Moving on to a new stage
Significant Project: Peter Sheridan. photograph: frank miller
MEMOIR:The third instalment of theatre director Peter Sheridan’s memoir is entertaining and moving
Break a Leg: A Memoir, By Peter Sheridan, New Island, 336pp, €17.99
What makes Peter Sheridan’s memoir so entertaining and readable is his remarkable sense of detail and his ability to weave a dramatic pattern from even the most mundane events of everyday Dublin life. In his two previous instalments of growing up chez Sheridan, he brought us into the heart of his inner-city family. We shared many of their most intimate moments and grieved with his ma and da at the death of their 10-year-old son, Frankie.
The death of a child changes everything and can profoundly affect a family. For the Sheridans, this trauma led indirectly to a career in the theatre for both Peter and his brother Jim. In the wake of Frankie’s death, the da, a remarkably vivid character in all three instalments, decided that, life being short, he would follow his dream of becoming an actor by creating a local drama group, the St Laurence O’Toole Musical and Dramatic Society. From the start, young Peter and Shay, as Jim is known to the family, aimed to subvert the proceedings, objecting to the name and dictating the repertoire. Moving very swiftly from O’Casey’s inner-city dramas to Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, the Slot Players, as they were renamed, clearly intended to be more than just a local group performing audience favourites. These were serious young men with a vision and a purpose.
This book is as much a hymn of praise to the endurance of inner-city Dubliners as an account of a growing career. Sheridan loves the people he knew in his old neighbourhood, and, while his talents have led him to international success, he reserves his real passion for creating work about and with the people of the north inner city. He sees the arts as “an expression of family and an expression of community”. His descriptions of the work of the City Workshop, which he founded with Mick Rafferty, are both hilarious and deeply moving. This is a powerful account of a community dealing with its social and political issues through drama.
Living from hand to mouth, never expecting to make their fortune from the work, he and his colleagues transformed individual lives and gave an underappreciated community a sense of dignity and a pride in its culture and identity. It is particularly shameful that, instead of being funded appropriately and publicly lauded for their groundbreaking use of theatre in the community, Sheridan and the group were patronised by the Arts Council as “amateur” and routinely rejected by important foundations.
At the end of a gruelling time, both personally and professionally, he jacked in the whole enterprise and contemplated moving to the US, as his brother had done. One of the few public officials to emerge with any dignity from this saga was that great Cork man Tony O Dalaigh, who found inventive ways to ensure that the company could perform and even tour to London.
Peter Sheridan lays his life out here in some detail. His relationship with his remarkably strong, patient and supportive wife, Sheila, his growing dependency on alcohol and his unwillingness to confront it, and his specific professional disappointments are all told with a mixture of wry humour and unsparing honesty. Money and the lack of it are constant themes. Working as a substitute teacher, bus conductor and night worker at Coca-Cola, as well as at a greyhound track and sundry other jobs, he managed to keep his growing family together while becoming one of the most significant forces in Irish theatre of the 1970s and early 1980s.