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Why centre stage is the place to be

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Jennifer Maguire. Photo: Brian McEvoy

Jennifer Maguire. Photo: Brian McEvoy

Jennifer Maguire. Photo: Brian McEvoy

THE idea of standing on a stage fills me with absolute horror, but involvement with drama inspires thousands of people to devote enormous time, talent and effort to what is one of Ireland's great passions.

There's a difference between a desire to act and a desire for fame. They're not mutually exclusive; many an actor dreams of stardom, but the love of acting, the desire to create and to be part of something, seems quite different to an X-Factor-inspired moment.

It's often lamented that young people want instant fame. It would be easy to believe that a great tradition is dying, that children are lazy and unfocused, when that's simply not the case.

It's often said about sport, but drama also offers an alternative route to success and confidence for young people who might have other difficulties.

Even if they don't want to get up on stage, being part of the creative team is a huge boost.

Newpark Comprehensive School in Blackrock, Dublin, has a long and respected tradition of drama. I confess a bias because I've seen my own son, Louis Furney, get so much from his time there.

Since his initial involvement as a first-year, a love story was born. Now that his school career nears an end, he has a vocation.

It's been incredibly good for him; he's put in evenings, weekends and holidays for rehearsals.

It's a dedication he's never shown for anything else and for one simple reason: "Because I love it." He is but one of many thousands of students who have enjoyed and benefited from access to school drama.

English teacher Cathy Devis has run the Newpark drama department for a decade.

She grew up in South Africa where drama was an integral part of the national curriculum, and was surprised to find that it wasn't in such a "drama-rich country" as Ireland. The school management has supported her in making it so important.

From the Junior Plays that are largely written and directed by the students to lavish productions such as last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream, all kinds of children get all kinds of chances to participate and to shine.

First-years work with sixth-years, and there is no one type who gets involved in drama.

A play is a valuable lesson in hard work, dedication and focus. Seeing a play can teach you how to read a play; other worlds and opinions are opened before you.

Surprising people blossom in the limelight, unlikely friendships are forged and for many it's simply being part of a team that is so appealing.

Indeed, so many students didn't want the experience to end that in 2010 the Newpark Theatre Company, a group consisting of past and present students, staff members and parents was set up.

The school is unusual in that it has its own stand-alone theatre, the Hunter Theatre, which turns 33 next month and is in need of some attention.

What Cathy doesn't say is that much of Newpark drama's success is down to her own extraordinary input.

There's a great team, but she's the glue. Not only very knowledgeable about drama and a talented director, she also transmits her own enthusiasm and gives enormous amounts of her personal time.

Gary Wall began acting in school in the 1980s and has been involved in amateur drama ever since. He's done all aspects of theatre and is currently on the board of the Mill Theatre in Dundrum.

With all of that knowledge and experience, he's very clear about where the glue lies in any company. "If I set up a group, I wouldn't have actors because they're easy to find.

"I'd be looking for a good director, a good set designer, people who are good on lighting, sound, a good stage manager.

"Those people are really difficult to find, and to me they're worth more than actors."

He's keen to clarify that good actors are important too: "There are just so many of them. At Christmas we had productions in the Mill and the quality of the actors auditioning was just superb."

He says that in general the standard of amateur drama in Ireland is high.

Amateur drama has a proud tradition in Ireland. John B Keane gave Sive to a local group. Passion Machine alumni Brendan Gleeson, Roddy Doyle and Paul Mercier went on to do rather well, and Simon Delaney and Jennifer Maguire started out on the amateur circuit.

But most people don't make a living out of it. Most don't ever intend to, so why do they give so much of their time and talent for free?

Gary reckons there are several reasons. "I would have liked to have gone into acting full-time, but unless you're a top actor it's very hard to make a living.

"If you're doing it part-time you get the experience without exposing your livelihood. It's the best of both worlds – in some ways you get to do more. I've got to direct big productions, but it would take me years to get to that if I was doing it professionally. You get the same buzz with no risk."

AUDITION

Ah yes, that buzz. "No drug could ever compare," says Wayne Leitch who was 29, married with two daughters and working as an insurance salesman before he did his first play. It was an amateur production with the Blue Moon theatre company, but his acting career progressed quickly.

He got a paid role in a play in Andrew's Lane which in turn led to an invitation to audition for Conor McPherson's The Good Thief.

"It's a monologue about a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who does a job that goes wrong and he goes on the run with a woman and a child. It's really clever," he says.

The production was a success and they were invited to take it to Scotland, where they got a rapturous review in The Scotsman.

"After that I was asked to audition for the Abbey, but I didn't get it and then it all just ended!" says Wayne.

"Plus, I had a new kid, so I concentrated on paying for my family, making a living, you know, unless you're a single guy . . . But I gave it a shot, and it just didn't happen."

Fifteen years later and Wayne has four daughters, aged 22 to 10, and is still working full-time. The passion for acting never dimmed, and he has decided to give it another shot.

With Audrey Devereux directing, he'll reprise a full week of The Good Thief.

"I couldn't pretend someone chased me to do it, it was all me, I was looking for a new challenge," he says. "I really like acting, so I said 'f*** it! You'll be a long time dead!"

His last two nights will be in the Mill Theatre, which is almost a monument to amateur drama. It's unique in that it was built by the developers of the shopping centre but is run by five local drama groups.

It's run as a business, not for profit but just to cover costs, but even with good audiences it's hard to break even.

They get some funding from DLRCC and their lease is a nominal €1, but the board and front-of-house staff are all volunteers from the groups.

Over the years he has seen many changes in the types of people involved and their reasons.

"Some people like the social element, though there was a lot more of that years ago," he says.

Gary met his wife Jacqueline through drama, and says he can think of at least six marriages in his theatre company alone.

He notices now that people have much less time and are under a lot of pressure. But they still find the time.

The All-Ireland competition circuit is one gigantic level of commitment, but many groups are happy to do drama just for pleasure.

It always comes down to that – a simple love of drama and of being part of a team.

X Factor notwithstanding, there are generations of drama-loving kids coming behind. Which is great, because terrifying as stages may seem to some of us, drama is an enriching something that's accessible to virtually everyone.

The Good Thief runs from March 18 to 21 in Bewley's Cafe Theatre and March 22 and 23 in the Mill Theatre, Dundrum. Tickets cost €10, and all proceeds are in aid of Focus Ireland. Newpark Junior Plays take place on March 20 and 21. See www.Newpark.ie/fundraising


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