Friday 24 May 2019

Schoolyard Theatre marks a major milestone - 25 years on

The fifth of November is the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Schoolyard Theatre in Charleville's Old Limerick Road. In the intervening years the 102 seat theatre has earned the reputation of being one of the best small theatres in Ireland by both amateur and professional artists that have played there.

The idea of having a dedicated theatre space to call their own arose out of a conversation between Kevin O'Shea and Michael McGrath, as they flew over the Atlantic on their way to perform Tom Murphy's 'The Gigli Concert' in the Ohlone College Theatre in the Bay area of San Francisco, with the Glenside Players in July 1991. It would take another two years before the dream would come to fruition as the search for a suitable venue in Charleville was proving difficult until September 1992.

It was then that Michael McGrath spotted a small sign high up on the gate of the former National School in Charleville advertising it for rent, and located opposite Golden Vale farm shop. The cut stone was in an ideal location on the Old Limerick Road, but would have to be modified. He informed Kevin O'Shea, who knew the building well, and he set the wheels in motion, contacted the auctioneer and the rest is history. Kevin then recruited his friend and fellow actor, Gerard Roche to join us in, what many regarded was a craze venture, to become the third trustee of the theatre, for which McGrath came up with the name, the Schoolyard Theatre, in keeping with the original use of the building.

So, the rent was agreed with the auctioneer, and with little money we started the renovation to convert the ground floor to a small theatre within the footprint of the building. At the same time the Fine Gael/Labour government was in power and Michael D. Higgins T.D., was the then Minister for the Arts and the Gaeltacht, and now our current President. We surmised we would get a good reception from him if we approached him for funding from the Arts Council for our theatre especially with his connections to Charleville and to the area. How wrong we were.

Kevin, McGrath and Sr. Celestine of the local Convent of Mercy, who was seeking funds for her project at the time travelled to Galway to meet the Minister at his clinic in Galway to put our case to him for a grant. The Minister may have been having a bad day as he listened to us and then proceeded to read the Riot Act regarding money in brown envelopes, and sent us packing empty handed, without even a promise that he would consider our request. We, all three returned to Charleville utterly deflated and disillusioned with the system of funding for artistic endeavour, which is pursued by thousands of people throughout the country at amateur level.

We got no state funding until the Fianna Fail government was back in power, and through the good offices of Michel Moynihan, T.D., and the then then Minister for the Arts Sheila De Valera came to our rescue with a once-off grant of 1998.

"We met many disappointments along the way, but we persevered, driven by the passion and belief of Kevin O'Shea, who when some of us were flagging, buoyed us up with his determination and will to succeed, his expertise and vast knowledge of the theatre, which is clearly evident in the many excellent productions he has directed over the years with the Shoestring Theatre Company. Kevin has invested a great deal of his time and talents in the Schoolyard Theatre, and has received scant appreciation for his efforts. But, as the old saying goes, 'if you are doing it for thanks, don't do it,' said former trustee of the theatre, Michael McGrath.

The twenty-five years have flown by and there has been many fantastic moments of theatre on the Schoolyard stage, particularly from actors such as, Denis Drennan, John Butler, Helen Ryan, who sadly are no longer with us, but whose performances will live long in the memory of those fortunate enough to have seen them. We think too, of the performance of William Lyons in a 'Night of November,' the first one-man show to be performed at the All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone, which won him the best actor award of the festival. Others are Denis Foley, Katie Holly, all of whom cur their teeth in the Schoolyard and have gone on to greater things on the professional stage, and Beatrice Laikaku, who is in now professional theatre stage management.

In the professional ranks the cream of Irish actors and entertainers have been on stage and the list of reads like a whose who of the Irish theatre with Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt, Sean Keane, John Spillane, Don Wycherly, the Druid Theatre Company, Red Kettle Theatre Company, Michael Twomey, Jack L. Kevin McAleer, Mary Coughlan, Dublin City Ramblers, Ronnie Drew, Tommy Tiernan, Don Baker, to mention but some.

Another great friend of Kevin's and of the Schoolyard is playwright Jim Nolan, whose productions have lit up the stage, as indeed has the works of John B. Keane, Marie Jones, Tom Murphy, Mick Mulcahy and Ken Bourke, who indeed performed the official opening of the theatre in 1993 when his play 'Wild Harvest' was the first production to be staged by the Shoestring Company in the new theatre.

The theatre has been used by RTE for live broadcasts of programmes such as 'Failte Isteach,' 'Both Sides Now,' and 'Ceili House.' Shoestring members have played in a film called the Queenstown Story and have recorded a radio play at the Union Quay studio at Cork. They have also performed at the Everyman Theatre in Cork. The Schoolyard venue has been used to stage book launches, art exhibitions, poetry readings, and as a music venue.

We also remember and also acknowledge with gratitude the many people who have supported the theatre with sponsorship and personal contributions, which kept the theatre going in the early years. We thank Cork County Council for their on-going financial support with which the theatre would be long since closed, and also Ballyhoura Development for their contribution.

Since it was opened in 1993 the Schoolyard Theatre has made and continues to make an enormous impact on the cultural lives of the community, not alone in Charleville, but in the wider North Cork and South Limerick areas, from where it draws its audience. It has contributed greatly to heightening people's awareness of their own culture through the plays written by Irish authors and staged at the theatre, and that of other lands by visiting groups. The theatre has made a profound difference to students and young people who can view productions on their own doorstep, rather than travelling to bigger urban centres to attend the theatre.

A great debt of gratitude is due to those with the foresight to start the theatre and Charleville would be much the poorer with out this wonderful facility, which greatly enhances the community and the town.