Farm Ireland

Monday 19 February 2018

Country roads are alive with theatrical troupes

Writer John B Keane.
Writer John B Keane.
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

A friend of mine once remarked that Sunday morning is the most dangerous time of the week to be on the roads of rural Ireland: "You're liable to be run down by mobile congregations desperately searching for a fast mass."

But if Sunday is the deadliest day on the road, spring must be its seasonal equivalent.

As well as the milk trucks and fertiliser lorries, the nation's highways and byways are home each spring to a motley crew of mobile drama groups heading to any one of 38 drama festivals held north and south of the border.

Having spent the autumn and winter rehearsing their Synge, John B or Martin McDonagh, at the first sign of the daffodil these troupes take to the roads. In vans, jeeps and horseboxes, they carry their props, actors, costumes and artistic endeavours on tour.

Last week, I travelled with members of my local host of thespians, Sliabh Aughty Drama Group, as they made the trip from the shores of Lough Derg to the West Clare Drama Festival at Doonbeg.

Their play for the 2017 circuit is Rabbit Hole, a searing and sometimes humorous tale of a family dealing with tragedy and loss. Written by American playwright David Lindsay Abaire, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and the Sliabh Aughty production is its Irish premiere.

Mountshannon farmer and insurance broker Noel Hogan was waiting for me in Tuamgraney in his jeep and horsebox. It was a dirty morning as we headed west.

"It will be a long day," admitted Noel who, as well as hauling half the set behind the jeep, also plays the part of Howie in the production.

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His wife Ursula is coming to give a hand, while a neighbour, Christy Jones, has taken a week's holidays from work to help.

Bouncing along the soft roads west of Ennis, we eventually arrive at our destination. The van carrying the remainder of the set is there before us and the crew is already unloading as we pull up. No time is lost as flats, couches, chairs, tables and doors are lifted in through the scene dock in preparation for the performance.

Alan Sparling, the director, attempts to supervise operations amid a torrent of jibes, digs and good-humoured insults. His cast of tilers, teachers, farmers and homemakers shows no mercy. I take the much-maligned director aside to save him from further abuse as a cacophony of drills and hammers fills the hall. We adjourn to the kitchen of Doonbeg's fine community theatre.

"These festivals have been going on around the country for decades," he explains.

"Our own local drama festival in Scarriff is celebrating 70 years this year. At present, there's a total of 38 festivals north and south of the border catering for full-length plays. The festivals all happen between the first weeks in February and the first of April. That's over 50 plays and many of these are presented in perhaps five, six or more festivals, so that's over 400 performances with casts and crews varying from 10 to maybe 50 people."

The festival circuit reflects the extent of amateur drama in the country, not to mention the nine one-act festivals that take place before Christmas. "It is all voluntary," Alan says, "every last minute of labour and every last nail is paid for by voluntary effort and fundraising."

The afternoon passes quickly as the set is assembled. By dinnertime, after seven hours' solid work, it is ready. Masking tape and paint are applied to any remaining cracks, the lighting crew works frantically to make sure no one is left in the shade, the stage manager and her assistants do a final check on the props, while the actors run lines to refresh themselves before the nerves set in.

Even the most seasoned players are on edge. Drama festivals are highly competitive affairs and the audience isn't there just to enjoy the performance - everyone tries to see it through the eyes of the adjudicator.

As the audience drifts in, it is greeted by festival committee members resplendent in tuxedos and evening dresses. The adjudicator, also in black tie, takes his place at the centre of the hall behind a small table adorned with a reading lamp and a jug of water. The house lights dim, the stage lights come up and the performance begins.

The production goes well, getting a warm reception from the audience, while the adjudicator is fulsome in his praise. But even before the last ripple of applause fades, the drills start whirring, the hammers banging and the set is taken apart. Van and horsebox are loaded and the journey across the county is retraced.

As the vehicles wind their way homeward, the performance is parsed and analysed by the passengers, while the words of the adjudicator are pored over for signs of an award or a place.

The van is parked and the horsebox backed into a corner, but nothing is unloaded. It all has to be done again in Mountmellick, Cavan, Charleville and back home in Scarriff.

Dangerous places to be, these rural roads on these spring days - full of travelling craftsmen and women, actors and artists, troubadours all, doing it for the love of it.

Drama council oversees 38 festivals

The Amateur Drama Council of Ireland (ADCI) is the federation of amateur drama festivals for the whole of Ireland - north and south. Founded in 1952, the organisation has coordinated the running of preliminary drama festivals and All-Ireland festivals ever since. The principal objects of the Council are to foster, develop, promote and encourage amateur drama on the island and to organise the annual All-Ireland Drama Festivals.

The ADCI currently oversees 38 full-length member festivals and nine one-act member festivals.

The full-length festival circuit takes place each year between February and the first Sunday in April. The one-act circuit runs in October and November each year.

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