Ciara Dwyer, interview with Paul Mercer, in Independent [UK] (Sunday, 2 June 2002)

Details: Ciara Dwyer, ‘The Cruel Business of Theatre’, in Independent [UK] (Sunday, 2 June 2002) - Independent Woman [sect.] - available online; accessed 03.07.2011. Sub-heading: Six months ago Paul Mercier’s theatre company was going down the tubes. He talks to Ciara Dwyer.

“I HAVE nothing to complain about,” says the playwright Paul Mercier, with a beaming smile. ”But if you had come to me six months ago, I was ready to hit the wall. It wasn’t depression. It was panic, serious panic. You seize up. It’s a paralysis. You say ‘We’re f***ed and we’ve got bills to pay.’ You hear the phone and you know what the phone is all about.

“What happened was we were faced with a situation, quite simply, where we didn’t have a show. We didn’t have a company. We were going down the tubes.”

Paul is talking about Passion Machine theatre company. Since its foundation in 1984, it has been one of the most innovative theatre companies in Ireland.

Ordinary people from all classes realised that they had as much a right as anyone to go to the theatre. Passion Machine launched the writing and acting careers of Roddy Doyle and Brendan Gleeson, to name but two. Like Paul, they were teachers from Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack, who began another career when the bell went.

Over the years, Mercier and his company have kept up the momentum. There was Kitchensink, a play which wove Greek mythology with ordinary Dublin characters. There was Buddleia and a few months ago, an updated version of Diarmuid and Grainne, which was part Quentin Tarantino, with its gangsterland style and part Moulin Rouge, with its dancing men.

To lose Passion Machine would have been a great loss. But it was looking like there was no other choice. Mercier talked about their dire straits.

“There are two ways of dealing with that. You can run away from it or you can go at it. My instinct is always deal with it.”

As his play Studs, continues its run in the Gaiety, Mercier talks of his saviour. ”Diarmuid and Grainne, Studs would not have happened if we didn’t have the support of John McColgan.” McColgan’s company Abhann productions came to Passion Machine’s rescue. Mercier is now a new man.

For years, getting funds and staging productions has been a relentless slog; Mercier could have chosen an easier life. He could have just gone home after his teaching job. Why didn’t he?

“People say why do it, if it’s going to do that to you. The thing is I don’t want to do anything else. You justify it because you think what you’re doing is so important. But all we’re doing at the end of the day is entertaining people. I’ve never undervalued the notion of entertainment. My job is to make sure that people are entertained in one sitting between 8pm and 10pm; And in the process, if I can get to say something about life, that’s great.”

Paul’s wife, Anne Gately, is the general manager of Passion Machine. Mercier acknowledges that without her commitment, he might not have been able to pursue the Passion dream.

Mercier wrote Studs in 1986. It is about a football team who look like they have no hope of winning any match. This revival, at World Cup season, is no accident.

“This is premeditated, calculated,” says Mercier. ”It is taking stock of the fact that the play is relevant and pertinent. But look at the show’s history. When it was first done in 1986, it was a time when nobody ever thought that Ireland would get to the World Cup. Now we’re in a new culture, where we just take it for granted that Ireland gets to the World Cup.”

But Paul is keen to point out that the play is not all about football. ”At the end of the day, it’s about everything else. The play is about ordinary people and dreams and hopes and the experience of losing and failure. This show appeals to people who don’t know anything about football. Strangely enough, there are those who love the game and choose not to go to the show, as they couldn’t possibly see themselves inside a theatre.”

Mercier is still pinching himself that Ireland has made it to Japan. He remembers his father watching the World Cup in 1966.

“My dad loved soccer. I remember him watching the World Cup. I was 10. He followed England right throughout and many a man of his generation did. My father was a solid Fianna Failer. He bought his Irish Press and anything else to do with Ireland; he was very nationalistic, in that sense. But the reason why he wanted England to win in 1966 was that that was the closest that he could get to winning the World Cup. So, years later, when Ireland got to the World Cup, it was like a dream.”

Paul Mercier came from a family of 10. His father’s first wife died. Paul is the eldest of the second family. They lived in Blackrock. Paul’s mother, Nuala McGann, was from Clare and his father, Peadar, was from Cork.

“My mother loved the theatre. When I was old enough she used to bring me with her to plays. Looking at the plays, it was inconceivable that I could ever become part of that world. Films and television were more important for me.”

Paul’s father was a foreman for Crampton’s builders. He also played the bodhran with the Chieftains for a while but he had to keep his day job there were 10 children to support. He drummed it into Paul’s head that he had to get a skill.

“When I came home one day and told my parents that I wanted to work in the theatre, they told me that I would have to be a teacher; that anything else was a mug’s game.”

Mercier got a degree in Irish and English from UCD. Then he took his parents’ advice and taught for 15 years. Only in the past few years did Paul pack in the teaching.

“My father was right. Without my teaching job at Greendale, there would have been no Passion Machine. It subsidised the drama. Theatre is a cruel business. I would hate to see anyone put all their eggs in one basket. I used to hop on my bike after school and then we’d begin rehearsals at half four or five. You can do everything. We all stuck to our day jobs Roddy, Brendan.” Rather than looking back in regret, Mercier would urge all aspiring young actors to get a skill, a day job.

“This generation comes out of drama school and they expect to get acting work. The attitude is I am an artist, so the Arts Council should give me money. We used to think that. But you have to be realistic. The acting schools are great, but the graduates should realise that they have to do it themselves.”

And for having done that, a whole generation of theatre-goers are truly thankful. Passion Machine is a dynamic and imaginative theatre company; long may it continue.

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