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Taking to the stage in Achill

Living


Edwin McGreal

Two days to showtime, and I’m laughing and smiling on stage. No matter how hard I try, I cannot keep a straight face. My character is most certainly not meant to be smiling right now.
I’m playing the role of William Dee in John B Keane’s classic ‘The Field’ for Dooega Drama Group on Achill Island. The reason I’m struggling to keep a straight face is trying to stare ‘The Bull’ McCabe out of it during what is meant to be a tense auction scene. He’s struggling too, when looking at me laughing.
This just won’t do. “Car crash,” observes our critic watching on. She’s right, and now I’m very worried.
How will I keep a straight face on the night if I cannot do it in rehearsals? How bad will it look to do that in front of 200 people who have paid to watch us? How embarrassing will it be to ruin the hard work of all the cast and crew with everyone talking about ‘that eejit that couldn’t stop laughing’? Why did I agree to take part? I storm out the door furious with myself.
One night later we’re on stage again for the final rehearsal. This time it goes fine. Not a laugh in sight from me. When I look at ‘The Bull’ McCabe, I don’t see Michael Lavelle, the local publican who plays the lead part, but Donald Trump. Or whoever else has made me angry that particular day. It’s remarkably effective. I’m even immune to the antics of Gordon Nolan, who always has the audience in stitches with his brilliant display as ‘The Bird’ O’Donnell.
We go on and play six nights – three in Achill and one in Westport, Castlebar and Ballina – and barely a smirk crosses my face. Phew. Thank God for odious people!
It was last October when my brother-in-law came into the house and asked me would I read for a part. Aside from playing a postman in The Sound of Music in national school, I had no experience of acting on stage.
Before he said the role he had in mind, I worked it out. They were doing The Field, and I knew by him he had the role of William Dee, the outsider who had the temerity to bid against ‘The Bull’ McCabe for the field, in mind for me.
I’m an outsider in Dooega, so in some ways I was playing a version of myself. Mr Dee’s stubborn refusal to heed the warnings of the fearsome Bull lead to his untimely demise. I tentatively agreed. (Thankfully life has not imitated art. Yet.)

In from the outside
I won’t lie, I only had a passing interest in amateur drama beforehand. To be more precise, Dooega Drama Group’s previous productions were my only experiences of watching am-dram in recent years.
So it was all very new to me: learning lines, interpreting how your character ought to deliver a particular line and very much immersing yourself in the play so you can get a full sense of who your character is – and, indeed, what your character should think about the other people he’s interacting with.
I got good advice from John Corless in Claremorris. As an Irishman who went to England, did well and was now looking to return home, William Dee should stride confidently and look very different to everyone else on stage.
You grow to understand your character, admire his good qualities and understand his weaknesses.
It was fascinating to pare back John B Keane’s work and see the depth of his play. Most of us have seen the film but many, myself included before I got involved, were unaware of the differences in the play.
My character, for one, is different. He’s not a ‘yank’. That disappointed my friends when they found out I would not be told on stage to ‘go home yank’. He’s far more real. Has a very clear and understandable reason for coming home (his wife’s illness), and while his stubbornness sees him ignore very clear warnings from the McCabes, his character is one to sympathise with.
‘The Yank’, in Jim Sheridan’s The Field, is a character with much less depth. Other characters and issues explored in the play also reasonate far better than they do in the film, in my opinion. Maimie Flanagan, the wife of the publican and auctioneer in Carraigthomand, does not feature at all in the film, but her character is a superb piece of observation of how trapped a woman could be in 1960s Ireland. Laura McGinty really brought her to life.
Indeed, our director, Padraic Patten, and the whole cast really helped to vividly portray the play’s characters.  
We were on stage for three nights in Coláiste Acla over the Christmas. In late January and early February, we took the show on the road, performing in Westport’s Town Hall Theatre, the Linenhall in Castlebar and Ballina Arts Centre. It was a pleasure to go ‘on tour’ – a world tour of Mayo as Tommy Tiernan might dub it – and experience performing in three renowned venues, attracting a healthy crowd to each of them.
It was amazing to see our crew, led by the talented Denis McCarthy, disassemble their superb set and have it loaded in the van for the next night before some of us were even changed out of costume. Often the set itself would get applause when first revealed, before any of the cast was on stage.
By the time we brought the show on tour, the scenes were coming easier to us, but the nerves were very much present before the first night in Dooega. I wasn’t expecting them, and that made it worse when they did arrive. However, once you get on, get the first couple of lines out of the way without a hiccup, you start to relax, and it was fine from there on.

Life in the village
The added social dimension to the play, and to amateur drama in general, was clear to see in the real life it brought to the village on the nights we were playing. There’s less than 150 people in Dooega, yet over three nights at Christmas, over 600 people came through the doors of the hall in Coláiste Acla, our venue. Many of those who came were originally from Dooega but no longer living there.
It’s a tale true of many parts of rural Ireland. In Achill, very few parents are fortunate enough to watch their children grow up and work locally. The jobs just are not there.
So, sadly, many of them have to go elsewhere for work, but the tie to home is a very strong one. Many weddings and Christenings in Achill are people and families not living on the island but very much of it.
In Dooega, the hosting of the drama group’s annual production provides a focal point for its diaspora to gather when home at Christmas. In the summer, it’s the Féile Du Éige festival.
There are many reasons why people get involved in drama. I can only comment on my own. It was a challenge to try something new and different, it was a means of meeting some great people and it was something to shorten the winter.
But, as an newcomer to the area, it was great to see up close a local group putting on a show in their own area, a show that was the talk and pride of the place and had Dooega buzzing over the Christmas.
Even if, in my case, it meant having to be killed six times on stage.