The stage is set for high drama at the All-Irelands: break a leg

John Arnold - who has flirted with acting himself with mixed results - looks ahead to the annual All-Ireland Drama Finals
The stage is set for high drama at the All-Irelands: break a leg

TALENT ON SHOW: The All-Ireland Drama Finals begin on May 5, and Cork groups are hoping to be there

THERE’S a story told of a certain young actor who had got his first dramatic ‘break’ - a part in a play at a prestigious venue.

In the company of many skilled and reliable thespians, he was all agog at the thoughts of the forthcoming production. Rehearsals had gone well, very well, and he was so determined to grab this opportunity to make his big time breakthrough.

His script had been given to him in heaps of time, with all the ‘cues’ marked before he spoke. Realistically, if the truth be told, he had but a single line to speak - yes, one single, solitary line! It was, however, a line so very central to the play’s plot and he knew his delivery and clarity were of the utmost importance.

With the ‘company’, on his own, and with his family, he practised and practised his stage entry and his vital utterance. He learned the line ‘off by heart’ - indeed, he must have repeated it literally thousands of times in the days and weeks leading up to the opening night.

The dress rehearsal went very well so all was in readiness for the gala opening night. He grew more and more nervous as curtain up time neared. Greasepaint applied, then lights, action and his stage debut.

On he went at the correct moment. Three others were already there and he came on stage left to utter his immortal line, ‘Hark, I hear a pistol shot’. But instead his vocals issued forth ‘Shark, I shot a histol pot’.

The trio awaiting the prompt were stunned but our hero recovered himself, straightened up and said ‘Sshh, I shot a lark in the pisspot’ - the audience were in stitches, but unfortunately this was no comedy!

I know I’d never make a proper actor, for several reasons.

Firstly, there wouldn’t be a snowball’s chance in hell of me learning a script. Ask me to ad lib with another person on stage and I’d be away for slates, but learning lines was never my forte.

I did once play the part of Daheen Timineen Din in John B. Keane’s Many Young Men Of Twenty. It was staged on four nights, I think, and each night I gave the general gist of what I was supposed to say - more or less.

I really do marvel at actors, especially amateurs, who can learn off long and intricate dialogue pieces then recall them night after night verbatim. It’s a great gift and one I marvel at and really appreciate.

For over a century, the month of September was associated with the hurling and football All Ireland Finals in Croke Park, Dublin.

Similarly, for over 50 years, early May in Athlone has been synonymous with the All Ireland Drama Finals - they start on May 5 this year.

More about this dramatic extravaganza anon, but getting back to my stage inadequacies, which have stymied my budding (with 50 years) acting career.

When nervous, I have an awful tendency to break wind! Readers may deem this a mere trifle of a problem - ‘gone with the wind’, you may say glibly. On stage, however, timing is everything and ye all remember the late, great Maureen Potter who starred for years in a show named Gaels Of Laughter - with me, however it was more ‘Gales of Smell everafter’.

Mind now, it had nothing to do with the consumption, of beans, mutton, lentils or chicken broth - foodstuffs which on the whole tend to cause excessive flatulence. Yerra no, I could be fasting for hours, but when the internal nervous system gets its wires crossed with nervous anticipation, then boom, bang and whoosh.

I recall one night in the Edel Quinn Hall in Kanturk, I think ‘twas a Munster semi final of the GAA Scor Novelty Act competition. Well, the same night only a small crowd was present, but that didn’t in any way improve my disposition before going on stage. I had toast after milking the cows that morning but was well gone down the Red River Valley by 9pm that night!

We had a good sketch that year, well rehearsed with good punchlines, but those mitigating factors didn’t negate my intestinal turbulence. On we went and ‘twas going well. At one point I was centre stage, giving my tuppence worth - I had to storm off and the late Bull Gubbins was to follow me about five seconds later.

As I departed, it happened - a massive fart, silent but woeful smelly, I just couldn’t help myself and I exited stage left. Bill came to follow me but stopped dead in his tracks - as if hit by an invisible wall or barrier. He was visibly gasping for clean air - a scarce commodity after my explosive emissions!

After a brief stop, he gathered himself, took about three steps backwards, and then he circumnavigated the foul tsunami and came off stage by a different route! Lord, the man was gasping and headed towards a backstage window to fill his lungs with some fresh air.

But the show went on, braking wind or not - we won the same night, but Bill often recalled the incident with ‘Do ya remember the night in Kanturk?’. Do I remember - will I ever forget!

Bill taught me a lot about dramatic timing - the importance of a pause, a silence, a little hand movement. Sometimes, the unspoken word can be as effective as the best scripted line.

Just last week in our local Hall in Bartlemy, the Kilworth Dramatic Group staged The Quiet Moment, written by Mike Finn. Just four in the cast under the direction of Mick Twomey. A play where you roar laughing and then sob silently, where you sit in solemn silence and then realise the story of a tragic past unfolding on stage. It was just superb.

I was able to witness the ensemble put up the ‘set’ the day before the production, then take it down within hours of the final standing ovation they received. It’s pure teamwork done night after night by unseen ‘stage hands’.

Kilworth were in the Confined category in this year’s All Ireland Festival Drama circuit. They staged their play at eight festivals since February - all over the country. Their final Festival appearance was in Wexford on Saturday night last. They didn’t qualify for the Confined All Ireland Finals, which commence in Ballyshannon on Friday night, but while winning is super, just producing and putting on the play is the real winner.

John Spillane wrote a great song, Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar, lads, we had a Magic Night last week. There is plenty ‘Southern’ dramatic talent to be seen over the next few weeks as groups vie for the National Titles.

In Ballyshannon next Monday night, Skibbereen Dramatic Society stage Jim Nolan’s Brighton. In Athlone in May, four plays which I have seen already this year will vie for All Ireland Open Honours. Kilrush (from Wexford) stage ‘Class’ and then three other former All Ireland winners - all of whom I class as ‘local’, Kilmeen, Ballyduff and Palace Players, will also tread the boards.

For those who can’t get tickets for Athlone, don’t worry as Conversations on a Homecoming, Rabbit Hole and Chapatti are all coming to a theatre near you n the next two weeks. If you get a chance to see any or all of them, you’ll be thrilled, entertained and stunned.

Who’ll win the 2022 All Ireland Drama Final in Athlone? I have my selection made, but as dramatic tradition deems that you don’t mention one play’s name - ‘The Scottish Play’ - well, I won’t give my prediction, except to say ‘break a leg’ to one and all.

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