Patrick Lonergan – Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway
Patrick is a Professor in Drama studies at NUI Galway. One of the main players in the development of a new theatre space for NUIG, Patrick was also involved in the project to digitise the Abbey Theatre's archives, which is the world's biggest digital theatre archive.
Tell us about yourself?
I'm from Dublin. I went to a Jesuit school in Dublin and because of that, when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor of the Jes as part of our school trips. We also did this thing where we did a walk from Dublin to Galway to raise money for the Guide Dogs and Temple Street. So all through my teenage years, I was here during the summer, usually around the time of the Arts Festival and I formed a set of assumptions about Galway based on that - that it was a very vibrant place, it was very cosmopolitan, there was a lot of really interesting things happening, great culture, and so I always had it at the back of my mind that it would be a nice place to eventually live in.
I went to college in Dublin, got together with a girl from Loughrea, who's now my wife. I came here in 2001 to do a PhD in the university. There were a lot of reasons for that - again, I was very attracted to Galway; it's a really good place. For academic research, there were people in the place at the time like Lionel Pilkington and Adrian Frazier, who were among the very best people in the world writing about Irish theatre, which is the area I was interested in, so that appealed. The idea was to come here for three years and do the PhD and of course, here I am, 15 years later living in Renmore with my wife and two kids and a Professor in Drama at NUIG since 2013.
So what area did you go into after your PhD?
I was hired as a lecturer in the university in 2005 in the English department, so I taught drama, but I was also teaching things in English as well. For years, I taught a lecture course on Ulysses by James Joyce, which I loved because it's a book that totally intimidates people, and to spend 12 weeks with students and see them go from being defensive or maybe baffled to actually opening up to the book and realising they could read this and enjoy it; it was an absolute pleasure every time I did it. I really, really enjoyed it. The English department is really, really good. A lot of good students have gone through there over the years as well.
Shortly before I started the PhD, they set up an MA in Drama in the university and that was the first time they had really began to teach drama as such, and it was very successful straight away. We saw a lot of companies setting up in Galway made up of students who had done the MA, so people like Mephisto, for example, did the MA with us and many others as well. In 2011, the decision was made to start teaching a degree programme in drama, so I got involved in that, to set it up. We took in our first students in 2012 and really, since then, it's just been one major development after another - a huge amount of things happening. In 2013, we made an agreement with the Abbey Theatre to digitise their archive, which is an amazing project. We've created what is the world's biggest digital theatre archive and it's got everything; videos from the last 30 years, scripts from the last 110 years, photographs, set designs, correspondants - you name it, everything. So it's a brilliant project for theatre people, but it's a lot a brilliant project for the IT people as well, because they're having to solve problems about how you search through such a huge amount of material and where do you store it and all that kind of stuff. It's a great thing for a university to do because so many people think you have the arts in one place and the sciences in another and never the two shall meet, but actually, in the university, you see how complementary they are and that Abbey project has been a great example of that. So that was 2012 and in the same year, we also set up a partnership with Druid Theatre and the idea behind that was to use the strengths of the two organisations to bring them together in a complementary way, so our students get workshops and masterclasses with Druid personnel. Garry comes in to teach a directing class every year to our students, which is amazing for them. They also get workshops on set design from people like Francis O'Connor or playwriting - this year, Nancy Harris is coming in to talk in about playwriting. You get directors like Annabelle Comyn, designers, casting directors, stage managers, administrators - the whole lot. That's been very important, because we've always wanted to have very close links with the professional theatre sector. The students that we have, they're coming to learn about theatre and some of them will go on and work in theatre, others will use those skills to go and work in other things like teaching or business or whatever, but it's always been very important to us that there's a kind of real world application for the skills they're learning and the link with Druid is very important for that too.
Most students come in thinking that they want to do acting, and many of them will do acting, but what we try to do is to expose them to as many experiences as we can, so we give them a class on stage craft where they do set design and they do a bit of costume design and stage management. We give them classes on playwriting, directing and what we very quickly find is that the student you thought was going to be an actor is really good as a set designer, or the student who thought she was going to be an actor is actually a brilliant playwright. So it's about giving students an opportunity to find out what they're good at and to try out different things. The students who are about to graduate now, when I look back to what they said they were interested in and what they're all now really good at - there's a huge difference, and that's fantastic to see. We don't know where they'll end up, some of them will undoubtedly find work in theatre, some are already in TV, and like I say, some will go on and get jobs as teachers and they'll work in offices and they'll do amateur theatre and that's great too.
Where did your own interest in the Arts stem from?
Like a lot of people, it came from school. I was lucky in the sense that the school I went to was just off O'Connell Street, so every day when I was walking home, I was passing the Gate Theatre and the Abbey wasn't too far away either. I started going to the theatre when I was about 15; I was brought by teachers at school and in the first summer that I went to the theatre, the first show I saw at the Abbey Theatre was Garry Hynes directing the Plough and the Stars, which is a production that people still talk about as being absolutely amazing. I saw a show by Rough Magic Theatre called 'Digging for Fire', by a guy called Declan Hughes, which I went to as a Pixies' fan - that's where the title is taken from. It was a play set in contemporary Dublin, about people who were more or less just like me, listening to the same music I was listening to, cracking the same jokes, drinking in the same places, and it totally blew my mind. I never knew you could have Irish theatre that wasn't set in a kitchen in Carlow. So that was amazing and the third thing I saw was the Gate's 'Waiting for Godot', so that was a pretty good year. I thought it's probably always going to be like that, and it hasn't always been like that, but that's when I was bit by the bug.
What's happening in Drama sphere in the college at the moment?
There's a new theatre opening in September, hopefully, which will be a 120 seat space, and that will be used for our student productions. The hope is that it will also host visiting productions as well. There will be three rehearsal spaces for people to make work, so we'll use those for classes, but you also have a very large community of PhD students who are, in most cases, doing practice-based projects where they write a play, they put the play on and then they do the PhD about what they've done or they're exploring directing or they're exploring other forms of practice. So these rehearsal spaces become almost like laboratories for them to try stuff out in, which is very exciting, and that then feeds into the undergraduate community as well in ways that are very exciting. So those three rehearsal spaces will also be free in the evenings and perhaps during the summer. Our hope is that the local theatre community will be able to use them to develop their own work as well, particularly with the alumni companies, as we refer to the them. People who have gone to NUIG and are now going out and making theatre in the city, it's very important for us that we continue to have a relationship with them after they graduate, because one of the things we hear, and this is true in countries across the world, is that you finish your training, whether in university or a conservatory, and you've got the professional sector, but there's a bridge between the two things - it's very hard for people to actually cross. So what we want to do is try and find ways to work, not just by ourselves, but with other people. We've been talking to people in GMIT and we've been talking to people in Druid to work with us so we can think about how we can help people to cross that bridge. It's important for us to keep in touch with people after they graduate.
What's the feeling in the Drama community in the college like at the moment?
It's fantastic. It's always been very vibrant anyway - the Drama Society has always been full of people who've done really interesting things. If you look at Druid - that came out of the drama society. If you look at other companies or people, that's where they came out of too, but I think just the energy at the moment that's there is amazing and so much of it is spilling into the city. You have the Theatre Room, for example, which is totally independent of us, but so many of our students are involved in it and that's what's very exciting about it is that we've got students coming to Galway now, not just from the west coast. but from all parts of Ireland and the rest of the world. When you get people who are talented and interested and excited, and put them in the same space at the same time, very exciting things can happen. It's very hard to predict what will happen, but these kind of creative collisions that you get make the place a very stimulating environment to be in, to work in, to teach in, to study in as well, I think.
Why do you choose to stay here in Galway? What is it about the city that you like?
There are a lot of things. First of all, it's a very good place to live, simply. It's a very good place to have a family, and it's a great place for kids to grow up. It's a simple reason, and I think that's why a lot of people who come here for three years, end up staying. In relation to culture particularly, I think Galway is in a really exciting place. I know we're going for 2020, but the thing I hear people say about Capital of Culture is we're going to go for it, we'll give it our best shot, but if we don't get it, we're going to do all this stuff anyway. That's the feeling you get at the moment in Galway is that there's just a huge amount of energy waiting to be released, a huge number of people doing fantastic things. What I love about Galway is that energy, that dynamism and that determination. There used to be a thing, certainly in Dublin when I was younger in my teens and my early 20s, the kind of cliched view of the artist was the person who sat around waiting for the Arts Council to notice how brilliant they were, or who busked on Grafton Street waiting for a record company to notice them. People don't wait around here - they're actually making it and going and doing it and they're doing it in a very International way. So Druid obviously take a lead in this, where they put on the show and the show is for Galway, but the show is also for Broadway, or the show is for Japan or the show is for Australia. Galway Arts Festival is another great example - we work alot with Galway Arts Festival too. They put on Misterman, a show that is literally as good as anything you'd see anywhere else in the world. It started here, it goes to London, it goes to New York, it goes to other places as well. And that's the thing ; I get very frustrated when I hear people talk about Galway as a regional city, as if our job is to kind of be a peripheral spike on a Dublin-based hub - nothing at all against Dublin. I think what's exciting about Galway is we see ourselves as a city that is connected to the rest of the world and we're making work here and saying. 'This is as good as what you'll get anywhere else and we're a unique place where exciting things happen'. I just love that ambition.
What would you like to see happening for NUIG, and for Galway as a whole?
So, certainly in relation to drama, it's growing all the time and I think opening up our theatre space is going to be an important milestone, another step along the way. We just finished digitising the Abbey archive, as I said. We've all the stuff going on with Druid and the Arts Festival as well, so an awful lot of things that have been in development for five or six years are now coming to fruition. The question is, how do we then build on that? Where do we go from there? Where do we grow into? I'd like to see us consolidate the area of theatre and performance, but I think there's huge scope for us to do other things as well. Working with other people in the city and the county is important and building up more links with people in other creative sectors, not just seeing theatre as an island unto itself. Something I often think about is you've got people over in GMIT who are making film sets - they have a particular skill set and you've got people in our university who are looking for people to build sets for them, so it's about creating opportunities for people to come together and work together. Thinking back to that show that I saw in the Gate in 1991, I didn't know it at the time, but 'Waiting for Godot' was designed by Louis le Brocquy, a very famous visual artist of course, and it's something we don't often think about enough. Galway has fantastic visual artists working here - how can there be more opportunities for those people to work with our theatre makers and for them to learn from each other?
Also, the music scene here, in all its manifestations, is something that could really take off here in a big way. There's some great music being made here, but Galway is unusual in the sense that we don't have a music department - you can't study music here. There's a lot of good reasons for that and I wouldn't be critical of the fact that it doesn't exist, but every open day that we run, we have another open day coming up on 18 April now and I know that I will meet 17-year-old guys and girls who are going to come up to me and say; 'Why can't I do music here? I want to be here, I want to do music, why can't I? It's hard to answer that question. I think what I'd like to see is us trying to build up more of that. I was very struck last summer when we had the Symphony Orchestra here - they played for two nights in the Bailey Allen hall. There were approximately 800 people and it was packed out both nights. People loved it, people of all ages and from all backgrounds - they really, really loved it. At the same time, you've got John Grant and St Vincent playing in the Big Top, you've got local bands doing really good stuff, and you've got the Roisin Dubh. You've got enormous skill and interest in music here and I think that just as we've done a lot in the performing arts through Druid and Macnas and all the others, and there are really great organisations doing stuff with music here, but I think we could really push that up to another level - that's something I'd really like to see too.
Who would have been a major influence or mentor throughout your career?
In terms of influence, I'd be very inspired by Garry Hynes. What I've always liked about Garry's work is that she has a vision and she delivers on it. Part of that vision is to make work here that is as good as anything you see anywhere else in the world, and I think that commitment to touring that Druid has been very inspirational to me where one week, they're playing in a tiny community centre in West Cork somewhere and the next week, they're in the Lincoln Centre in New York. The respect they have for the audience in both places, where they understand that yes, your New York theatre audience might know more theatre, might be more sophisticated and their ability to talk about the history of drama or whatever, but that in rural ireland you've got people who have also got a theatre-going tradition, the amateur theatre going tradition or people who just have a sincere ability to appreciate good art when they see it. And they don't patronise and they don't condescend and they don't differentiate - they just put it on a let people enjoy it and take it as they find it. I've also been also very inspired by their commitment to the ensemble, so that in the case of Druid, yes you've got prominent actors like Marie Mullen, but it's always been about the collective, the group coming together. In our teaching in the university, we really try and embed that value in there too - that it's not about getting 20 people in a class and whoever's the best actor wins, it's about getting 20 people into a group and making them collide with each other intellectually and seeing what happens and putting that emphasis on the ensemble on the team, on the group, on the collective. That's partly based on my own sense of how to teach and my own ethics, if I can call it that, but I think Druid are the people who have made that ideal most tangible to me in terms of practice.
I've also been very inspired by the Galway Arts Festival, or as we should now call them The International Arts Festival and it's the addition of that 'international' word that I find very inspirational. John Crumlish, Paul Fahy - they're putting on work and they're just saying very assertively to the rest of the world - 'This is an international arts festival'. It's for Galway, it's for Ireland, but it's also for people in the rest of the world and they're doing the kinds of things that the Manchester Arts Festival gets credit for, where people travel from all over the world to see Manchester put on plays, but Galway is doing it too and trying to operate on that level. So I think what you have in common between Druid and the Arts Festival is that Garry, John and Paul - what all of them are doing is they're saying Galway can be the base for work that is of international quality, and that's what we're trying to do in the university too with drama. We're saying, not just that this is one of the best places to study drama in Ireland, but this is one of the best places to study drama in the world and that the students that we take in aren't just the best in Ireland, but they're the best in the world. We want people to be actually operating on that level and proving to themselves that they can, and they can. I think that's part of it - the confidence that people get when they see Druid or the Arts Festival working on the International level, it kind of raises everybody else's level of ambition and that's so important.
With regards to your students, what's the one thing that you'd like them to take away from studying with you?
I think people talk a lot about teaching and the idea that they often have behind teaching is that the teacher has this knowledge that they want to impart to the student. Certainly there's an element of that, but I also think, particularly at third level, the job of the teacher is to create opportunities for the students to work out what he or she is good at and become good at that then. One of the privileges of my job is that you do get to see people go on this journey and discover things about themselves they never knew. I remember when I started teaching in the university; it was in 2002 in my second year of my PhD, I was tutoring, where you teach a little bit of everything, support the lecturing courses. It totally terrified me because I had never done it before, but it was also a very important step along the way. During the Christmas time, I had been correcting essays and gave them back to the students and there was a mature student I had given an A to because I thought her essay was really good. She subsequently had to drop out because of financial reasons, but she wrote an email to me where she said; 'I just want to thank you for saying that my essay was well written - no one has said to me before that I'm able to write well. I've always suspected that was the case, but I never knew that that was the case'. That really had a strong impact on me, because I realised that the responsibility you have as a teacher in allowing students to find out what they're good at and to confirm what they know they're good at. So for teaching, the philosophy I have is to create opportunities and in some ways, to get out of the way and let people do it. So in my classes, a lot of the time I'm Iooking to find ways for the students to actually do stuff together and I think that's very important, particularly the way the Irish education is set up. A lot of people, when they get through the Leaving Cert, they arrive in university and they're not used to taking risks, they're not used to failing - they're terrified by the idea of failure. A lot of people have great self-confidence, but there are other kinds of confidence that they don't have and this is true across Ireland, and indeed it's true in other places as well. I'm not knocking the Leaving Cert. This is a consequence of the whole points race thing that a lot of people go through. But part of the job we have is unlocking the creativity that these people have where they feel able to take risks, they feel able to try things out, and they become unafraid of failing. If you think about the average 18-year-old, the worst thing that they think can happen to them is if they fail something in their Leaving Cert but actually, if you think about creativity or if you think about life in general, we would be nowhere without failure. If you don't fail at things, you don't know how to get better at things. Failure is a really important part of building your character and your career and lots of other parts of life as well. You have to totally screw things up several times if you want to ever develop, and like I said, most 18-year-olds are arriving in university and aren't able to do that or they've never been taught to do that or they've never been taught that it's ok to do that. So it's about creating space and giving people the space to develop and to understand themselves, to develop that confidence to get to know other people and to work with other people - that's what it's all about. And I do, of course, teach people stuff occasionally as well!
I would say about myself, certainly I'm ambitious. I'm ambitious for my department, I'm ambitious for the university, I'm ambitious for Galway as well. I think in all of the work that I do, what I try to do always is to find gaps, so the first book that I wrote was about International theatre being performed in Ireland and it was based on my observation that when you go to theatre, a lot of the plays you'd see would be by Irish people, but a lot of the plays are by international writers as well. When I was going to the bookstore, all of the books I was finding about Irish theatre were only about Irish playwrights,and so I felt there was a gap there that the theatre I was seeing was not being reflected in the way people were writing about it. So I wrote a book about that. Similarly, I've done a lot of work on Irish productions of Shakespeare, because I see that a lot of people think Shakespeare is never performed in Ireland when actually, Shakespeare has been performed in Ireland for hundreds of years, thousands of times and I think it's important for us to understand that theatrically as well as socially. So the academic work I do is always kind of instinctively based on seeing an area of neglect or something that's been left out. Similarly with drama, there were a lot of people involved in pushing that, starting with the president of the university, Jim Browne, in terms of developing drama. The reason why I have been so involved in it and wanted to be so involved in it, is because I saw what it could be and what it wasn't. So I think that's what motivates me and I think that's where the ambition comes from, is in seeing something that isn't there or that could be there and that cuts across a lot of different aspects of my life, generally.
What impact do you think theatre has had on Galway as a city?
I think it's had a variety of impacts. To use a cliché, it's definitely put Galway on the map in a particular way. I'm very lucky in my job that I get to travel all over the world to talk about Irish drama. Two years ago, I went to an International Martin Mcdonagh Theatre Festival in Perm in Russia, of all places. I'm going to Tokyo in a few months time, I'm going to other places as well to talk about Irish drama. In those places, you have people who might not necessarily be able to pick out Ireland on a map of the world, but they know where Galway is theatrically. They know it's the place where Martin McDonagh's plays premiered 20 years ago. They know it is a place where a lot of Enda Walsh's work appears, they know it is a place that is very vibrant and very cultural. So that's literally an extent to which it puts things on the map, but it does a lot of other things as well. I'm on the board of Baboro and so, seeing at first hand both with my own kids and with other people, how that particular arts festival has had an impact on children. My son saw his first show in Baboro last year when he was six months old, so from six months old right up to 18, the fact that young people here can grow up in a city that actually says that the arts are important and to allow those children to make the connection to the art they see on stage and the creativity they have themselves I think is something that's really vital for this city. We take it for granted because we've had it for so long. A lot of other places in Ireland, a lot of other places in the world, don't have that. There are kids who grow up and they are never taught or told that when they sing a song or when they dance around their kitchen or they draw a picture or they write a story, that they are being creative and they're being artistic and our kids get to see that all the time. So I think that's something that we're very, very lucky to have, that the arts are taken seriously here, they're genuinely valued by people, I think. Of course, they could be more valued, of course there could be more money, of course there could be more spaces, but people care about it and I do think we're very lucky to have that.