Each week, Stage Door Live’s Associate Producer Janice de Bróithe takes a look at theatre Beyond The Pale.
This week, I am looking not to a particular county beyond the pale, I am looking to the island of Ireland in its entirety.
There is, my friends, a national theatrical extravaganza of epic proportions that takes place every year in Killarney. This event, which takes place over two days, and involves in the region of 1000 participants (and that figure only because of the limitations of the venue – if there were no such limitations, it could easily see upwards of 3000) is nothing short of an unbridled explosion of the joy of Musical Theatre. I am, of course, speaking about the AIMS (Association of Irish Musical Societies) Awards.
I am aware that I may have just lost a number of my readers. Musicals do tend to have that effect: you either like/love them, or you really can’t stand them. Musicals are the marmite of Theatre. How often have you heard someone declare that their show is ‘A play with music, NOT a musical’ or sometimes ‘actually it’s an operetta, not a musical’ in that very particular tone which tells you exactly what they think of musicals. To be fair, both of those definitions are specific genres, however I have seen some of those shows and come out of them saying: ‘I don’t know who they think they’re kidding, that was definitely a musical.’ I wont name names, but it seems that ‘musical’ is a dirty word to some people.
AIMS itself can be a tricky enough subject in Irish theatre circles, and I can understand why. Aside from some people believing that Musical Theatre is somehow lesser (in most cases because it is ‘commercial’) there is also the fact that it is built on a voluntary/amateur foundation, while at the same time provides much needed work for many of our directors, choreographers, technicians, stage management, musicians and sells out venues all over the country. Since 1965 AIMS has given the people of Ireland the opportunity to perform and enjoy musicals they would never otherwise have had the chance to. As a nation we do not have the same regional theatre infrastructure as say, the UK, and as we know, sustaining a career in theatre is very difficult here. AIMS fills a gap for so many people for whom pursuing a career in theatre isn’t an option but who love performing and being part of that community. Some of the most talented people I know are ‘amateurs.’ I suppose it’s like the GAA. No one questions the athleticism of our best GAA players, or the place it holds in the hearts of the nation, (there are even leagues/tiers: Gilbert & Sullivan) but it is, ultimately, an amateur association. Similarly to the GAA there is also an emphasis on encouraging talent with training opportunities. There are many workshops provided throughout the year, there is a Youth Summer School – a week-long residential theatre school for teens that takes place in Thurles, and there are two bursaries available for those who earn a place at an accredited drama school.
If you have seen an AIMS show, you will know that, by and large, the standard is incredibly high and there is no arguing with the figures. According to the latest figures from AIMS, there are over 130 societies on their books from all over Ireland (including the North. Just like the rugby, AIMS transcends geo-political borders and is all the better for it), this translates to 14,000 people being directly engaged in theatre and an annual combined audience of around 1.2 million. About a quarter of the population. That’s not an insignificant figure, and honestly, if anyone is going to be responsible for filling our theatres the other side of this pandemic it will be these musical societies.
This weekend, members of AIMS should have been celebrating together down in New Ross, where the nominations for the aforementioned awards are usually announced at a lunchtime Gala during the AIMS Choral Festival. For obvious reasons, this could not take place, and as many of the shows which were yet to take place had to be cancelled when the initial restrictions hit mid-March, many societies simply weren’t in the running at all. They could be forgiven for being heartbroken, devastated and depressed.
However, not ones to be abashed, the organisers re-grouped and yesterday, Sunday the 24th May broadcast the nominations online, and across the board societies hosted watch parties – cheering for each other and celebrating together virtually. Even some of those who could not be nominated due to their show being cancelled, were cheering on friends from those who were. I’m going to take this moment to congratulate all who were nominated – it is no mean feat to earn an AIMS nomination, the competition is FIERCE. You can see the full list of nominations on their facebook page HERE.
The awards weekend, which is usually held in June, is the highlight of the AIMS calendar. It is primarily a celebration of the incredible talent and achievements of all its members. The ceremony itself would give the Oscars a run for its money. It is also worth mentioning that there is always a themed night which asks each society to dress up. The results, naturally, are spectacular. For example: one member told me how several years ago the theme was ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and one society chose to dress up as the yellow brick road. Every time someone started singing the song, they would lie down on the ground and make the road. As I said: unbridled joy.
The event in June has been postponed until September, and organisers are hopeful it will go ahead as normal, but they have stated that if not, the awards, like the nominations, will be hosted online. Shows that were cancelled this year can be adjudicated next year if they go ahead.
The AIMS awards is one of the biggest national theatrical events that takes place annually, and yet, outside of its own circles, does not receive much recognition. I understand that it is problematic with it’s odd mix of professionals and amateurs and some could argue that it is responsible for the lack of development of a professional musical theatre industry in this country and that it is exploitative of its amateur/voluntary foundation (again, much like the GAA). However, there is no denying that we as a nation love musical theatre, and that these societies play as large a part in the lives of communities as the local football/hurling club, and just like when an all-Ireland championship is being played, it is this community which fills our national theatres when the professional touring productions come to town. Whether you’re in the depths of Kerry, the wilds of Galway or Dublin City Centre, whether you like to perform, make costumes or build sets, this is active, successful community engagement in theatre and it should be recognised and celebrated.
*Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any existing AIMS society. I was a member of the Dolmen Musical Society when I was little, but they disbanded when I was 12. I do, however, travel to see many productions because I have friends in them/colleagues working on them and I absolutely adore musicals. If you haven’t already guessed, they’re kind of my thing.
If you have a programme, event or initiative that you would like covered in my ‘Deep Dive’ or Beyond The Pale series please get in touch, I’d be happy to talk!