The Toronto theatre group that’s a family for expats
The Toronto Irish Players has been bringing emigrants together for 38 years
Lugging herself around the floor of an east Toronto church in an old office chair, Barbara Taylor is getting to grips with being in a wheelchair. Except it’s not a wheelchair, just a chair, on wheels. She hurls a broom across the church floor, much to the mock-shock of another Dubliner, Ben Clifford, who is channelling his inner 12-year-old.
The two are in rehearsals for the Toronto Irish Players’ current show, No Romance by Nancy Harris, where they play grandmother and grandson. In real life, they stand as perfect representations of what the Toronto Irish Players has become after almost 40 years. Taylor is a longtime member of the community theatre group; Clifford, who is 25 and a new immigrant to the city, symbolises its future.
The group started in the city’s Irish centre 38 years ago. It has toured North America and won many awards.
Taylor’s mother was one the group’s founders in 1975. Barbara’s Canadian-born daughter is also an active member, one of several second-generation members.
Taylor was a teenager when she arrived in Toronto, and remembers a very different city. “All things Irish were not as available they are now,” she recalls. “It wasn’t as easy to travel home at that time; airfares were expensive. The productions gave people a little piece of home.”
Then, the Toronto Irish Players was like a new family for Irish immigrants. Today, it can also be a career opportunity.
Clifford studied acting at Trinity College Dublin before relocating to Toronto to pursue an acting career; 26-year-old Donegal woman Heather Walker worked as a theatre technician in Dublin before coming to Toronto two years ago.
“I thought [the Toronto Irish Players] would be a great way to add to my experience, and keep involved in something I love, while meeting other expats,” says Walker. “It can be hard to get work in your chosen field when you are new to a country. As well as getting experience, [this] is a great way to make contacts and build a network.”
It can lead to bigger things too. Tyrone man Stephen Farrell not only met his wife Lucy, there, but is also featuring in two prime-time television ads, for Tropicana and Volkswagen. He has had a small part in an independent film and roles in two high-profile Canadian TV shows, Satisfaction and The Murdoch Mysteries.
Across town in the city’s west end, Limerick man Seán Treacy doesn’t need network-builders, but set builders. Pondering the latest prop needed for the show – a coffin – he is wondering if he will build or borrow one. Treacy, who arrived in Canada in 1974 after answering a job ad in the Evening Herald, has been the group’s primary set builder for 13 years.
He says it is increasingly difficult to get backstage help. “It was noted after a recent play, that on closing night not one of the crew assigned to return flats, sets and props to our storage area was under 60,” he says.
Taylor is also concerned about audience numbers; audiences throughout community theatre groups in Toronto are dominated by the older set.
But these concerns don’t take away from the core value of what keeps the group going once the curtain goes down on another show: friendship, and a shared pride in Irish culture.
Terry O’Brien from Blarney, Co Cork, sums it up. “It’s hard to pick up and move, leaving friends and family behind. Irish people are spread out all over this city. We have no ‘Irishtown’ like Chinatown or Greektown, so it is nice to have somewhere to call home, where you can get advice and support from people who have been in your shoes.”
No Romance runs at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto from October 17th to November 2nd. See torontoirishplayers.com