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Blazing a trail for Irish theatre

Last update - Thursday, August 28, 2008, 00:00 By Metro Éireann

In the latest instalment of Metro Éireann’s MEET THE BOSS, SANDY HAZEL speaks to Joe Devlin, director of the Dublin-based non-profit Focus Theatre.

Being director, producer, teacher, trainer and fundraiser for Focus Theatre, a small but influential theatre company in Dublin, Joe Devlin has probably the most interesting job in Ireland. From a young age, Devlin has loved performance – theatre, art and drama.

His involvement grew throughout his school years, and his subsequent degree in theatre studies at Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moore University) was followed by the type of career that just cannot be planned. “I started at the Edinburgh Festival and from there was invited to the Lyric in Belfast,” Devlin recalls. “I then started a writers’ development company to encourage new writing for theatre.” Experience in eastern Europe would follow, with Bulandra Theatre Company in Romania, before he moved on to the assistant director position at the Abbey in Dublin.

The next step for Devlin was to set up his own production company, Rattlebag, which toured classic plays throughout Ireland. “I had worked on a production of Julius Caesar in eastern Europe which was based on the communist regime and I wanted to relocate the concept to an Irish setting,” he says. Devlin’s production – based loosely on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and set in Dublin Castle – was critically acclaimed, and its success enabled him to secure Arts Council grants.

Focus Theatre, on Pembroke Lane just south of Dublin’s city centre, was Devlin’s next step, and after six years is currently in the middle of branding and consolidating the small theatre and expanding on its achievements.

A typical day for this director includes organising courses, meeting architects, overseeing new productions, fundraising and arts administration. But Devlin doesn’t feel that such work is interfering with the creative side of things.

“I actually love it,” he says. “I have found that I am good at the meeting people, hustling for funding, making the plans and then driving them forward. It is a great buzz.” Devlin explains that Focus, as a charity, can present specialised training to both new talent and also to artists and actors who “already have careers in the business.”

Many significant theatre actors and artists have come through the ranks at Focus,” says Devlin. “Gabriel Byrne, who is our patron; Tom Hickey; Bairbre Ní Caoimhe from Calypso; and Joan Bergin, who has just won an Emmy for her costume design on the Tudors, are just a few.” Stanislavski training methods, voice coaching, an international network and cross-border initiatives are all part of the education programme that Focus provides. Devlin says that the theatre does not create careers but gives access to training, which is the start.

Fees depend on the level and intensity of the courses on offer at any given time – some are even free. “We are doing a weeklong workshop at the Lab in Foley Street funded by Dublin City Council, so we can offer this as a free course, which is a gift. It is for aspiring actors and professional actors and will be available by CV application to us.” A major fundraising campaign will start in November, orchestrated by Devlin. “We will be selling bricks, seats, manuscripts; visual artists are donating limited editions.

We are going to work with The Ireland Funds in the States and with corporate sponsors too. “There is a lot of goodwill out there for our theatre but we will be looking for a considerable amount of money to match the €1.3m funding from Government for a contemporary new theatre to house community arts, training and experimental theatre.”

Devlin is also keen to make inroads into developing theatre within the new communities in Ireland. “I think that if any type of community is not availing of theatre or coming to shows, then it is up to the theatre to take it into the communities,” he says. So, with all of Devlin’s responsibilities, what is the hardest part of the job? “Dealing with emails,” he says. “A dozen phone calls and 50 e-mails need to be balanced so they don’t take up all your time.” And the best part? “Knowing that what we do can touch people, elevate them and make them happy.” The Writers Guild of Great Britain have acknowledged the work of Focus Theatre in encouraging new theatrical talent, and will present Joe Devlin with an award for his company’s achievements at the Old Vic in London next month.

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