This year Knocknacarra Amateur Theatre Society celebrates its 20th anniversary and will mark that auspicious milestone in April with a staging of Brian Friel’s classic drama, The Loves of Cass Maguire, in the Town Hall Theatre.
KATS was founded by the late Paddy Henry in 1998 who had come to live in Galway from Charlestown, where he had been a very successful director with the Charlestown Little Theatre Company for many years. Since then, KATS has staged at least two productions a year and won numerous awards on the drama festival circuit.
The press launch announcing The Loves of Cass Maguire was held in Sheridan’s Bar, on the Clybaun Road, on Monday evening where guest speaker, Mayor Pearse Flannery, praised the contribution of KATS to the Knocknacarra community. As a Knocknacarra resident himself he was well placed to recognise that contribution, and it was a further measure of KATS’ local standing that the function also drew the attendance of local councillors Niall McNelis and Donal Lyons, as well as TD Hildegarde Naughton, among many other well-wishers.
As the guests and dignitaries mingled, director Lorcán Mannion sat down with me at a quiet remove to reflect on KATS’s two eventful decades and look forward to the staging of Cass Maguire. I began by asking Lorcán about his own background and how he first got involved with KATS.
“I went to school in Castlerea, in Roscommon, which has a good drama group and musical group and my parents were always going to shows,” he says. “However I never spent much time onstage as a youth because I was more into playing football in school, and later, as as a half forward with Tulsk. I came to college in Galway and did engineering and then worked here in industrial engineering.
“In 2000 I saw an ad for KATS’s production of Denis Potter’s Son of Man which was in Knocknacarra church in Easter week. Frank Commins played Jesus and nearly everyone who was involved in KATS was in that production because it was a very large cast. I had only a small part, as a centurion, but that meant I got lots of opportunities to observe Paddy Henry, the director, at work. I got the bug then, though it would be years later before I directed myself. Watching Paddy gave me an insight into how to craft a show and pull it together.”
Lorcán expands on Paddy Henry’s qualities as a director and a person. “Paddy retired to Galway from Charlestown, and Knocknacarra was blessed that he did,” he says. “He was revered all over the country as a master director on the amateur festival circuit before he came here and every drama group needs somebody of his type. Paddy had a natural persuasiveness and brilliant organisational ability. His leadership was never dictatorial, he was always a gentleman. In terms of stagecraft, the stand-out things were his ability to paint pictures on the stage; he had lots of books about famous artists and painters in his home and he brought that sense of visual composition to his staging of plays. He also always got his casting spot on and he had a network of people he would pull out of nowhere for a part in a play.”
Within a few years of establishing KATS, Paddy Henry led them to glory in the All Ireland Drama Festival. Lorcán relates the details. “Paddy was determined, from the beginning of KATS, to establish a group that had a high standard of acting,” says Lorcan. “He always had the intention of going on the festival circuit with KATS. In Charlestown, the Little Theatre Company had been built up over years, since the 1950s, and was very strong and had won All Irelands.
“Paddy had directed Rashomon for Charlestown and it had come seconnd in the All Ireland Drama Festival in 1973. From 1998 to 2003, Paddy spent his time developing KATS and in 2003 we embarked on the festival circuit for the first time and it was with Rashomon. I guess it was like a stone in his shoe. But he was in no doubt from day one that we would compete at the highest grade of the competition and win the All Ireland Drama Festival – and to get in you have to have won at least three other festivals. We qualified for the All Ireland and we won it, at the first time of asking!”
The company bonds nurtured by Paddy Henry in those formative years still endure as Michael Rooney, who won All Ireland Best Actor for his performance in Rashomon, features in the cast of Cass Maguire while Geraldine Holmes, who starred in many KATS shows, now serves as the company chair. And a steady supply of ‘new blood’ help keep things fresh. “It’s like the old story of having the same brush for 20 years but just keep changing the head of it,” Lorcán quips.
Since that first All Ireland success KATS has staged classic plays by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Hugh Leonard, and Martin McDonagh, and garnered numerous awards and accolades, as well as a loyal following and generous support from local businesses.
Lorcán performed leading roles in many of the productions and then, following Paddy Henry’s death he took up the directorial reins. “Sadly, Paddy passed away in 2007 and in 2008 I directed our festival play The Glass Menagerie,” he recalls. “I had directed a couple of one-acts before but to go from a show in the Town Hall studio to a main stage festival show was a big jump. I really enjoyed it but then my work started involving much more travel and I had four kids at home as well so I had to step back from KATS. However, with this year being the 20th anniversary KATS wanted to do a big play in the Town Hall, partly as a tribute to Paddy, and when they asked me to direct it, I couldn’t say no.”
Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass Maguire, first performed in 1966, deals with the return to Ireland of Cass Maguire who has spent 50 years working among the deadbeats of Skid Row. It follows her lonely struggle to re-discover the home she has dreamt of all her life and her eventual surrender to the make-believe of the old folks’ home, Eden House.
“It’s a great play with broad appeal and has a big cast, and great female roles,” Lorcán observes. “It being KATS’s 20th anniversary production, I wanted a play that would involve people from across all the years of the company so the cast includes people who were involved from the beginning and people who came in recently, and we have a great Cass in Mary McHugh, who is a fabulous actress. The more we rehearse it the more we all fall in love with it. Every line of the play is a work of art. Aside from cast we have a great production team, including Kate O’Mahony as designer, and it is a show that requires a lot of thought and effort regarding its staging, music, and light. I think it will be a very good production, one of KATS’s best.”
As well as Mary McHugh, the KATS Cass cast includes Michael Rooney, Gail O’Dowd-Maher, Muriel Forde, Maria Dillon, Patricia Creaven, James Harris, John McHugh, Elizabeth Flaherty, and Pat Lally.
The Loves of Cass Maguire runs at the Town Hall from Thursday April 12 to Saturday 14 at 8pm. Tikcets are available from 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie