168 performances: 4 dramas, 2 children’s shows and 1 Christmas comedy all before the Lyric closes its door to the public in early January and begins construction of their new purpose built, dedicated drama space. All said, it is a very exciting time for the Lyric Theatre, from its early beginnings in the 1950’s with Mary and Pierce O’Malley production of Lost Flight by Ronan Farren taking place in their drawing-room theatre at 117 Lisburn Rd, on to the Lyric’s many fine productions in their current space, which opened to the public on the 28th of October 1968.
The Lyric has been home to many great actors down through the years including their patron Liam Neeson OBE, ‘For over fifty years the lyric has been an indispensable part of Northern Ireland’s cultural heritage, empowering, inspiring, engaging and entertaining’.
After almost forty years in their current building the man taking on the job of guiding the Lyric through one of its most development eras is Mike Diskin, a formidable man in both stature and energy. Mike’s track record in the arts is impeccable.
Mike, who is originally from Galway started his student life studying politics before moving on to do a PhD on Ulster Unionism, ‘I lived in Belfast in the mid 80s while I was researching and writing on my thesis; So you may well as how does someone with a PhD in politics end up in the job I did? There were a few twists along the way, I worked briefly with Price Waterhouse as a tax consultant; then I worked in the Japanese Embassy in Dublin. I suppose my current life began to take shape when I became manager of Galway Arts Festival, that was my first job in the arts, these days it would be considered a very prestigious job, in those days the Arts Festival was still very much run by one man, Ollie Jennings. I was really his first full time employee, I learnt an enormous amount with Ollie, he is a tremendously inspirational person in the arts.’
Later on Mike became the director of the Arts Centre in Galway, a multi- disciplinary Arts Centre with its main focus being on the visual arts, while there Mike applied his wealth of knowledge to the then Cuirt Poetry Festival, moving it on from being, ‘a very fine poetry festival and making it into a literature event with really big international names coming.’
Then, twelve years ago Mike took up the post of Manager in the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, producing many fine productions including, ‘Someone to Watch over Me by Frank McGuiness, an immensely moving human drama,’ which will make up one of the dramas to be performed over the current Lyric season.
Throughout his arts career in Galway, stemming from running major festivals to inspiring and energising an entire indigenous arts community to work together and create ‘Project ’06’, a festival displaying the wealth of talent bubbling over in Galway City, Mike always kept up his contact with Northern Ireland, ‘I have some very good friends here, I suppose one makes ones best friends in student life, I was a frequent visitor to the city, visiting festivals, here to see shows, I was a keen observer of the scene. So when this job came up I was interested, I was looking for a new challenge on a personal level, but I was also interested in the challenge of the Lyric, they had a trough three or four years ago, they have been pulling out of it and have made progress on a number of fronts, but there is a lot to do still, most importantly they have brought together all the ingredients for the capital programme which is the building of a new theatre’.
The new Lyric Theatre, which is due to open in the Spring of 2010 is designed by award winning architects O’Donnell and Tuomey, Mike explains, ‘the new building is going to be a dedicated drama house, built with the purpose of making theatre, we are a venue based production company, things, like a rehearsal room, are central to the plan not incidental, we are also going to have a one hundred and twenty seater studio to try out new work, and do youth and community work, as well as the main house’.
While off site the Lyric will continue to produce, ‘it’s really important to keep the name of the Lyric out there, to keep the continuity of work for actors, stage technicians and directors. We will continue to produce work in a variety of Belfast venues; we might also do an occasional site-specific show. Work will continue to be produced, we just won’t have the building; it does give us an opportunity to try out new modes of production and directors, also to find new audiences.’
Before all of this happens though, the Lyric has a jam-packed season ahead starting with the Hypochondriac by Moliere, ‘redesigned and adapted by David Johnson from Queens, it is set in Belfast in the 18th century; this is absolutely an hilarious comedy directed by Dan Gordon, really the master of Northern Ireland comedy, with a superb cast, in the lead is Andy Gray, who is the King of Scottish pantomime.’ Followed on by Big Telly’s production of Bog People, for the Christmas season they have productions of The Wizard of Oz and a new Comedy written by Grimes & McKee starring Frankie McCafferty, ‘a seasonal twist on the property business’.
So, what of the future? Mike’s vision for the Lyric is crystal clear, ‘we would like to be considered central to Northern Ireland, I don’t accept that theatre is minor or peripheral, second or third position, we are central to human life, we should be one of the clear options as entertainment in this city, but it should also be something that reflects life and society in a bigger way. That some of our plays be news worthy in themselves, people would feel that we may have added to community here, this is where we want to be, in the centre of community life and Belfast.’
The Lyric Theatre published NI Homes & Lifestyle
Words & images by Tina O Rourke