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Amateur dramatics: Singing, dancing and finding joy in the darkness

Am dram societies play a vital role in communities around Ireland.

Gus-Advert FB A poster promoting Cats Source: Eamonn B Shanahan

AMATEUR DRAMATIC SOCIETIES are an important part of many communities in Ireland.

They provide a social outlet and foster talent across various age groups.

Phoenix Productions is a youth musical theatre group based in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Next month, they’ll be putting on a production of Cats.

Mary Blake, a committee member and former chairperson of the group, says it’s hugely important that young people have an outlet other than sport. She believes getting involved in a drama group can help people in many ways.

“It’s not just all singing, all dancing. It goes well and far beyond that … It helps people in different ways.

“It helps them grow their social skills. There may be one or two young people who you notice are under pressure and if we get them out the other side with that little bit more confidence, that’s our job done.

“We are a youth musical group, but internally an awful lot more goes on – it teaches the members about being involved in the community and the importance of giving a little bit back. They enjoy themselves too.”

Phoenix Productions was established in 1998 and has expanded over the years.

“There’s between 50-55 young people involved every year, and it keeps growing and growing all the time,” Blake says.

Being involved in the group gives young people the opportunity to get involved in the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production, such as costume and set design.

Victoria-Cats One of the performers in Cats Source: Eamonn B Shanahan

As this year’s production is Cats, Blake notes that there is “a huge emphasis on makeup and hair, hair extensions, head dresses and costumes”. Two makeup artists recently gave a workshop to help the group prepare for the show.

Depending on the production, various workshops are held for the members. For example, they had sessions with a voice coach for a previous production of Les Misérables and learned about aerial flying last year ahead of staging Peter Pan.

Angela’s Ashes

Members of the group recently travelled from Thurles to Dublin to see a musical retelling of Angela’s Ashes in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

The trip was arranged through Journal Journeys – a joint initiative between TheJournal.ie and Irish Rail that gave away 100 free train journeys for groups of up to 50 people.

Phoenix Productions’ musical director, David Wray, is currently working as the musical director of Angela’s Ashes. It’s based on the 1996 memoir by Irish-American author Frank McCourt and told from the perspective of him as a young boy.

Angela's Ashes The Musical production photo 1 pic by Patrick Redmond Eoin Cannon as Frank (centre), with members of the cast of Angela’s Ashes Source: Patrick Redmond

Eoin Cannon, who has previously directed productions for the Thurles group, plays an adult McCourt in the musical.

Cannon is from Bayside in Dublin and joined a pantomime society in Baldoyle at the age of 15.

“I was quite a shy person, not very outgoing. I had done speech and language classes from a young age. It was my little outlet once a week, but it was with the same people as in school.

“When I started with the pantomime group, I started to meet new people with similar interests and a similar temperament. People who are into drama have a slightly different temperament than those who are into sport. It’s not as goal driven, it’s more about the process.

“I started to blossom and had a new circle of friends I hadn’t had before,” he recalls.

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Humour in dark times

As Angela’s Ashes covers some heavy themes, including poverty and alcoholism, some people were surprised it was getting the musical treatment.

Cannon says that when people think of musicals they often think of “tits and teeth, forgive the expression”. Elaborating, he says he’s referring to performances that may be focused on singing and dancing but have “no real storyline”.

That’s usually not the case nowadays. He tells TheJournal.ie: “I have grown up on musicals, all of my favourite ones are depressing stories.”

Humour can be found in dark situations, he notes, as is the case in life.

“The Irish are especially good at laughing at ourselves,” Cannon says. Before the production began, he re-read the book version of Angela’s Ashes.

“It’s so full of wit, from a child’s perspective … You don’t know what poverty is as a child, you only know what you know.”

Cannon notes that young Frankie “points out little moments of colour and inspiration – the teacher in his school who supported him, Mrs Purcell with her radio”.

Joy is found in the dark circumstances.

“The majority of people are saying they came expecting to hate it, but they left with their minds totally changed,” he tells us.

For more information on Phoenix Productions, click here. Angela’s Ashes runs until tomorrow at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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