Greta Kelly sat down with Caoileann Curry-Thompson, to chat about her new role with the Arts Council as development officer for Drama and Dance, what she’s learnt in her career so far, and all things live performance.
Caoileann Curry-Thompson is originally from Newcastle Co. Down and began her journey with the Arts studying Drama at Trinity College Dublin. After years of freelance work in various roles and a move to Oxford, she went on to achieve her MA and then a PhD, focusing on Belfast playwright Stewart Parker, at Queen’s University in Belfast. Since then she has taken on almost every role imaginable in theatre and live performance: performer, stage manager, facilitator, technician, teacher, academic researcher, director, dramaturg and even playwright. She has collaborated with many artists across theatre and dance: ‘I was really fortunate to strike up a creative relationship with Prime Cut having been dramaturg on their multi-award winning co-production ‘Red’ with the Lyric [which was acclaimed with four ITTA awards including Best Production] and engaged in their Reveal programme for artist development. Under this I wrote several plays, one of which I directed for their Reveal-ed showcase at the MAC in January 2019 with the phenomenal Úna Kavanagh.’
What is the role of the development officer for Drama and Dance?
To help support and develop the drama and dance sectors in Northern Ireland. That means supporting and advising artists and makers in whatever way I can; advising on funding opportunities and advocating for the arts. The Arts Council’s raison d’être is to place ‘the arts at the heart of our social, economic and creative life’. So, I suppose I’m charged with doing all I can to help place drama and dance at the heart of our lives, on a personal and civic scale.
Having worked as an independent artist yourself, how do you think that will support your current work?
I hope it will mean I am more sensitive to the challenges faced by artists across theatre and dance. I can empathise with the struggles that come with getting your work on stage and can appreciate how hard they work.
What do you think a typical day will look like for you as Arts Development Officer, and what are you looking forward to most?
It’s early days yet. There is a considerable amount of time spent in the office, battling through paperwork and funding applications, and fighting the corner for Drama and Dance in moderation meetings with officers from the other artforms. The really exciting bit is getting out and engaging with the work and the artists themselves. So, meeting clients and artists and engaging in conversations about how the Arts Council can best help them and their work. Attending Board Meetings, advising artists on funding opportunities etc. That’s all good rewarding work. But then comes the real gold: getting to see and experience the work that is produced by our phenomenal artists in the fields of dance and drama! That’s a real joy. To speak to them and other audience members and to feel part of this wonderful, vibrant sector – what a privilege!
What encouraged you to pursue a career in the Arts?
I was very fortunate in my upbringing that it was never a conscious decision. The arts were just always an integral, important part of being a human being in my experience, and so when I showed particular interest and aptitude in that area, that’s the route I went down. In fact, if the arts had not been presented to me as a viable life or career path, I would have been very hard pushed to come up with anything else to do with myself!
Would you say then that it is important for parents to introduce the Arts from an early age?
Definitely! I think it’s a collaborative responsibility between both parents and the education system. The arts are fundamental, rigorous and equal, they don’t discriminate. Everyone can be involved as every person brings their own ideas and unique creativity. Tinderbox is a great example of exploring the power of play in performance. It’s about opening up that creative world. The benefits of the arts for children extend way beyond physical performance to everyday life and social skills- as simple as learning eye-contact, how to engage with others and improving confidence. It’s so important.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing people working in the Arts today?
The funding situation is obviously hugely worrying. There is a danger for exploitation as creative work blurs beyond a career into something more. It takes unique skillsets, resilience and often life devotion, but at the end of the day it is still someone’s livelihood. Artists need to be paid to make work. We wouldn’t expect experienced and skilled practitioners in any other discipline to work for what, as a society, we seem to think it is fair to pay artists. But more fundamental, I think, is the lack of value placed on the arts by society at large. If their work is not appreciated and their efforts not valued, then how are our artists meant to continue to create?
What steps do you think can be taken to overcome these challenges?
Campaigning and changing the perception of the arts as a whole. Unfortunately, there is no visible or palpable support shown by those in positions of power and influence. People, like our politicians for example, need to begin this shift. To go and experience live performance themselves, value it personally. If they could only see the back-breaking effort that goes into making work, and the mental, emotional and physical strain it puts on our practitioners they would be humbled and ashamed.
What would you say to those who feel as though professional drama or dance performances are not accessible for them?
There is a perception that theatre and dance are elitist and exclusive, but they are actually the complete opposite. This kind of human connection through storytelling and movement is innately in us. It is natural and ancient. We only have to look at the ancient Greeks who treated experiencing theatre as a civic duty: as important and standard as voting. The stage was an opportunity to speak up against those in power and to be part of the community. Even Shakespeare was meant to be rowdy, experienced aloud, embodied. Forgot how you were taught it in school and experience it for the basic humanity. The audience need to take the pressure off themselves. People don’t feel intimidated going to the cinema, theatre and dance should be the same!
On the other hand, I would also say that it is not their fault that they feel a barrier there. There are so many ways into live performance, just experience things and find out what works for you. It’s ok to not like things- I have a particular loathing of all of Shakespeare’s clowns. But you have the power as the audience to decide what happens on stage.
Who is your biggest role model or inspiration?
So tricky! There are so many phenomenal people in the arts, and amazing women and men from this part of the world who have made a major impact on the world around us through their art. Stewart Parker is a brilliant example of the joy and triumph that the arts and specifically the live performing arts can bring to even the direst of contexts. There’s also Camille Claudel who collaborated with Rodin, her lover. She died in relative obscurity having suffered from mental health problems and been confined to an institution. There’s a fabulous photo of her up a step ladder, chisel in hand, working away on a sculpture whilst wearing a bustle.
Strong, complex women seem to have played a key role in inspiring your work,
My play Rosefrail and Fairexplored the life of Lucia Joyce, a modernist dancer and artist who was also the only daughter of James Joyce. You’d be hard pushed to find a more moving story of thwarted and undervalued talent and panache. For her and other such brilliant but marginalised people (marginalised because of gender, sexuality, mental health, unconventional behaviour) I feel it’s incumbent on us to forward the cause of humanity and equality through art.
Would you say then that artists today have an inherent social responsibility to present marginalised voices?I would say to be socially, politically and ethically engaged is a human responsibility. Live performance is one of the most human experiences there is. Unlike other artforms where the artist is somewhat removed from their audience, with theatre and dance they are right there in front of you. You can see the Dancers sweating, moving time and space with their bodies. Being generous with themselves and their time. It’s contemporary, immediate… and it is all being done right there, for you! It’s incredible! I think there is an acknowledgement that Art has a bigger role to play than just entertainment, but for me the human connection of live performance is the most important thing.
What is the biggest thing you have learnt over the course of your career?
Gosh. More and more its simply how remarkable human beings are and how totally fundamental the arts are for expressing, nurturing and challenging our humanity. To engage in live performance is to experience humanity at its most raw, vulnerable, generous and powerful. Who could sit through an Oona Doherty performance and not be filled with pride in and admiration for humankind? Who could experience the work of Euripides or Shakespeare or Beckett or Caryl Churchill or Marina Carr and not be moved by the fragility, complexity, capacity and resilience of our species?
Do you have any advice for young people or others who are interested in pursuing a career in the Arts sector?
I’d say be confident in what you uniquely can bring to the sector. Art is made subjectively, and it is engaged with subjectively. Only you can bring what you bring to it.
Build relationships. It is a small but hugely friendly and supportive sector, make the most of that. Find people who do things that interest you, talk to them and learn from them.
Skill up. It’s tough to make a sustainable career, therefore the more things you can turn your hand to the better. I am forever grateful that I experienced the daily grind of assistant stage management and TiE [Theatre in Education] tours, as well as university teaching and directing. It all combines to make you a better theatre or dance practitioner.
Also, demand more. Demand better. We need everyone to stand up for the importance of art and the artist.
Be prepared for hard work. It is gruelling and difficult. But it is also hugely rewarding.
Finally, what is a play or dance you think everyone should see?
Sophocles- Oedipus the king
Pina Bausch- Café Muller
Akram Khan- Dust
Oona Doherty – Hard to be Soft.
Everything and anything by Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett, Marina Carr or Thomas Kilroy!