Belfast Telegraph

Ones to watch: stars on the rise

The arts in Ulster are flourishing; with festivals and venues springing up all over. It's an exciting time for a new generation of film-makers, musicians and writers - although many of them still have to move away to establish their careers. 24/7 spoke to three promising, young self-starters who could be the big names of tomorrow

David Hall (24) is a playwright, originally from Belfast, now based in london

Former Methody pupil David Hall has caught the attention of the London theatre world with his dark, atmospheric play The Last Priest, based on 18th century French cleric and closet atheist, Jean Meslier.

The play has just finished a run at the well-known King's Head in Islington, a small pub-cum-theatre that has nurtured talents like Kenneth Branagh, Steven Berkoff, Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley (who's still a patron).

Hall is already in talks with an Ulster film production company with a view to expanding the drama into a screenplay.

Exciting times for Hall, who had barely graduated from Cambridge University when he got his first opening.

"I took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe the summer after I left university - purely for fun, not as a career move. But that play, Crossroad Blues, did extremely well, and a producer who saw it wanted to put on a large-scale production of it.

"Unfortunately, that same producer then went bankrupt, but by that stage I felt tied in to exploring a career in theatre."

Hall studied philosophy at Cambridge, so when an opportunity came along for a commissioned play about Jean Meslier, the subject-matter drew him like a moth to a flame.

"I got very much into the story. The historical dimension really interested me, as I've never read a lot of history, but this was a great excuse to explore - I read biographies of Voltaire and other major figures to try and get a sense of society at that time.

"Obviously, as a philosophy graduate, all the ranting against religion and the absurdities of religious fundamentalism interested me hugely and had great resonance for today.

"There are obvious parallels between the behaviour of the Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary France, and aspects of political Islam today. But I didn't want to overdo those parallels, either; I didn't want the play, which already has a great story, to turn into an allegory."

Hall is juggling a number of new projects, including trying to win the rights to adapt the novel The Master And Margarita into an opera. No less a figure than Andrew Lloyd Webber is rumoured to have considered the very same move, but was too busy with other projects.

The young Ulster writer is also putting the finishing touches to a "dark musical" called Voodoo Blues, which he was commissioned to write, and hopes to see at next year's Edinburgh Festival.

Talented though he is, Hall is quick to point out he doesn't compose the scores for his musical work. "You have to know your limitations, and when you need outside help."

He credits the "fantastic" theatre department at his old grammar school, Methodist College, for getting him hooked on theatre in the first place.

"I was always involved in school plays. I was never a great actor, but I would take smaller parts."

Of course, Cambridge University, with its Footlights society, and great investment in the arts generally, was another positive experience. It was during this time Hall abandoned acting for writing drama.

His first two plays, The Black Saint and Sinner Lady, reeled in five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, paving the way for later commissions.

Despite his successes and cautious optimism, Hall points out that disappointments go with the territory.

"If I counted all the projects I've been involved in over the last couple of years - probably around a dozen - only a couple have made it through. It is quite gutting when you have an idea and people seem interested, then six months down the line someone says, 'No, sorry, we're not interested any more'."

Interview: Una Bradley

Claire Sproule (23) is a singer-songwriter from Londonderry. She now lives in Burtonport, Co Donegal.

At just 23, Claire Sproule already has the world at her feet. She's wowed audiences with her stage presence, dazzled critics with her debut album and has the sort of natural good looks that would be irritating except she's too utterly charming to dislike.

Sproule landed her record deal with Parlophone when she was just 19. She had been studying music technology at Queen's University but left the course as soon as it became clear her dream of a career in music was about to become a reality.

"The record deal was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I've never had any regrets about leaving university," says Sproule.

At 13 she started learning guitar inspired by her dad and his Elvis Costello and Tom Waits records and later became a regular performer in Derry's Sandino's.

"I fell into it rather than going looking for it," laughs Sproule. "Before I knew it I was touring with Brian Kennedy and then Al Green, singing in the Albert Hall in front of an audience of 7,000 people."

Sproule's eponymous 2005 album was praised for its powerful simplicity and the endearingly open themes addressed in her songs. Almost immediately she was hailed as 'a new Norah Jones'. Was it a label she welcomed?

"Norah's an incredibly successful singer and it's brilliant to get the comparison but maybe when I started off it was more true. I'm a different artist now and I think now my songwriting has matured.

"My first album was very jazzy and laid-back but the new one is more funky and upbeat - it's more me."

The new album (as yet untitled) is due for release later this year with Sproule currently enjoying some well-earned rest on the east coast of Australia before she returns home in November.

Does the 23-year-old worry she may have peaked too soon? "Because I got a record label so early I feel I was thrown a bit into the deep end and there were big expectations.

"But to be honest, I just want to make a living out of it. When I pick the guitar up, whether it's in front of an audience or on my own, I get a buzz and I love that. Even if no-one else was listening to me, I would still have my music."

Interview: Chrissie Russell

Robbie Morrison (26) is a film editor, originally from outside Lisburn, Co Down, now based in London

Robbie Morrison's first day in a new job wasn't the usual; he was sending his parents phone-pictures of the James Bond stage in Pinewood Studios.

"I couldn't believe I was there. We were working beside the set of United 93, and I was nipping out to talk to its director, Paul Greengrass. They were long days - I had to get up at 5am - but it was a great experience."

Morrison had never set out to pursue a career in film or TV, but an art degree at Edinburgh University introduced him to editing.

"There were these great editing suites and I got into it - I suppose it's quite geeky really. There's lots of detail involved, lots of control - should you cut right here, or one frame later? It's very precise.

"Whether it's an ad, a music video, a cartoon or a feature film, there's so much that goes on in the editing, and I just found it really thrilling and creative."

After graduating, Morrison was doing a stint of work experience with C+C Visuals in New York - a company specialising in TV, including MTV - when he got his big break.

"A friend phoned me from London to see if I'd be interested in taking a job editing the behind-the-scenes section of the Pride And Prejudice DVD - you know, the one starring Keira Knightley. The guy who I'd be working for had done work on all these other films like Billy Elliot.

"So there I was, flying from New York back to London to work on Pride And Prejudice - it didn't feel like my life!"

Did he get to meet Keira Knightley? "I wish! No, sadly, I did not, but I haven't entirely given up hope ... "

Corporate and creative editing commissions followed, including some work for the Conservative Party and the behind-the-scenes section for the United 93 DVD.

These days Morrison is in the last phase of a two-year Master's degree in editing at the National Film and Television School (NFTS). As one of the top training establishments in Europe, NFTS is notoriously hard to get into - only a handful of people are accepted each year into their specialist courses.

It's much more hands-on than academic, Morrison explains, but he also points out he's now got a sense of the classic tradition of editing and film-making. So he wasn't a regular at the QFT then, when he was at Friends school in Lisburn, catching films by Bergman and Fellini?

"Definitely not; I was more of a fan of Gladiator and The Matrix! I have to say, I still really enjoy a good blockbuster."

He also enjoys working on animation and music videos. A piece of animation he worked on was shortlisted at this year's Depict festival, and is now doing the rounds of short-film festivals.

Also this year, Morrison won 2nd overall prize in a national competition for the best 30-second commercial.

He's due to finish NFTS in December, and hopes his three graduation films will function as 'calling cards' to the industry.

Watch this space.

Interview: Una Bradley

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