Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Garter Lane’s Síle Penkert on the arts sector’s never-ending juggling act

Executive Director of Garter Lane, Síle Penkert has embraced the challenge of theatre life post-Covid and mid-energy crisis.

THE Covid-19 pandemic – and each of its lockdowns – changed many worlds, not least that  of the arts.

Live audience-based culture and entertainment options simply ceased, shutting off an oxygen supply to thousands of artists and arts sector workers nationwide. As the country navigates its way out of the pandemic, arts centres in particular are one cultural entity that have found the journey back to normality a long and unusual one, as is explained by Síle Penkert, Garter Lane Arts Centre’s Executive Director.

“Everything is different now,” Síle said. “During the pandemic, the Government and Local authorities responded to an artist’s plight by ploughing funds into arts development and the nurturing of creative endeavours as a means of keeping the beating heart of the sector pumping during the bleakest of times. The issue now is that this work has to go somewhere. The development and the nourishment of creativity was entirely necessary, but has spoilt us with output that needs to go somewhere, needs to be seen and experienced.”

According to Síle, Arts centres like Garter Lane asked the public to re-join them post-restrictions with a very significant change of language.

“A lot of us were in a real tailspin to get ourselves ready and open with interesting offerings, and in the rush we started changing our language,” she said. “We were re-learning how to engage with the general public, and we said things like “pop in”, “come in and have a look” and so on, but that was very different to what we had asked the public to do before. The paradigm had somehow shifted.

“We were asking people to come back and “casually” join us in a space that is actually very formal. Where the offerings are delivered in a formalised manner, namely booking tickets, being there at a certain time, being aware of parking, age restrictions, and so on… and now we were so desperate to be welcoming that we learned something really valuable.”

For four Fridays this summer, Garter Lane’s impressive city centre courtyard hosted a number of local music acts. It was the first major event at the centre that really tasted like pre-covid times and had a certain “buzz” about it.

As and Síle and her team stood outside the courtyard, on O’Connell Street in an area now known as the ‘Cultural Quarter’, passing out flyers and engaging with passers-by, a new era was dawning.

“We were having the craic, telling people about the music events taking place up the alleyway in the courtyard and generally engaging with locals and tourists alike,” she said.

“We encouraged them to go up, have a look, and stay for the gig. And it worked. Not because this is how we’re going to do business from now on but it’s because if we really, truly want to “engage” then we have to find all sorts of ways to do that, and we must never forget who is in our immediacy.”

That immediacy – O’Connell Street and the Cultural Quarter – has become a multi-cultural heartland with habitants originating from all over the world.

“Finding a way to appropriately engage with a new community in a meaningful way that is not ‘cost’ prohibitive is not as easy it may sound. And balancing that with embracing our national newfound outdoor cultural evolution, with its hip, craft beer consumption and associated cultural activities, is also an imperative if we are to remain constant and relevant,” Síle said.

“If we bring artists and their work to the fore, if we present it, then we also have to consider the ways in which we present it, so that we are never without the audience it so deserves. That’s the challenge.”

The biggest challenge right now is the energy costs related to running a theatre and arts centre.

“Garter Lane features a 162-seater theatre that has a full lighting rig as well as a 4k digital projector and cinema screen,” Síle added.

“The energy costs that we, and every other arts centre in the country are facing right now are unparalleled in our history. We are trying to analyse everything before we submit plans to our funders for 2023, and it could be the middle of November before we truly know where we stand. Running an arts centre is all about managing budgets…budgets that are about to be hit by a juggernaut.”

Garter Lane Arts Centre was a welcome recipient of a Government Cultural Capital Grant (2019-2022) and naturally, Síle and the Arts Centre Board made very public their excitement and anticipation around the “Building Project”.

Together with valuable assistance from City Hall, the centre’s “Studio Building development project will bring parts of that elegant Georgian townhouse (the tallest building on O’Connell Street) into use after lying abandoned for over 30 years.

The building houses six visual arts studios, a sprung dance floor, a theatre development centre and a children’s work space along with all the administration.

“We are still heavily embroiled in that process, Síle explains, “as we all know the world changed utterly since the project was first envisaged and now along with every other development project in the country we must battle with soaring costs, materials supply or lack of and shortage of construction workers.”

With a wry smile Síle added: “but you know, people always remark and admire the “improvisational” abilities of those in the arts… and I have no doubt that the next 12 to 18 months will see incredible ingenuity and a dextrous manoeuvrability across the arts sector as we all grapple with our new realities…but the fundamental remains intact, our audiences. Without  them we are nothing, so we will and we must find ways to keep the lights on, keep the doors open and most of all provide a warm, welcoming smile.”

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