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Kinsale Amphitheatre


Once the drama course was established in Kinsale college in 2000, it quickly became clear that there was a problem with performing spaces. The college doesn’t have an assembly hall, and none of the classrooms were big enough to hold an audience. Initially, the drama course rented out the Town Hall, but this was unsatisfactory, for reasons of finance and availability – not least, the Town Hall wasn’t a very suitable space for theatre. This venue has since been closed, leaving Kinsale with no arena for public performance. (The amphitheatre is therefore needed as much by the local community as the college.) The drama course, then rented theatre spaces in Cork. This was even more unsatisfactory as the expense and organisational difficulties were greater. At the time the college started a new permaculture course, led by Rob Hopkins, who eventually left to start the now global phenomenon of the Transition Town Movement. He discussed building a theatre on the grounds out of sustainable building materials as part of a fetac Natural Building module. In consultation with Belinda Wild (head of drama) and her students, a theatre was designed to fit the specific needs of the drama course, leading to an amphitheatre stage being raised on the college grounds with outdoor seating. Belinda at the time was interested in the stage plans of the original Globe theatre of Shakespeare so that she could teach a form of drama she was developing which needed a shared space for ensemble acting. After the first performance in the amphitheatre, it became clear that the design of the theatre had led stage experiences that nobody there had encountered before. The audiences were spellbound, the actors were inspired. The college and the drama department were on to something special and the development of the theatre went on apace under the Directorship of Fergal McCarthy, who recognised the extraordinary achievements of the drama course and provided resources for a roof and surrounding walls, as a temporary protection for audiences whilst the cob-work progressed year-by-year.

Why is the Amphitheatre Unique?

The amphitheatre is a prime example of user-led architecture and design. Modern examples of user-led design are extremely rare and are generally highly valued, being seen as an antidote to the worst excesses of modern architecture, both aesthetically and in terms of user friendliness. It goes without saying that the amphitheatre is the only theatre of it’s type in Ireland. But this is not only because it is user-led. Kinsale Amphitheatre has been designed to carry out a certain type of theatre which stands at the forefront of the modern stage practice. This practice, paradoxically, was first used in Elizabethan times at the Globe theatre in London in the early 1600’s. Most modern theatres are designed so that the audience experience the play in a state of detachment, as if viewing the play on a large television. In Elizabethan times this was not the case. Theatres were designed so that the audience would experience the play happening all around them, as if they were actually inside the performance – detachment was not then seen as desirable. By modelling the Kinsale Amphitheatre on the Globe, and amending it year by year to fit the needs of the drama course (in a way that could never happen with a pre-fabricated architect-led design) the college arrived at a stage space which is able to provide much more powerful theatrical experiences for the audience and performers. This is why is a second reason why it is unique. There are no other spaces designed to ‘share’ performances, that we know of, in the country. Such performance spaces are in fact exceedingly uncommon the world over. A word frequently used about the amphitheatre by performers, audiences and visiting theatre professionals is the word magic – usually uttered in tones of awe. Most people have never experienced theatre as a shared experience in which they (as Elizabethans were) are immersed in the play, and as a result, in which performers must play to the audience without the barrier of the distancing (so-called) fourth wall.

Not only is the Amphitheatre a rarity for its being user-led, one-of-a-kind magical performance space, it is also an example of a building created with natural sustainable materials. It has been temporarily finished in wood, but the intention was to make it out of cob (a fireproof material used for building Irish and English houses, tried and tested for hundreds of years). Permaculture practitioners believe that the earth’s rising population cannot go on using materials that are finite – (plastics, concrete etc) and that pollute the earth. Kinsale students have raised a building that is an example of sustainable architecture of the type being built by ordinary people all over the country as a means of being able to afford a home. Examples of cob self-build exist in Cloughjordan, Trim and the Hollies in West Cork to mention only a few. Referencing the past in a number of ways, the amphitheatre finds itself at the forefront of progressive thinking in theatre, architecture and the sustainability movement. It is for this reason that it has such a wide and varied constituency of individuals and organisations willing to offer it their support. Practitioners from the drama departments of UCC, CIT, and Salford University have all visited, seen productions and afterwards expressed a desire to use the facility as it is such a superb training ground for actors and spectacular setting for shows. The building has been enthusiastically referenced in print by those of the international transition town movement and permaculture fraternity and also progressive architects. Over the years the plays that have taken place in the amphitheatre have brought literally thousands of people to kinsale college, and the vast majority of the audiences are enthralled by both the building and productions. At open days it always gains the admiration and interest of visitors, and is a centre piece of the college for all those who enter the gates – an example of the work of hundreds of college students who have raised it or performed in it.

The Amphitheatre as a college resource.

Were it only for the above reasons the amphitheatre would be an outstandingly worthwhile asset to the college. But in the twelve years of its existence the building has also served as a conference centre for permaculture conventions; a gathering assembly hall where the entire student body can be addressed; it has hosted many shows by visiting professional companies; musical evenings and gigs have been performed there; not least, it functions as a classroom for the drama students during the day. The proposed development could only enhance this multi-faceted functionality. As a centre in which large groups can work and meet for conferences and workshops, it could be, if developed, of even greater use to the college and local community. In forging more links with the local community, theatre practitioners and other would-be users, the amphitheatre could be a useful source of income for the college.

The development would enable Kinsale college to continue an impressive record for being at the forefront of unique and progressive educational ideas and resources. This could only be good for Cork ETB and the region educationally and artistically.

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