INTERVIEW with Pauline Ross: ‘Art for the many, not the few’ - 25 years of The Playhouse

In the first instalment of a two-part interview, we speak to the founder of The Playhouse, Pauline Ross, about the vision then and now and how it all began.

Back in July 1992, Pauline Ross opened the big doors of The Playhouse to the people of Derry for the first time.

Pauline Ross, founder of the Playhouse, celebrating the theatres 25th birthday with children and staff earlier this week.  DER3017GS038

Pauline Ross, founder of the Playhouse, celebrating the theatres 25th birthday with children and staff earlier this week. DER3017GS038

Few could have envisioned the massive impact the new venture would go on to have in the city, with the Artillery Street venue now welcoming 50,000 through the doors every year and yet the original vision “hasn’t changed one iota.”

Pauline said: “Our mission then and now is to create a meaningful inclusive community arts service. Art for all, Art for the many not the few. Art not as a luxury for the rich but a necessity for everyone, particularly our children and young people.”

Speaking about how the Playhouse came into being, Pauline said: “Naivety was my best friend, driver and ally. My other big ally was my age! It was my 40th year and anyone who has reached that milestone knows what a gift it is. It empowers you because suddenly you realise what a gift life is and to use a theatrical analogy, it isn’t a rehearsal.

“In those days of the 80s and 90s there was a tremendous upsurge in the ‘I can do philosophy,’ all over the city through necessity. There was a great surge of grass roots community development projects and in many cases those leading the charge were men and women who I went to Magee College with who, like me, were given a second chance at education.

“For the first time in our lives, most of us had left school at 15, now had the opportunity to study and get ourselves a degree education. None of us could ever thank one man, Frank Darcy, enough for the investment that he made in our lives; our families and, subsequently, that of the city and its communities. In those days while we sat in Magee café drinking cups of tea and coffee talking about whatever essays we were tasked with by Peter Shannon, Peter Pyne, Brian Lacey or George Johnston, we knew something empowering was happening to us. We were learning and we were hungry for it. My father always told me that education was easy carried. How right he was.”

After graduating Pauline became Arts Education Community Liaison Officer at Derry’s Orchard Gallery in the basement of St. Columb’s Hall.

While there, working in fundraising, administration and with artists and communities, the foundation was laid for The Playhouse. “I began to realise that my passion lay in the performing arts so I began to plan and plot a way forward to create a multi-disciplinary community arts centre in the heart of our Walled City and I found through the generosity of Joe Mulhern and his surveying partner, John Coyle, the old Sisters of Mercy convent schools of St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s on Artillery Street. And so the Playhouse was borne and we began to make play and plays!”

After signing the lease, Pauline left the Orchard Gallery and “began my work and mission for Arts for All,” with the first employees funded through the government’s ACE Scheme.

“I remember my first interview with our first employee, Mrs. Monica Conaghan. My office then was the old office of the School Principal and so I inherited a huge desk that I could hardly be seen behind so I sat at the front of it. I didn’t even have a pen for the interview, Monica had to give me one from her handbag! What I did have though was a kettle in the corner that my mother bought me because she knew how much I needed a steady stream of tea to keep me going.”

Pauline said Monica “became my rock” and she was followed closely by Mrs. Mary Foster and Sean Walker, the “saviour” of the old historic buildings who, helped later by Helen Quigley, built the pioneering recycling Play Resource Centre. In those early days James Kerr (now Director of The Verbal Arts Centre) curated the Context Gallery and Jonathan Burgess (Director of Blue Eagle Productions) worked as the Technician in The Playhouse Theatre. “We all were learning together,” Pauline said. “When the Playhouse opened in 1992, it was also the City’s IMPACT ’92 year-long cultural festival. In that year we hosted the best of Ireland’s theatre companies with productions people to this day talk about. The programme of events that local man, Sean Doran and his team, put together was world class. The vision of Kevin McCaul was light years ahead of any other thinking in the city.”

Among those who performed were The Abbey Theatre, Druid Theatre and The National Theatre of Poland.

“But what left a lasting legacy to this day in the citywas the work of Augusto Boal, of Theatre of the Oppressed; Barney Simon, Founder of The Market Theatre of Johannesburg, South Africa’s first integrated theatre company during Apartheid and Peter Schumann, Founder of Bread and Puppet Theatre Company, New York. Bread and Puppet Theatre Company came to the fore of the world’s media attention during the Vietnam protest marches in America. One night while standing outside the Playhouse after a long day of workshops, Augusto Boal turned to me on watching an army and police patrol on the Walls pass by and said,’ I feel at home here’.”

Pauline said Derry has never lacked for community, social, cultural or artistic facilities because the people of this city are imaginative, creative and most of all resourceful.

“In the 60s and 70s there was a plethora of theatre companies, including Bishop Daly’s ‘71 Players, the City of Derry Drama Group, St. Columb’s College Players, the Theatre Club and for musical theatre lovers the Londonderry Operatic Company. Where they performed included St. Columbs Hall,the Little Theatre, the Rialto, the Guildhall, the Union Hall. In the midst of the darkest days of the ‘Troubles’ actors trekked to rehearsals no matter what, as did audiences, and they got to see the best of our local talent in the best of Irish, British and American theatre. The show must always go on!”

(Part Two will feature in Tuesday’s ‘Journal.’)