Waterford Dramatic Society celebrates 80 years of bringing theatre to appreciative local audiences this month, with a production of A LIFE by Hugh Leonard, in association with Fight for Sight.
Founded in October 1935, WDS has had a constant and much-loved presence on Waterford’s drama scene ever since. Frieda Ryan, who has been involved with the Society since the 80s, said WDS is thought to be the longest running amateur drama group in continuous existence, having survived the popularity of ‘the pictures’ in its early years, the arrival of television in the 50s and 60s and the surge of a ‘plethora of drama groups and companies both amateur and professional in more recent years’.
Some of Waterford’s and Ireland’s most famous theatre, radio, TV and film personalities have worked with WDS in both amateur and professional capacities over its long history, amongst them the late Anna Manahan, who débuted with the society at the age 17. Anna directed their 60th anniversary production, Juno and the Paycock by Seán O’Casey. Jim Nolan, Waterford’s best known playwright, acted in and directed a number of key productions over the years, while WDS also presented plays by the late James Cheasty. This, according to Frieda, is by no means a complete roll call!
The four Keane sisters – Geri (Oakes), Bernie (Kane), Anne (Mekitarian, who now resides in Kildare) and Margaret (who lives in Canada) have been involved with WDS since the 60s. Bernie is the costume designer on the upcoming production of A Life while Geri, who has been involved with WDS shows since the tender age of 7, directs.
Geri was first brought to productions in the little theatre in Henrietta Street (now Gallwey’s Café) by her older sister Anne, now a well-known drama teacher, director and adjudicator. She rejoined the society in the 80s and has been involved in one capacity or another in most WDS productions ever since.
“My oldest memory of WDS is spending weekend afternoons curled up in the corner of the rehearsal room in Number 10 Henrietta Street, before it was converted into the Little Theatre space. I loved watching the process from which the final production evolved. I was far too young to understand most of what was happening but it fascinated me and continues to do so to this day.
“At the ripe old age of 7 or 8, I read for a part in “Blind Man’s Buff”, which was directed by John Franklin. I didn’t have the confidence at the time to do it but I always felt that some day I’d give it another go. Life took me in various directions for several years but I eventually joined WDS in 1985. My first experience saw me reading the News from the “Tormentors” in the Theatre Royal when there was a slight technical malfunction during another Hugh Leonard play: “The Last of the Last of the Mohicans”. Quite an experience, especially when I ran out of script and had to improvise until the actor had recovered sufficiently to remember to switch me off!
“That was the start and here I am 30 years later. I’ve been onstage, backstage, front of house and now in the role of director. Many good friends made, some who are no longer with us, unfortunately, and wonderful memories over those years, which will remain with me forever.”
Geri’s sister Anne caught the acting bug after she went to her first audition in Waterford’s court house and she went on to spend many happy years performing with some legendary local actors.
“It was a very formal occasion – one had to audition BEFORE being accepted as a MEMBER of WDS! And then wait nearly 2 weeks to be told whether you had been accepted. My first part was Susan in Ill Met By Moonlight written by Micheál Mac Liammóir. It starred Marjorie Hutchinson, Willie Malone and Davy Condon.
“Professional directors (aka producers) were engaged twice a year to ‘produce’ the plays for the Theatre Royal. The late great Jim Fitzgerald produced The Crucible by Arthur Miller in March 1961. I played Abigail Williams, the juvenile lead. Jim Fitzgerald was a household name even then – starring as Jim Lonigan in the The Kennedys of Castleross – Radio Éireann’s lunchtime soap. He was an incredibly inspiring theatre director. He later became Head of Drama in Telefís Eireann.
“For years all rehearsals took place in the Court House and all performances in the Theatre Royal. But then we acquired Number 10 Henrietta Street, which became our very own rehearsal space and evolved into our tiny 45 seat theatre, of which we were inordinately proud. We called it NUMBER 10 not only because it was its actual street number, but because the late (and greatly loved) Teddy O ‘Regan had just starred as a Harold MacMillan lookalike in The Less We are Together by John Purcell O’Donovan, with a recurring invitation to all and sundry to call to see him ‘at Number 10!’ I was with the WDS for nearly 9 years before moving to Dublin in 1969 – but those years had a profound effect on me. I LOVED every moment! Here’s to the next 80 years!”
Unlike her sisters, costume designer Bernie says the place to be at WDS productions is back stage!
“I first joined WDS when it was operating from Henrietta Street. During the Summer seasons I helped out with Front of House and served tea and coffee at the interval each night. I was in two plays: “Picnic” in the Theatre Royal and “All Set for Birmingham” in the Little Theatre.
“Over quite a number of years I helped out with costumes, and in the last few years I’ve been responsible for costumes in “Sive”, “Red Roses and Petrol”, “The House of Bernarda Alba”, “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean!”, “The Plough and the Stars” and “The Factory Girls”, to name but a few. A particular memory which stands out for me is sorting Tobie Hickey’s costume in “Translations”!! I always enjoy being backstage …….. It’s the place to be in my opinion!”
Given the enormous impact that WDS had on her life, Margaret Keane, who now resides in British Columbia, can’t believe she was only involved with the group for five years!
“Was I really only actively involved for five years? Is it possible that such a short period could have such an impact on one’s life? It was a very exciting time for me and I would hazard a guess even more exciting for the dedicated core of veteran members who formed the backbone of the society at that time.
“The premises at 10 Henrietta Street became ours not too long after I joined. Working with legends – Willie Malone, Teddy O’Regan, Mary O’Regan, Marie Burke, Dorothy Caldwell, Denis McGrath, Marjorie and Donal Gough – the list goes on – I learned a great deal, both do’s and don’ts about the basic needs of a theatre. Thirty years later as I taught my drama students in Prince George, British Columbia, to construct lights for our classroom presentations using tin cans and floodlight bulbs, I tipped my hat to the WDS for the inspiration.
“When No. 10 Little Theatre opened in 1964, it must have been a great challenge to tailor performance to such a small space. I have a clear memory of Maureen O’Carroll sweeping the kitchen floor and a man in the front row raising his feet off the floor to clear her way! It was a rousing success and was attended by many illustrious patrons. Ernest Blythe travelled from Dublin – no doubt to check up on our use of the Arts Council.
“Teddy cast me in my first role: Ellie Irwin in “In Search of Valour” by Teresa Deevy. Fintan O’Connell, Pat Barron, John Wallace and Mary O’Regan completed the cast. Working in “A Man for All Seasons” with Teddy, Willie, Davy Condon, Dorothy, Sally Grace, Tom Smith, Bob Chestnut, Dick Doyle, Terry O’Sullivan and Noel Richards was a great privilege. Jim Fitzgerald was our amazing director. My horizons have expanded further since then thanks to the DLI Summer School but the seeds were sown in the WDS.
“Presenting the works of Synge was a bit of a departure for WDS in the early 60’s. This genre was considered Tourist Fare – targeted towards Americans. I believe we ran somewhere between 8 to 12 weeks, 3 nights per week with two fully interchangeable casts to accommodate summer vacations. During one Summer Season Liam Clancy was operating his steakhouse at T& H Doolin’s. We had an arrangement to entice tourists – a special offer of Steak Dinner, Horse and Carriage Ride to NO. 10 ending with an evening of Irish theatre.
Liam intimated that he had played Christy Mahon some years ago and would love to do it again. A third Christy Mahon was launched into our flexible cast and we went into rehearsal – short and intensive. He did fine! He was lovely to play with and another great memory. The party following the show was held at Doolins. Great night! A toast to WDS members both past and present! SLÁINTE! THE PLAY’S THE THING!!”
• The Full cast of WDS’ A Life is Bertie Rogers (Drumm), Lorraine Murphy (Dolly), Margaret Torrie (Mary), Clodagh Power (Mibs), John Molony (Desmond), Jamie Power (Lar), Davy Sutton (Kearns) and Jenny Clooney (Dorothy). The show runs at Garter Lane from Wednesday, 18th to Saturday, 21st November. Booking is at the box office 051-855038 and through its website www.garterlane.ie