Building cross-island capacity in theatre and dance

  • 24 January 2024
  • Dr Victoria Durrer
  • Academic, Cultural, Political, Social


Dr Durrer, along with dance and theatre practitioners, arts policymakers and academic researchers, examined the extent, nature and impact of cross-island relationships in the performing arts. They found that dance and theatre on the island are deeply interdependent, with the workforce requiring cross-island mobility for work, training and development. The group’s findings were published in a report that presents practical recommendations for high-level policymakers and those working within dance and theatre. Several collaborators have since initiated new cross-island activities, and the project’s findings have informed new policy developments (such as Arts Council Ireland’s all-island dance company initiative and Creative Ireland’s Shared Island Shared Communities programme) all of which are helping foster more sustainable livelihoods in performing arts on the island.

Research description

Global issues, like Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, have underlined the precarity of artistic partnerships that span the island of Ireland. In collaboration with dance and theatre practitioners, arts policymakers and academic researchers, Dr Victoria Durrer, Assistant Lecturer in Cultural Policy at UCD School of Art History and Cultural Policy, sought to examine these relationships.

Between December 2021 and November 2022, the group collated new and existing academic and sector-based data to assess all-island relations within professional dance and theatre. They wanted to understand the extent of cross-island partnerships in these performing arts, how the collaborations work in practice, and the impact they have on artists.

Collaborating to foster shared approaches to recovery and regional development, the group met quarterly to share and critically discuss data regarding existing cross-island operations. The group reviewed policies, compared arts spending, examined organisational data sets, and held workshops, focus groups and interviews with artists, cultural practitioners, and officers in local government and the civil service. Crucially, they prioritised the lived experiences of those working in dance and theatre within the two jurisdictions, including those who work along and across the border region.

Dr Durrer and colleagues found that dance and theatre on the island are deeply interdependent. Many companies work in both jurisdictions, and the workforce in these performing arts depends on being able to move across the island for performance work, facilitation workshops, and training and development events.

The work culminated in a final report, Building Capacity for the Cultural Industries, which presents the group’s findings, a substantial research agenda, and practical industry-based policy recommendations aimed at fostering more socially and environmentally sustainable livelihoods in performing arts on the island. These recommendations include:

  1. Nurture regional stability: work to address financial precarity and risk-aversion, thereby supporting enthusiasm for collaboration.
  2. Develop and implement enabling frameworks: align financial resourcing and administration, and facilitate progress through action-research and dialogue events.
  3. Embed access and inclusion: address the challenges that arts workers face, including difficulties regarding geographic connectivity, and legislative and administrative alignment in pay and disability supports.
  4. Raise awareness: showcase work, and facilitate exchange.
  5. Support legacy: archive artistic practice, and allocate time and staffing to embed strategic collaboration.

(Fulcrum and The Cairn images, one of which is used above, are by Sara Little from Liberty Studios. Fulcrum includes Jenny Ecke and Dylan Quinn.)

This project has been vital in gaining a holistic understanding of dance practice across the island of Ireland, and exploring possibilities for our sector to flourish together.
— Louise Costelloe, Dance Ireland

Research team

  • Project Lead: Dr Victoria Durrer, UCD
  • Research Assistant: Emma McAlister, UCD
  • Researcher: Professor Aoife McGrath, Queen’s University Belfast

Partners, represented from:

  • Arts Council Northern Ireland
  • Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre
  • Dance Ireland
  • Theatre & Dance Northern Ireland

Partners were responsible for identifying sector actions and higher-level policy recommendations, reviewing the final report, and sharing findings.

Core participants, represented from:

  • Arts Council Ireland
  • British Council Ireland
  • Cavan County Council Arts Office

International advisor

  • Dr Milena Dragićević Šešić, University of Arts, Belgrade


  • This project, entitled Building Capacity for Cultural Industries: Towards a Shared-Island Approach, was funded by the Irish Research Council’s (IRC) New Foundations Scheme 2021.
  • Additional funding for the printing of the final research report (Jan 2023) was provided by British Council Ireland and Queen’s University Belfast.
  • Allocated staff time and some travel costs for research partners were provided by the following organisations: Queen’s University Belfast, Theatre & Dance Northern Ireland, Arts Council Northern Ireland, Dance Ireland, Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre, Cavan County Council Arts Office, British Council Ireland and Arts Council Ireland.

Research impact

Political impact

According to Arts Council Northern Ireland, the project’s findings and recommendations demonstrated the value of “creating a more informed and broader pool of evidence from which to make decisions”. Following the report’s publication, the group received various invitations to share their findings – including to the Department for Communities (Northern Ireland) and to NI Local Authority Arts/Cultural Officer. – which is helping inform new cross-Ireland initiatives.

Participating in the research resulted in several organisations changing policy and practice at national and local levels. For example, in July 2023 Arts Council Northern Ireland commissioned new research into the living and working conditions of artists. Dance and theatre counterparts in both Arts Councils have since met together outside their engagement as research partners to discuss artform development, as “a direct result of this research project”. Arts and Cultural Officers in Ards and North Down Borough Council now plan to gather officers on the island to share concerns, practices and build connections. And Arts Council Ireland’s Head of Dance notes the contribution of this research project in the development of Arts Council Ireland’s all-island dance company initiative.

Cultural and social impact

The project directly changed attitudes regarding cross-island relations in dance and theatre. Two workshops held with a wide range of stakeholders, in May and September 2022, facilitated and celebrated solidarity. According to one Arts Manager, the events were successful for “bringing people closer together and forging new relationships”. A local authority officer said that, as a result of the event: “I am thinking more about dance and theatre on an all-island basis in a way that I wouldn’t have even considered before.” And an artist in attendance said: “I feel seen and understood.”

For many who participated in the research, the experience prompted recognition of shared values, challenges, mutual advocacy concerns and the potential for strategic collaboration:

“In the session I came to greater knowledge of … similar pressures …in working lives of many other people. There was a sense of a preference to move towards working across the island we share strategically.”
— Local authority arts officer

But the impact doesn’t end with those directly involved in the project. As discussed, this collaboration has facilitated new relationships, informed arts-relevant policy, and led to new cross-island initiatives. As a result, the project is building capacity in dance and theatre across the island, and striving to ensure artists are able to enjoy sustainable livelihoods that can withstand future global shocks, thereby enriching not only the lives of the artists themselves, but those of their communities and audiences.

Academic impact

According to academic colleagues at the biennial International Conference on Cultural Policy Research in September 2022, this collaborative research approach to cultural policy studies is “innovative” and “undervalued”. The way in which the project included “reflexive practice” through meaningful engagement with different partners has been recognised as an important development for the growth of the discipline.

New research projects have directly resulted from final report’s recommendations, and important new connections were forged during the project, including an HEA North-South programme investigating youth dance across the island. Dance Connects, a new research project on dance ecologies in rural border regions (between project partners Cavan Arts Office, UCD, QUB and Fermanagh-Omagh District Council) recently received follow-on funding of €250,000 through Creative Ireland’s Creative Communities on a Shared Island initiative. See page 44 of UCD Today for further details.

(The Border Lives image above is taken as a screen shot from a film by Róisín Loughrey. The image includes participants from The Border Lives short film project)

“This research makes a seminal contribution to understanding cross-island relationships, policies and practices in the performing arts on the island of Ireland. By comparing government arts spending in Ireland and Northern Ireland, classifying cross-jurisdictional relations, including financial relations, and providing an overview of existing frameworks, agencies and entities, it considers the key inter-related areas and cross-cutting policies that support cooperative, and competitive, relations in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The research highlights the need for further discussion, continued collaborative research and ongoing support to enable and build the performing arts on the island of Ireland.”
Kerry McCall Magan, British Council of Ireland

 “A particularly important and impactful focus of the research is the recognition of place-based solutions. It highlights the importance of understanding, appreciating and developing specific solutions to support people in place, not just people or place. The study calls attention to the specific challenges faced by rural artists and the creation, production and delivery of work in rural locations across the island. It is an important and valuable body of research into an area of cultural activity and policy development that has a significant amount to offer, but has to date received very limited detailed exploration.”
Dylan Quinn, Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre

 “The opportunity to meet and connect around shared concerns, expectations, and hopes for a Shared Island Approach for Dance and Theatre was a refreshing experience for me as a Local Authority Official. Quality research and reflection time with Artists, the Arts Councils, industry representatives and university researchers is not part of my everyday experience of local arts development, and I really valued this time for deeper thought and learning. It raised many questions about how and why we work the way we do. What I found interesting in the process is understanding and addressing the interrelated areas of capacity building and considering frameworks, access and inclusion, regional stability, equality and legacy, and the reliance on data and research from varied experiences.”
Catriona O’Reilly, Cavan County Council Arts Office

 “This project has been vital in gaining a holistic understanding of dance practice across the island of Ireland, and exploring possibilities for our sector to flourish together.”
Louise Costelloe, Dance Ireland

Research partners’ reflection sheets and workshop feedback by diverse stakeholders captured individuals’ change in “skills”, “knowledge”, “attitudes”, and “working practices”, and the value of the engaged research process:

“Making our ecology visible to each other is hugely valuable in fostering relationships and opportunities”
Dance Producer

“[I am] more sensitive to the work being carried out on an all island basis and focused of enabling activity within my sphere of influence.…”
National Arts Policymaker

Final report of the project

Selected policies and funding streams informed by the project

Selected coverage of the final report

Newsletters circulating the report

Conference papers

  • Durrer, V., McAlister, E., McGrath, A. (2022, September) The possibilities of / for cross-border cultural policy: Sharing the cultural policy space in the aftershock of Brexit and the pandemic? International Conference on Cultural Policy Research (ICCPR), 22 September, University of Antwerp.
  • Durrer, V., McGrath, A., & McAlister, E. (2022, June) How might we nurture a Shared-Island approach to supporting the performing arts? International Federation for Theatre Research, 3 June, Ulster University, Derry / Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
  • Durrer, V., McAlister, E., McGrath, A. (2023, August, forthcoming) Sharing the cultural policy space in a post-conflict context’, European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, 26 August.

Public engagement reports

Invited public presentations of research

  • 3 March 2023, The Future of Cross-Border Cooperation in the Arts - What Next?, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin
  • 30 March 2023, Sustainability in the Performing Arts, British Council Ireland, Dublin.

Invited talks

  • 3 April 2023, Department of Communities, NI, Discussion of findings with John Ball (Arts Branch), Louise Hyland (Arts & Creativity Branch), Stephen McGowan (Creative Industries), Queen’s University Belfast
  • 14 June 2023, Local Authority Arts and Culture Network, NI, Discussion of findings, Zoom [online]

Academic papers

Two peer reviewed papers are in preparation: Sharing the cultural policy space in a post-conflict context’ in preparation for Space & Polity (McAlister, Durrer, McGrath); ‘Between Research & Advocacy: The emotional labour of engaged research’ in preparation for International Journal of Cultural Policy (Durrer, McAlister, McGrath).