Thursday 24 October 2019

Acting up: Why am-dram groups remain centre stage

As theatre lovers congregate in Athlone this weekend for the annual RTE All-Ireland Drama Festival, Tanya Sweeney finds out what goes on behind the scenes of these wonderful productions

Kris Cowming, John Stack and Helen Aherne of Brideview Drama Group star in Philadelphia, Here I Come! Photo: Eoin O'Hagan
Kris Cowming, John Stack and Helen Aherne of Brideview Drama Group star in Philadelphia, Here I Come! Photo: Eoin O'Hagan

Tanya Sweeney

Growing up in small-town Kildare in the 1980s, there wasn’t a huge range of options for Lurlene Duggan when it came to leisure pursuits. “There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Prosperous back then — it was either join the tennis club or the drama group,” she recalls.

It was an easy enough choice for the then 11-year-old: her father, mother and grandfather had also been involved in the Prosperous Dramatic Society, which has its origins in the late 1800s. “It goes right back to when the priests were involved, and drama groups kept young people out of the pubs and whatnot,” says Lurlene.

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Amateur dramatics in Ireland has grown from humble enough beginnings into what Lurlene describes as the third biggest voluntary organisation in the country, behind the Catholic Church and the GAA. It’s thought that around 300,000 people per year see productions at drama festivals and, most notably, the annual RTE All-Ireland Drama Festival, a week-long event which kicked off in Athlone last night. It offers amateur dramatic groups across the country the chance to flex their talents in front of a large audience, and compete for national glory.

The plan is to deliver productions that are every bit as seamless, fine-tuned and affecting as theatrical offerings in professional theatres. Making it all look effortless takes more effort than first meets the eye. The festival is the culmination of several weeks of hard work for each of the nine groups that have made it to the finals.

Jack Aherne will direct Philadelphia, Here I Come! for the Brideview Drama Group from Tallow, Waterford.

Aherne has been involved in amateur dramatics for over 20 years; the group came second in their very first foray into the Drama Festival last year, and are naturally gunning for glory this year.

Moone Boy’s David Rawle was part of the Corn Mill Theatre Group
Moone Boy’s David Rawle was part of the Corn Mill Theatre Group

“We started rehearsals on November 1 and have been rehearsing three times a week in the interim,” he explains. “There’s a lot of hard work involved to get it up to performance level. If your partner or husband or wife wasn’t interested, it would probably become an issue,” he adds with a laugh.

Luckily for Jack, amateur dramatics is something of a family affair: his wife Helen is a “very good actress”, who had also been involved in amateur dramatics even before the couple got married. Their daughter Emily is the secretary of the group and helps on the technical side of productions, as well as directing her own plays.

Even if it’s a wily way to spend time with the family, there is still an element of juggling home and work life with the demands of the group.

“I’m semi-retired as a vet, and I was lucky enough to be part of a practice with four vets,” says Jack. “It would be very different if you were a one- or two-man practice.”

Like the Ahernes, Lurlene has made her own involvement in amateur dramatics a family affair. Her husband TJ, originally from Laois, was something of a ‘reluctant’ participant when he joined the Prosperous Dramatic Society after he married Lurlene. But it didn’t take him long to find his groove. Prosperous won the RTE All Ireland Drama Festival for the first time last year with Lurlene as director (she moved into directing from acting as “it was too hard to learn the lines”). This year, however, TJ is directing the cast in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, and naturally he is hoping to emulate his wife’s success last year.

Finding the time amid work and family life to indulge her passion for drama is easy enough for Lurlene, who works in a corporate role in learning at Microsoft: “I don’t watch too many soap operas, put it that way,” she smiles. “But look, no one questions the GAA coach when she spends two nights a week training the under-11 team, then does it every weekend.  I go down to rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the kids are in bed, then we do Sunday evening.”

It barely feels like a duty, notes Lurlene, when there is so much to be gotten from the group. As hobbies go, it offers plenty: a sense of community, a tool for building confidence, as well as a creative outlet.

“All actors are inherently show-offs, so it’s a great creative outlet for them,” she says. “We have such a diversity of talent and, honestly, being involved in amateur dramatics is like being part of its own subculture.”

And sometimes, there’s the odd chance for romance to blossom. Teacher Ashleigh O’Neill has been part of the Prosperous Dramatic Society since she was a child, and met her fiancé James through her involvement in the group. He had been a member of another local group, the Silken Thomas Players (“We all had a bit of a love-hate thing going on,” Ashleigh recalls). The Silken Thomas Players took a break when their director Sean Judge died, and James joined Prosperous.

Last year, as the group performed at the Abbey Theatre, James proposed to Ashleigh onstage as they took their bows on their final performance. “He is an incredible actor but so shy, so I never thought he’d do it on stage in front of people,” says Ashleigh.

While she loves the stage, Ashleigh is only too happy to indulge her passion at amateur level.

“Amateur means ‘for the love of it’, and that’s why we do it,” she says. “We are lucky that we get to pick some great plays. If you went pro, you would probably only play a lot of background and walk-on parts where you’re not doing a whole lot.”

In many cases, several professional actors found their feet in amateur groups. David Rawle, star of Moone Boy, came from the Leitrim’s Corn Mill Theatre Group, while Bronagh Gallagher cut her teeth in the Oakgrove Theatre Company.

As to whether the groups feature those with an eye on making it in the theatre professionally or people happy enough to tread the boards for fun, Lurlene notes that, in Prosperous, there is a mix of both.

“One of our members, Robert, is a consummate actor, but has no interest in doing it professionally, as he has a great job and earns a lot of money,” says Lurlene.

Still, it is a great way for would-be professionals to get under the noses of the right people.

“I was spotted onstage and asked if I would audition for Glenroe,” Lurlene recalls. “I did the audition, but then realised that I didn’t like the precariousness of the job, or not knowing if I’d earn money in any given week.”

To anyone considering a foray into amateur dramatics, Jack offers some useful advice: “Simply make contact with a local group. Most groups prefer to do comedies because an audience responds well to them, and it’s not as critical if you make a mistake. For beginners, it’s nice to be involved in that type of production. Taking what is, in essence, words on a page and bringing it to life is a beautiful thing to be involved in.

“Above all, enjoy the experience,” he adds. “People come in terrified, and I know I’ve been terrified in what little bit of acting I have done. But once you get to the other side and you’ve done your part, you get a real buzz and your adrenaline is pumping. It really is brilliant.”

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