Interview - Paula McFetridge
She's an actress, a director, a producer - and she joined the circus in her teens. She's Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of Kabosh Theatre Company.
Paula, can you tell me how you ended up where you are?
I was born in 1966 in west Belfast, and I’ve always been involved in the arts. From a very young age I was involved in the Youth Lyric, Ulster Youth Theatre, National Youth Theatre in London. I was a founder member of the Belfast Community Circus in ’85. I was a founder member of Tinderbox in ’88. I always worked freelance as an actress and director, but because of my background in the circus and community arts, I was production manager on big projects like the Wedding Community Play project. I then went in as artistic director on “Convictions”, which was the big Tinderbox show in 2000 that won all the awards. I worked as an actress primarily within television, film and radio. I did a lot of theatre with companies from the Abbey Theatre [Dublin] to every independent company in the north actually, I worked with them all. I ran the Lyric [Theatre, Belfast] then for five years and I was the first female artistic director since the founder, Mary O’Malley. During that time was when The Lyric was going through the whole reassessment of the rebuild and so I led that whole project and fought to keep it on the site that it’s currently on. And then I left there, and I was going to go freelance again, and the founder of Kabosh was leaving and I knew the general manager and I decided to go for the interview: I’ve been running Kabosh now seven years.
At Kabosh I direct everything, I come up with the programme in association with my colleagues. We’re a site-specific theatre company, which means all the work we do it outside the normal confines of what we would consider to be a theatre, so it’s location sympathetic. There are so many different terms for it, but it falls into three different strands. One is major site-specific projects that would be either about a story or a history or a narrative that I feel would suit a specific space or if there is specific space that I feel enough people don’t have an engagement with. So it could be a contested space or it could be a niche audience space, like anything from a tobacconist’s shop to a synagogue to black taxi going up the Falls Road. And then I commission playwrights every time and then we stage the shows in those. We would do at least one major project a year, with the budget sitting round about £70,000. Then outside of that I would do usually one or two smaller site-specific projects. In addition to that we do a lot of work within cultural tourism where we would work with Tourism Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, where we create projects for both people from here and for visitors, to give them something unique to help them look at the city differently. That could be like something like our food and drink in our “Belfast Bred” that’s been a huge success, or even some of the more political tourism stuff we’ve done, like “The West Awakes” which is a political tour of the Falls Road and we’re going into development now for a new tour of the Shankill.
Out of a lot of that work we started developing a digital media strand to our work, so we’ve just released two apps of “Belfast Bred”. The app of “West Awakes” comes online in the next month and then we’re doing an app of the Shankill and these will be under the new umbrella of the Streets of Belfast, where you can find out social history of the area, links to other websites, you get extracts out of the original dramas that we staged along the road.
Could you tell us a bit about the Intercult project?
Intercult have been going for many years. They’re based in Stockholm in Sweden and they are a pan-European body that with European funds facilitate artistic interventions in marginalised areas across Europe. This one is called “Corners”, where you go to the corners of Europe. And there are about 24 practitioners, all different art forms, a lot of visual artists, some theatre and each of us have gone on a series of expeditions to the corners of Europe to meet cultural tourism ambassadors, to meet funders, to meet politicians, to meet refugees, to meet artists that are working below the radar, that kind of thing. Out of that then I did two trips in the last 15 months. I went to Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan the first time; that was the Caucasus trip. And then I did the east where I went Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia. And then I went back to Ljubljana in Slovenia to speak about our work and then I went and I spoke at the ITEM, which is International Theatre in Zagreb and Croatia. I’ve created two projects. One is in collaboration with two Croatian artists and it is called “Belt of Happiness” and it’s a visual art theatre and sound installation that will take place in blocks of flats across Europe. And the other project is called “Built to Contain” and that’s in association with two Slovenian artists from the Peace Institute and it is to create a series of radio plays that will be broadcast through the National Broadcasters, performed and written by prisoners. That could be female prisoners, political prisoners, non-political prisoners, people in detention centres, refugees or young offenders. In each country we will work with a group of incarcerated people that are, I suppose, the most pertinent group at that time. So for example, we will work with the Sami people in northern Sweden, the political prisoners. Ljubljana we will work in the women’s prison and then we reassess each as we go.
It’s exciting stuff.
It is, and our next big Kabosh project is in George’s Church; it’s a story that looks at 400 years of Belfast, so it’s six female characters over the 400 years and we’ve commissioned an oratorio and work with the choirs in St George’s and we’ve got six local actresses.
Has there been anyone who’s been influential in your life?
My mother’s a huge influence on me. She has two All Ireland medals. She’s incredibly sporty, incredibly well organised, would be on every committee under the sun, was part of the kind of social committee for the golf club and all this. Also had a great financial brain, so she was a bookkeeper. So I’m very lucky, I can do budgets and all that stuff, finance doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been very mathematical because of my mother. And also, you know, she brought me to the theatre from when I was no age. She loves the theatre and she loves me being part of it. And because I wasn’t as sportingly gifted as my two sisters and my parents I think it was quite good I fell into the arts.
Charabanc Theatre Company was founded, I suppose, in one of the darkest periods in the north, early eighties. It was founded by five incredible women who realised that they weren’t getting jobs within theatre so they decided to found their own company and that was Marie Jones, Mo Macauly, Brenda Winter, Carole Moore and Eleanor Methven. Each of them have carved incredible careers within the arts and they’ve always remained very honest and very true to what they’re about. Drama teachers over the years, yes, and I had a great elocution teacher. My mum sent me to elocution so I talked properly, and my elocution teacher was a woman called Maureen Torney (who acted under the name of Maureen Dow) and I used to go and see her in the Lyric and she was amazing, you know? She just had a wonderful way of giving you a love of language. My first drama teacher at St Dominic’s was a woman called May McHenry who ran a Shakespeare Festival at St Dominic’s every year. When I think about it, it was very ambitious. I played Oberon, I played Hamlet, I played Macbeth.
And I’m constantly inspired by, people I work with, you know? I mean, Finn Kennedy, who’s a production assistant here at Kabosh. I’ve known Finn maybe 10/11 years now. I’ve known her since she was quite young, when she was a student. She is a single mother but has written an incredible play called “Hostel” about her experiences of raising her daughter in a hostel, that we tour as Kabosh and we’ve met some incredible women through that. And Finn has found a way of articulating her experiences to speak to other people that have gone through that system and make a difference within social housing, within sheltered accommodation, within the kind of refuge development, and we’ve had representatives from the Housing Executive and stuff come and talk at those. So I suppose they’ve all had influences.
Does the theatre consume your whole life?
Yes. It consumes my whole life. I’m theatre through and through. My husband is a playwright and an actor. We actually met playing boyfriend/girlfriend in a play in the Lyric. We are the cliché. We’ve toured together for other theatre companies. Yes, he would say it’s all consuming, and most of my friends are theatre people. It’s very hard to switch it off because there are elements of it that are tangible but there’s so many other elements of it are so responsive and so subjective. You know, it’s not necessarily an objective career choice and it’s vocational and also even using the word “choice” is wrong, it’s like a disease. It’s one of those things, you know?
Any plans for the future, any goals that you’d like to achieve?
I just wish we could find a way of stabilising arts investment and I think that the kind of cyclical nature of the battles that we have to fight to articulate the value of the arts kind of gets to me, you know, and I think that finding a way of making artistic engagement accessible, but also finding a way where we don’t constantly feel the need to invest in product, where we can invest in process but also that we stop reinventing the wheel. I think on too many occasions that we’re all searching for such tiny pockets of money that we could very easily lose sight of investing in creativity instead of... and replacing that by investing in pen pushers.
I would love, arts to be on the same agenda and to have the same value as health education and social development because I think we work within all those strands.
I just want to see good theatre being made. Yeah, and I’m kind of... I’m terrified of running out of ideas.
Thank you so much.