MY STORY The Playhouse: a space to make meaning together
Kevin Murphy, chief executive, The Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry
The Playhouse Derry, in the UK’s first UK City of Culture, is a 146-seat theatre and multi-discipline arts centre founded by Pauline Ross in 1992 in the former St Mary’s Convent and St Joseph’s School with a grant of just £300. As well as a theatre it is now an award-winning community arts centre devoted to reconciliation and the peace process. It’s new CEO is Kevin Murphy, formerly chief officer of Voluntary Arts Ireland.
How well do you know Derry?
Like the back of my hand, I was brought up here. But of course if you pay attention you can always discover new things. I remember just before the UK City of Culture 2013 kicked off I had a tour around the local Ebrington Barracks (which I now live not far from). During my childhood I knew it was a barracks but had never seen its buildings or layout, despite its origins dating back to 1841, as it was encased in very high green corrugated fencing. Having spent some time in London I was struck by the layout of the barracks which I recognised from the general architecture and geography I had experienced in England. I remember thinking I could be in Surrey and yet here I was at the heart of Derry which is about as far away as you can get culturally from Surrey and still be in the UK.
The Playhouse is more than a theatre. How?
I very much see The Playhouse as an arts and civic hub rooted in this locality and in the needs and aspirations of people here. I also see it as a contributor to the important global narratives of building peace and social change through a programme of activities that spans art and theatre making, learning and engagement. We play a vital role in sustaining the cultural life of Northern Ireland. For some that describes what a theatre is. I’m more inclined towards The Playhouse as a space to make meaning together.
Your predecessor left more than two years ago. How has the Playhouse managed in the past year of Covid-19 and lockdowns?
Like many of our colleagues across the arts with real endeavour and courage. Before I arrived the team had already reconfigured the programme, launched a whole new digital approach and infrastructure, come to grips with how the organisation could stay afloat and weather the storm that is Covid-19. Foremost in our minds has been public health. Having a healthy cultural life is part of living well – without people art making doesn’t make much sense and without art making we are cutting off much of our humanity. Given how inextricably linked these aspects are it is perhaps not surprising that creative and cultural activities were the first to close and will be the last to open. However, they have also been the very thing that have helped sustain many of us during these difficult times. So The Playhouse team have continued to do what they always do – keep engaging people in creative activities – through whatever practical and safe means that are at hand. It feels to me that we are only now at the beginning of a long road to recovery, on a path that we have to build as we go
Your experience is not in the theatre – you started out as a musician. Why are you his ideal replacement?
I often describe myself as a musician by trade. Yes I started out having a professional career in music in London and the vast majority of my formative cultural experiences were through music. When I first came out of college I realised that in order to get a gig I had to put on a gig and that in time led to getting more involved in arts administration. One of the most transformative experiences I had after leading a small music organisation was going through the Clore Cultural Leadership Programme and becoming a Clore Fellow. This really broadened my horizons and led to me being able to take on broader leadership roles. In the end The Playhouse are not hiring me for my experience in theatre – we already have that in spades – but more my ability to enable the organisation and its people to flourish. I still apply many of the lessons I learned through music though - one of the most important being “it’s much better to be together than to be right”.
How do your responsibilities fit in with those of the Playhouse’s producer and director Kieran Griffiths?
Like all of my colleagues we work collaboratively together with common purpose. I lead the organisation and Kieran leads theatre and productions. Everyone within the organisation contributes to generating ideas, creating programmes, staying well and sharing and promoting our work.
‘Why, across these islands, we continue to question the value of the arts is beyond my ken’
Pauline Ross described the Playhouse’s mission as “purposeful inquiry through art”. Has that changed?
I think if we were to talk to Pauline when she first started she would say she established The Playhouse as a creative refuge, a safe neutral space within the heart of Derry’s historic walls to help forge and build a sustainable peace for future generations through the arts. To some degree the dial has shifted as Northern Ireland’s political situation and the situation across the world has changed. However, being relevant to the needs of people has not really changed. Purposeful enquiry is very much about listening and asking questions, about being curious and open and about responding in ways that are creative and useful. Art is very much at the core of our practice but so is going on a journey with people. The visionary part of our work is seeing the possibilities for transformative change beyond our current situations. That has been a vital aspect of a changing Northern Ireland and is increasingly needed beyond these shores.
The Playhouse was at the forefront of the campaign for Derry to be the first UK City of Culture in 2013. What has been the legacy of that, for the city and for the Playhouse, inlcuding how they are perceived from beyond the city walls?
We are fast approaching the tenth anniversary of Derry~Londonderry’s version of the UK City of Culture. The legacy for the city I think centres on civic pride and amongst our vibrant cultural sector including The Playhouse, greater confidence and more international networks. It’s hard to be sure how we are all being perceived beyond the city walls. On our best days perhaps with respect and as a source of some inspiration.
What are your priorities now?
To grow a Playhouse that is best for the world.
The spirit of grassroots community arts that the Playhouse was born out of has had a resurgence during the pandemic emergency. Is this changing what you do?
Really it is reaffirming what we do. The fact that people have turned to the arts during a pandemic is no surprise to us. I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, looking back on it not in any way facing the enormous challenges and suffering of many, which is a testament to my parents I think. However, I didn’t escape unscarred. What helped me cope and avoid other paths I could have gone down was making music. Why, across these islands, we continue to question the value of the arts is beyond my ken. When offering a funding package to help sustain the cultural sectors in Germany through Covid-19, the government gave the reason that the arts are fundamental to our democracy. Perhaps one of the things the pandemic is telling us is that the importance of a healthy cultural life is self-evident, because everyone already values it and makes that clear by regularly getting creative themselves on their own terms. We have always understood and celebrated this at The Playhouse.