Sunday 25 February 2018

Bondings: At this stage in their lives

They're both heavily involved in the arts, so Richard Wakely and Teerth Chungh understand each other's crazy schedules

Dynamic duo: Richard Wakely and Teerth Chungh have been together 26 years and combine busy jobs with raising their teenage sons Conor and Ciaran. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Dynamic duo: Richard Wakely and Teerth Chungh have been together 26 years and combine busy jobs with raising their teenage sons Conor and Ciaran. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Richard Wakely once had a rule of not dating anyone he worked with. Mind you, he caved when he met Teerth Chungh while both were working in theatre in London, although they remained friends for three years before getting romantically involved. Teerth went off working in Belfast and the US, but they rekindled their friendship when she got a job in London in 1989, while Richard was general manager at Hampstead Theatre. It then turned to love, with Richard being attracted to his future wife's strength and independence.

"Teerth came from terrible poverty in India, but she really made something of her life," he says. "Her inner-strength is incredibly admirable, but she also has a lovely soft side that I like very much. We both work very long hours, and the only person who would understand my life and put up with me is someone in the same position."

Richard, 56, is director of the Belfast International Arts Festival, while Teerth, 53, has a very busy job as head of production at the Gate Theatre, which is currently showing Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge with The Importance of Being Earnest coming for Christmas. They're now married and have two sons, Conor, 17, and Ciarán, 15, and although Richard jokingly calls them the "gruesome twosome", they feel very lucky that their sons are fantastic teenagers.

The boys have grown up in different circumstances to their parents. When their mum Teerth was born in Jalandhar, India, in 1962, money was incredibly tight, and there were times when the family went without food. Nonetheless, she had a very happy childhood within her own family. Her father Tarsen moved to find work in Africa and then England, and, when she was eight, Teerth, her mum, Harjit, and younger brother joined him in Southampton in 1969. "I was going to a country, language and culture that I didn't know, but I liked England very much," she says. "The notion of running water from a tap was unbelievable to me because we spent the whole day getting it from a well."

Teerth worked at stage management on a community scheme in her gap year after school. This inspired her to study stage management at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and she worked freelance in the field after graduation. She became company manager for Charabanc Theatre Company in Belfast at one point.

She fell for Richard because she could tell him anything without judgement, plus he understood her dedication to work. "For me, it was about friendship, love, and having someone you fundamentally trust with your life," she says. "Richard is one of the funniest, most intelligent men I know, and I haven't got half of his patience. I am much more fiery, but he just lets me get on with it."

Richard was born in Nottingham in 1959, but his family ended up in Belfast. His late parents were Desmond, a building society manager, and Beryl, a legal secretary, and his two brothers are musicians living in Australia. "Growing up in Belfast in the 60s and 70s was very challenging, as I have Catholic, Jewish and Church of Ireland blood in me," he says. "I was lucky to grow up in a tolerant, open and accepting environment, and was in some ways sheltered from the violence by my diverse family."

Richard studied geography at Queen's, and realised he was more interested in spending time in the drama theatre than the lecture hall, although he was never drawn to the performance side. He spent a couple of years working in the arts in the north, and left for London in 1983. Richard worked at many diverse companies there, including a stint as producer for Afro-Caribbean theatre company, Temba. When he was offered a job as managing director of the Abbey Theatre, he and Teerth moved over to live in Marino in Dublin.

"When Teerth got pregnant, we knew it was the end of our London adventure, as it's not the best place for raising kids and we were thinking about schools," says Richard. "I always saw myself coming back and working in Ireland anyway, but when you get offered a job in a national theatre, it's a huge honour so it made the transition easier. I stayed in the Abbey for four years, and have been working up north since 2013 which is the latest chapter."

When Richard and Teerth moved back to Dublin, people didn't know they were a couple for a long time as they never socialised together, partly because one of them was always at home minding the children. These days, they live apart during the week, because of Richard's job as director of the Belfast International Arts Festival, which opened on Friday. There are 134 multidisciplinary events and acts from 23 different countries at this year's three-week celebration of arts and culture, including many premieres. This year's programme sees a focus on India and Mexico, with a range of spoken word, physical theatre, and contemporary dance from acclaimed stage artists across the globe.

The relationship with India is very much informed by Richard's relationship with Teerth and her family. One highlight is The Kitchen at the Grand Opera House on October 21 and 22, a unique theatrical experience where vats of traditional Indian payasam dessert will be cooked on stage while drummers beat out a surging rhythm. The food is shared with the audience at the end, but alas for Richard, spicy Indian food doesn't agree with his stomach.

"People often ask if it's fantastic being married to Teerth because she makes amazing Indian food, but it's wasted on me," he groans. "I think our relationship works because we give each other space to do what we want professionally. Not many couples can do what we do in working and living apart a lot, but we have a very firm foundation and a huge respect that allows us to do that."

The Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival runs until November 1.

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