The Lyric Theatre has won tremendous acclaim for its latest production, the Northern Ireland premiere of Brian Friel's The Home Place.
How many teenagers, sitting watching in the stalls, will be inspired by the performance of actors like Conleth Hill and Miche Doherty, and plan their own career under the spotlight?
A quarter of a century ago, one of the teenagers determined to make his mark on the stage was a young man called Hill.
Conleth, then 18, had just left school, and was planning to start at art college. His mother spotted an advertisement in this very paper, about a theatre company called Fringe Benefits, and he decided to find out more. He auditioned, was accepted, and began a lifelong career in the theatre.
Founded by, amongst others, David Grant, the inspiration for so many theatrical events in Belfast, the semi-professional company offered a way for young people to steer a course through the world of drama.
Cathy McCullough was another of the Fringe Benefits’s founders, and she recalls the hectic weekly meetings, when members would attend workshops taken by professional writers and directors.
“It was a hectic and happy time,” she recalls. “A blend of |professional and amateur. We met in the Crescent Arts Centre, and worked together to stage productions which were often the first time many of these young people had taken part in a play or whatever.
“Back then, there wasn't that much on offer for young people who wanted to learn stage craft. And I'm proud to think back at the list of young actors who went on to make their names once they left Fringe Benefits — Conleth, Michelle Fairley, Sean Kearns, Miche Doherty, Richard Orr... and they were taught by others like Martin Lynch, Peter Quigley and Liz Kennedy about writing, acting, directing. Great days.”
In fact they were so good that, 25 years on, Cathy has decided to establish a new Fringe Benefits company, in the hope that she can encourage a new generation of performers.
This time around, Conleth will be one of the professionals invited to give workshops to young people keen to learn his craft.
“When I joined Fringe Benefits as a teenager, I learned so much,” he says. “It was there that I was introduced to Beckett, performed in my first Friel play. I remember attending courses run by the Lyric's director Patrick Sandford, and taking part in productions that were staged on a shoestring. I looked forward to going along every week.”
Fringe Benefits had such a lasting influence on Conleth that he's keen to play a part in its future. And Cathy is, of course, delighted to have him on board.
“It's so important to me to re-establish Fringe Benefits,” she says. “I feel there's a gap here that hasn't been filled since we were here. I want to grow our own writers, and put a bit of excitement back into theatre in Belfast.”
The new company will be launched later this month, at the Crescent Arts Centre's temporary offices on the Ormeau Road. Cathy will be holding auditions for anyone aged 25 and over.
“Before long, I hope we'll be putting on the same type of shows that were so successful back in the 1980s,” she said. “We used to have an event called Six Packs — six shows between 6pm and midnight. It gave us such a buzz. There's just as much talent here today to do the same thing all over again. Fringe Benefits is going to be like a big butterfly net — we'll catch it all and put it on show!”
If you're interested in auditioning contact the Crescent Arts Centre for more details.