Nuala Donnelly, Interview
By Conor O’Neill
After the recent success of Pintsized Productions 31 Hours. CultureCrush NI chatted with artistic director, Nuala Donnelly, on how she got involved in theatre, the mechanics of running a small theatre company and what’s next for both the Pintsized and herself.
Donnelly comes across as self-assured yet modest, hard-working and most of all, extremely passionate about all things theatrical. Here’s a snapshot into her mind and motivations.
As per usual, I begin with place of birth, education?
“I was born in Newry and went to St Michael’s Primary School and then Our Lady’s Grammar. I then took a gap year before going to university and graduated from Queen’s with a first-class degree in Theatre Studies in 2013. I was also awarded with the Brian Friel Medal for outstanding achievement in theatre practice”
Do you come from a theatrical, creative or musical family?
“Not massively; my dad is a farmer and my mum was a librarian then turned housewife, but we always would have been taken to see amateur dramatic shows when we were younger. It was my sister who first got into drama, my brother followed, and I was the last to get involved. I was kind of a shy child, but I always loved musicals and really enjoyed dancing; dancing was for me bigger than theatre back then. My mum was very supportive regarding that though my father always joked that back in secondary school that he played Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and said we all got the acting bug from him. My sister went on to do drama at Queen’s and now works for The national Theatre. My brother did film studies and has worked on The Fall, Game Of Thrones and Marcella so we’ve all gone down the creative route.”
Was there any sort of pressure from your parents saying, ‘It’s a very hard industry to get into and get regular work, maybe you study something more practical and then look at theatre work?’
“No, they never said that directly. My mum from time to time would say, I wish youse would get a normal 9 – 5 job, but when she saw that her children had such passion for what they’re doing and my brother has been constantly employed since he graduated. I still have to do a 9 – 5 just to be able to pay the bills but I think she knows we’re all level headed and knows we’ve all got skill sets, went to good schools, we’re creative, diligent and intelligent, so we’ll always know that if we get to a point where we can’t really see a future in the arts we have gathered a multitude of transferrable skills for other jobs down the road. There was never any pressure from mum or dad, if we are happy and healthy, that’s the main thing for them.”
Did you ever act or have you always preferred ‘to pull the strings’ so to speak?
“Yes. I went to drama classes in Newry at the Sheridan Stage School for a number of years, I loved to perform. And then when I was in Queen’s I acted with the drama society. I also had to act as part of a module; then I stated to learn quite quickly that I wasn’t very good at it and loved being on the other side. I love directing and to have creative control over productions. I last acted in 2012 and I’m pretty happy with that. I don’t intend to go down the acting route again; directing is where my future is.”
Tell me about the emergence of Pintsized Productions, where you there from the beginning?
“I joined after it was formed. Pintsized was originally started by Gerard McCade and Bronagh Waugh back in 2008 and I think at the time they were probably frustrated with there not being any opportunities for casting for themselves. They decided to set up the company and create their own work. From there it developed, and the company has gained charity status and they’ve worked out what the ethos is for the company which is based around emerging artists and people who don’t have any credits to their CVs. I joined in March 2018 as a volunteer. They were advertising for an artistic director; I’d been floating around in the freelance pool for a long time with not many opportunities going, so I just applied and it’s been guns blazing ever since”
Your notes for 31 Hours states you focus on the socio-political. What attracts you to a certain debate that you thinks needs exploring? With 31 Hours we were mostly aware of the male suicide epidemic running rampant but what other topics attract you to a certain topic at a certain time?
“As an artist I get inspired by what’s happening in the news. Pintsized as a company doesn’t necessarily stand for the political or the social, it’s just me as an artist. The very first production I directed for the company was called Wasted and it was a play about sexual consent and rape; at the time the rugby rape trial was going on, ‘Me Too’, ‘This Is Not Consent’. No one was providing a catalyst for conversation in the arts context. I thought I had a duty to address these issues. The type of theatre that I’ve always been interested in has been relevant, contemporary, in-your-face theatre, and I strive to follow the same style in my programming
“That’s the angle I’m interested in. With Pintsized I can do an issue-based play every year. Wasted was the first one and then this time around, because there has been such an epidemic in male suicide, I thought, ‘no one has really touched upon this in the arts’. I know Tinderbox did The Man Who Fell To Pieces which is about mental health issues and extremely important, so I thought that my small contribution for raising awareness would come across in the form of 31 Hours. It’s not until you do a play like this that you actually realise how close to home the matter really is.”
Pintsized Productions next piece is Private Peaceful, can you tell us all about that?
“In terms of who will be playing Private Peaceful, we’re going to be holding more open auditions next week to find the ‘one’.”
“Yes. We’re playing The Riverside Theatre in Coleraine on November 21st, then Campbell College as part of the C.S Lewis Festival on Friday, November 22nd. We’re playing it at Accidental Theatre in Belfast city centre on Saturday, November 23rd, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday we’re doing evening shows at The American Bar, Belfast and the following Wednesday, November 27th at the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre. I’ll finally be able to bring a show to my hometown of Newry.
“Private Peaceful relives the life of a young First World War soldier awaiting the firing squad at dawn. During the night he looks back at his short but joyful past growing up in Devon; his exciting first day at school; his adventures with Molly, the love of his life, and the battles and injustices of a war that brought him to the front line.”
Tell me what you look for in an actor? For instance, who is going to play the role of Private Peaceful’? How do you and the group choose an actor?
“The thing about Pintsized Productions is in a lot of the times an actor doesn’t need an agent. We’re the only company that has open auditions. We’re just, ‘come along and audition for us’. It means we’re open to different talents; we get people fresh from university, just out of drama school, people who haven’t gone to drama school. I also contact agencies because it opens that type of opportunity for those that have that type of contact to come along. It’s a great opportunity to open to people who you may have seen in other shows or may have heard of or never met before. You may find that someone who is special within that audition room.
I assume you’ve no plans to leave Pintsized in the very near future. What do you think the future holds for both Pintsized and yourself?
“I’ll leave Pintsized Productions when I’ve done absolutely everything I can for the company. I’ve re-imagined the website; vastly increased our social media presence; we’ve done more plays in the last year than ever before; we’ve bigger audiences, received more funding and given more emerging artists a platform. If I’m still here next year I’m looking to programme a full female season. It will be nothing but either female casts and writers at the forefront. This year has been very male orientated so women need represented next year.
“I will keep going until I feel that I’ve given Pintsized, cementing my own standard in the arts community as an established artist and an advocate of theatre.”
Watch Pintsized Productions. Not in your wing mirror, over your shoulder or from a distance: with this little theatre company and its artistic director, chuck the lights on full beam.