After charming Belfast, is the Abbey next on Jimmy Fay’s hit list?
Katy Hayes | The Sunday Times | Apr 26 2015
T he day after I interview Jimmy Fay, the board of the Abbey Theatre officially announce that KPMG has been hired to recruit a new artistic director. Of course, I had asked Fay the big question: given how happy he appears to be as the first executive producer of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, is the 45-year-old out of the running to replace Fiach Mac Conghail in the national theatre?
“Is there a running for the artistic director of the Abbey?” he answers, a little coyly. The job had not yet been advertised officially, of course. “It’s a slightly confusing question for me,” he says, “because I amn’t in this job as a rehearsal for the Abbey. And that’s important. To get this job is a privilege.
“I’ve got two spaces here to operate. The problems would be the same in the Abbey, only more so. You’d have to deal with more and more nonsense. I think Fiach has done a brilliant job. I think he’s a hard act to follow, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to follow him.”
Fay’s directing credits range from the commercial satires of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to the American surrealism of Sam Shepard to new, politically aware writing such as Owen McCafferty’s recent Quietly. His work has a strongly instinctive vision which can create unpredictable energy, but it is also characterised by discipline. He would be considered a leading candidate for the Abbey job, though there are others.
“Whoever runs the Abbey next,” he says, “it would be nice to forge links, because it is important to me that Belfast and Dublin get closer. Always.”
Exuding youthful energy, he shows me the Lyric’s auditorium, where as a director he is perhaps most at home. It is a warm 390-seater, a more intimate space than one might imagine. The boardroom is beautiful, with a huge picture window overlooking the river Lagan. Four men in a rowing boat are working up a sweat in the April sun, straining smoothly against the current.
Fay marks his first year in Belfast on Friday. He has a permanent contract, rather than a fixed-term deal, and his job title is unusual in the theatre world. “The executive producer is the artistic director, but basically with the power of a chief executive,” he says. “What had been happening was that the artistic director was answerable to the chief executive, but then you end up making decisions based on money. So this [arrangement] was to me very attractive. You weren’t answerable to somebody.”
A Dubliner, originally from Tallaght, had he any worries about being rejected as a southerner in Northern Ireland? He shrugs. “Nobody’s ever commented on it. Nobody has ever said, ‘You’re a Jackeen.’ ” He first worked in Belfast in 2000 on a multi-writer project, Convictions, in the Crumlin Road Courthouse for Tinderbox Theatre Company. “I think I got the gig because Conall Morrisson couldn’t do it. I’ve been up sporadically ever since.”
Already he seems to be forging — he likes this word — a more extroverted Lyric, sending out feelers to Dublin, London, Galway and Glasgow. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh was produced by Galway’s Decadent Theatre Company in association with the Lyric, and finished a four-week run there last week. “Belfast reacted to [the play] really well, because it deals with a certain black comedy — and there is a strain of that here,” he says.
The recent Death of a Comedian by McCafferty was co-produced between the Lyric, where it opened; the Abbey, where it played on the Peacock stage; and Soho Theatre in London, where it is currently running. The characters include a Northern Irish stand-up comic, an English agent, and a very London girlfriend. This play felt like a departure for McCafferty, whom we normally associate with distinctive dramatic takes on the Troubles. It also felt like a more archipelagic, “these islands” narrative was emerging from Belfast and the Lyric.
“Dublin can be a little bit egotistical and all about itself, and thinking it is the centre of the universe,” says Fay. “And Belfast can be just a little insular, a little inward-looking. That’s part of the reason why I’m setting up these co-productions, [and] part of the reason why I want to look east and south and west, say, and bring the Lyric name around all these places.”
“The aim is to do adventurous shows and derisk it a little bit, by getting guarantees or co-production money,” he says, when I query how expensive this strategy is. “If we have a show that really takes off here, we still have only 390 seats. We’re doing Dancing at Lughnasa for the Friel Festival in August. It goes to Letterkenny in Donegal first, and then we’re bringing it to the Gaiety.”
He regrets not having arranged a Dublin visit for the Lyric production of Punk Rock by Simon Stephens, directed by Selina Cartmell last year. “I just wish I’d brought it down to the Project. It would’ve gone down a storm there. Had I been slightly more experienced at that stage, I would have.”
The Lyric recently suffered a 5% cut to its Arts Council grant, which amounts to £50,000 (€70,000). He doesn’t want to complain too much, though, because “you don’t particularly want to stand on toes”. I remind him of the cutbacks in Arts Council grants to the theatre sector in the south five years ago, which has been compared to a blood-letting. “Yes, we were ‘blood-let’,” he says, referring to Bedrock Productions, the Dublin company he co-founded and where he cut his teeth.
Fay has always had a strong practical streak: he established Bedrock in the 1990s under the auspices of the state training agency Fas. Company members were given a small payment, pretty much equal to the dole, but they were not obliged to sign on. “You could keep your pride,” he says.
“We used to say that directing was a lemming’s career and it usually ends when you’re about 40. A few years ago I was looking at who was ahead of me in terms of age. You have people like Garry Hynes and Lynne Parker, and they have their own companies [Druid and Rough Magic respectively]. And then there was Conall Morrisson or Patrick Mason. There are very few over the age of 40. There’s always an energy, a vibrancy, from 25 to 40. You need to be very stubborn as a director to stand your ground.”
Fay is married to the performance artist Amanda Coogan. She and their eight-year-old son joined him in Belfast last January. “Taking Daniel out of school was a tricky one, because he was in an Educate Together school,” says Fay. “First-name teachers, no religion, no uniform. Suddenly you have to pick a religion, a uniform, all that stuff.
I wasn’t sure how his accent would go down in the playground, but it’s brilliant. In his class there are people from everywhere — north Africa, Brazil. Whereas in the Educate Together school, which is all about inclusivity, there were all these middle-class people from Stoneybatter.”
And how has his wife settled in? “Amanda did her PhD here in Belfast. She has a big show in the RHA [in Dublin] next year, so every now and again she runs off and does that.” He adds simply: “Amanda is great.”
Next up at the Lyric will be the co-production with the Abbey of Seán O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman which starts previews on Sunday and transfers to Dublin in June. He says director Wayne Jordan has a “completely unorthodox approach to staging it”. In July, the Lyric is bringing Can’t Forget About You by David Ireland to the Tron in Glasgow. “It’s a really funny show, set in eastside Belfast; it’s about a whole different tribe than where I come from,” says the Dubliner.
“The reason we’re bringing it there is because David Ireland is based in Glasgow, and they really want to see it. We have to shine bright.”
The Shadow of a Gunman is at the Lyric, Belfast, from May 3