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Peter Quigley: Why we're raising curtain one more time on his remarkable career

The accomplished Belfast actor, who famously had a carnival-style funeral, will be celebrated in a week-long series of events at Linenhall Library from Monday. Ivan Little talks to those involved in ensuring his legacy lives on.

The Northern Irish theatre world's celebration of the life of one of its most colourful characters, Peter Quigley is to have an encore, eight months after the 65-year-old actor and director received a flamboyant funeral send-off complete with samba dancers and drummers.

Hundreds of people packed the Lyric Theatre in Belfast last June to say a carnival-style farewell to Peter who died four weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Bunting was erected along Ridgeway Street and friends who carried Peter's bejewelled white coffin to the theatre wore pink garlands.

People attending the funeral were urged to wear anything but black clothes and even the undertakers wore sparkly ties.

Inside the Lyric, Peter's coffin took centre stage as former colleagues paid tribute with a series of anecdotes, songs and poems and a standing ovation.

Scores of pictures of Peter in a number of his most famous roles were flashed up on a big screen.

Peter trained as a teacher and worked briefly as a hairdresser before launching a career in the theatre which spanned five decades at the old Arts Theatre and the Lyric where he was a contemporary of Liam Neeson.

He also brought Protestant and Catholic youngsters together in a series of ground-breaking youth theatre initiatives and gave a number of young actors their first breaks on stage, including Rachel Tucker who's currently starring in Wicked on Broadway.

Former Coronation Street star Suranne Jones got one of her first professional acting jobs in a Peter Quigley pantomime in the Arts Theatre.

Now Peter's friends are presenting a week-long series of play readings and performances and a screening of a recording of one of his last performances in a play called Tuesdays at Tesco's.

The tributes will be staged at the Linenhall Library in Belfast which is a particularly apt venue because the mini-festival ties in with the launch of the Peter Quigley archive at the city centre library.

Peter bequeathed a massive collection of plays and theatrical memorabilia to the Linenhall where officials are still trying to catalogue all of the treasures.

But the number of plays runs into hundreds and there are posters, programmes, newspaper reviews and theatre magazines by the dozen.

"It's quite an amazing collection," says the recently installed director of the Linenhall, Julie Andrews. "I was very surprised when I saw the extent of Peter's material. He was clearly a keen reader and the range of plays is really quite something. And they will be an important addition to our already impressive theatre archive here."

Actor Gerard McCabe, who is helping to organise the memorial events in the Linenhall, recalls: "Peter had always said that he wanted his diverse collection of plays to go somewhere useful. And there's nowhere better than the Linenhall. It will be a fantastic resource for young actors to come and access all his plays."

Julie says the week-long commemoration of Peter's life will be linked in with his archive. "It will give us a chance to show off a lot of what he has donated to us. But it will also afford us the opportunity to let people know about everything in our wonderful theatre collection, too."

Peter had boxes and boxes packed full of books and plays at his east Belfast home. But no-one appreciated just how many and varied they were until after his death when his cousin Darren took possession of them before passing them on to the Linenhall.

"Among the papers are manuscripts from plays which Peter directed over the years. And his notes are there, too," says Gerard.

A number of the plays are from small companies like Fringe Benefits and c21 that Peter set up to stage productions which the bigger theatres didn't want to put on.

All the events at the Linenhall are free and the actors who are taking part are doing so voluntarily.

"It's a superb way of keeping Peter's memory alive," says Gerard, who was directed in his first professional pantomime by Peter and encouraged by him to set up his own theatre company.

"And he helped me at a time when he was also running his own company and knew we would be going up against each other for Arts Council funding. But that was just the way of Peter. He was a very generous and supportive man," Gerard says.

Julie had also worked with Peter in her previous job running the Spectrum centre on the Shankill Road in Belfast. "He was a huge personality and a real enthusiast for the theatre. He brought one of his productions to the Spectrum and he left me with a lasting memory of him," she says.

"So I was delighted when we were approached with his collection of plays which will be available for anyone who wants to come in and read them. They won't be able to take them away but they will be more than welcome to study them here in the Linenhall."

However, Julie hopes the theatre archive will go on the road in the coming years.

"We would like to take it out into the local community to encourage people to look at examples of local writers' work and to write their own plays as well."

The job of putting all of the theatre archive's catalogue online is expected to be completed inside the next couple of years.

Library assistant Alistair Gordon, who's responsible for listing all the items in Peter's collection, says it's a fascinating sweep of theatrical gems and also includes some of the actor's own writings.

Alistair says it's one of the largest individual donations to the Linenhall archive, matched only by the archive presented to the library by the family of the late Belfast playwright Stewart Parker, who died in 1988.

Julie says Peter's contributions will serve only to enhance the library's theatre archive. "We have a collection of material from the biggest theatres like the Grand Opera House and the Lyric but we also have old programmes and posters from smaller companies and from schools.

"People maybe find them in their roof-spaces and decide they want them to have a new home in the Linenhall.

"And as well as the plays like the ones Peter gave us, we also have a number of plays which were never published and are now preserved for all time."

Gerard McCabe says it's also hoped that Peter Quigley's legacy will be commemorated in the long-term.

"I'm hoping that we can do something every year in his memory and who knows we might even try to organise a plaque to him in a theatre.

"He would have loved that," he adds.

A programme full of drama...

The programme for the Peter Quigley tribute week at the Linenhall Library includes:

  • Monday, February 15, at 6pm; launch and play reading of A Zoo Story by Edward Albee performed by Gerard McCabe and Michael Condron
  • Tuesday, February 16, at 1pm; Universal Language by David Ives performed by Richard Clements and Julie Maxwell; 6pm - A Kind of Alaska by Harold Pinter performed by Abigail McGibbon and Conor Mitchell
  • Wednesday, February 17, at 1pm; Tea in a China Cup and The Belle of Belfast City by Christina Reid performed by Seainin Brennan and Donna Sherritt; 6pm - DVD featuring Peter Quigley in Tuesday at Tesco's by Emmanuel Darley
  • Thursday, February 18, at 6pm; Excerpts from plays directed by Peter Quigley at c21 Theatre Company, performed by Mark Claney, Rachel McCabe and Stephen Beggs
  • Friday, February 19, at 1pm; Pantos directed by Peter Quigley, performed by Sheelagh O'Kane and friends; 6pm - A Slice of Saturday Night by The Heather Brothers performed by the original cast Christina Nelson, Alan McKee, Denise Kelly Brown and Mark McCrory

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