Encore Productions win at the Irish Healthcare Awards.

It was off with the costumes and on with the evening wear when actors Anita Guest and Mary Francis McAteer represented Encore Productions at the recent Irish Health Care Centre Awards in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire. The crowd rose in applause as they took the stage to receive the award on behalf of the cast and crew of the Dundalk based drama group they have acted in for over 20 years. Receiving the award from RTE’s Marty Whelan their pride and passion for drama shone through.

Across 29 categories the Irish Healthcare Centre Awards recognise excellence and outstanding innovation in the Irish Healthcare Sector. Initiatives in Nursing, teaching, Mental Healthcare, Midwifery and Clinical Care were all recognised alongside many other categories. Encore Productions won the category for Best Healthcare Initiative in Disability Services.

The drama group draws all its actors from RehabCare Resource Centre in Carrol Village. With commitment, confidence and creativity the cast and crew have put on shows in Dundalk Town Hall for over 20 years. The shows themselves are at times written by the cast and at others, adaptations of classic plays but all have the trademark warmth, directness and honesty that these performers bring.

Having built up the groups momentum and scale to the point in 2016 when over 80 performers took the stage in their Irish History Play – ‘Our Story So Far’, Encore scaled back the size of their productions to create shows that could be toured and would offer actors a chance to hone their stagecraft and work with professional theatre makers from the disciplines of acting, music and film.

The quality of their 2017 production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ resulted in them being asked to become Theatre Company In residence with An Táin Arts Centre. During the 4 years of their residency Encore Productions have staged ‘Courage’ by Bertold Brecht, and their own original piece ‘Aesop’ based on the life of the ancient writer of Fables and ‘A Midsummer Night’s dream – yet another of their Shakespeare adaptations.

According to RehabCare Drama Coordinator Sandy Sneddon – ‘what’s so exciting about this award is that it recognises the positive impact of the arts, creativity and drama specifically on the wellbeing of individuals and the communities in which they live. To be part of something bigger than oneself – to have a role and responsibilities – to work toward a common goal – to tell stories that mean something to you and say something about your own experiences is enormously rewarding. Expressing oneself through voice and movement – being heard and being seen both in the rehearsal room and on stage is a powerful way to build confidence, trust and respect. And all this in a theatre!’

When asked what being Theatre Company in Residence meant to them the actors were characteristically vocal. Melissa Fox likes doing workshops with professional actors – ‘It’s great to be part of something and meet new people…learn new things – stay interested. I’ve got so much more confidence since my first show.’ Martin Hanley felt that when he arrived from Birmingham ‘Doing drama  helped me fit in – make friends and be part of something’ While for Jamie Linden It’s all about ‘Craic…Friends….Passion…it helps me reach my goals. The power to meet an audience…bring family and friends together. Research the characters and the actors on the internet. Keeps me busy and interested at night when I come home.’ Dolores McKeever who plays the lead in their latest production said ‘I see actors on soaps with a disability – if they can do it so can we! Drama has made me more alert and more able to concentrate. A sense of achievement. A bit of a celebrity. A part of the community. We show them we can do it. We are as good as anyone else. It’s taken us to different places –Galway, Belfast, Dublin, Manchester. Places other people don’t get to go’.

Rodger Zyro added ‘I never be nervous. I love working with the team – the director, the crew, all the cast. The lines help me with my memory. The stories help me with my emotions. Stories make sense’. Olivia McGinnity smiles as she speaks – ‘I have confidence now. And I’m part of a team. If you ask me what I do, I say – ‘I am and actress!’ David Coyle loves coming here – ‘I love to perform. I’m proud of what I’m doing. I love the shows and the tours. It gives me something to look forward to – and something to remember!’  Encore veteran Paddy Durnin enthused –It’s been great being Theatre Company in Residence. The experience has been amazing. It’s been an honour so far – and this year’s show is going to be off the charts. When I perform the audience give me energy – and I take that energy into my life!

The 25 participants in Encore Productions are supported by Sandy Sneddon, Grainne O’Hanlon and Rachel Tinniswood who work with a team of creatives – Orlaith Cullinane, Dara McCluskey and Eoin Hannaway among them, to facilitate a process that allows for creativity, expression, team work and performance.

Community service manager Ian Foran and An Táin Arts Centre director were united in their praise for the initiative. Speaking on behalf of RehabCare’s Dundalk services Ian said ‘we are incredibly proud to support persons through their Residency. An Táin have been wonderful collaborators and partners, open minded, forward thinking and most welcoming to all actors who are involved in each production, treating every person with the highest regard and unwavering equity. We are highly fortunate to have such committed staff who support the actors through an intricate process that is created and coordinated by Sandy Sneddon. From a Social Care perspective, we support a group of talented people in a normalised working environment that focuses minds on ability and endeavours to continue the process of personal development, from my perspective we’re just lucky and privileged to support great actors.’

The last word came from An Táin Arts Centre Director Paul Hayes –‘I have been hugely impressed with the standard of Encore’s work ethic since they took up the residency in 2019. Their seemingly endless enthusiasm for theatre, coupled with Sandy’s artistic vision ensures this has been very successful collaboration. They are a wonderful group of actors to have in the Arts Centre and have had a very positive influence on both staff and visiting artists alike. We are the only Arts Centre in the country with a company in residence made up of actors with intellectual disabilities, we are delighted that this award gives national recognition to the great benefits of our collaboration to all who experience it.’

Encore’s adaptation of ‘The Visit’ by Friedrich Durrenamat will run at An Táin Arts Centre for three performances in the last week of September. Contact An Táin on 0429332332 or at info@antain.ie or go to their website for more details.