Boland on the Boards

Michelle Heffernan Reports

It’s been 20 years since Mary Boland and I shared a tête-à-tête. Sitting across from me in the Theatre Royal Café, I feel I am 10 years old all over again, receiving her sincere gaze of motherly warmth and affection. This was the woman who brought me and 19 other Waterford kids to Japan back in 2000, when Little Red Kettle took part in the Toyama World festival of Children’s Theatre, Japan. It is only now, that I as a woman closer to the age Mary was then that I realise the absolute enormity of what she did for me, for Waterford children and for Waterford theatre.
“That entire experience was the highlight of my career to date,” she tells me. I’m speechless now at the mere idea of it. Not only did she take me, a kid she had no duty or obligation to, but 20 nine to twelve-year-olds olds across the globe. In 1999, Mary was working as Director of Children’s Programmes at Little Red Kettle, when celebrated director and friend Jim Nolan dropped in with an information leaflet inviting applications to the Toyama World Festival of Children’s Theatre in Japan.
“‘What do you think?’” he said. ‘Well golly’, I said, ‘we’ll apply, I suppose’.” The Little Red Kettle group were that year announced as the only UK or Irish children’s theatre group invited to the festival. “I remember the morning we were leaving,” Mary says “I hadn’t slept the night before and there were mothers clinging to me, begging me to mind their baby. It was truly enormous.”

Do you remember the journey home? she asks me. Did someone get sick on the plane, I said, searching for the memory.
“That’s what we told you!” she reveals to me. A passenger had died of Deep Vein Thrombosis mid-flight, causing the plane to divert to Frankfurt and leave Mary, crew and 20 Irish homesick kids stranded. She begins to well up now even recalling the weight of stress and emotion involved in that entire project.
“When we finally got back go Waterford, I saw my father and I broke into tears. But that whole experience, it was the making of me.”
Not surprisingly, this is a woman who was brought up to love art, love people and embrace all labours. Daughter of renowned hotelier and dramatist Charlie Boland, she and her six siblings spent their early years living in and running the Candlelight Inn in Dunmore East. “We were all working from the age of 14,” she tells me. “It gave us a love of people, entertaining others and a really great work ethic.”

Mary Boland, pictured with the Little Red Kettle cast and crew departing for Japan in 2000

Mary Boland, pictured with the Little Red Kettle cast and crew departing for Japan in 2000

At 17, Mary began volunteering for Red Kettle Theatre Company. “I was brought into Garter Lane to meet all the team and I just thought, oh my God, this I where I want to be!” Having graduated from the Trinity College Samuel Beckett Diploma in Theatre Studies, Mary returned to the Red Kettle team and was pivotal in advancing the company from professional theatre group to patron of arts for children. “I remember Ben (Hennessy) and Liam (Meagher) doing a workshop with a group by The Folly. I marched out of the hall and called the Director of Red Kettle there and then telling him what those guys needed. I think I knew my place then!”
Not surprisingly, in 1997 Mary became Children’s Programmes Director of Little Red Kettle, making it her mission give local children access to the arts.

“Our brief was to reach every single child in Waterford city and county.” The group toured Waterford schools with their Christmas play and began production of the Little Red Kettle summer play, an experience that has featured as a wonderful rite of passage for many a Waterford child. “I ticked every box, I got everything organised. Ben and Liam got the plays on stage but I did everything else.” The Little Red Kettle that Mary spearheaded was a unique and magnificent vehicle for children’s growth and creativity.
“Nationally, there was no other company doing work like it,” Mary recalls. “The bottom line was the experience of those kids, what they got out of it, and to give the kids the opportunity to be the actor they wanted to be.”

Following the death of her father and birth of her first child, Mary took a well deserved step back from her hectic role, and re-examined her priorities.
“The most important things to me in life are my children, my family, my friends then my work,” she told me.
She resigned from her position at Red Kettle in 2006 and, following a year of contract work, was invited to join Theatre Royal as acting manager.
“I was asked to step in for three months,” she says “and I’ve been here ever since!”
While the role has been enormously challenging, Mary has proved her prowess again in transforming the theatre into both an artistic and commercial success.
“It really is in such a good place now,” says Mary. “Commercially, we’re getting big names in comedy and music, and artistically we’re looking more and more into supporting the emerging arts scene.”

Mary feels a huge part of this progress is down to the dedicated team she manages and nurtures. “The team that are currently here are a body of people who are essentially all on the same page. Everyone is focused on same results. Everyone loves the building, has passion for it and its patrons…I think were only at the start of where we wanted to go commercially and artistically.” And while Mary has every reason to be proud of the commercial success she has cultivated there, she remains humbly focused on her role as artistic liaison, making arts and theatre available to all members of society. “I would like to see the Theatre Royal used by every member of Waterford society regardless of their age and artistic endeavours,” she says. “At the Theatre Royal, we are all aware we are only ’stewards’. We don’t own the building. We’re only minding it. We tell our patrons this is YOUR theatre not ours. It’s here for you, it’s yours, come and use it!”

As Mary departs for what I’m sure is a busy afternoon ahead, I hug her graciously for the hard work she has done for me, and so many of my peers.
Any final words of advice, I ask, before wrapping up on our nostalgic chat. “Whatever you do, do it well and make yourself proud,” she tells me. “And never stop learning, oh God never stop learning.” And with that I’m truly glad that 20 years later, I have found this woman once more, and have discovered that she is still labouring spiritedly to make positive changes for art, for individuals, and for Waterford. Many thanks, Mary. Many thanks.

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