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.
Politics at Project
The founding of Project Arts Centre, in the late 1960s, was a seminal event in the evolution of Irish theatre. Beside the known values and artistic principles of the Abbey and the Gate, a new and vibrant upstart began to link art to a new kind of political statement and to present work that both shocked and exhilarated audiences.
With its move to Essex Street, Project became an established venue, but it never joined the establishment. Agitprop theatre, rock’n’roll, plays of the sexual revolution and happenings of one kind or another kept younger audiences coming to the theatre again and again.
The most fertile and memorable time at Project was when both Jim and Peter Sheridan were the driving force there. Break a Leg tells the story of Project in those years, and for any aficionado of Dublin theatre this is an unmissable account of that time of artistic ferment and revolutionary ardour. The hilarious description of Gerard Mannix Flynn’s first audition, for a play called Mobile Homes, where he unwittingly terrified an unsuspecting Tom Irwin, is just one of the beautifully told anecdotes that enliven this splendid book.
My time as artistic director of the Abbey Theatre coincided almost entirely with the Sheridan Project regime. Of the comparison between the theatres, he writes: “We had always regarded the Abbey as the enemy, and we saw Project and what we stood for as a kick against it and the arts establishment. We were radical; they were conservative. They had a big grant; we had a small one. They were old hat; we were newfangled.”
Ignoring the black-and-white certainty of this provocative statement, it is fascinating, at this remove, to recall how envious the younger people in the Abbey were of Project’s freedom to say things that would have been impossible in a national theatre and how jealous we were of the press coverage that always seemed to laud their efforts to the skies while excoriating ours.
It is also of value to reflect that much of the progress in making the Peacock “the home of the living writer” and introducing major new voices to the Abbey came from a need to be more in tune with a younger generation whose appetites had been whetted by Project and the Sheridan magic.
There are many delightful nuggets in this book, including a hilarious account of an American tour by the young Slot company with only one-way plane tickets or the first meeting with Christy Brown and an urgent call of nature. Sheridan’s style is easy, chatty and filled with humour.
But the narrative is not light in nature. He is not afraid to confront his demons or to recognise both his and our society’s failures. He has done us all some significant service by continuing his personal saga, and one hopes that he will continue the journey with future episodes.