PAUL Brennan laughs and talks about turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. “I hate that phrase, but it is so right for Pigtown,” he laughs again.
The accomplished theatre director, a veteran of work with Druid and the Abbey, is discussing the inaugural presentation of the Belltable’s new community theatre project, which he is directing, a first staging in Limerick of Mike Finn’s play in over ten years.
Due to budgetary constraints and the cast requirements needed for Finn’s love song to his native city, a fully professional production was deemed impossible. Instead, in the manner of Tommy Clocks, the central character in Pigtown - a whizz through 100 years of Limerick history - the project cut its cloth to measure, and found a ready solution in the concept of community theatre.
The cast of ten, while led by professional actor John Anthony Murphy in the lead role, is a mixture of amateurs and those making their debut on stage. Yet they are supported by Brennan, Finn and a professional production team who have brought them to a point where the lines between amateur and professional are now blurred.
“I think that is the value of bringing a professional crew in around a community group is that you can move closer to that professional state,” explains Brennan, who has staged four such productions in the past.
“It is somewhere between amateur and professional and we aspire to bringing all these people who haven’t got much experience to a point where they will look good even if they are not professional themselves. It will be of the highest possible standard,” he assures.
The venture is a slight gamble for the Belltable and for the producers, yet there seems no surer subject material than the iconic Pigtown, an award winner that often causes eyes to mist over at its merest suggestion.
Finn’s homage to Limerick was last produced here in 2002. Incidentally he says he wrote the play with community theatre in mind, despite the fact that it debuted as a professional production by the now defunct Island Theatre in 1999 in the Belltable.
“Community theatre is something I have always been interested in,” says Finn. “While Pigtown wasn’t originally a community play, thinking back it was probably influenced by the idea of telling stories from a city’s past, the idea that a city or a place could almost be a character in a play, that a play could be about a place rather than just the people,” he adds.
“Ideally we looked to see if we could do it with a fully professional cast, but it was just too expensive,” continues the playwright. “Rather than not doing it at all, the Belltable suggested doing it as a community play, and it really lends itself to that. We held open auditions and invited anybody and everybody to be in it - people could walk in off the street, and they did.”
It has been Brennan’s job to mould that cast - which includes local councillor Tom Shortt, rapper Jay Red and Darren Maher - around Murphy in the central role.
“It is wonderful to have John in it and he is a real rock upon which the whole thing can be built,” explains Paul. “I feel the others are learning from him, watching his technique and even his commitment and dedication which is infectious.
“What the cast have had to learn is a bit of acting technique and at times I have had to revert into workshop mode to try and supply them with the means and techniques. That is helping them work with their imaginations and bodies to try and create the different characters.”
The play is an intoxicating one, a tale of old industries, characters and shops that has consistently struck a chord with those who have seen it, from here to New York.
Asked what it is that has seen Pigtown so consistently well received by audiences, Finn points to the themes present in it.
“It is a love song to the city, so many places are mentioned, old shops and industries and characters that are since gone and I think people can really relate to that, it is unusual for people to almost see themselves up on the stage,” he says.
“It is about somebody looking for a sense of place and the notion of story-telling and that is what we are as people, a collection of stories - it is about the dignity of labour, the loss of old industries - so those themes definitely travel too.”
“It is great to see it back and people have been constantly asking me about it, so if half of those people turn up it will be very successful.”
Pigtown runs from June 7-16 in the Belltable. See www.belltable.ie.