A Brief History
It all started in the late 1960s when the then rector of St Brigid's Church of Ireland Parish, the Reverend Marcus Taylor, had the idea for our first parish hall. It was to be what was known in those days as a pre-fab, constructed largely out of chipboard and erected in the schoolyard in 1967 at a cost of about £5,000. The dimensions were approximately 60 feet long by 25 feetwide by 10 feet high with a flat roof and three doors. The heating was a single bar wall heater which took two shilling pieces. At first it served as a school playroom and a youth club until our curate, the Reverend Kevin Dalton, decided to start a drama group.
The first parishioner approached by Kevin Dalton was Arthur Rhys Thomas, universally known as ‘Tommy’ Thomas. Tommy had been involved with drama all his life. He was born in England in 1900 to a theatrical family and his father’s first cousin, Brandon Thomas, had written the classic farce Charley’s Aunt. Tommy had served in the RAF during the Second World War and had started a theatrical group at his base at RAF Stafford.
After the war he had a variety of jobs in Ireland which included those of advertising sales manager of the Irish Times and organising the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for Dublin Tourism. Meanwhile he had formed his own drama group called The New Playhouse Group with which he had won a number of festival awards.
Another parishioner at the time was Geoff Lovegrove. Geoff had come to Stillorgan Parish from Kill of the Grange Parish where he had been active in the dramatic society for several years, mostly as stage manager. Tommy Thomas agreed to get involved with the new drama group as producer, on the condition that Geoff Lovegrove was recruited too. So, without letting on, Kevin Dalton then approached Geoff who agreed to become involved on condition that Tommy Thomas came in as producer! Thus was the drama group formed and at the suggestion of Tommy Thomas we adopted the title of the Stillorgan Players.
The next step was to call a meeting open to anybody interested in joining the new group. Eight people turned up comprising four men and four ladies. A play was promptly chosen with eight characters, namely Killer Dies Twice by Lynne Reid Banks. It was an old fashioned thriller set in a snowbound ski chalet and needless to say the eight founding members got the eight parts. With the usual panic, it opened on 9 April 1969 and ran for two glorious nights. The following October we put on The Happiest Days Of Your Life by John Dighton with no fewer than eleven characters and the society was truly up and running.
As a venue for performances our pre-fab parish hall had many shortcomings compared with the average parish hall at the time. The low ceiling meant that the stage could only be raised by eighteen inches from the floor. In order to give the audience some elevation a number of wooden tiered platforms had to be hurriedly constructed. These platforms had to be carried in and out of the hall for each performance and because they were stored outside in the yard they became increasingly saturated and rickety. As well as this, in the early days the stage itself only had a door at one side and was so small that the back wall usually had to be painted as part of the scenery. Actors could therefore only go on and off stage at the one side, and had to make sure that they were on the correct side when the curtain went up. Eventually after a few years a door for the other side of the stage was cut out of the side of the pre-fab leading into the graveyard, leaving the actors to negotiate a long outdoor circuit often in heavy rain.
Despite all these difficulties, the Stillorgan Players thrived for the next twenty years. We put on two plays a year, in October and in March. One was usually a comedy and the other would be some sort of a thriller. Occasionally we would put on a ‘way out’ play to show our versatility but these would leave the audience bemused and we would return to our popular routine. Terrific support was always supplied by Harry Sheppard and his backstage crew in constructing and moving scenery while Harry’s wife Edie and her helpers did great work with the props.
Over the years we were often asked to bring our shows on the road but usually we preferred to stick to our own familiar hall. Excursions out of town involved transporting the scenery and props as well as the actors and this often resulted in mishaps. On one occasion we were asked to bring a play to Mountmellick only to find that the van bringing the scenery had broken down outside the town and the cast had to push the van all the way up the main street to the venue in the local convent.
However, throughout the first twenty years of our existence we were immensely proud of our dramatic society. The standard of our performances was universally high, not least because of the superb direction by Tommy Thomas. After he died in 1978 the standard was kept up under new producers such as Geoff Lovegrove, Jim Lovegrove and Barbara Kirk. Substantial sums were raised towards the upkeep of the hall and towards parish funds while dozens of actors experienced the pleasure of performing in front of family and friends as well as a regular local audience.
By the late 1980s the old hall was showing its age and it was becoming increasingly difficult to put on quality productions and to attract good audiences. Fortunately our new rector, the Reverend Alistair Graham, proved to be a man of enormous energy and an outstanding fundraiser. He immediately set about the task of raising the funds for a new parish centre. In August 1993, the old hall was demolished with the single push of a bulldozer. By early 1994, a magnificent new parish centre had been constructed by the firm of G & T Crampton at a cost of around IR£300,000 and the official opening was performed by President Mary Robinson on 12 June 1994.
Initially the plans for the new hall envisaged only a small stage platform but an ingenious arrangement was worked out with the builders whereby the curtains could be brought forward on runners. This in turn allowed for entrances and dressing rooms on both sides as well as facilities for both a stage extension and a storage area. New lighting was purchased and the existence of both an entrance hall and a fine kitchen meant that larger audiences could now be catered for in increasing comfort. Our performances resumed after a gap of a few years and we were able to add fundraising events such as regular pantomimes and theatre supper evenings.
However despite these new facilities a few sources of tension quickly began to emerge. The facilities of the new parish centre meant that a number of new activities could now be catered for and of course welcome funds could be raised by renting the building to outside organisations. As a result it became increasingly difficult to get rehearsal time in the hall and it even became difficult at times to reserve dates for scheduled performances. There were inevitably a number of personality clashes with the ‘powers that be’ to the extent that by 1997 the society was pretty well ‘on ice’. Fortunately, however, our bit of internal drama was soon resolved so that when the society resumed in October 1998 with a performance of Agatha Christie’s play Murder in the Vicarage it was accepted with good humour all round!
Today the Stillorgan Players continue to thrive and to perform to the highest level. Over the fifty years of our existence we have put on seventy-two plays and fourteen pantomimes and over a hundred actors and actresses have performed with us. We have also performed seven times at the Bray One-Act Festival as well as hosting dozens of fundraising events. We are glad to say that we enjoy the best of support from our rector the Reverend Ian Gallagher as well as from our parishioners and from other parish organisations. In 2019 we celebrated our first 50 years with a Gala Dinner and presentations to four of our longest serving members namely Dick White and Harry Sheppard plus founder members Geoff Lovegrove and, not least, myself.
So the next time you see it advertised that the Stillorgan Players are performing in the Stillorgan Parish Centre on St Brigid’s Church Road, do buy a ticket and come along to watch us perform. You will be very welcome and we promise that you will not be disappointed.