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Paula McFetridge: I had a really bad stutter, but I beat it for acting

Paula McFetridge, the artistic director of theatre company Kaboosh, talks to Una Brankin about overcoming adversity to follow her dream, meeting with Hollywood actor Liam Neeson and coping with a reduced budget

One afternoon in the lead-up to Christmas 2004, Paula McFetridge found herself in a New York city cafe, waiting for Liam Neeson to walk through the door. She had never met the Ballymena-born actor before and now, here she was, preparing to talk money for the Lyric Theatre rebuild.

"I had this terrible thought - 'what if I don't recognise him? It could be really embarrassing'," she recalls. "I don't know why I thought that; I just had this worry but I recognised him as soon as he walked in. He has an aura about him and he's an absolute gentleman - it was as if we'd known each other for years.

"I knew his mum Kitty from opening nights at the Lyric and he wanted to know how were things in Belfast and Ballymena. It was all so normal, I wasn't star struck at all and he'd picked the cafe, so no-one was staring at him. It's a lovely memory to have - Christmas time in New York and lunch with Liam Neeson."

This Christmas will be Paula's 10th as artistic director of Kabosh, the multi-award-winning Belfast theatre company which honours the legacy of the not too distant past, staging its innovative productions in all sorts of unpredictable venues, from historic buildings and community halls, to public houses and black taxis.

Formerly at the helm of the Lyric Theatre, Paula is also an accomplished stage actress and has appeared in television dramas with Adrian Dunbar (Force Of Duty, 2006) and in the memorable Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), set in Lurgan and starring Liam Neeson himself.

As Paula's scenes were flashbacks, in which she played the hateful mother of Neeson's screen avenger portrayed by Jimmy Nesbitt, she didn't get to meet her future benefactor on set.

"I did get to meet up with Jimmy - I'm not that much older than him but I was playing his mother in the past," she says. "I knew Jimmy through youth theatre and the Riverside, and he's always great craic. He has that charisma but he's not starry at all. He's very committed to the work and he loves to get home and socialise."

Non-theatre goers of a certain vintage might also recognise Paula from a popular TV ad for Bass ale, which helped her pay the bills while she was a fledgling young actress. The original campaign, featuring four guys in a pub, ran for a year before Paula was drafted in with the Londonderry actress Morna Regan.

"It wasn't the usual glam beer ad - they wanted real actresses," she explains. "In the ad, we all end up with froth moustaches. The catch-line was: 'Do you need a tray?'

"I got paid and it ran for two years. That kept me going for a while I was freelancing, and even then, I was always lucky getting work back-to-back."

A business acumen and good organising ability have kept Paula gainfully employed behind the scenes in the acting world, too, including her five years from 2001 to 2006 as artistic director of the Lyric. She's a whiz at maths, an aptitude she inherited from her mother Marian, a former teacher and book-keeper, originally from Belfast's Springfield Road.

Her Dublin-born father, David McFetridge, started off as a fruit trader at the Belfast markets and ended up running his own fruit shop.

Paula is the eldest of the couple's three daughters. The family lived on Finaghy Road North in west Belfast and the girls got teased for their surname, an uncommon moniker they share (minus one 't') with a hilarious blue-eyed panto dame.

"I still get slagged all the time about it," says Paula mildly. "If I didn't think so much of John Linehan (aka May McFettridge), it might have had words with him.

"Mum booked him for dad's 60th birthday party - that man has a photographic memory. He memorised the guests' names before he went on and then came out and name-checked them in his routine.

"He did about half an hour and came back out for photos. I think he's a genius and yes, he has lovely blue eyes."

Paula's fast-paced speaking voice is Belfast but without the distinctive twang of the west of the city. This is thanks to her mother, who sent her eldest to elocution lessons with a family friends, actress Maureen Dow, from the age of five. The lessons had the added advantage of curbing a speech impediment that caused Paula to stammer badly.

"I remember when I was in P2 or P3, saying that I wanted to be an actress when I grew up, and the teacher said, 'What? With a stutter like that?'

"It was really bad. I still have a variety of tics I do to stop it. Certain letters are a nightmare. Bs and fs and ks are hard for me to say - Kabosh is very hard. I get too excited and things lose the run of themselves.

"Elocution was invaluable; it gave me confidence. It's a good investment for young people. Mum didn't want us to have the 'wah-wah's' - as in sounding like an ambulance. She wanted us to talk properly.

"It does stand by you and I met a different circle of friends through it."

The young Paula went on to take the leading roles in Shakespeare productions at St Dominic's Grammar School in Belfast, under the wing of her cherished drama teacher May McHenry, a former ballet dancer "who changed my life". At 17, she joined the Belfast Community Circus School and ended up doing the can-can on stilts in London with the late Mike Moloney, founder of the circus and former director of the Prison Arts Foundation.

"I was afraid of heights but those were brilliant times," she remembers. "I miss Mike. He's dead four years; it's terrible he's gone. I got involved with the Prison Arts Foundation through him. There was such an outpouring of grief when Mike died; it's good to see different bursaries now in his name.

"I keep in touch with Nuala (McKeever, Mike's partner at the time of his death) around the anniversary time," she adds. "It's important to check in at those times.

Mike attended Paula's 2003 wedding to fellow actor/director Vincent Higgins wearing a saffron kilt, suitably flamboyant for a reception by a waterfall lit up by fireworks - a wedding gift from the artist Rita Duffy. The celebrations took place in Laragh Lodge in Glenariff, chosen for the couple's links with the area. Vincent's family roots are in nearby Glenarm and Ballymena, and the McFetridge family had a holiday caravan in Ballymena.

Paula and Vincent met when they played boyfriend and girlfriend in Anne Devlin's play, After Easter, at the Lyric in the autumn of 1994.

"It was love at first sight I'm afraid, yes," she dead-pans. "We're the ultimate cliche. Eddie McIlwaine put a picture of us in his Belfast Telegraph with a heart around it and said we were going to get married on stage at the end of the run.

"I was always very fond of him - I got on to him and said 'what?' And he said he could always put us in again the next week with a big split down the heart."

In keeping with her feminist leanings, the bride kept her birth name: “Vincent wouldn’t take mine — why should I take his? And there are only us three girls, so I wanted to keep the name alive in Belfast. All the rest of dad’s relatives are in Dublin.”

Like her parents, Paula’s sisters Nuala and Grainne are accomplished at sports. Nuala, a retired civil servant, was a goal keeper for Andersonstown-based Donegal Celtic Ladies Football Club. While Grainne, a cardio nurse at the RVH and mother to Paula’s much loved nephew and nieces, won three Ulster medals for running. And her parents David, (81), and Marian, (77), were both excellent golfers and prominent members of Balmoral Golf Club in south Belfast.

“I played a bit too, in Ballycastle, but everyone expected you to be brilliant and I couldn’t compete with my sporty sisters,” Paula admits. “But I was lucky to take after mum in being good at maths. I can work on budgets easily.”

The boss’s skill with numbers and organisational abilities have been needed more than ever at Kabosh this year. In March, a 44% cut in its funding was announced by the Arts Council, from £107,000 a year to £60,000.

They had applied for £115,000 to support the three full time positions, including Paula’s, and to employ more than 100 staff for upcoming projects, including a production to commemorate the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement and an event to be staged at the Seamus Heaney centre.

“It was an incredible shock; it did really upset me personally,” she admits. “It was very difficult to deal with — I didn’t see it coming. We were opening the Belfast Festival with Green and Blue (written by author and former PIRA prisoner who took part in the 1981 hunger strike, Laurence McKeown and directed by Paula) about relations between the RUC and Gardai, which sparked animated conversations about the past which wouldn’t have happened without the show.

“We took it to South Africa, to the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, and it sold out — performing to 3,000 people in the open air. And we’ve been invited back. It’s frustrating (funding cuts) but the board has been brilliant — they kept telling us how good we are.

“I’m just annoyed I can’t give people more money and employment. I get enquiries from groups with ideas for shows all the time. It eats you up; you just have to keep doing what you do best.”

Kabosh has been able to secure two years’ funding from a trust in London but has been unable to fill their advertised post for a communications officer, meaning that Paula and her two colleagues have to manage their public and community relations work themselves.

Given the success of productions such as Belfast By Moonlight, one of Paula’s personal highlights in her 10 years with Kabosh, why was it hit so much harder than other arts companies?

“If I had the answer to that I’d bottle it,” she quips. “Everyone has their theories. It was nothing to do with the quality of our work or our business model. We keep ticket prices and costs low. We do a hard sell through social media; we use Twitter a lot to target specific audiences.

“It has been a tough, yet very successful year, for us. More work for less money — but we’re a tight wee team of three and we’ve been touring more since the cut was announced, and keeping the focus on work that can be revived. That works well — people are still fascinated by the idea of an event in a non-theatre. And theatre is such an important way of bringing the legacy of the past to the fore.”

Her love of drama was encouraged early by her theatre-going mother. They are very close and she recalls Marian attending all her opening nights at the Lyric in a red coat “so I could spot her”. Sadly, Marian suffered a major stroke seven weeks ago and is still in hospital. “She’s not well; she’ll be in care for a while. As she says herself, she’s had a good innings but it is awful. We’re very close and ridiculously alike. She was Ladies Captain at Balmoral Golf Club and secretary for eight years and ran all sorts of hooleys and competitions for St Michael’s Church beside us, camogie matches and plays.

“She loved theatre and always came to the Lyric glammed up in that red coat. Dad would say, seriously, you’re not wearing that again?’ She was never behind the door. My teacher May McHenry would come all glammed up, too.”

Next weekend Paula turns 50, the age of invisibility for a lot of women, especially actresses. Like many of us, she often sees her mother staring back at her from the looking glass these days.

“I’m the spit of her. I look in the mirror and it freaks me out. How did that happen? It’s hard to believe it’s 50 years — you look back at the first 20 and realise what you have lived though.

“You still feel young and you think you have to have achieved so much by the time you’re 50. But I feel lucky — I’m in the fortunate position to be doing visible creative work and I’m invigorated by other peoples’ enthusiasm.”

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