'˜We are of this very special place and what happens here happens to us'
Looking back with hindsight 25 years on from The Playhouse in Derry opening for the first time, Pauline Ross said that becoming a major success story was neverconsidered part of the vision.
Rather it was about staying true to the local people it was set up to serve.
“I never gave that thought a thought and never will. We do what we do and we always do it to the best of our ability,” Pauline said. “For The Playhouse it was never about being a major success story but about always trying hard to live up to our vision and mission to serve the people and communities of this city and the North West. We are always aware that we need to keep our fingers on the pulse of our communities of interest and geography culturally, socially, politically and economically as well as it’s wellbeing.
“We are of this very special place and what happens here happens to us. We have a responsibility to where we can help make a difference in the lives of our citizens, especially our children and young people. The arts have the capacity to help lift us up, like yeast to bread, help raise us up making us realise we are better than we think we are, we all have enormous potential, individually and as a people and city. Through the arts we can show to ourselves primarily and the rest of the world just who we are. We can do that by articulating creatively our stories, telling our authentic stories, all of them be they good, bad or ugly through theatre, music, dance, poetry, literature and the visual arts. The entire city did this during our phenomenal City of Culture Year 2013. Together we did it.”
Today, The Playhouse is one of Northern Ireland’s leading arts and community venues and Pauline said the biggest milestone was the award-winning £4.6 million capital development project that restored and transformed the two convent schools into the much loved community arts and theatre venue that exists today.
“Every day I give thanks to be able to come into such a beautiful and busy building to work alongside a great team dedicated and committed to the ethos of The Playhouse who never get tired or exhausted but always remain excited and creative in planning projects,[even the ones that don’t get off the ground] finding the financial resources to deliver them and working in partnership with whatever community it has been designed for.
“Another milestone was in 1997 when we were the first Arts Centre in Northern Ireland to be accredited to deliver arts educational courses. Many graduates from our courses are now arts facilitators working across the city and beyond.
Pauline said the most feel good milestone was the City of Culture year 2013. “What a year! With funding of just £264k we produced 13 theatre productions. One for every month of the year with one extra many of them telling a story about this place, its people and their histories. It was such a memorable celebratory year. Oh! If only we had that kind of budget again. Derry City Council and Arts Council of Northern Ireland are you listening?
“By continually listening to our communities and communicating to our funders and statutory bodies as to how creatively we can address the concerns and issues that are negatively impacting on them we have developed over the years meaningful partnerships with both our communities and our funders.”
Pauline believes there is a creative energy in the historic Playhouse buildings that in turn fuels our energy.
“It was there the first time I crawled through the little hatch door late in 1991. Together the buildings and The Playhouse family have created something special over the years. Having Derry’s Historic Walls as our Playground is an added bonus.”
Today, around 50,000 people come through our door every year, roughly about 1,000 a week made up of theatre audiences and participants, Theatre companies, dance groups, community groups, special needs groups and special interest groups as well as the business community, and due to its uniqueness, Pauline said, it is also becoming a desired venue for weddings and conferences.
Pauline said there have been so many highlights over the years that it is hard to single out just a few, but recalls how in 1993 during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina The Playhouse produced ‘Peace Child International’ in partnership with the Peace Child organisation.
“Dee Conaghan, now Company Manager of the Stage Beyond Theatre Company, was the co-ordinator. Dee worked with young people not only from Derry but teenagers from other countries across the globe who had and were living in the midst of wars and conflict including Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, the Middle East, Cyprus and the former East Germany. It was the kind of performance that gave you goose bumps and, more importantly, hope for the future of mankind.”
She added: “Another theatre and peace building project, funded by The European Peace Funds, that we are extremely proud of was our Theatre of Witness productions. For five years from 2009 -2013 the founder and artistic director of Theatre of Witness, Teya Sepinuck came to live in Derry to deliver for us six theatrical productions along with Holywell Trust, our partner.
“These productions involved victims and survivors, ex-combatants as well as security force personnel and played to packed theatres throughout Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, England, Belgium and America.
“Theatre of Witness workshops are still ongoing and requested within our communities. What gives us a real fulfilment as a community arts centre is when we receive funding to commission and produce plays by local writers. Their plays, too many to mention here, have all been major highlights for us. Plays dealing with local subject matter that touch the nerve and close to our city’s heart prove time and time again to be the most successful and popular at the Box-Office.”
Currently the Playhouse is developing a new comedy written by Creggan man Liam Campbell entitled ‘The Bog Couple,’ inspired by Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple.’
Pauline said the new work is “set in The Rossville Flats in 1976 when residents of the High Flats famously used to say, ‘If there was nothing on TV you could look out the window’.”
“The Playhouse production of Liam’s ‘The Bog Couple’ invites audiences inside one of the Rossville Flats for a ringside sofa seat as two men: one a slob, one a neat freak, one a Catholic, one a Protestant go toe-to-toe in what can only be described as the mismatch of the century.
“Two of Derry’s most loved actors Gerry Doherty and Pat Lynch, play the lead roles as Oscar Meenan and Felix Young in this not to be missed comedy of the decade! Thinking about the mismatch of the century is a bit like The Playhouse itself only we took buildings not people, one from the 19 th Century and one from the 20 th Century and created a Community Arts Centre and Theatre for the 21 st Century. Now if that’s not a hit, I don’t know what is!”