[Against the backdrop of a backward censorship policy and a staid arts climate, Project was founded in 1966 to shake things up, writes Peter Sheridan]
It started at a time when Irish society needed a good kick up the backside. The year was 1966 and the first event took place on a November Sunday night in the Gate Theatre. The performers and audience assembled for a reading - very polite and respectful you might think, except that the work was banned.
Among those living writers whose words filled the theatre on that night was Edna OBrien. Earlier that week she had come through customs accompanied by the theatre director, Jim FitzGerald. The books they carried between them were impounded. Under existing Irish law it was an offence to purchase books on the banned list. However, it was within the law to read from such material in a theatre, where censorship did not apply.
The organisers of the event, among them Colm OBriain, exploited this legal loophole to demonstrate how backward a nation we were. The issue at stake was an important one - freedom of expression - and this gathering at the Gate was about highlighting just how absent it was in the Ireland of 1966.
All of the writers featured at that first Project event were (a) alive, and (b) banned under the Censorship of Publications Act. It was a cranks charter that allowed books to be withdrawn from sale once theyd been objected to on moral grounds. It was the McCarthy witch-hunts meets Fahrenheit 451, crossed with the Satanic Verses and moral fatwas. The paranoia it produced had the legislators fawning at the altar of the moral majority. The result was an artistic climate that owed more to the handbook of the Legion of Mary than it did to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Those who put a value on artistic freedom were obliged to bring their books in through the back door of England. But it felt like the skulking days were coming to an end; this was the Swinging Sixties and the summer of love was just around the corner.
From the outset, Project always felt like it should be a thorn in the side of something. Its emblem was a cockerel, its mission was to let new voices rouse us from our slumber. It was led in the early days by an independent group of painters and sculptors who were outside of and alienated from the gallery establishment. They organised an exhibition of John Behans work in a room above Tuck and Co, on Abbey Street. It was a groundbreaking event. Some time later, a large room became available across the street in the basement of the Metropolitan Hall. Project moved there and the gallery consolidated.
Performance spaces in the city were non-existent at the time. It seemed a shame to let the new gallery go unused in the evenings. A group of people interested in the theatre met the artists and sculptors. After a fiery debate that had more to do with practicalities than ideology, it was agreed that exhibitions, once they were properly handled, could be moved on a nightly basis. From that, the Project Theatre was born. I was the first resident stage manager, and no matter how careful I was, there was always tension between the gallery and the theatre. Sometimes it erupted into outright war. Out of that conflict came the notion of a centre that would house all of the arts, side by side, each with its own space and its own integrity.
The basement in Abbey Street was low on facilities and high on energy. We had one toilet backstage, shared by staff, performers and audience. The ceiling was eight feet from the floor, which allowed for only minimalist sets and basic lights. Yet it was a pure hive of activity and it staged plays by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Max Frisch, Peter Barnes, Frank Wedekind and Bertolt Brecht. It presented these plays in lunchtime, evening and late-night slots. In between the plays, there were readings by poets, including Anthony Cronin, Pearse Hutchinson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and MacDara Woods.
In the summer of 1971 a season of new Irish plays was presented that included my own first effort, Paint It Black. It was a title borrowed from a Rolling Stones song and the four characters in it were John, Paul, George and Ringo. It was a pretentious, philosophical piece and 30 years has done nothing to ameliorate the cringe factor. The most interesting play, however, was Journal of a Hole, written by Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, which I directed. It was set in Artane Industrial School - the hole of the title - and charted the journey of one Robert Nolan from schoolboy mitcher to inmate of the notorious school that was worse than any prison. It featured graphic scenes of physical and emotional abuse. In one scene, Robert has his nose punched by the Head Brother, who sends him off to wipe away the blood. He returns to the Brother, who punches him again because he has not cleaned himself properly.
In pursuit of a true, socially engaged experience for the audience, we had a plant who stood up at the end of the performance and accused the play of bias against the church and its servants. It was a sincere attempt to stimulate debate. For the most part the audience remained sedate. It wasnt a time when anyone expressed public anger against the church. The bishop and his priests were believed in all things. I had gone to school with boys who ended up in Artane, however, and I knew their stories were authentic. In 1971, Ireland wasnt ready to face the awful truth about how our most vulnerable children were treated in care.
Project moved from Abbey Street to South King Street and a few years later again to East Essex Street, its current home. In 1976, Jim and I took over the running of the theatre. We had a small Arts Council grant of less than £4,000. There was only one wage and we split it between us. The actors initially worked for a share of the box office. We quickly built a loyal audience and generated much media interest. The Arts Council responded with a large increase in funding. By the end of our first year, we were paying everyone equity minimum wages.
The plays we staged were cutting edge in the style of Journal of a Hole. My play No Entry was set in the tenements of Seán MacDermott Street. We followed this with Jims version of the housing crisis, Mobile Homes, set among families living on a caravan site. Our biggest success came with my play The Liberty Suit, a drama honed from the juvenile prison experiences of my collaborator, Gerard Mannix Flynn. The play was too big for our Project space and opened at the Olympia Theatre, around the corner from us. The cast included Mannix himself, Gabriel Byrne, Gerard McSorley, Noel ODonovan, Johnny Murphy, Garret Keogh, Godfrey Quigley, Paul Bennett and Tom Jordan.
On Essex Street a cinema was added and it became a focus for the emerging pool of film-makers that would put Irish film on the map, just as the painters and sculptors had done for their disciplines 10 years before. Project was at the centre of promoting alternative and avant-garde films by establishing a society and distributing the work throughout the country. The network of film clubs blossomed, but the Project cinema was unfortunately destroyed in a fire. Shortly afterwards, a second fire obliterated our administration base and left us without an office.
It was clear that Project needed substantial capital investment to put the building back as it was. However, it was impossible for us to go down that road because we didnt own the building, we were tenants. We made enquiries and because of its condition, it was offered to us at a price below its market value. Eventually we secured a mortgage and for the first time in its 12-year existence, Project had a permanent home, albeit a badly burned one. The question arose as to whether we could use the state of the building to make an interesting artistic statement about ourselves, where we lived (Temple Bar), and where we wanted to go, in the area of ideas.
Out of this was born Dark Space, a 24-hour celebration of punk rock that became 36 hours and in reality felt like 72 days. Nobody who was there will ever forget it. Performance art mixed with punk rock, film jostled with cabaret, theatre fought with fire-eaters. It was a bit of insanity that could have fallen on its face but didnt. Johnny Rotten was supposed to come. He didnt, but John Cooper Clarke did, as did the Virgin Prunes, the Radiators, U2, the Atrix, James Coleman, the Undertones and Nigel Rolfe, who was the inspiration for much of what took place in that intense 36 hours.
Following the success of Dark Space, we took on issues including apartheid in South Africa, presenting Steve Wilmers play on the torture and death of Steve Biko. In conjunction with the Irish Gay Rights Movement, we brought the London-based Gay Sweatshop and their acclaimed production of Madame X. Some members of Dublin Corporation became very irate that we were using their grant to present work of this nature. Cllr Ned Brennan of Fianna Fáil declared that he could not support money being spent on funny bunnies from across the water. In a dramatic move, the council decided to suspend our grant, not because they wanted to influence our artistic policy, but in order to ensure good and proper book-keeping. Or so they said.
Six months later the decision was rescinded and the grant restored. It was a landmark, not just in terms of Projects relationship with a primary funder, Dublin Corporation, but also as an important victory for all those pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. Project had once again fulfilled its remit of being a thorn in the side of the establishment. By winning a political battle, it had won an artistic one also. By 1980 I was burnt out and after five years of frenetic activity, I moved on. Project survived me, as I knew it would. It still remains a great idea and great ideas are hard to suppress. We had come some way since 1966 and the dark days of the censorship laws. Many more battles lay ahead and others would take up the cudgels to fight them. I salute them as I do the founders of this great enterprise, 40 years young and growing.
[Peter Sheridan is an author and director. His most recent novel is Big Fat Love (Tivoli). He worked with Project from 1971 to 1980]