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20th Dec 2016

Interview with Katie McCann and Karl Shiels of Theatre Upstairs


Theatre Upstairs is a 44 seater theatre above Lanigans bar on Eden Quay right beside the new Rosie Hackett bridge. The theatre is only 2 years old and in that time has built a reputation for giving a platform to young up and coming actors, writers and companies. The theatre was recently renovated and now boasts beautiful raked seating. I caught up with Artistic Director Karl Shiels and Associate Director Katie McCann to talk to them about how it all started.

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Karl: The company started here in 2012 with myself and Laura Honan the Managing Director and we started the company out of a need for artists to be able to produce their works in a safe environment. Katie then came in as associate director and we became three. We’ve been working and striving forward with Theatre Upstairs to provide a platform for new writing, we are the only theatre space in the country that is solely focused on new writing.

We’re above Lanigan’s bar and it was originally a function room, we had no money to pull this place together. It was the pure generosity of people from technical support and physical labor, the support of my father who is an electrical contractor and the support of actors who had never lifted a saw or hammer before in their life. It was blood, sweat and tears for two weeks. There were more actresses building that theatre than men. It was like the reverse Diet Coke ad with all these beautiful actresses sweating while hammering. That theatre was built out of love and passion and belief in our vision.

We don’t rent the venue, the difference with Theatre Upstairs is we’re not a venue for hire so any company that comes in has to work with us. We’re not producers and we don’t produce every show that comes in but they have to work with us in relation to our ethos which is that the shows have to be the best that they can be. 


So how do you help and facilitate the theatre artists to be the best they can be?

Karl: We work closely with the companies that come in to make it the best it can be by helping out with production, marketing, performance, choice of designers etc. It’s really a collaborative space which is very rare. It was a definite decision on our part to be 50% of every production that comes in because as a venue and as a company we strive to get the best from each company that comes in and look at their full potential. In the early stages in the first year we housed certain productions that had been done before, but now we only do new writing and we’re the only company in Ireland doing it. In 2 years we’ve done over 50 shows and about 80% of those have been 100% pure new Irish writing.

Katie: While we have been facilitating lots of different things, we felt that this year we wanted to focus on the female voice in Irish theatre. The female voice has played a huge part in a lot of the shows that have happened in the last few months, it has also been brilliantly facilitated by our company in residence Sickle Moon productions who have done two productions now, Slippers and Tactics, which had a very strong focus on the female voice.


How did the relationship with the Company in Residence Sickle Moon come about?

Katie: Sickle Moon is the first company in residence and it was very important for us to have a company in residence as it allows us to work consistently with a company over a year and help them, we also have next year’s company in residence lined up already!

Karl: Finbarr Doyle sat down with me one day, he is primarily an actor, a very fine actor, and I thought he wanted some career advice and I just said “I think you should do a show and form a company and do your own work” which is primarily what we try to encourage people to do here in Theatre Upstairs. Within 3 hours of having that conversation he had his partner Jeda de Brí, he had a design team and Sickle Moon was born! Really it was a vehicle for Finbarr at the time. He’s an exceptional actor and sometimes actors need a vehicle to launch them, and when myself, Katie and Laura were talking we said ‘well lets offer them a residency here’.

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What can one expect then if they wander into a Theatre Upstairs show?

Karl: We don’t do lunchtime theatre we do theatre at lunchtime and that is a serious difference! You come into a show at one o clock and you leave before two o’clock. You go back to your day after seeing something for an hour and your entire day, your entire week, has been effected by something you saw here.

Katie: I guess we’re lucky as an independent theatre to have the luxury to facilitate different stories. Because the turnover is quite quick people keep coming back because they get a variety of things, a selection box, throughout the year.

Karl: It’s an event going to Theatre Upstairs, you get to see a show with your lunch for a tenner. It’s scratch and sniff theatre. Up close and personal. It’s such an intimate venue. 


Katie you’ve written a play, Tales from Briar Hall, which is next up in Theatre Upstairs from August 12th – 23rd tell us a little bit about that:

Katie: Well, the story is about two outsider kids who grow up in their own world and one day this boy Edward breaks into this girl Daisy’s house and their worlds are changed forever, in a kind of dark way. We’ve an amazing team on board, Jeda de Brí from Sickle Moon is directing and Ste Murray is also in the play, he is a very very talented actor but also a wonderful graphic designer and photographer.

It very much all started from my love of literature and old novels like the Bronte sisters, Roald Dahl and old storytelling, so its very much a fabled story but with a modern twist. It’s Wes Anderson meets Philip Ridley with a touch of Roald Dahl , and with the voice of John Kavanagh as our narrator which is an incredible honour. To have him associated with a script that I have written is so humbling and amazing.

Finally, what’s the long term vision for Theatre Upstairs then?

Karl & Katie (in unison)Excellence

Tales from Briar Hall runs from August 12th – 23rd in Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay. For more information: