gerald MacNamara, Thomas Carnduff, Hugh Quinn, Sam Thompson, Joseph Tomelty, Stewart Parker, John Boyd, Brian Friel, Marie Jones, Robin Glendenning,
Anne Devlin, Graham Reid, Christina Reid, Martin Lynch and  Jennifer Johnston. Among notable dramatists to emerge recently are Gary Mitchell and Owen McCafferty.

As well as specialists in new writing, subsidised independent companies based in Northern Ireland include organisations such as Prime Cut Productions (founded in 1992), and Kabosh (1994); the former most often staging cutting edge international work, stylishly presented, and the latter focusing principally on versatile and distinctive devised physical theatre. Their emergence testifies to a growing and much-needed diversity in the theatre scene in Northern
Ireland today.

Contemporary developments in Northern Irish theatre

Since the 1970s, all professional theatre in Northern Ireland has had to address the considerable practical issue of attracting audiences into the urban centres. Much non-commercial theatre has faced the additional challenge of gauging how, in troubled times, to create and present work which challenges as well as reflects the world around it. This sometimes tortuous process is inextricably intertwined with socio-political developments.

The work has at times been truly exciting, but the early ‘Troubles play’ genre was also, as theatre practitioner and commentator David Grant has noted, criticised for pathologising the situation: ‘though they asked the right questions, they failed to offer any answers’. There has also, however, been impressive new work which at its best has won local and international acclaim, while emerging work was recently noted to have a ‘an incredible urgency’ (Karin McCully).

This has been matched by the evolution of a significant strand in theatre in Northern Ireland: that of the community sector, culminating in a succession of large-scale and often site-specific works in the late 1990s. Created through the involvement of the
communities themselves, community theatre works speak directly of people’s needs, fears and desires at grassroots level. The rise of this sector has not been without controversy: it has sparked debates regarding the role, status, relevance, and funding of all theatre and arts work. If sometimes turbulent, such discussion has also kindled energy and interplay in the theatre sector.

Northern Ireland also boasts a lively youth theatre movement. Particularly noteworthy is the work of the Ulster Youth Theatre, which brought to the stage performers such as Susan Lynch, Conleth Hill and James Nesbitt. This continues through the efforts of the Ulster Association for Youth Drama, while a new emphasis on theatre at both Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster’s Magee campus is fostering another generation of practitioners.

The arrival of National Lottery funding in the mid-1990s brought significant new support to this still-underfunded sector, although levels of support from Lottery sources have declined in the early years of the twenty-first century. Infrastructure has improved across Northern Ireland, with more regional venues than ever.

The regional network now includes the Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen; Burnavon Arts Centre, Cookstown; Clotworthy Arts Centre, Antrim; Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn; the Marketplace Theatre, Armagh; the Old Museum arts centre, Belfast; the Playhouse, Derry; and the long-established Riverside Theatre, Coleraine. New arts centres are planned for Omagh, Ballymena and Belfast, while ART (Association of Regional Theatres) has begun to produce touring work.

These developments are welcome, especially as Northern Ireland remains a complex society within which to practice theatre. Just ten years into an on-again, off-again peace process, audience development work remains challenging and finances are again becoming tighter.

Programming or commissioning relevant work can be difficult in a roller-coaster political situation. Conversely, this is also an enormously exciting time and place in which to make theatre. At a time of change, though with society still divided, the need to communicate with and challenge people at a personal and communal level has never been greater.

Further Information

Theatre and Performing Arts Archive, Linen Hall Library, Belfast (a dedicated theatre repository focused on the Ulster experience) is particularly strong on the twentieth century period. Central Library, Belfast (where theatre features as part of the Irish and Local Studies department) has particular strengths in the nineteenth century period. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) holds a number of archival collections of specific relevance to theatre).

Ophelia Byrne