AMERICAN THEATER | A Big Table: What the New Irish Arts Center Means for New York


The Irish Arts Center. (Photo by Albert Vecerka; Esto)

I was recently disappointed to remember that the NYPD actually doesn’t have a choir, which means that the central image in the chorus of the Pogues classic “Fairytale of New York” (“NYPD choir boys always sing” Galway Bay “) is, well, something of a fairy tale. in itself. But dreams can still come true: last week, when Irish rock singer Camille O’Sullivan closed Where are we now?, the inaugural show at the gorgeous new Irish Arts Center complex in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan (running through Dec.31), with a vibrant and vibrant take on that holiday standard (she ostensibly didn’t kick off l ‘most infamous insult in the song), she apparently had an off-duty member of that imaginary choir in the audience. Not quite a rowdy, this slightly over-enthusiastic fan at the back of the resort’s 170-seat theater periodically called up song requests and commentary, and, by the time of the finale, sang the lyrics to Pogues, even as O’Sullivan tried to whisper them significantly out of tempo. “Do we feel like we’re in Ireland now?” She joked to the audience.

The ties between New York and Ireland may have been heavily mythologized over the years, but they are as deep and genuine as those of any immigrant population of the Big Apple. From St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Tammany Hall, from Fordham University to the Republic of Ireland, it would be hard to imagine Gotham without the Irish Americans. A major bridgehead of Irish-American cultural exchange in the city for nearly 50 years has been the Irish Arts Center (IAC), which has hosted classes, hosted world-class musical events and hosted Off-Piece plays. Off-Broadway in a modest, comfortable, low-ceilinged space in a building on 51st Street since 1974.

Camille O’Sullivan in “Where are we now?” at the Irish Arts Center. (Photo by Nir Arieli)

Today, IAC made a noticeable upgrade, long underway and delayed by the COVID shutdown, to a stunning new four-story building, adjacent to its old space but facing 11th Avenue. The 22,000-square-foot building, designed by Davis Brody Bond, with theater consulting from Fisher Dachs Associates, is priced at $ 60 million. A few months ago, Executive Director Aidan Connolly and Director of Programming and Education Rachel Gilkey showed me around the nearly ready facility and told me about some of its long gestation.

It was already in 2006 that the conversation about a new Irish art center started, with the city interested in building more affordable housing in the area, urging the company to move but offering to give it the space. adjacent, then occupied by Cybert Tire & Car Care, for $ 1 “if we could figure out how to build the building,” Connolly said. The process of figuring this out, let alone fundraising, has taken a long time, which Connolly ultimately sees as a benefit: and we see as the temporary caretakers of this moment, and think, what can we put together for it. ‘to come up ? Among other things, this meant a pivot to the multidisciplinary, meaning continuing to offer a full course curriculum on Irish dance, music and language, but also presenting a wide range of author’s programs. , Irish and Irish American choreographers and directors. .

So the company’s first season in the new space is set to include the US premiere of a pair of acclaimed Irish works: next month, Oona Doherty’s dance piece Hard to be gentle – A prayer from Belfast, and the following month, Enda Walsh’s play The same, performed by the Irish company Corcadorca. Amid a series of musical, literary and artistic events, two works will be commissioned as part of a program titled Grásta: Grace in Uncertainty: an Outdoor Play by Bill Irwin and a Musical Reflection on Irish Identity. biracial of Sallay Matu Garnett (Loah). Connolly and Gilkey also expressed their excitement about finally being able to bring the Dublin Dead Center troupe to the United States to stage their metatheater. Chekhov’s first play.

Aidan Connolly.

“Our elevator pitch is always: an intimate scale hybrid of 92nd Street Y and BAM,” said Connolly, referring to how 92Y became the de facto capital of literary Jewish America, while the Brooklyn Academy of Music is known as a destination center for international performances. O’Sullivan’s groundbreaking concert / cabaret is an excellent first salvo, as well as a showcase for IAC’s new state-of-the-art theater. Reminding me a little of REDCAT, the arts hub tucked away in the corner of Disney Hall in LA, the IAC Theater is a high-ceilinged box with comfy risers on one end, a tension grid with 230 lighting instruments hanging above it. and a stage flanked by unisttrut panels that can be positioned and repositioned at will.

At least as striking as the space of the theater itself is where it is located within the four-story complex. Connolly said that after interviewing more than 200 artists from all disciplines, both in Ireland and New York, what they would expect from a new Irish art center, “The theme that kept coming back was was hospitality, and this idea of ​​a place of conversation, a place of ideas, a place where people can engage with each other. ”So, in the midst of all the introspections and quarrels about programming and “the artistic capacity necessary for the theater,” Connolly said the message that came out was that “we have a privileged social space. This led to the fundamental decision to make the ground floor a space. social really generous, and to put the theater in the air, which architecturally was a big decision.

The result: Customers entering from 52nd Street will be drawn through the lobby space to a lively bar and cafe (food and drinks provided by local wine bar Ardesia, a sort of neighborhood treasure). When they’re ready to go to the show, they can check in at a box office managed from a modular podium, then take an elegant staircase (or elevator) up two floors to the theater proper.

This inviting multi-use space, Connolly noted, shows promise as more than just a social lubricant: it will also be an event location for fundraising, what he calls “a big table” to bring the parties together. stakeholders as well as donors. In addition to the mix of private and public money that has been spent on the construction project, the company’s annual nut will likely reach $ 7 million in the coming year, so fundraising will continue to grow. be an urgent mandate.

“It’s both a blessing and a burden when you express a sense of ambition – that you’re going to build a new $ 60 million Irish art center in New York,” said Connolly. “There is a feeling of expectation: if you are an Irish artist or patron, this place will serve you much better.” Faced with these high expectations, part of the thinking of the company has been that “we could use the schedule as a variable in our multidisciplinarity, which means that we don’t have to do everything at the same time”. Gesturing towards the classrooms on the first floor of the building as an illustration: “We would love to have six classrooms, and to be honest, we would probably have a request for six classrooms. But we have room for two very good ones.

The lobby of the Irish Arts Center. (Photo by Albert Vecerka; Esto)

Likewise, he said, in every choice about the new building, they tried to think of “a primary function, a secondary function and in some cases a tertiary function”. The idea is to build in flexibility not only for the next years of programming, but for the long term. “We want this to be the kind of building that the people who come after us can get into, and we haven’t designed them too much in a corner where they won’t have a choice to execute a different kind of vision. This notion of flexibility and of trying to perpetuate it, while having a certain humility about it, was the challenge. The ambition of the project kind of forced us to really do it in layers over time. “

Time is also a recurring theme here. While Hell’s Kitchen was still at least a remnant of an Irish-American neighborhood when the IAC was founded in the early 1970s, most of that community has long since decamped to Woodlawn in the Bronx, or Woodside. and Sunnyside in Queens, if they’re still in New York at all. Connolly said he sees the IAC’s mission as serving “the next 100 years, a time when Irish will not be what it was in the 20th century, just as any immigrant culture evolves. On a meta level, we believe our role in the landscape is to create a cultural platform that can help shape that identity. “

It’s a bold, forward-looking vision embodied in a space that marks a welcome addition to New York’s cultural landscape at a time of grave uncertainty. And who knows? If a certain police force is looking for a place to train and rehearse a choir, they could do a lot worse.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he / him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theater.

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William E. Bennett