Life

Anne Hailes: Let's cherish the arts and those who suffer for them

Last week, Belfast's Lyric Theatre celebrated the 50th birthday of its Ridgeway Street site

AMERICAN writer Kurt Vonnegut suggests: "Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.

"Sing in the shower, dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."

Grand advice unless you are trying to make a living from the arts. When I worked with the Ulster Actors' Company people would enjoy an evening production and then ask me: "What do they do all day?".

'They' were the actors. The fact is, when not on stage six nights a week and matinees, they are rehearsing: if they are lucky enough, they'll also be preparing for the next play and fulfilling their interviews with the media. And most of them are on a very meagre wage. That’s why so many have a second job.

 

LAST week, the Lyric Theatre celebrated the 50th birthday of its Ridgeway Street site. It’s a success story, but only because people believed in their product.

The fascinating history goes back almost 70 years ago when a woman from Cork began putting on plays in her front room. She favoured the classics, especially Yeats.

Then, in 1952, she and her husband moved to a bigger house in Derryvolgie Avenue and an important local theatre took shape and influence.

 

It was no surprise when Mary O’Malley’s ambition outgrew itself until, in 1968, in the middle of what was erupting into full scale Troubles, the foundation stone was laid for today’s Lyric Theatre overlooking the Lagan.

Despite explosions and shootings and dreadful happenings, the theatre kept producing and the audiences kept coming. At the birthday party last week, executive producer Jimmy Fay made a point of thanking not only all those working within the theatre but also the audiences, theatregoers who are loyal and outspoken and engaged in the productions.

It was a night that showcased over 30 aspects of the Lyric, plays and tributes. All well and good. But take a closer look at the acting fraternity at large.

Why is it that the charity Inspire and the Ulster University felt it necessary to survey 574 people who work in the creative industries? Their suspicions were confirmed when they found that they were three times more likely to suffer from mental ill health than the general population, with the performing arts the most vulnerable of all.

They surveyed film and television actors, visual artists and writers, with 60 per cent saying they had had suicidal thoughts. Other pressures were the constant high standards required night after night no matter their health, the need to ‘come down’ afterwards over a drink or drugs, there was bullying and always the ongoing issue of low pay, with 20 per cent of those surveyed being paid less than the minimum wage.

The worry of 'what’s next?' once the curtain comes down – will there be employment next week, or next month, or when? Insecurity: the writer who sees blank notebooks in bookshops costing more than the novel that has taken two years to create, the actor who has auditioned for a role and been told they are perfect, only to discover someone else is chosen – and not always because they are more talented. It’s no wonder depression sets in.

Such is the concern that Inspire Workplaces and TheatreNI have established a confidential counselling service currently supporting 930,000 people.

Amongst other services, members of TheatreNI will have access to a 24 hour telephone support line seven days a week, up to six one hour counselling sessions, an appointment within three working days. This is free of charge to members in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Equity has a similar service for its members.

It’s difficult for actors who bare their souls on stage, not hiding behind the character as people often think, but portraying a dramatic role. Take the standing ovation, for instance. Actors call it 'audience machinery' at work. They come out for a curtain call and an over-excited crowd rises to its feet. Those on stage know whether it’s spontaneous and genuine or whether it’s just people standing to be 'nice'.

 

Of course, when it's genuine there’s nothing like it, and audiences in Northern Ireland are well known as being knowledgeable about theatre – sparing in their praise but reacting enthusiastically to a good show.

The Lyric night was punctuated by the words of Brian Friel and the 'secular prayer' he delivered in 2011 at the opening of the newly refurbished Lyric Theatre.

He demanded that "laughter and merrymaking and wit and comedy and raucous fun and plain ordinary giddiness and silly giggling must be accommodated and indeed encouraged. A solemn theatre is a dead theatre."

He concluded: "And finally, a heartfelt prayer for all the creative people who will work here in the coming decades and donate their lives to that strange and almost sacred pursuit we call theatre – because donating their lives is what they do."

 

Please dear reader, don’t take theatre for granted: use it for stimulation, enjoyment and education. Value those working in this magical business. Without them, there would be no drama on television, no children’s programmes, musicals, ballet, the comedy of pantomime, the classics or new writers' work, amazing sets or colourful costumes.

We are good at doing theatre in Northern Ireland – just look at just some of the many success stories; Liam Neeson, Adrian Dunbar, Ciaran Hinds, Ian McElhinney, Kerri Quinn making it big on Coronation Street.

The talent on the Lyric stage last week represented their colleagues throughout Ireland, so thank-you for rising above the trials and tribulations over the years and the years to come.

And to all of us, let's appreciate these people who give their audiences – young and old – so much.

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