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Caravanning with the Paisleys, a 'mad' decision to study medieval literature, and my secret new play - meet the Lyric's writer-in-residence

Excited to be the Lyric's resident writer, Rosemary Jenkinson is, nonetheless, tight-lipped about the projects waiting in the wings

By Lee Henry

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson is talking about the first time she realised putting her thoughts down on paper could be a risky business. "I kept a diary from the age of eight up until the age of 13," she reveals, "when one of my fellow boarders at Friends School in Lisburn read some comments in it that weren't remotely complimentary about her and fell out with me. Sometimes writing can still get me into trouble when people perceive likenesses of themselves in my work."

Her new colleagues at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast - where the 49-year-old has just this week taken up a new full-time role as writer-in-residence for 2017 - will no doubt be on their best behaviour. There will be smiles all round, coffees served sharpish, doors held open at every turn, lest one of Belfast's finest scribes turn her questioning eye and cutting pen on them.

Jenkinson will spend the first few months of her tenure as the creative heartbeat of the Lyric, working on something "very different from anything I have done before", though she refuses to reveal specific details at this stage. The subject of the new play, or plays, will "remain secret for now", with only Lyric Theatre artistic director Jimmy Fay clued in. Only he, then, presumably, is safe.

Jenkinson, of course, laughs off any such suggestion that she will stalk the Lyric corridors on the lookout for material. Rather, she's "incredibly proud" to have been offered the position of writer-in-residence at one of the UK and Ireland's most respected and successful producing theatres, and intends to make the most of her time there.

"I've been into the Lyric twice this week and have done some writing in the cafe," she says.

"But it's going to take a bit of time to get used to. I'm comfortable sitting at home writing in my pyjamas and snacking unhealthily on chocolate and crisps. Not that you need a title to be a writer, but the fact that such a prestigious producing theatre as the Lyric supports and endorses my work is a wonderful boost."

The Lyric has always been there for Jenkinson, part of the fabric of the city in which she was born and raised, along with her 52-year-old brother David, in a "comfortable house in the leafy suburbs just off the Upper Newtownards Road, coincidentally in the house next door to where (novelist) Glenn Patterson now lives".

Her father James (79), a former master mariner, and mother Denise (82), an art teacher, brought Rosemary up to embrace her creative side.

As a family unit, the Jenkinsons attended panto at the Grand Opera House and Rosemary remembers visiting the old Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street as a student, where she saw Macbeth and A Streetcar Named Desire, "though I always shied away from acting in plays at school".

"I grew up in the 1970s and had a great childhood, I must admit," she says. "We had a caravan in Ballywalter, in the same campsite as Ian Paisley, as it happens, and I used to see him playing swingball with his kids. It was great fun.

"In east Belfast, I remember playing in the back garden and hearing bombs going off in the city centre. There was one occasion when we had a bomb scare in our street but, overall, it was an idyllic childhood. I wasn't deeply touched by the Troubles, if I'm honest, though I think the images of it always sink into your psyche. I've rarely written about them. I write about contemporary Northern Ireland."

Literature was an 'ever-present joy' in Jenkinson's life. She devoured the work of Enid Blyton, Ethel Turner and LM Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, before her teens, and credits her parents with her voracious appetite for reading.

"My parents bought me tons of books," Jenkinson remembers. "My mother, in particular, had a lot of novels in the house, so I read Wuthering Heights at age 14. It blew me away. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, was a special favourite because it was about a girl who kept a diary. I definitely inherited my mother's artist's eye, I just chose a different medium."

Aged 11, with her parents having relocated to Dundrum in Co Down, Jenkinson was sent off to boarding school in Lisburn, 23 miles away. It was a formative experience, she admits, but not without its challenges - a world away from the cheesy, cheerful, harmless seclusion of Hogwarts and St Trinian's.

"When I first went, I was excited. I thought boarding school would be exactly how it was portrayed in cinema, with parties and midnight feasts galore. How wrong I was. We couldn't do much of anything, as the boarding mistress always caught us and gave us dictation - boarding school speak for detention.

"The first week I was there, us new arrivals had to undergo horrible initiation ceremonies called The Stars, one of which included being thrown into a cold bath. The problem with boarding school, of course, is that it breeds bullying, but as a kid you just accept things and get on with it by trying to have as much fun as possible. Nevertheless, it was really hard to be separated from my parents and home comforts."

At the University of Durham, in the north east of England, Jenkinson chose to study Medieval Literature. In hindsight, she confesses, it was a "mad" decision - "I was trying to be different and alternative" - and one reflective of her then rebellious nature. She was refused entry into Cambridge, despite achieving four As at A-level, for example, after her then principal wrote a report critical of her behaviour.

"Would I study Medieval Literature now?" Jenkinson ponders. "I wouldn't think so. I love contemporary literature too much. That course didn't suit me, so while attending university I wasn't studious at all.

"I had a good time, socially. I played for Durham women's cricket team and was also part of the shooting club, but I always got teased for being a girl with a gun from Northern Ireland. It was a bit of a cliche even then."

After graduating, and "obsessed" with English playwright Joe Orton, notable for his "jet black, anarchic humour", Jenkinson set about her creative writing in earnest.

A multiple Arts Council of Northern Ireland awardee, her debut collection of short stories, Contemporary Problems Nos 53 & 54, was published by Lagan Press, while her plays, including The Bonfire, The Lemon Tree and Meeting Miss Ireland, gained widespread critical acclaim.

Jenkinson has also written plays for BBC Radio 3 and 4, and took up her first artist-in-residence position with the National Theatre Studio in London in 2010. It has set her in good stead for the challenge that lies ahead at the Lyric.

"I'm proud to part of a theatre that was founded by a woman with a strong artistic vision such as Mary O'Malley," Jenkinson declares. "To think that the Lyric started off in Mary's living room and is now such a stunning building, housing great work, is testament to what one woman can do within the arts. I can only dream of making such an impact.

"The cuts to the arts in recent years have been disproportionately harsh, so it's a real privilege to have a monthly wage as a writer. I'm so grateful to the patron behind this award, whom I understand prefers to remain anonymous.

"I honestly can't understand how Stormont claims that it wants Belfast to be a vibrant, cultural city when it won't support artists. Building multi-million pound arts venues is purposeless when you don't fund the creation of any art to fill them. I certainly don't think it's right to over-promote CS Lewis, whom the vast majority of tourists don't even connect to Belfast. It's surely far better to promote living writers from Belfast writing amazing work about Belfast."

Jenkinson, it's true, is unlikely to go about her business in the shadows. Though she is not yet comfortable enough to emulate the first of the Lyric's modern writers-in-residence, Owen McCafferty, who wrote the majority of his new work in the Lyric Theatre cafe among the patrons and the tourists and the staff, Jenkinson does hope to make the Lyric "a home from home" as soon as she possibly can.

For now, however, she remains tight-lipped about the topics, themes and characters she might explore and create in her own original work, though she concludes that anyone hoping for a satirical swipe at "the American situation" will ultimately be disappointed.

"I'd love to write plays about Trump and Brexit," Jenkinson adds, "but often the problem with writing about politics is that the situation changes and it becomes yesterday's news very quickly. If we had more money in arts, we could have some sort of artistic equivalent of a rapid reaction unit and we could really spearhead social protest.

"But I'm sure I'll keep finding new subjects. I'm just grateful that I have the opportunity.

"That's the great thing about establishments like the Lyric Theatre - they enable conversation. Can you see me being asked to work as an artist-in-residence in a bank? They couldn't bear the thought of what I might write about them!"

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