As Dan Colley of Collapsing Horse Theatre prepares to address the students of UCD, Tadgh Dolan sits down with him to talk about Irish theatre, puppetry, and being an artist.
Waiting at a table in the foyer of the Project Arts Theatre, one could almost start to feel like an artist. It’s a cold day. One might say a very cold day. So cold that my navy Zara scarf I got as a gift from my overbearing mother at Christmas is wrapped so tightly that it resembles a noose. I’m waiting for Dan and as usual I’m early. I like to be prepared, so lay out everything a young student journalist could need for the next half an hour. Notepad, ready. Pen, ready. Backup pen, somewhere. Water, ready. In walks Dan, and after a quick hello, the delusion of momentarily being an artist melts away, as I sit down with a real one.
It’s been a big year for the young theatre director. His two shows Human Child and Bears in Space premiered at Underbelly during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014 to packed audiences and rave reviews. Human Child, a fantasy tale that focuses on myths from Irish mythology as well as the poetry of WB Yeats has been touring extensively ever since. Back home in Ireland Dan is working hard as a member of the Collapsing Horse Theatre Company, a brainchild of four ex-Trinity students that is fast gaining momentum on the Irish Theatre scene for its use of experimental theatre techniques, most notably the use of puppetry.
“Aaron had been building these puppets,” says Colley referring to Aaron Heffernan, co-founder of Collapsing Horse. “They were really beautiful creations for various shows in Players and they wanted to do a show that really embraced puppetry. They all loved Avenue Q and that sort of stuff. So my involvement in it was to direct it. The way we work is one of us will have an idea, and will probably take the lead on the show, so it will either be me or Eoin. Then we hash out the story with all of the lads and also, particularly if it’s me working on it, I’ll do workshops with the actors and try and get material out of them and then we’ll write the script.”
“Don’t be afraid to call yourself an artist,” says Colley. “It’s an important step in assuming the identity.”
As our conversation develops it’s clear to see that Colley is passionate about what he does. I take the chance to ask him about where he gets the money to put on his shows when so many artists can barely scrape a living. “It’s hard for everybody. I think that theatre for the most part, with the exception of these really big commercial shows, like Avenue Q, really high entertainment stuff, I’m not really in to it, it feels quite plastic, it doesn’t feel very live, it feels like the ninth show they’ve done that day a lot of the time, you know that kind of way? So, I think unless it’s at that scale, theatre is not a commercial venture.”
Despite this the Irish government has devoted €56.9 million to the Arts Council of Ireland in 2015. Through it performers, directors, writers and artists of almost any kind can apply for grants to fund their work. For Colley this simply isn’t enough, as he points out the chances of attaining a grant are next to none and the government needs to step up a gear. “Well I think if the market place can’t look after this art form then I think somebody else has to, I suppose. If it’s the government’s place to mitigate some of the harm that can be done by having free market capitalism. Nobody’s going to buy healthcare for people who don’t have money, nobody’s going to supply intimate forms of theatre even though they are good for society. So the government should do that.”
Colley is optimistic however about how far Irish theatre has come in the last ten years. Despite a lack of funding, theatre remains a staple within the entertainment industry in Ireland. He says, “If you look at Landmark productions and Anne Clarke as a producer, she’s got shows going to the likes of the Olympia with a combination of celebrity casting, such as the Gleesons in the Walworth Farce which is a show that was debuted by Druid, a wonderful play by Enda Walsh. Similarly you can revive an old play by Mark O’Rowe that nobody would go and see except that Tom Vaughan-Lawler is in it. And similarly Ballyturk which I didn’t get to see, a very abstract play by Enda Walsh, which may not have seen the light of day but in the hands of someone like Anne Clarke, a commercial producer who can cast Cillian Murphy and put the wonderful Michael Murphy in there as well, then thousands of people can see something that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Colley will also be coming to UCD this Wednesday, invited by Dramsoc to give a short talk. When asked what the visit will entail Colley lit up about the project he has been sent to speak about. “It will be me talking about this project that I’m running for the Fringe. The Fringe are turning twenty-one years old this year and part of their celebrations is to hand over those celebrations to a bunch of people who are also turning twenty-one. It’s kind of an anarchic proposition on their behalf. I think it’s very exciting. A group of twenty-one year olds will get the budget, the resources they may not have otherwise got. It’s a great opportunity for twenty-one year olds themselves, many of whom wouldn’t be in a position to get in to the Fringe through the normal channels.”
Just before the chat came to an end, I asked if the young director had any words of inspiration for those students aspiring to enter the big bad world of theatre. “Don’t be afraid to call yourself an artist,” says Colley. “It’s an important step in assuming the identity. You know, maybe I am working in a café, or on the Dole, or both but actually I’m an artist.”
Dan Colley of Collapsing Horse Theatre Company will be in UCD this Wednesday the 11th of February, 6.30pm in room NT2, Newman Building UCD.