Theatre boss Jimmy Fay on celebrating half a century of the Lyric in Belfast
With Belfast's Lyric theatre currently celebrating its 50th anniversary via a year long programme of events, David Roy spoke to executive producer Jimmy Fay about marking their half-century and his vision for the Lyric's future
BELFAST'S Lyric Theatre has long been a focal point for the north's drama scene. Having started out as a platform for the Lyric Players in 1951, with productions staged at the Derryvolgie Avenue home of founders Mary and Pearse O’Malley, a move to the new Lyric Players' Theatre overlooking the River Lagan in October 1968 coincided with a wave of upheaval throughout the north as the Troubles began.
"It is a remarkable thing," says Lyric executive producer Jimmy Fay of the 50th anniversary. "To be honest, I hate looking back – I'm usually more concerned about 'what are we doing next?', but the fact that the Lyric opened its doors in '68 is kind of unique because of what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time.
"It was a good thing, a really great thing. Even when it first started in 1951, to have created a theatre out of nothing is remarkable: Mary O'Malley must have attracted so much talent around her, and that's the great thing about theatre – the communal aspect of it.
"I feel like when the Lyric really struck gold was in the late 1970s and early 80s when it was more about new writing: Stewart Parker and those kind of heads, Graham Reid's Hidden Curriculum, reflecting what was going on on the streets.
"So that's kind of what I want to celebrate with the 50th."
A major part of the Lyric story is how acclaimed local playwrights like Stewart Parker, Martin Lynch, Marie Jones and Christina Reid all premiered socially concious work there during the Troubles, with some of the north's current top acting talents treading its boards in their early days.
Lyric alumni include Liam Neeson (now Lyric patron), Adrian Dunbar, Ciaran Hinds, Conleth Hill, Dan Gordon, Stella McCusker, Frances Tomelty and Ian McIlhinney.
And, since the Lyric reopened in 2011 following an extensive multi-million-pound refurbishment, its reputation for fostering new talent has continued to grow.
Thus far, the theatre's Creative Learning Department has helped over 30 aspiring young actors enter drama school, with Lyric-trained Belfast actor Anthony Boyle currently earning rave reviews on Broadway as Scorpius Malfoy in the smash hit Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.
Fay comments: "If you look at the heads who've got their start here and the fact that it's still happening with people like Anthony Boyle and [award-winning Newry actor] Thomas Finnegan, who both went right through Lyric Youth to Royal Welsh to getting roles in here early on, I feel like we're standing on the shoulders of those kind of giants but also still doing really good work.
"It still feels very vibrant. Look at someone like Emma Jordan or Lisa May, who's directing a really terrific production of The Colleen Bawn at the moment (until April 28) – there's so much going on."
Recent Lyric productions include work by up-and-coming directors including Emma Jordan (Educating Rita, Red), Selina Cartmell (Punk Rock), Walter Sutcliffe (The Threepenny Opera) and Paul Boyd (Little Red Riding Hood), while last year the Lyric's first ever writer-in-residence, David Ireland, won the James Tait Black Award for his play Cyprus Avenue, produced by the Abbey Theatre and the Royal Court in London.
Dubliner Fay is an acclaimed director himself, with a long association with the Abbey Theatre. He believes that the Lyric's reputation for reflecting whatever is going on beyond its walls remains key part of the theatre's ethos.
"I think we have a responsibility to our audience to tell stories that reflect us somehow," he tells me. "While we no longer have 'the Troubles' as such, there's now a certain sense of stagnation. So you're trying to figure out how to respond to that in a proactive and vibrant way.
"There's ways of being theatrical about what goes on – and then sometimes you have to be escapist too and come at things from left of centre. That's part of what theatre does – it makes things strange so you can kind of see them again.
"The Lyric is unique in Belfast, it's different to The MAC and the Opera House in that they are receiving houses for the most part, whereas we are a producing house.
"Whatever happens in the Lyric is a little bit unique to the Lyric. Even if we bring in a West End hit, like with [recent Lyric production] Educating Rita, we do it with a twist: I wanted to set it in Belfast, so I talked to the writer Willy Russell about it and we got a young guy, Oisin Kearney, who's now a rising talent as a writer/director, to come on and work on the script.
"That is how I like to develop something, to tweak it so that it fits into the ethos of what we're doing, y'know?"
Upcoming highlights of their 50th anniversary programme include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The Musical (November 29 to January 5), with words and music by Paul Boyd, a Des Kennedy-directed stage adaptation of hit Ulster punk movie Good Vibrations (September 1 to 30) from writers Glenn Paterson and Colin Carberry and a Brian Friel revival, Lovers: Winners & Losers (May 12 to June 5).
There will also be two special 'gala' events and a series of 'in conversation' shows profiling key Lyric allies.
"We try to balance 'classic' plays with new plays as much as possible," explains Fay
"The moment you do a new play, you cut your audience in half – but what you want to do is grow an audience who will trust you enough to keep coming to see new stuff."
There's no more visible testament to the Lyric's status than the stream of local 'heavy hitters' who have continued to return to its stage long after they've enjoyed wider success.
"It's brilliant," enthuses Fay. "[Sir Kenneth] Branagh did The Painkiller here, Dunbar's been here. We're hoping for Liam to call by again and say hello later in the year as he'll be here making a movie."
But does he think the 'big man from Ballymena' could be persuaded to take on a role in an upcoming Lyric production as part of the 50th celebrations?
"He hasn't had a stage career in 30 years!" laughs Fay. "Then again, he wasn't an action hero until about 10 years ago. He's an amazing actor, very compelling. And it was here that he was able to do a series of plays, probably starting as a not particularly good or experienced actor, but gradually developing his craft and moving on a bit each time.
"I think it's important that we continue to offer that."
Fay adds: "When I first came to the Lyric, people only talked about the building.
"Now, they talk about the work. Artists want to work here."