Anne McCabe – Artistic Director, Theatre Manager
Anne is the artistic director and manager of An Taibhdhearc. A TV producer and director, she was involved in the setting up of TG4, directed Ros Na Run, and is a published novelist.
Can you tell us about your background?
It occurred to me recently that I spent all my time in college in Dublin being in the Cuman Dramaíochta, the Irish language drama group, but I never realised I would end up in Irish theatre. I had a long diversion into television and making films and documentaries. But actually, I spent all my time on campus either directing, writing or acting in plays; I even won some best actress award, which is kind of funny. I remember going to drama class when I was about four so I've been involved from a young age - it's funny that I end up in this sector.
You're from Dublin - when did you come to Galway?
I'm a Dubliner and very proud of being a Dub. I was in RTE for a long time. When TG4 started 20 years ago, I was invited to join the startup team and we came West and it literally was like virgin territory. So that was my Irish language connection - that's what's funny about my present job as artistic director and manager of the Taibhdhearc. I spent my college days in theatre and then I had nothing at all to do with the Irish language in all my years in RTE. Then I was invited to join TG4 and suddenly, I had to reactivate my language skills and luckily, my fluency came back because I had been to a gaelscoil in Dublin. So as I say, if you get a language from an early age, it stays in your hard drive. It was there; I just had to use it or lose it. So the Irish all came back working in TG4 out in Balile na hAbhann. They were great days. Nobody wanted TG4 remember - nobody wanted Telefis Na Gaeilge; they thought it'd be full of toothless aul fellas wearing banin sweaters.
How wrong they were...
How wrong they were - because we deliberately went out to make it very state-of-the art and had all the beautiful Barna babes and it was a very funky place to be. I was there until I had my daughter - that's nearly 18 years ago. I tried the full-time mum thing and the full-time being commissioning editor thing and frankly, it's hard. I had a stepdaughter at the same time, so I gave it up, but kept on doing an awful lot of freelance directing and writing. I learnt the value of how to make a Euro - it's not easy, to be out in the freelance world and pitching projects and working off your own ideas and I was used to the regular salary in RTE and then TG4. But I'm really glad I did that.
It was important to you to continue with your work?
It was. I want to tell stories. I was also writing a novel, which I eventually published and I've written others, which are not yet published yet. So I think I just like telling stories. I really get my teeth into a project. I can't not have a project in my head. At the minute, it's theatre projects, but the novels are queuing up waiting to come out again. So all those years being a mum and a step mum and running a home and all that - and a dog, and a horse at one stage - I was always working on something, whether I was writing or editing, or inventing or pitching documentaries or going off to direct something. Then, of course, the staple diet of those years was Ros na Rún; I directed Ros na Rún, so that was work from August to February and then you'd wait for the phone to ring and hope that somebody might want all the other projects you'd thrown out there. It was a great experience; I now really appreciate the plight of most creative artists because it's' so hard to make a living. And you really appreciate the value of your time, and of the money. That would be one of my biggest things about Galway. I hope, if Galway gets the 2020 bid, that somehow artists will be looked after better. That's a general point that comes up again and again in a lot of the meetings, because Galway needs its artists and Ireland needs its imagination and imaginative life. We try and brand it but it's more than that, it's people making a living. The more dedicated people are, the less likely they are to think about the long term but you come across a lot of elderly artists who are in visual art or actors or performers and they haven't got housing sorted out. People just have to be looked after if they've given their life to art. It sounds like a big idea; it's not really. Art can be anything from street theatre to face painting to dance to music, and people need basic standards of living and to be appreciated - not to be thought of as somehow odd. That's the great thing about Galway; you can be a headbanger. There are a lot of eccentrics and we all get each other and that's good.
"That's the great thing about Galway; you can be a headbanger. There are a lot of eccentrics and we all get each other and that's good."
How long did you continue to freelance for after leaving TG4?
For ten years, and how I got the job in the Taibhdhearc was totally random. I had bumped into one of the board members who was one of the extras on Ros na Rún; they invited me to direct a Tom Murphy play for the Arts Festival in 2013. I spent a lot of time wondering if I would do it because it was a very dark play - the last days of a reluctant tyrant - but I did do it and I don't regret doing it; it was a great experience. Obviously, the skills are transferable; you're working with a script and actors - only the medium is different. I had to learn a lot about theatre. There's a great bunch of people in Galway who make theatre and they earn a lot less than they would in television, but they love it. There's some particular buzz that's attached to live theatre and I've met some wonderful people, so we all work together all the time now. So anyway, I got to direct and suddenly, the Taibhdhearc had reopened after five years; it had been closed due to fire and refurbished. Then there was a new manager there for a year and she left really suddenly and they looked for a manager and I thought, 'I could do that'. So I applied and I got the job and I've been there just over two years. My full title is Manager/Artistic Director, which means I'm responsible for all the artistic policy, but also managing the place.
Do you find that difficult - switching to different sides of your brain to work on the business side then the artistic side?
I think television is a lot of practicalities. It's all very fine to be creating projects, but you're always working in teams, so I think the skills from television like managing people and budgets also applies to theatre. I don't love it; I'll be honest, but I do it. I do it quite well. I don't mind budgets; they're not too bad. What I do love is the whole networking and forming relationships and enabling people to do things. I really love that. I'm going up to the Abbey tomorrow because I have meetings with them about future collaborations and I'm excited about that. I like making connections; I think I'm a bit of a butterfly. My poor daddy passed away three weeks ago, but he was such a great character. He was quite ill and quite invalided in the last few years, but before that. I have five siblings and they're all big colourful personalities and I think I get it from my dad. I'm not saying I'm a big colourful personality - I actually like having lots of time on my own - walking the beach, going horseriding - but when I'm out at theatre openings, I do really enjoy meeting people and talking to people.
I'm sure that having someone who enjoys being out there networking is a God send for the artists you work with?
An awful lot of artists - if you're really focused on making pieces of work, don't also have the time, energy or skills to go and knock on doors and make the connections. I'm lucky; I've just been around long enough - both in Dublin and Galway - to know people and to talk things through. I love putting young talent, in particular, together. It was great last year to work with Moonfish on Star of the Sea; they're just so dedicated and so inventive. Then I'll support them if I can with a tour - things like that. I have put together a project for 2016, which is based on an older script taken from a Patrick Pearse poem. It was written in 1979, but we're updating it and making it multimedia. I love pulling in my old industry if you like - pulling in the visuals, pulling in video, shooting and editing and music and just bringing it all together. I just love that. I guess it's going to keep me young forever, isn't it?
Do you miss the TV side of things?
I do sometimes - either when I'm watching stuff that's been made - like the recent Rebellion or talking to friends who are still making documentaries, but people come to me and talk about projects still. I'm meeting a bunch of lawyers from Boston who are making a movie and want me involved. Stuff like that happens. It may never happen, but I do love getting involved - film, television, plays - just ideas. I just love making things happen. When I was completely unemployed and living out in Castlegar, for example, I got involved with the community and became an activist, made videos, went to the council and urged them to give us traffic lights outside the school for example. Then I put on community festivals - the Boreen Festival in Castlegar with local friends. It was great fun; we brought in stilt walkers and face painters and musicians and actors. So basically, if I'm unemployed and not being paid to do it, I will do it anyway.
Where do you see the theatre scene in Galway?
The theatre scene is very healthy. First of all, there's the NUIG performance course and there's a lot of great young people who come from that and work for us front-of-house, as well as actors. There are young theatres coming out; Druid are very supportive with their residences and Fergal McGrath in the Town Hall is fantastic; he supports Decadent and other companies like that. We're like a subset because you need Irish language to be an actor in our theatre. There are some really good people who cross over into all media like Diarmuid De Faoite, who's going to do a one-man show on O'Connaire in the Town Hall. I've worked with him a lot, so I like to pick the best people I know and work with them and collaborate with them. There are challenges with Irish language theatre, but I've tried to address them by putting surtitles on our plays so that they're accessible to all. That's my motto - Drama in Irish, open to everyone. I think it's really important, because I think Irish gets a bad name and a bad image. TG4 has blown it all open, but that's 20 years ago and you still hear people coming out of school saying, 'I'd love to speak more Irish, but we weren't taught it properly' and I think it's such a shame. There's a very big talent pool of Irish language actors, particularly because they've come up through Ros na Rún. I think writing in any industry, whether it's film or television or theatre, is still the biggest challenge and you don't just make playwrights overnight. You can do courses but you don't just teach them.
I think we're challenged more by being an Irish language theatre, but it's also very exciting to be running the theatre because it's also a city centre venue and while our main function is to produce Irish language plays, the theatre itself is being run as a business and is open for business. So we're hosting loads of English language plays and any other language like French, Croatian, Chinese - you name it, we do it, as well as musical events, conferences. We're doing '100 years of Irish cinema', one Saturday of every month, so it's very exciting that it's a venue within the city centre. But the core business of making Irish language drama is always going to be a challenge, like anything in the Irish language sector, but there's enough really good people who are dedicated to keeping it healthy.
Do you come across a lot of people speaking the Irish language in the city?
Do you know what I love? I love going to Lidl or Aldi in West Side; it's a great shop because I hear more Irish there than anywhere else - they're coming in from Connemara to shop and I think it's lovely. So there's always going to be an interest in Áras nGael and the university campus. I think the Cuman Dramaiochta isn't as healthy as it was. I'd love to see that revived in the collage. We've just got the designation as a bilingual city - I think that's really important and really important that Irish language is celebrated as part of the city of culture, in particular. There's no one stop shop in the city for tourists or for visitors wanting immediate access to the Irish language. There's no one place that celebrates the Irish language - that's what I've been saying at the Galway 2020 Speak Outs, because I think there has to be some connection back from the city to the whole hinterland of Connemara where people authentically speak Irish every day; they don't have to think about it - it's not forced. There should be some sort of connection between that living stream of language, it should be coming into the city more easily. It's about keeping it with the youth, and not making it unhip to speak Irish.
What is your drive behind it all?
To make a living for Godsakes; somebody's gotta pay me! Joke. I like getting up on a sunny morning like this morning and being able to go horse riding. I love being out in the open air and I love friends and I love travelling. I love going to the South of France. I guess you want an answer like, 'My drive is to better Irish language theatre. OK, maybe that's my motive for the moment. But I just like life. I actually just like life. I have friends in a lot of different countries from a lot of different social classes and backgrounds of all ages and they're all fascinating. I like people first, I'd say. That's not a good answer though, is it? It's not the corporate answer? I'm more than the theatre. I'm doing a job and I'm doing it very well, I think. I've put the Taibhdhearc back on the map, I've opened the doors, people know about it, it's exciting. I'm working with loads of young theatre makers. I just like energy - people who are energetic and committed and have vision - in any sphere. You could be building a stone wall in Connemara, as long as you're energetic about it.
Who have been your mentors, people who have influenced you along the way?
I'd be going back to my original formation in RTE and there was a whole gang of really tough slave drivers who were probably famous then. I trained at a very early age as producer/director. I was very, very young so they were inspiring - fiery young men with vision teaching very young graduates like me and ten others how to make television, and that was a baptism of fire. Goodness, I hardly knew one end of the camera from the other and we were expected to go out and make programs. So they would be my mentors, and older wiser women. I've always had older wiser women in my life, apart from my wonderful parents. Teachers, or a great woman friend in France, who was very exotic - a writer. You just learn a lot from older people I think and now it's coming the other way around - I get inspired by my younger friends because they're all out trying to make movies and trying to make plays and trying to write books, so I'm kind of sandwiched in the middle. And wonderful older men. I've always in my life had an older man friend who's a monk in a closed order and an older man friend who is a psychologist and they'd be well over 80 now, and they're still wonderful people in my life. I think it's great to have access to wisdom. I don't think I'm wise yet, but people now come to me for advice.
I sometimes think I look different from the outside than from the inside. From the outside, I think people see somebody very positive, strong dynamic, a leader. I'm an Aries; you're supposed to have leadership qualities. Very often inside, I'll be feeling much quieter and not quite so strong. I think I'm a sensitive type. So actually, I think I feel different on the inside than I appear on the outside, and maybe everybody does, but I'm just admitting it. I'm definitely sensitive; I pick up vibes. I have a nose like a bloodhound. I like communing with nature and going to the hills of Wicklow where I find inspiration. I had a cottage there once and I did a lot of walking in the hills and forests on my own. I wrote my book there, 'Under the Avalanche'.
So how is the writing of your next novel going?
Well, I keep saying I'll do a little bit every day and then life takes over, so I think I associate writing with being at peace and being in the woods and being away from everyone. Maybe it's not realistic right now.
Is that how you wrote your first novel - at peace, in the countryside?
No! I was breastfeeding a young baby, and trying to hammer away on the computer. What I used to do was bring her to a very nice woman's house who minded other children for four hours a day and sat at my desk. You have to glue yourself to the seat, not put on the washing and do all the things you distract yourself with, and just do it. And I did it, because it was in my head all the time and it had to come out. It just got bigger and bigger until it came out. I spent a long winter writing it, and then I hit a wall; there was an illness in the family and death in the family, and I was very tired because my child was two and I was breastfeeding - until I got sense and gave that one up. It kind of went undercover for about 8 years and I eventually took it out and revised it and sent it out again and actually self published the first edition, but it went so well that a publisher invested in it and did another edition. I do fancy myself being a writer in New York with an agent and I do think 'Under the Avalanche' could do well in America. I'm putting that out there - that's the strong outside me saying that and now I want the inside to follow! The ideas are there and it will come together some day.
"The more dedicated people are, the less likely they are to think about the long term but you come across a lot of elderly artists who are in visual art or actors or performers and they haven't got housing sorted out. People just have to be looked after if they've given their life to art. It sounds like a big idea, it's not really."
Where do you see Galway at right now as a city
I could be very unpopular for saying unpopular things in Galway, but there's a kind of complacency, and I think that's got to be shaken up. There's a kind of feeling of 'Sure we're great in Galway, sure we have the craic'. I don't like that. I don't like the drinking culture, I don't like the youth drinking culture, I don't like the youth violence. I'd be quite worried about its future with congested traffic and uncontrolled drinking and the drug scene. As an outsider, I think there are things that could improve, frankly. It needs a concert hall, it needs venues, it needs traffic management, it needs to pull up its socks and be a real city. Hold itself high and be proud as a city, but it needs infrastructure to do that and it needs to get out of a parochial, clannish attitude. I can say that because I'm a blow-in.
At the same time, I think there's wonderful spirit and artistry and I do think it's to do with being surrounded by wonderful Connemara, and the Irish language and everything that gives you your DNA that you don't get on the East Coast. There's a wildness and a spirit; I think that's wonderful. It comes out in the voice of the ancients through Sean Nós singing and Sean Nós dancing and just letting go
What would be your vision for Galway?
The Volvo Ocean Race, for example, brought a great deal of energy and terrific achievements and standards. People rose up to the mark. Volvo is one example of that. The Arts Festival is another. I think Galway needs challenges and then people will row behind and come up to the mark. You get that with big, imaginative projects and then get the infrastructure to row in behind. No excuses; you need to take almost a Germanic attitude (I can say that; I was married to a German). Just you get it done; you don't make excuses, you don't put it off until tomorrow. You say you'll do it, and you do it.