By Conor O’Neill
Actor, director, producer and all round talent, Gerard McCabe is currently starring in Marie Jones’ Stones In His Pockets in The Barn Theatre over in England, CultureCrush NI caught up with him for a quick chat.
So Gerard, what’s your background? Do you come from a theatrical family?
“No, not at all. My mum is an administrator, my dad’s a floor and carpet-fitter, so I’d no acting aspirations at all. Before I was about 15 or 16-years-old I’d never even been into a theatre.”
So what kicked it all off?
“”It was a birthday present from my mum to go acting lessons at The Rainbow Factory in the local youth club after football. I’m working class, I grew up in Whitewell and Ligoniel, North Belfast, born and bred there and very proud of it. It’s the best part of Belfast in my opinion. So I got this present, which was really something to do after football. Like most kids of that age all I loved football and all I wanted to do was play for Liverpool. I really had no interest in acting at all.”
You said that seeing Stones In His Pockets for the first time was the reason you got into acting, what age would you have been when you first saw the show and why did it have such an impact?
“I was probably about 16. I went to The Rainbow Factory from about the age of 11 or 12 and we had this great tutor from London called Sylvan Baker and he said to us, ‘if you want to make this your occupation, if you want to be a better actor you have to see great theatre’. He used to get us cheap tickets to go to The Lyric and we saw loads of shows. Then we did see the show starring Conleth Hill and Sean Campion, and it simply blew me away! It was one of those times when you watched something and thought, ‘Wow, I want to be that good!’ Just how quick they changed character, literally spinning on a 50 pence piece and changing character’, it was simply mesmerising. I really got the theatre bug right there and then.
“At that time I was an apprentice at Shorts, I’d only started that a week or so but I decided to pack that in – I didn’t tell my dad, of course – and signed up to study the performing arts the old BIFHE which is kind of funny because the old Tower Street building I trained in is now The Vault where we rehearsed for this show.”
You mentioned in our correspondence that rehearsals were tough, was that the physical aspect or getting the acting juices flowing again?
“It was a little bit of both. The last thing I did on stage was a panto in 2019, so I’ve had nearly two years away from the stage. That’s not just down to Covid-19 but I was also studying for my masters in theatre direction in The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in Dublin and so it felt like an age since I’d acted. Physically I had started going back to the gym but you’re never fit enough to do a full Irish dancing routine, especially when you’ve never done Irish dancing before. Mentally it’s the thought of ‘maybe I’ve lost it, have I lost that spark’, because previously it had been second nature to me, but after the second week of rehearsals I could still do it. The lines were sticking in and it was really fun.
“It’s also easier when you’re working with the best in the business like Sean Blaney and director Matthew McIllhinney. Matthew let us have our say, he listened to us and would ask, ‘well what do you both think?’ It’s very much a collaboration.”
If I remember correctly Stones In His Pockets has a minimal set and is mostly character based.
“Yes, we play 18 characters between us and only have a few props: a costume rail, an apple box, an old camera and a lamp. We go behind, change costume and pop up as an other character. At times it’s manic but I think the audience really enjoy it. We definitely lose a ton of sweat during the show.”
*Gerard McCabe and Sean Blaney in action*
You were a co-founder of Pintsized Production, and are currently artistic director at Soda Bread, does being behind the scenes make you appreciate a good director more?
“Definitely. When I was younger a lot of directors thought I was quite cheeky. I would have just asked them straight up, in front of the rest of cast and crew, ‘why are we doing this?’ But that was just inexperience on my part. You learn from experience and from studying directing that there are much better, more polite ways of questioning things. It’s better to have a quiet word, it’s best to do it privately, just pull the director aside and ask, ‘is there another way of doing this?’ That’s taken me 20 years in the business to realise.”
And why did you set up the companies?
“Pintsized was set up by myself and Bronagh Waugh. At the time we realised that the community in Belfast was quite a clique. All the same actors were getting all the usual parts and there was nothing for emerging artists, this was way back in 2007/2008. We decided to set up on our own. We talked to people in the arts and in business and asked how we would go about it and decided to start from scratch. The main ethos remain intact . Basically to showcase emerging actors and directors, so it was born basically for selfish reasons so myself and Bronagh could get more work. It then grew from there into some sort of beast.
“At a certain point I thought to myself, ‘I’m no longer an emerging artist so I should pass the mantle on’, so we got the lovely Nuala Donnelly onboard in 2018, she’s doing an amazing job. She’s doing more physical based shows whereas mine were more character based, but the same criteria are still there: you have to be an emerging artist with no more than three professional jobs under your belt, everything has to be small scale, we don’t spend much on set design or props, and everything has to be done in small, alternative venues.
“We found a friend in Pedro, he runs the Sunflower and The American bars in Belfast. He’s been great to us from the beginning. Not only does he sponsor us £1200 a year, he also lets us use the top part of The American bar as a rehearsal space. The one thing we promised him was that every show would premier at The American Bar, that way he at least gets the bar money as a way of a small payback.
“With Soda Bread it was much the same, pure selfishness. Having stepped down as director of Pintsized – although I’m still on the board and help out with fundraising and other stuff – I still wanted to direct. I met with people like Matthew McIllinney and Bill Condron and they had a show. I couldn’t do it with Pintsized and so I set up Soda Bread simply because I could direct more.”
And post pandemic what do you think theatre will look like? Theatre companies have been very innovative with Zoom shows and multi-media performances, do you think that theatre will ever be the same again?
“I don’t think they will ever replace the real thing. What I think people will realise when they get back into theatres, and I do think it will be quite emotional, is what it is to be a part of an audience. To be sat beside a stranger and see how they react, it’s just a different type of feeling. Zoom will never replace that, it’s a bit too much like watching the tele or going to a movie for me. It’s not the same as live, breathing, right-in-front-of-you performance. You are there on that one night, something might go wrong or be performed in a slightly different way.
“It might feel a little odd for the audience to be sat there in masks, but it will be the real thing. One thing I think might come out of this is that if a person is feeling a bit off on the night of a show, they’ll be able to phone in advance and get their money back straight away. I think people will be responsible enough to not attend if they’re not feeling too well.”
Will it be different for actors to see a crowd of masked faces sitting staring at the action? Surely you must be able to read an audience to feel how the performance is going?
“I don’t really worry too much about the audience’s reaction. Of course, it is nice to hear the laughs but as an actor you’re too busy remembering what line comes next, where to stand etc. You’re too much in the zone to think about the audience. I do think it may play a part if you are in say a panto where you have to talk directly to the audience, but otherwise I’ll just be thinking about my part.”
You’re currently playing The Barn Theatre in the Cotwolds, England, will there be a Zoom performance of Stones In His Pockets for us back here in Northern Ireland to enjoy?
“No. We will be recording one show just in case there’s spike in Covid-19, but after the run here we’re planning to go to London with the show, and then hopefully when things open up properly in Northern Ireland we’ll be bring the show home to tour in 2022.”
And finally, what other plans to you have for the near future?
“Well after this run I do have a Soda Bread piece that was postponed due to the pandemic which will hopefully be going ahead soon, and I’ll also be directing and acting in an adult panto show in The Waterfront from November on.”
So, there we have it. Things are opening up and one of Northern Ireland’s favourite plays is coming to a theatre near you in hopefully just a few short months.