Grande dame of Eblana


Phyllis Ryan, above: has plans for a play about a transvestite. Photograph: David Sleator. Eblana productions: top, Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh in Funnybones (1966); far right, Brenda Fricker and Niall Buggy in Black Rosie (1970); right, Cecil Sheridan in The Good Old Days (1965). Photographs from The Company I Kept by Phyllis Ryan (Town House, £18.99 in the UK)

"There aren't many actors over the age of 40 who didn't get their first chance with Gemini," declares Phyllis Ryan. Now in her 70s, Ryan is a lady small in stature but large in reputation. When still a schoolgirl, she was accepted for the Abbey Theatre School of Acting and then joined the company at 17. After some years with the Abbey, she went into the management side, forming Gemini Productions in 1958, with Norman Rodway.

Gemini's base for many years was the Eblana Theatre, underneath Busaras. We are used to hearing the Eblana mentioned in fairly derogatory terms, along the lines of: "The only public toilet in Dublin with its own theatre". In fact, the Eblana was originally designed as a news cinema.

It went on to become a well-attended, well-respected little theatre, in the days before the Project or Andrew's Lane. And, while somewhat eccentric in location, the Eblana was also undeniably a clever, imaginative addition to a national transport centre.

For instance, Gemini was the first theatre company to produce John B. Keane's The Field and Big Maggie. The original Bull was the late Ray McAnally. It also produced a revised version of The Year of the Hiker. These were huge popular successes, and undoubtedly helped the profile of the company, as well as being financial successes.

Gemini moved out of the Eblana in the mid-1980s. Of the now defunct Eblana, Ryan says: "If the entrance could be changed so that you didn't have to go past the ladies loo to get to it - if you made the entrance at the side that bank place is on, it would make all the difference for the theatre". Gemini's last production as a company was in the early 1990s. Apart from the odd small grant for certain productions, it never received any regular State funding. "It's nearly impossible to function well without a subsidy of some sort," Ryan admits. "I never thought I'd hear myself saying that. But to do really good work, you do need the money."

Gemini's last production was Keane's The Matchmaker at the Tivoli. This month, to mark 40 years of Gemini Productions, The Matchmaker will run at Dublin's HQ for six weeks, starring Anna Managhan and Des Keogh. Michael Scott is directing the show, in association with Gemini. In 1996, Ryan published her memoirs, The Company I Kept, which recounted stories of the many people she has known in her long career. She knew Micheal Mac Liammoir well. Hilton Edwards left his sick bed in hospital to attend a gala tribute to her in 1981. She met Anne Yeats, who was studying theatre design at the Abbey, and who took her to the Yeats' home, to visit. They had to be quiet for fear that "Daddy might be working". She met Frank O'Connor, Lennox Robinson, and F.R. Higgins. Lennox Robinson wanted her to smoke for a part in a play when she was 17, in the days before the health risks of nicotine were really known and she ended up a life-long smoker. In the late 1940s, Ryan played Pegeen Mike in a London production of Synge's Playboy of the Western World. She arrived to discover that Maire O'Neill, Synge's love, and inspiration for the Playboy, was playing the Widow Quin. On the last night of the show, O'Neill, who had sadly developed a debilitating drink problem, took her aside.

She had, she said, all of Synge's love letters with her in the dressing room, and she wanted Ryan to take them to Ireland, to deposit them at a solicitor's office. Whether the letters really were in the dressing room, or whether O'Neill was imagining their presence there, Ryan refused the offer, but had a bittersweet story to tell forever after.

So did Ryan keep diaries or journals during these years? There are vividly-recalled passages in The Company I Kept about her acting days as a young girl. There are also candid and honest recounts of the intense emotions of a young girl undergoing a series of romantic crushes, and see-sawing between emotional highs and lows. Micheal Mac Liammoir was a particular god from the age of 11, and is mentioned as early as the second sentence of her memoirs.

The playwright, Denis Johnston, is another person she recalls in her memoirs. Looking up from my notebook during the interview, in a moment of serendipity, I saw Jennifer Johnston, daughter of the playwright, walking through the hotel lobby. For a couple of minutes, it's hard to concentrate on what's being said: I'm half expecting an informal procession from Ryan's past to appear behind Jennifer Johnston.

In the past few years, since the publication of the book, she has had several cameo roles both in film and theatre. "I keep on thinking I'll have a period when nothing happens, but it never does." She intends to finish a second book of memoirs next year; the book is already halfwritten. There are also two plays she wants to produce under the Gemini umbrella, when The Matchmaker's run is over. She is reluctant to talk about one of them, as the rights are still under discussion, but the other is "about a transvestite and his world", by an Australian writer.

Notwithstanding the general abandonment of social niceties these days, it is still a little surreal to hear the word "transvestite" being spoken by a lady of a certain age, sitting in the Shelbourne, wearing a hat, and sipping Lapsang Souchon tea.

The family provided by the theatrical world seems to have often substituted for her own family life. Her husband spent most of their married life apart from her, and she left her two small children with her mother for long periods, when acting jobs turned up in Britain. Doris, her only sibling, now lives in California and they have not seen each other for 10 years. She has not seen Blair, her sister's only child, since he was a small boy. "But he has promised to bring Doris over to see me," she says hopefully, her eyes bright.

"There are great big lonely gaps in my life," she admits. But she's talking about her professional life. "We've lost actors like Marie Keane, Donal McCann, Ray McAnally. I keep casting people in my head, and then remembering they're dead. But I don't feel like they're too far away. Holes keep opening up in your life," she reflects, with a tiny smile.

As for retiring from the active service of theatre life? "I can't think of a life where I wasn't doing what I've always done, and which I absolutely love," she says with absolute conviction.

The Matchmaker opened at HQ, Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, this week, for a limited run. Booking: 01-8783345.