THE founder and retired CEO of Graffiti Theatre Company in Blackpool, Emelie FitzGibbon, was recently granted a prestigious award.
ASSITEJ, the international association of theatre for children and young people, honoured her with the Applause for Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognises an outstanding body of work over time and a profound and lasting contribution to theatre for young audiences.
The award was presented virtually at the organisation’s annual conference, which was held in Japan this year.
It meant a lot to Cork woman Emelie.
“It’s very significant because it’s a major award in the field and a lot of people are impressed by it and I’m impressed by it,” she said.
Looking back on her career, Emelie has many treasured memories.
“I’ve had wonderful opportunities going to lots of different places to see different modes of theatre for young people.
It has been very exciting and to actually be given an award for my contribution was very moving.
“I’ve been to all sorts of places; Lyons, New York, Phoenix, Adelaide and Bologna. I was mostly in these places for conferences. It has been a wonderful way of exploring my pet subject.”
Born in 1947, Emelie, from Midleton, was always drawn to theatre for children.
“I just thought it needed to be more sophisticated because when I was growing up, theatre for children was really panto.
“But I was lucky enough to do ballet (with Joan Denise Moriarty) growing up and all those kind of things. I got to do more serious theatre.
“And when I was at UCC, I was head and tail of Drama where I did some directing.”
Emelie once played Antigone at college but was more keen on directing. How is she finding retirement?
“Every so often, I have a longing to get at something, to get involved. Obviously, I go to a lot of theatre but of course, we haven’t seen much theatre for the last year.”
While Emelie sees a return to traditional theatre spaces post lockdown, she reckons we have another year to go before theatres will be fully operational.
She says that lockdown is “driving me completely mad, adding: “Anyone I know of my age is going completely demented, just going for walks. We’re lucky to have each other’s companionship”.
Emelie is married to playwright/director and retired head of drama and theatre studies at UCC, Ger FitzGibbon.)
“When you’re in your seventies, you are more or less told to stay in. Luckily, we have a largish house and a lovely garden so we can go out and get fresh air. But it’s not the same.”
The couple’s three children are all working in the arts. Sarah works for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, doing outreach work in schools. Ali is involved in theatre in Belfast and Ronan writes for and produces theatre from his base in Tramore, Co Waterford.
When they were growing up, Emelie and Ger encouraged their children’s artistic impulses.
“It’s kind of an addiction, really," she says.
The children were not fed the line that the arts is an insecure sector.
“That was never an issue here. They’re involved in different forms of the arts, but they’re all very interested in theatre.”
One of Sarah’s two daughters, Poppy, has cerebral palsy. Emelie says that Sarah and her husband work very well with Poppy.
“They have some support and, by god, they fight for it — just to get people to come in and to give them some respite. That is becoming a little bit better. Poppy is doing grand. She needs a lot of care.”
Ali is married to the Belfast writer, Glenn Patterson. They have two children and Ronan’s three sons are being “bossed around” by their 18-month-old sister, Iseult.
“She’s going to take over the world,” says Emelie, laughing.
“We all live in different parts of the country,” she adds.
“When we get together we have fun. And we’re in communication a lot thanks to modern technology. It’s good. The grandchildren are gorgeous.”
Emelie is very interested in theatre for babies, which she has seen and been impressed by in Bologna, in particular.
“It’s fascinating. We have brought it here. My last production was Ireland’s first opera for babies, called ‘Jewel’/Seoid. I was watching it from the back of the audience and it was just so beautiful and so gentle. I just thought it was fabulous.
“I was watching the babies looking up as if a star was descending. To see them looking at something beautiful was gorgeous.”
Presenting babies, from tiny up to about eight months, with music and movement “is extremely good for them”.
Emelie studied English and music at UCC. Her musical studies were taught by Aloys Fleischmann and Sean Ó Riada.
After qualifying as a teacher, she taught English and music at Scoil Mhuire.
Later, she returned to university and completed an MA. She went on to work in UCC’s English department, becoming head tutor and doing substitute lecturing.
After being involved with Cork Theatre Company, Emelie was encouraged by theatre practitioners Gerry Barnes and Maurice O’Donoghue to try her hand at theatre in education.
She set up Graffiti. Laura Magahy — who went on to head up Temple Bar Properties — was the company’s first administrator.
These days, life is slower for Emelie. She has had a third hip operation.
“The metal that had been inserted in the first operation on one of my hips was not reacting very well with my blood. So I had to have another operation.
“I get angry about it, saying why did it happen? But I have a very good surgeon who did all the replacements for me. It’s OK. I can move around. I’m grand,” says Emelie who, in her autumn years, can reflect on her great legacy in theatre for young people.