Elizabeth Howard: Painting the Town Red

The late Waterford actress Anna Manahan in ‘Happy Birthday Dear Alice’ in 1994

The late Waterford actress Anna Manahan in ‘Happy Birthday Dear Alice’ in 1994

Delving deep into the Red Kettle archives

Dónal O’Flynn
Tramore woman Elizabeth Howard, a student of Waterford Institute of Technology, has undertaken a doctoral research study into the history of the legendary but now sadly defunct Red Kettle Theatre Company. As a result of this work she is now about to present an exhibition of material from the company’s archives at Garter Lane Arts Centre. Elizabeth has kindly granted The Munster Express an exclusive preview of some of her favourite items. First however, I thought it would be good to get to know the woman herself a little better.

“Growing up in Tramore, my parents always encouraged me to follow the path I was most interested in. I wanted to work in theatre and acting from a very young age. After a (failed!) attempt at a music degree in UCC I moved to London and took acting classes at the Central School of Speech and Drama. After doing some acting work in London and in Ireland, I decided to go back to university and get a degree in drama. I attended the University of Chester for three years where I was introduced to the history and theory of theatre and got a chance to make and perform my own work which I found extremely rewarding. My final performance was an autobiographical piece that looked to nature and politics to place myself in the world.

Jenni Ledwell in The Glass Menagerie at Garter Lane in 1989

Jenni Ledwell in The Glass Menagerie at Garter Lane in 1989

I returned home to Waterford after that and worked in the city as a stage manager for a year, and continued to make my own work. However, I felt that my skills in making were underdeveloped and although I loved working in the industry I was hungry for more academic based learning. Because I attained a double first in my degree from Chester I felt confident in the academic world, and I decided to return to London for further study. For the next two years I studied part-time at Goldsmiths College, and attained a Masters in Performance Making.

Group photo taken during production of 1995’s ‘The Crucible’

Group photo taken during production of 1995’s ‘The Crucible’

Goldsmiths was such a wonderful experience because I worked with artists from all over the world and I was introduced to styles and forms of theatre and performance that expanded my repertoire and enhanced my whole approach to critiquing and understanding what theatre means and why people do it. After Goldsmiths I took on a variety of theatre roles such as front of house manager, stage manager, producer and performer.”

So what motivated Elizabeth to take on the doctoral study?

“One day in 2013 I was on Facebook and my friend Kate McCarthy had advertised that WIT was offering a scholarship for someone to complete doctoral research into the Red Kettle archive. It felt like a great opportunity to study some more and forge a career in academia. I applied and here I am, three years later!

Red Kettle was at the heart of Waterford’s theatre infrastructure when I was growing up and the company had such a great local and national reputation. The standing the company had, its engagement with the city in a number of ways and the standards of excellence in the work it produced made Red Kettle a very interesting subject matter and the large archive that was built up over the 29 year trajectory of the company provided a rich primary research source. An attractive feature of the archive from an academic point of view was that it was previously un-documented and it therefore offered a lot of opportunity for interpretation.

Red Kettle presented ‘Agamemnon’ in 1986

Red Kettle presented ‘Agamemnon’ in 1986

Red Kettle emerged from a community arts group called Waterford Arts-for-All and following this progression provides clues to the cultural pathways that were created for the company to evolve when and as it did. For example, Arts Council development policies had created optimum conditions for the growth of regional theatre.

Therefore, my research cross-references the information held in the Red Kettle archive with that of the files that the Arts Council holds on the company and the files the Council holds on Arts-for-All. The Arts Council had the resources to employ professional archivists and so the files there are meticulously kept. Cross-referencing is really useful because it helps to fill the gaps in the research, especially from the early days of Red Kettle.”

Letter 1

Letter 2

What form does the archive take?

“When the company closed in 2014 the archive was donated to the City of Waterford. WIT agreed to house it and it is currently stored in the Luke Wadding Library on the Cork Road Campus. Kieran Cronin, the developmental librarian at WIT and the co-curator of this exhibition is the gatekeeper of the archive and in the coming years he hopes to digitise it. It will be a big job because there are one hundred and eighty one box-files of information, numerous posters, hundreds of photographs and a few boxes of miscellaneous stuff such as surplus scripts and trophies and awards. Archive work is really interesting because it allows you to access the past in a tangible way. Sometimes you can get a real sense of what a production was like, and what the atmosphere that built up around it felt like because of the artefacts that were kept.”

Can you give us a flavour of the different items that will be on show at Garter Lane?

“We have selected items such as letters, posters, photographs, programmes, flyers and newspaper reviews that give a flavour of and reflect this relationship. However, the lifeblood of the exhibition is a short film that records some interviews with people who were instrumental in the company’s development. This will be projected onto the gallery wall and the artefacts will hang around it. On opening night there will be a live element to the exhibition. I will be included as part of the exhibition and this is intended to be a reference to my research, the performance origins of the archive and the new academic and educational frame within which the archive sits.”

What was the most surprising or amusing item that you found amongst the paraphernalia?

“There are lots of funny photographs, especially for the production of Dario Fo’s ‘The Pope and the Witch’. I laughed out loud at those and also as I got to know the people who worked with the company through the artefacts stored in the archive, I find some of the correspondence quite amusing! However, my favourite item is a letter that Jim Nolan received from a group of people after they saw ‘The Gods Are Angry, Miss Kerr’.

It was their first time in the theatre, and the story resonated with the stories their parents had told them of life as a worker in the jute factory. It’s a really touching letter and in addition to demonstrating what an important moment in Waterford’s theatrical history ‘The Gods Are Angry, Miss Kerr’ was, it identifies the power of theatre as a social intervention.”

Does the archive contain anything like minutes of meetings and other such paperwork? If so what can they tell us about the demise of the organisation?

“The archive reflects the entire story of Red Kettle, and the company’s demise is part of that. It was a very complex process that happened over a number of years and my PhD investigates and interrogates Red Kettle’s closure within the context of a national theatre infrastructure that was constantly changing. Red Kettle was such a wonderful organisation and it touched the lives of so many local people. For many reasons, it’s such a shame that Waterford no longer has a professional theatre company. The exhibition aims to be a celebration of the company’s achievements, and it offers an insight into an aspect of Waterford’s theatrical history. By looking at the past, visions of the future can open up, and hopefully some local bright spark will come to the exhibition, see what is possible and light up Waterford’s theatre scene again.”

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