Arts

Packing a theatrical punch: Bruiser celebrate 20 years of drama

As they celebrate their 20th anniversary with a production of 80s classic Adrian Mole, Jenny Lee chats to Bruiser Theatre Company's artistic director and founder Lisa May about the secrets of the Belfast troupe's success and their plans for the future

Bruiser Theatre Company's founder and artistic director Lisa May proudly looks on as young stars of the future take part in their summer Graduate Academy in the MAC, Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

BRUISER by name and bruiser by nature. Bruiser Theatre Company has battled it's way through the difficult environment of funding cuts to punch well above it's weight in the arts world as it celebrates it's 20th anniversary.

Artistic director and founder Lisa May is proud of what the Belfast theatre company has achieved in the past 20 years, from it's infancy in an office in her east Belfast home to a thriving organisation with an expanding team, and has her sights set on taking Bruiser's name to the international stage.

Best known for their fast-paced, physical, and often comic interpretations, their 2014 smash hit Cabaret, presented in co-production with The MAC, and starring Kerri Quinn flung Bruiser into the spotlight. This was followed up with the side-splitting slapstick of The 39 Steps and most-recently Bruiser’s unique take on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, using an all male cast to highlight the need for gender and marriage equality.

"Producing work that is such a key part of Northern Ireland’s incredible cultural output is such a privilege. Bruiser have come a long way and our work continues to pack a theatrical punch, stimulating audiences all over Ireland," says Lisa.

A graduate of theatre studies at the University of Ulster, Lisa saw a gap in the market for "touring theatre with a physical stamp and a focus on education". Her philosophy of "minimum set for maximum impact" remains constant.

"We are fortunate in that when we chose our artistic policy and mission statement we weren't tied down to a specific sort of text, we were tied down to our style. That gives us the scope to do comedy, Shakespeare or a full-blown musical such as Sweet Charity."

Lisa admits that setting up a fledging theatre company was "a hard slog".

"It took us 10 years to get annual funding. We were living project to project and although that allowed us a lot of freedom, it was hard to forward plan."

Simon Imrie, Sharon Morwood, James Dornan and Jon Trenchard in Bruiser's 2005 production of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4

Company manager Andrew Hume only joined last July and despite the pressures of managing the books and day-to-day running of the company, loves the fact that "no two days are the same".

"The main challenge is balancing money and time and trying to estimate where you are going in one, two or three years' time. Twenty years is quite a milestone, but no time to rest on our laurels," adds Andrew.

Looking ahead, Bruiser have international touring firmly on their agenda.

"It really important for our style and also as an alternative revenue," says Lisa, who wants to play the European festival circuit as well as travelling to America. "They are quite a traditional audience and our style would shake things up a bit," she laughs.

Bruiser are also committed to nurturing the next generation of drama professionals through their unique educational projects and Summer Arts Academy.

Kerri Quinn wowed audiences in Bruiser Theatre Company 2014 production of Cabaret

They are the only Northern Ireland theatre company to be included as an AQA-accredited practitioner for study at A-level and facilitate this with their A Day With Bruiser programme which they tour to local theatres each year.

Their intensive 10-day summer theatre programme has been running for 12 years and has already produced a number of talented young people who have gone on to study drama and work professionally, including Cavan Clarke who most recently starred in the National Theatre's The Plough and the Stars, and Belfast twins Niamh and Nuala McGowan, who are also working in London.

"I'm extremely proud of them all"," says Lisa, who hopes to develop a new foundation-level programme for younger students from the age of 12.

The all-male cast of Bruiser Theatre Company's 2017 production of The Importance of Being Ernest

"Theatre and the arts is so important on so many levels. For young people being involved in projects like ours, it gives them confidence, social, physical, cultural and emotional rewards," she adds.

Bruiser's 20th anniversary production will be a remount of the cult classic The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, in tribute to the show's writer and the company's late patron, Sue Townsend.

A talented local cast of Adam Dougal, Gerard McCabe, Keith Lynch, Orla Mullan and Colette Lennon star in this nostalgic blast from the past featuring references to ABBA, Monty Python, Princess Diana, punks, spots, bullies, Adrian's unrequited love for Pandora, and the erratic behaviour of his dog.

:: Adrian Mole is at The MAC, Belfast, from September 22 to October 7, before an all-Ireland tour. See Bruisertheatrecompany.com

Bruiser Theatre Company's production of The 39 Steps at Belfast's Lyric Theatre in March 2016

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