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Waxing Lyrical about our incredible theatre

By Frances Burscough

Published 24/10/2015

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

According to our Culture Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, “art has turned its back on communities” in Northern Ireland. This statement — made last week at a Queens University think-tank — would be laughable if it wasn’t so offensive to all the organisations, performers and artists working so hard and with such passion purely to enrich our humdrum lives here. On what facts she bases that outrageous comment God only knows, but in the wake of so many cuts to arts funding in Belfast and beyond it sounds like the pot calling the kettle black and then punching it firmly on the spout.

What I want to know is when was the last time she went to a play, a concert, a film, a show, a reading, an art exhibition or installation or any of the many, many creative events which take place in our vibrant city on a daily basis? Because if she was as tuned in as she thinks she is — and she ought to be, given her position — she would see how inclusive and all-encompassing they always are. Not just in spite of, but also because of our troubled history. Not only in spite of the funding cuts but despite them.  It is absolute nonsense to claim otherwise and for a Northern Ireland politician of all people to do so almost beggars belief.

For a case in point, let me tell you about a recent personal experience with just one of the organisations she was criticising. 

My younger son who has just left school  and is a very gifted actor had set his heart on a career on the stage. He had applied to all the major drama schools in the UK and had got through to the final audition stage at every one. They all said the same thing. He was exactly the kind of student they were looking for and had all the skills and attributes, but in order for him to gain a place on a three year course he would be expected to attend their preliminary Foundation Course. In general, these lasted for one year and cost around £10,000 for the tuition fees alone. I suppose it is their way of generating revenue, but for us it was a disaster.

As I’m a self-employed single parent, struggling to keep my head above water at the best of times, this was not an option. After hearing the same thing at six different colleges he finally had to accept that this wasn’t going to happen and he started to lose hope.

But then we heard about a special and rather unique training scheme which is on offer at The Lyric Theatre right here in Belfast. The Lyric Drama Studio is a course specifically for school leavers considering a career in acting. It’s led by experienced local and international practitioners and culminates in a full-scale production at the end of the second term. What’s more, the course helps and supports students to go forward to full-time drama schools and has a high success rate of securing places at major institutions including RADA in London and The Lir Academy in Dublin. It doesn’t matter where applicants are from or what their background is, as long as they have a raw talent they will be seriously considered. And apart from a nominal entry fee, the course is free.  

After a number of tough auditions and interviews, my son was offered a place and now he is getting the opportunity of a lifetime, treading the boards and loving every minute of it. Instead of a closed door, now all the world’s a stage.

This is just one of the many projects involving the community that the Lyric is involved with, despite cuts of 10 per cent to its funding this year alone. Indeed the Theatre has an entire department — Creative Learning — which was set up specifically to involve the community as a whole and to eradicate the outdated notion (perpetuated by the ignorant) that drama is simply a pastime for the upper echelons of society. Creative Learning have projects and productions coming up which involve the Prison Service, PSNI, local schools, colleges and community groups which include various forms of theatre training, adult learning, careers advice and stage craft workshops.

Is that enough community involvement for you, Ms Ni Chuilin?

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