Don’t put your feet on the stage

An Irishman’s Diary: Fifty years of the Focus Theatre

 ‘In the tiny Focus Theatre in Pembroke Place Deirdre O’Connell gathered around her a remarkable company of actors and mounted incredibly ambitious productions with no State funding or financial help except from the occasional kindness of strangers or sympathy of friends.’ Above, Tom Hickey in The Gallant John-Joe by Tom Mac Intyre, which ran as a tribute to Deirdre O’Connell  at the Focus Theatre. Photograph: Eric Luke

‘In the tiny Focus Theatre in Pembroke Place Deirdre O’Connell gathered around her a remarkable company of actors and mounted incredibly ambitious productions with no State funding or financial help except from the occasional kindness of strangers or sympathy of friends.’ Above, Tom Hickey in The Gallant John-Joe by Tom Mac Intyre, which ran as a tribute to Deirdre O’Connell at the Focus Theatre. Photograph: Eric Luke

Mon, Oct 7, 2013, 01:00

Dublin’s tiny Focus Theatre was the only auditorium in the world where, during her public safety announcements and just before the lights went down, Deirdre O’Connell admonished members of the audience sitting in the front row not to put their feet on the stage.

From the early 1960s in Dublin, Deirdre O’Connell, founder of the Stanislavski Acting Studio and Focus Theatre, cut a striking figure swathed all in black, with her flaming red hair and ethereal presence, bustling her way along Leeson Street en route to the spiritual, emotional and artistic centre of her universe. She came to Dublin in 1963 from the famous Actors’ Studio in New York where she had been a star graduate studying the theories of Stanislavski. She was to embark on a remarkable acting, directing and teaching career inspired by the great Russian whose fundamental philosophy was embodied in “the creation of the inner life of a human spirit and its expression in an artistic form.”

There was a story doing the rounds that when they were both acting students in New York the young Marlon Brando had asked Deirdre O’Connell out on a date. One night in the Focus Branch Office, otherwise known as Hourican’s Pub, I asked her if the story was true. “I didn’t like the cut of his jib,” she told me with a twinkle in her eye, “but it didn’t seem to blight his career.”

In Dublin, very soon, the striking young beauty from the Bronx found a more agreeable, exciting and inspiring soul mate in singer Luke Kelly. That equally celebrated redhead brought his mates from The Dubliners on board and soon the Focus Theatre was born out of collective blood, sweat and cement.

In the theatre world of Dublin in the 1960s and after, the legend that Irish actors possessed a natural genius and talent unperturbed or unchallenged by serious training or discipline too often held sway. When the much-loved Abbey actor actor Harry Brogan made his customary entrance as Uncle Peter in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars he got a round of applause even before he opened his mouth. Incidentally, in that same production, I remember a certain Dublin critic, apparently without irony, writing that the spirited actress who played the prostitute Rosie Redmond, on her exit, “got the clap she so richly deserved”.

In the tiny Focus Theatre in Pembroke Place Deirdre O’Connell gathered around her a remarkable company of actors and mounted incredibly ambitious productions with no State funding or financial help except from the occasional kindness of strangers or sympathy of friends. A stunning production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country featured a very young Gabriel Byrne with Joan Bergin, Johnny Murphy and Olwen Fouéré where time stood still and we held our breaths lest we miss a line. Sabina Coyne Higgins (now our First Lady) starred in several memorable productions, growing in stature with every role, as did her friends and fellow actors Tim Mc Donnell, Ena May, Elizabeth Moynihan and Elizabeth and Declan Burke-Kennedy. The repertoire of Focus pushed the boundaries of theatre available in Dublin to encompass classics from Strindberg to Chekhov and from Tennessee Williams to Samuel Beckett.

In 1988, when the Abbey Theatre made its historic visit to Russia veteran Focus actor Tom Hickey won huge acclaim for his playing of Patrick Maguire, the doleful and desperate Monaghan bachelor, in Tom Mac Intyre’s ingenious stage adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem The Great Hunger. When I talked to him for an RTÉ radio documentary in his dressing room after the first night at the Moscow Art Theatre, Tom, still dazed and with the audience applause still ringing in his ears, was in a state of high emotional ecstasy. Here, in the very theatre founded by Stanislavski, he told me how the spirit of Deirdre O’Connell was with him on stage that night and that as her “eternal student” he could never have achieved such heights without her teaching, encouragement and inspiration over all the years at Focus.

Since Deirdre O’Connell’s untimely death in 2001, Focus Theatre and Studio have been steered in new and exciting directions by the sure navigation and inspiration of her successor Joe Devlin. That priceless inherited tradition must be kept alive at all costs.

As we this year celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of a remarkable theatre and cradle of genius, let us raise a glass to the shades of Deirdre and Luke and all the voices of Focus, both living and dead, who in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, have left “a stain upon the silence”.

Just published by Carysfort Press: Stanislavski in Ireland: Focus at Fifty, edited by Brian McAvera and Steven Dedalus Burch; and Breaking Boundaries: An Anthology of Original Plays from The Focus Theatre, edited by Steven Dedalus Burch.

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