The Next Four Years

Tom Creed

And so we hold each other tightlyAnd hold on for tomorrow, singing

Blur, “For Tomorrow” (1993)

If performance designers could offer new possibilities for Irish theatre after the pandemic, what shapes and sounds, spaces and acoustics, materials and formats, structures and hierarchies might they propose? What new creative and collaborative practices might emerge? What new social and artistic functions for theatre might present themselves?

The Next Four Years is a speculative retrospective of Irish performance design and scenography in the years 2023-2027, challenging the designers of today to imagine the theatre of tomorrow. We have invited eight leading Irish designers, working across costume, lighting, music, props, set, sound and video, to collaborate with us on this project and investigate new approaches to design, in response to the PQ 2023 theme of RARE – which asks “what the world and theatre could look like in the post-pandemic future” and calls on designers to “imagine, visualise and even create rare visions of the future”.

The Next Four Years comprises a film, this publication, and daily conversations that explore ideas, challenges and opportunities for the future. The film and publication are based on an extended conversation about the exhibition theme between the participating designers, as well as speculative visual and sonic glimpses of a variety of performance design practices.

Over two days in May 2023, the participating designers gathered in a warehouse in a suburban Dublin industrial estate, surrounded by the accidental archive that is the prop and furniture store of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, to discuss the next four years of Irish performance design. They spoke about beginnings and inspiration, post-pandemic shifts, new forms and subjects, aesthetic and structural hierarchies, environmental urgencies and sustainable solutions, new impulses and unfinished business. This conversation, which forms the spine of our film, was conceived and facilitated in close collaboration with Lian Bell, a set and costume designer who is equally adept at designing conversations, and shows how design thinking can move beyond the stage into new fields and formats.

In the subsequent days, we invited each designer to stage a visual or sonic proposition to be recorded – a kind of sketch in four dimensions with the stage of a Dublin theatre acting as exhibition space. These gestures act as ruptures and chapter markers in the film, interrupting and sitting alongside the filmed conversations. They provide glimpses or strains of practice and process, gathering and aftermath, creation and destruction, which resonate with the project’s future thinking.

For the installation at PQ, we have brought the table, around which we spoke in Dublin, with us to Prague, so the conversation can continue. This object from the archive becomes an active participant in daily conversations which will take place every morning and afternoon, when the public as well as representatives of other countries at PQ are invited to join the participating Irish designers and expand the conversation. The conversation also continues in this publication, which includes aspects of the film in word and image as well as associated texts that give further context. Later in the year, the project will return to Ireland as part of a National Tour, in which we will share our learning from PQ and further expand the conversation.

The Next Four Years proposes itself as a laboratory and catalyst for new directions in Irish performance design. How can an exhibition in a context like PQ aspire to be useful rather than merely representative? This approach draws on ideas of the “curatorial” rather than “curating”, as outlined by Maria Lind:

“a way of linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourses in physical space… an active catalyst generating twists, turns and tensions… a viral presence that strives to create friction and push new ideas… not just representing, but presenting and testing; it performs something here and now, instead of merely mapping something from there and then. It is serious about addressing the query: What do we want to add to the world and why?” (Artforum, October 2009)

I am enormously grateful to all the participating designers for their generosity in entering into this process, their willingness to engage with language as a medium, and their courage in imagining visual and sonic responses to the exhibition theme that often moved beyond their usual practices. I also want to thank the Irish Society of Performance Designers for the invitation to curate Ireland’s representation at PQ, the entire exhibition team from Once Off Productions, and film-maker Michael-David McKernan, photographer Ros Kavanagh and publication designer Niall Sweeney who have been crucial to the film and publication elements of the project.

The Next Four Years is dedicated to the memory of Monica Frawley (1954-2020), her legacy as visionary Irish performance designer, champion of the designer as lead artist, and her commitment to nurturing the designers of the future.

Tom Creed Curator

Tom Creed is one of Ireland’s leading opera and theatre directors, with a particular focus on new plays and operas by emerging and established writers and composers. His productions have been seen at all the major Irish theatres and festivals, and internationally in over 30 cities on three continents.

His recent opera productions include the world premiere of Emma O’Halloran’s Trade and Mary Motorhead at the Prototype Festival in New York and LA Opera, the world premiere of Michael Gallen’s Elsewhere at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and Maria Stuarda, Griselda, and The Tales of Hoffmann with Irish National Opera. His recent work in theatre includes the world premiere of Mark O’Halloran’s play Conversations After Sex at the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Irish Arts Centre in New York, for which he was nominated for Best Director at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards for 2021.

He was previously Festival Director of Cork Midsummer Festival, Theatre and Dance Curator of Kilkenny Arts Festival and Associate Director of Rough Magic Theatre Company. He is a member of the Expert Advisory Committee of Culture Ireland, chair of GAZE Film Festival, and a board member of Theatre Forum, and was a member of the steering committee of the National Campaign for the Arts from 2016 to 2022.

He recently completed an MFA in Art in the Contemporary World at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.