By Michelle Newman
Founded in 1996 by the Brothers of Charity Services in Galway, Blue Teapot Theatre Company began as a small, community-focused project, providing a creative outlet for people with intellectual disabilities.
Today, it is an award-winning company. Blue Teapot was amongst the winners of the GSK Ireland IMPACT Awards in 2017 and their film Sanctuary was awarded the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award at the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle Awards in December last year.
“As a child so I grew up in a travelling theatre company called Footsbarn, who travelled all over Europe and the world,” says CEO and Creative Director of Blue Teapot, Petal Pilley. “It’s [acting] kind of engrained in me. It’s part of my life.”
Petal has been with the company for ten years and during that time she has been a driving force behind the progress made by both the theatre and indeed the actors.
“My predecessor had started to develop a small group of actors who had an actual aptitude for acting. One of the things I did was give them some professional training and begin to make professional theatre,” she explains.
A move into the heart of Galway city in 2008 allowed the members to become better integrated within the community, which helped to spread the word about the company and what they were about.
“If you’re on the outskirts of town and if you’re a marginalised group anyway, it just reinforces that. We found a little building in Munster Avenue, it was a little bit rough round the edges but it gave a strong sense of belonging to the creative hub,” says Petal. “We are literally five minutes from the Druid Theatre Company, five minutes from Galway Arts Centre. I think that proximity to everything has genuinely given a kind of pollination and visibility to our actors and we’re situated in what’s known as Galway’s West End.”
In 2009 the theatre became a legal entity as it was important to Petal that the company had its ‘own creative identity’ so that those involved would feel like they were part of creating a theatrical space and less like they were ‘part of an institution.’
“A lack of skill was confused with disability when people were performing and I thought, ‘No, we can’t have that. We need to get everybody on a level playing field,’” Petal says.
“It became really clear to me that there was no real training for actors if you have an intellectual disability, so we established a performing arts school here and it’s essentially like a three year actor training programme. The theatre company is a group of eight professional actors who are part of an ensemble here.”
The performing arts school was established in 2010, is in its third roll out of students and has a 100 per cent success rate in all qualifications to date. Three days a week the actors attend the theatre – more when they are rehearsing for an upcoming show – and continue to work on their skill set by attending classes, while the performing arts students have a four-day week and both run side by side. This can become a little crowded at times but Petal says the building is a place that’s ‘full of creativity’ and a ‘very joyful environment.’
“We’ve had two graduation ceremonies, so they graduate like anybody else and we throw a big shindig. This new roll out of students started in September 2016 and they’re now in their second year,” she says.
“Because of our building and space restrictions, we’ve got nine people in the school at the moment. You wouldn’t want it too much bigger than that with the way that people with intellectual disabilities learn; you spiral around subjects a bit so you kind of return to things.”
Family and friends of those involved have noticed hugely positive changes in the actors themselves. Petal says that the feedback received is ‘incredible’ because first and foremost they ‘identify people as being performers.’
“[Acting] is such an expressive medium and art form and it’s hugely cathartic. A lot of the actors and students who come through here have really found they have better communication. Talking, eye contact and general well-being has been enormously enhanced because they’re in their right place and people are affirmed”
Blue Teapot Theatre Company, who tour from time to time, can put on as many as 10 performances per piece. Their repertoire includes a full version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a number of original plays that were commissioned especially for the company.
“We don’t restrict in terms of what genre or type, but generally I would have to know that it’s the right fit for this group of actors,” explains Petal. “The key thing is that they are recgonised as actors. If people are recognising the theatre, the film, the artistry, and they are noticing that, it makes it all worth it. That for me is everything.”
For more information on Blue Teapot Theatre Company visit www.blueteapot.ie