With a number of false dawns, The Complex at Arran Street East finally opens the doors to its public this month. Vanessa Fielding, Artistic Director of this new live arts centre, untangles the story.
Can you explain a little of the road you’ve travelled so far with The Complex? When and where did it start, why did it move and what lead to this latest move?
It started in 1992, when the concept for building a theatre in the round was hatched between a group of Dublin-orientated theatre artists, after a base was created in the Ormond Multi-Media Centre, now the Morrison Hotel. Much of Dublin’s northside was derelict, and yet was populated by some large disused warehouses which would be extremely suitable for a new theatre. Both The Abbey and The Gate were situated on the northside and were buoyant, with new-found international attention on established Irish theatre and its transfer abroad. It was not good timing to create a new kind of venue in theatreland, though better timing in terms of the property market.
After identifying a site off Bachelor’s Walk that seemed to be vacant, I persuaded the London owners to sell it and an Irish developer to buy it. The plan relied on State funding for fit out. After some months it became clear that the creation of Temple Bar as the Cultural Quarter had swallowed up the Dublin allocation and regrettably the project collapsed. There is some consolation to this disappointment in that it did eventually become The Academy.
I continued working in ‘site specific theatre’, transforming sites into temporary spaces for theatre with productions of ‘Green’, in the North Dublin Brewing Company, ‘Fontamara’ in the Old Riding School, Collins Barracks and ‘Piaf’ in the Law Society, all in Dublin 7 and all immersive. My attention was then diverted to the Fishmarket, owned by Dublin City Council and soon I entered into a partnership with Terry Devey, who had successfully developed the East side of Smithfield. After months of planning, and a stunning proposal including oyster bars and fish restaurants, this project went into a competitive tendering process and was unsuccessful.
I took stock and instead of top down, decided to go from the bottom up. In 2008 a project application to the Arts Council was successful and enabled my now extended team to plan a production of a new play ‘Complexity’, as part of a project developed with Dublin AIDS Alliance, in a set of vacant units on Smithfield Square. It was designed in a promenade setting in which the audience walked around like on a film set, guided by ushers towards the action, never interacting but viewing the story as it unfolded. With the kind permission of their owner Chris Kelly, we had been given access to the ground floor units, with the intention of staying for the duration of the production. During those four months, the property market crashed.
We made a caretaker’s proposal to Chris but decisions were not being made as the units changed ownership and we stayed for over two more years. All the infrastructure had been temporary, including electricity, so a fundraiser was held in Vicar St, led by Tommy Tiernan and Hector Ó hEochagáin, with other notable acts, conceived at Tommy’s wedding! The basics were installed and grants were forthcoming from the Department and the Council. Artists started booking and the programme became busy. It was starting to become real and we were flying, in an alternative space with room to experiment with staging and audiences. I directed ‘Iron’ and ‘On the Batter’. Rent was offered to NAMA but it was nowhere near a commercial level. It was guerrilla tenancy but we were not displacing anyone, so no harm. Then we were evicted.
We moved into premises on Benburb Street, converting two old shops and an unfinished legal office into a temporary base. And as we looked over the road, there facing us was a disused homeless shelter in Ellis Court, beside an old hostel for single men owned by the Council. We embarked on a feasibility study with their support and presented a beautiful plan to include 40 artist studios, a large open plan venue, a shop and a roof top restaurant with panoramic views over the City, with a commercial investment of €1 million. The homeless crisis escalated dramatically and the new City Manager called it, diverting its use to emergency accommodation as we were on the precipice of signing lease terms. It was a desperate blow after a year of consistent work but we couldn’t argue with the cause.
A week later I had a viewing in Keeling’s fruit factory in Little Green Street. Like all good crises, there are redeeming factors and from this one was our introduction to Brian Montague, a businessman and restaurant owner who had an interest in the rooftop restaurant at Ellis Court. He became our Chair and a Board of prominent directors was assembled. Together and with the help of Dublin City Council, The Complex was reborn in Little Green Street where we remained for four years. And we rocked it.
You received the keys for this incredible new venue a couple of years ago now. What happened that it’s only opening now?
We had a ten-year lease with Keelings and a penalty was applied for breaking it early, so we had some money to put towards a new place. It is hard to find a very large warehouse at double height with no pillars in the city centre for an arts-affordable rent!
One morning a fruit trader came running into the Complex, passing through a rehearsal, to give me the urgent news that the Smyths family were closing their factory around the corner and he had their number for me. It was a giant series of warehouses, in desperate condition but perfect in principle. It had to happen. And board members Brian Montague, Dick Gleeson and Tom Walsh made it happen, together with the generous response of the Smyth family. But only for three years. We weighed up the gamble but what were our choices, as our tenancy was being curtailed and we would shortly be homeless, facing extinction?
The gamble was taken, in the awareness that significant money would be required to get through planning regulations and fire, and we would not be able to inhabit it for months whilst due process took its course. For nine months, we had both venues at double rent. Planning permission was granted for change of use. But a fire certificate was refused twice incurring harmful delays. TUD rescued the studio artists, offering them temporary accommodation for the intervening months and Dublin City Council once again assisted us with a subvention to help with the rent.
As the situation became prohibitively precarious, it was resolved and the refurbishment works could begin, but it took eighteen months, nearly half the life of the tenancy. In the wake of the property downturn now, our lease is going to be extended which is a fortunate coincidence. But short-term leases are the reality of The Complex and arts organisations that are not State institutions.
What do you think The Complex brings over other venues in the city?
The Complex is a much-needed addition to some of the very fine venues in the City, offering a place ‘where art lives’. It is the only arts centre with a significant number of artist studios together with a gallery and a large performance venue. And it is the only live arts venue in the north west inner city.
The performance space is open plan, fully versatile with options to design alternative settings by using modular seating and stages. That is different to nearly all Irish theatres that have fixed seating with a cumbersome and expensive cost to altering the ‘end on’ configuration. It has height for circus, circumference for theatre in the round, traverse, promenade and access from the street for kit and even car launches. Its programme is mixed with makes and hires, arts and events, theatre, music, opera, contemporary dance, dance nights and commercial shoots. Stuff that is in touch and has value.
The gallery is also unique in that it has a distinct aesthetic and is not a traditional white cube. Retaining its original features was a choice led by the VA Manager Mark O’Gorman who curates its mix of commissions and hires.
All the spaces have a raw industrial character and play their part in the exposure of the work, without being over-bearing.
Why, even in these wild Covid times, do you feel it’s important for the venue to push forward and open?
Because humans are creatures of habit and we will soon be conditioned to home-driven routines, afraid to mix and engage in experiences outside our immediate, domestic control.
You’ve made a point of creating a space to perform, showcase and celebrate but also a place of creation and exploration with the various artist studios. Why was that important to you? How’s it all working out with them all?
The studios are all occupied and always full. There is 24-hour access and both individual and communal space. Paul McGrane is the VA Co-ordinator and he manages the studios and selects the artists. It currently houses 36 artists of all disciplines.
We try to keep it pure arts rather than creative businesses, mixed practice and mid-career, so that the artists are not just from one discipline and are work focused. Some work privately and others wish to show in the Complex. There is a personal dimension to most things and so there is an element of family.
We also run the Art Factory, supporting outside artists, based on the quality of the idea, funded by the Arts Council. Last year five really strong projects were selected for development and we hope to show them in 2021.
3 people, groups or collective you believe we will see great things from the coming years? Who’s bubbling on the streets and about to spill over into the public consciousness.
It’s also really important to you to involve those in the local community. Why is this so important to you and the venue and how do you go about engaging and involving people in what usually can be seen as quite an opaque world?
There is nothing as rewarding as the joy of an audience of people from varied backgrounds, reacting to the experience of one story. Everyone is entitled to it and should have access to it. But some have a few steps to take before they understand that theatre, dance, opera and circus are just stories about people, people like us all, and no more complicated. Engagement is an important way of conveying that message via workshops in local social projects.
We also run Complex Youth Theatre, now in its eleventh year, led by Anthony Goulding. A performance space without traditional physical divisions is also a great way of offering accessibility.
It’s been a wild ride to get to this moment, a journey many would have given up long before you. Can you explain your motivation and drive, that special something inside, that made it so it would open rather than submitting to all the forces that you endured along the way?
I am driven by an impulse to make it and it is unavoidable. I have tried to avoid it but it won’t go away! It is not even an ambition but more of an inevitability.
It cannot have been without its anxiety so do share your means of decompressing and dealing with the pressure and challenge… is it a stiff drink, a book or podcast or other works, maybe you just like to go for a walk?
I have a few kids and we walk and talk in the Hellfire, watch films, sing to the telly, drink and laugh.
Who can use The Complex and what for? Give me a snapshot of what your ideal use looks like and how people can best get in touch to book in and start making magic happen.
The ideal use is a mad, eclectic mix of creative work. Ideally I would like at least 5 x festivals including Fringe, 8 x theatre productions including one of my own, one opera, three contemporary dance works, two very large visual art exhibitions, 20 music gigs, 10 club nights, 40 corporate events, 5 x branding launches, 25 x commercial shoots and many sundries in the main venue. People can email me at Vanessa@thecomplex.ie for a viewing and specs.
If you were to sum up the journey so far in one famous quote, what would that be?
The journey has been like getting on a bus with no number on the front but facing the right way.
Words: Richard Seabrooke
Photos: Derek Doyle
Richard Seabrooke is a board member of The Complex