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Remembering Mr Drama

Living

READY FOR THE STAGE The cast of ‘Beyond Therapy’ rehearsing ahead of their opening shows in Westport and Claremorris this weekend.

New drama group inspired by local theatre legend Ray Leonard is set to stage first play  

Cróna Esler

If you’re getting fed up with all the political drama this week, a brand new Claremorris theatrical group could be just what the doctor ordered. This weekend, the Ray Leonard Players will take to the stage in Westport and Claremorris with their very first production – Christopher Durang’s classic American romantic comedy, ‘Beyond Therapy’. By all accounts, this is a play you won’t want to miss.
The hilarious comedy will be staged in the Town Hall Theatre in Westport on Friday, February 7, and in Claremorris Town Hall Theatre on Saturday, February 8, with both shows beginning at 8pm (tickets will also be available on the door each night).
The audience will laugh out loud as they watch the characters navigate the turbulent terrain of relationships. Wishy-washy Prudence (Devon Gleeson Roe) lives a lonely life with two cats and a ticking biological clock, while self-described crackpot Bruce (Joseph Palmer) has a volatile boyfriend, Bob (Damien Conway). The characters are all looking for someone stable to love, but unfortunately their therapists (Anne Ronayne and Michael Irwin) are even more bonkers than they are. The show is directed by the brilliant Sarah O’Toole, and the cast also features Luke Jacobsen as temperamental waiter Andrew.

Massive inspiration
This exciting new drama group has been established to honour and perpetuate the memory of the late, great Ray Leonard, who was synonymous with drama in Claremorris throughout his life. Ray – who passed away in 2005 – was a director, producer and mentor who made an outstanding contribution to drama, musicals and stagecraft. He was a great friend and a massive inspiration to founding members Damien Conway and Anne Ronayne, as well as countless other performers across the west.
By day, Ray was a teacher at Mount St Michael in Claremorris, and it was here, in the ’70s, that Anne first encountered him. In 1989, she got her first introduction to the stage, when Ray directed ‘Sharon’s Grave’ in Garrymore. The following year, he cast her as Pegeen Mike in ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, and under Ray’s direction, Anne scooped several awards on the circuit, including Best Actress in the Confined All-Ireland and the Open All-Ireland.
“Mattie-Joe Connolly had been cast as Michael-James (Pegeen’s father) but had to go to the UK with work, and Ray stepped into the role. Ray went on to win Best Supporting Actor as Michael-James – an accolade he was immensely proud of,” Anne recalls.
In 1991, Anne played Mamie Flanagan in ‘The Field’, with Ray directing, and the group qualified for the All-Ireland Open finals. She also played the beleaguered Bridie in ‘The Black Stranger’.
While the pair shared an immense love for drama and Anne shone under Ray’s direction, first and foremost, they were fabulous friends. “Ray was a very decent man and gave so much to his community through athletics, drama, musicals and much more. He was kind, generous and a friend I was very fond of. He was a proud family man and we’re very grateful to Pauline, Sarah and Aiden Leonard and their families for giving us permission to establish this group. I hope we will honour his name and do him justice,” she continued.
Vivid memories
Like Anne, Damien Conway shared a special bond with Ray. In the winter of 1993, the pupils of St Colman’s College announced they would be staging ‘Oliver’. It was the first time the school had staged a show in many years. Ray was drafted in as director, and he cast Damien as the Artful Dodger.
“For most of us Colman’s lads, it was our first time on stage. Ray inspired us. He filled our hearts with passion for our characters and left us believing we could almost walk on air and do anything on that stage. It was an amazing period and one we will never forget,” Damien explained.
The following year, Colman’s staged Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Again, Damien was among the leading lights. It was an ambitious musical for any school and a selection very much decided by Ray, who had a strong understanding of the talent pool from the previous year.
“Kevin Ryan, who had previously played Fagan in ‘Oliver’, was cast as Jesus; Rosemarie Noone was Mary Magdalene; and I was humbled to be cast as Judas,” says Damien. “The three of us developed a wonderful closeness and friendship with Ray. Our level of one-on-one rehearsal time; our discussions about our characters and how we felt about them; what was really going on at every moment; the meaning of every word in each song … we went unbelievably deep into our character finding and building, and it was all possible because Ray carved a path to that amazing place for each of us.
“Ray inspired us, talked to us, listened to us, encouraged debate between us. Then he pushed us. He demanded the best from us and we demanded it from ourselves out of complete respect and admiration for Ray.”  
As with Anne, Damien and Ray remained close friends and toured many theatres around Ireland. The pair even studied together when Damien was in university and Ray was completing his PhD.
“In the summer of 1999, Ray stepped back from the director role to play Father Jack in ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. We toured Ireland, and I was Ray’s driver and a backstage hand. The memories are there as vividly as if it were yesterday,” Damien recalls. “Ray is sadly missed by so many. He gave us an everlasting love for the dramatic arts and self-confidence as young adults that shaped our future in such an outstandingly positive way.”

‘Mr Drama’
For Anne and Damien, the decision to establish the Ray Leonard Players stemmed from a mutual affection, admiration and appreciation for the late Ray Leonard – sentiments felt by so many others who worked with Ray throughout his lifetime. Ray was passionate about the stage and was affectionately known as ‘Mr Drama’ in Claremorris and indeed all across the west of Ireland.
The Ray Leonard Players are looking forward to staging their inaugural production of ‘Beyond Therapy’ in Westport this Friday night, and bringing it to Claremorris the following night. The play will also be staged in An Taibhearc, Galway, on Saturday, February 22, and at The Station House Theatre, Clifden, on Saturday, February 29.
The group will then take the play on the Drama Festival Circuit – Roscommon on March 9, Charleville on March 10, Tubbercurry on March 12, Doonbeg on March 13, Claregalway on March 18 and Scariff on March 20.

To book tickets for the Westport performance, visit www.westporttheatre.com, or for the Claremorris performance, visit www.townhall.ie. For more information, follow The Ray Leonard Players on Facebook.