Belfast Telegraph

The theatre of dreams

As Belvoir Players begin a run of their new play, Conor O’Neill explores what drives ordinary people into the frantic whirl of amateur dramatics

Amateur theatre has forever been at the wrong end of stereotype and misconceptions. Think am-dram and images of temper tantrums, wobbly sets and below-par acting probably spring to mind.

Somehow, other groups doing what they love on an unpaid basis avoid such fuss. Paunchy, middle-aged men, charging around football pitches, sporting ‘Rooney 10' Man U shirts rarely get a mention.

Yet our amateur theatre groups who entertain, provoke thought, laughter and tears, all the while educating and showcasing some of our best home-grown talent, seem to get the bad deal.

With this in mind we set out to delve below the grease paint to find out what really goes on in the amateur thespian world.

Formed in 1968, Belvoir Players is one of the best known of Northern Ireland’s am-dram companies and, with the aid of a Lottery grant in 1998, boasts a 200-seat theatre in the Belvoir estate in south east Belfast. This state-of-the-art building is in stark contrast to the group’s former homes which have included a church hall, and a less than luxurious, yet rather romantic, hay loft in Drumbo.

Richard Mills (70), Belvoir chairman, artistic director and general overseer, has mixed feelings regarding the hay loft days and quipped: “If more than 20 people were there at any given time, they had to be very friendly. Arguments would tend to be shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face.”

The group has nearly 200 youth members and 70 adults, and while popular thinking may suggest everyone involved wishes to play the lead role, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every production requires the hard work of lighting and audio technicians, costume makers, set designers, make-up artists, caterers and front of house staff.

The group is a registered charity and runs on subscriptions from members and door receipts. It also accepts donations from other am-dram groups and organisations such as the BBC, for the use of the impressive props department. The place is magpie heaven. Trinkets, old battered leather-bound suitcases, books, canes, candle sticks, furniture, and sundry items fill every space.

Upstairs the costume department is a trip through the ages with all kinds of attire available for the production team's every whim. Those not available can easily be tailored by the group's dedicated team of costume makers, with budget and imagination being the only limits to what they can achieve.This is not what is expected from am-dram.

Unravelling The Ribbon is the group's latest play and runs until Saturday night. Written by Irish women Mary Kelly and Maureen White, the play is the touching and sometimes funny exploration of the changing relationships between Rose, her 11-year-old daughter Lyndsey, and Lola as breast cancer impacts on their lives. There are two casts for this production. Not only does it give more actors a chance to perform, but it allows for variety in the drama.

We caught up with some of the players as they were putting the final touches to set, stage and performances.

Barbara Girvin (55), from Belfast, works as a financial services director and is stage director for the play. She says: “I joined in March 2009 and I've attended a few workshops. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June, 2008 but, thankfully, after radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgery I've been in remission since the beginning of 2009.

“The cancer scare really woke me up and, considering the play's content, I just had to be involved. Richard offered me the job of stage director which is a fancy word for gopher. I take notes on Richard's direction, fix what needs to be fixed and I've been helping with costumes and front of house. It's so nice here, everyone is very welcoming and I've yet to see a hissy fit. I don't think the people here would stand for it.”

Richard McAlister (65), a retired former gas worker from Belvoir estate, and props maker, says: “Ten years ago when the place opened my kids started coming along to the group. I went down to collect them and the next thing I'd a paintbrush in my hand. I also act small parts in some of the lighter plays.

“I've played everything from traffic warden to a wicked Queen's odd-job man. We've travelled all over Ireland doing shows, and whenever we're out and about we're constantly picking up things for the props department. We're like one big family and parents can drop their kids off here knowing they'll be safe for a couple of hours.”

His son, James McAlister (16) is a student from Belvoir and company sound technician. He says: “As soon as the place opened I joined up. I was only six years old and started out in the youth chorus. I had inklings of wanting to be an actor when I was younger, but now I prefer the sound desk. My favourite production so far has been Snow White as it was the most challenging.

“I was in charge of 14 radio mikes, six overheads, one backstage mike, two wireless hand-held mikes, the mixing desk and laptop. I'm not sure if I'll do this for a career as I'm interested in computers, but I expect to be doing this for years.”

Another son, Sandy McAlister (14) is a student from Belvoir and is the lighting technician. He says: “I've been coming here since I was four. I've played numerous roles on stage; in Bugsy Malone two of my three characters died in one show.

“I prefer being backstage and I starting helping with the lights. Right now with the new play coming up, I'm here five nights a week. Dad won't let me out of the house until the homework is done, though.

“For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs I turned the lights on at the beginning and the whole lot came on and wouldn't go off. I just had to start flipping through the buttons and hoping for the best.”

Rachel Hammonds (14) is a student from Lisburn, and plays Lyndsey, the image-obsessed 11-year-old daughter. She says: “I've been coming here since I was five, but this is my first festival with the adult troupe. This is my most difficult role so far and I'm getting a bit nervous as I've to deliver a lot of long monologues. I'm not sure if I want to be an actor. At the moment this is a hobby and I've made lots of friends here.”

Pamela Mills (44) is a drama teacher at Down High in Downpatrick. As well as playing Rose in this play, Pamela is also deputy artistic director and one of the main teachers of the youth group, She says: “I help teach the youth group and act in the adult shows. Although the backdrop to this production is breast cancer, there's lots of humour. Working through such an intense play really brings the cast together and I think that's one of the best aspects of theatre.

“It's great to see the kids develop and over the years we've had many from our youth group go on to stage school. It's a complete misconception for people to look down on am-dram. Almost all actors started off as amateurs. There's no pretentiousness here and I've never had a cucumber sandwich in my life.”

Gemma Rice (44) from Downpatrick, works for a voluntary agency and plays Lola. She says: “I turned 40, wrote out a list of what I wanted to do and joined the group four years ago. For this part I've taken to putting on a southern accent, which is a challenge.

“My friends have all been supportive and come to see me when we're on and my husband said the first time he saw me perform he fell in love with me all over again. People seem to think because it's amateur it's can't be good, which is unfair. The standard here is very high.”

Margaret McAlister (54) from Belvoir is a home-maker and costume maker for the group. She says: “I've been here 10 years. We're told the title of the play and we go off and research it. We let our imaginations run riot then put our designs before the director. After that it's a matter of budget. We've 190 costumes to do for Les Miserables, so we'll be busy then. The biggest buzz is seeing our work on stage.”

Sheila Hammonds (20-plus) is a registered child minder from Lisburn and costume maker. She says: “I got involved through my two daughters nine years ago and have worked in the costumes department for five. I love the creative side and teaching the kids. Parents are forever getting roped into helping us out. I can't imagine leaving the place, especially while my kids are involved.”

Margaret McCarragher (53) is a special needs teacher from Belfast and plays Rose. She says: “I've been Belvoir since the hay loft days in 1995. I was previously with Spanner In The Works, a professional company, and I've appeared in City Of Ember, Breakfast On Pluto and Messiah 5, but acting doesn't pay. The standard here is great, the only difference is money. Richard is so passionate and puts so much into the company and seeing the wee ones coming up is great.”

Ashley Buckle (40-plus) is a housewife and mother. Originally from Cork, Ashley, who also plays Lola, moved to Belfast two years ago. She says: “I hadn't acted in 15 years but joined up a year ago. I Googled am-dram and when I saw the theatre I was blown away. I'd love to go professional but for anyone with acting aspirations I highly recommend amateur drama. If anything, the fact there's no monetary gain goes to show how committed we all are.”

Lucy McAdam (13) is a student from Belfast and plays Lyndsey. She says: “I've been here nine years and I hope to make this my profession. I've done pantos before but this is my first role with the adult troupe. Friends and family all come to the shows and there's always nerves but you soon forget about it. I get the comedy lines in this play which helps lighten what’s a really dark play; I usually do musicals so this is a big change.”

Unravelling the Ribbon runs until Saturday night at Belvoir Players' Drama Studio, Belvoir Drive, Belfast. Tickets, £8 and £6 concession, tel: 028 9049 1210

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