A most unique school culture
St Anne’s Community College has over the years showcased many outstanding theatrical productions by its vibrant students directed by teacher Maree Murphy. Thomas Conway reports from the Killaloe school
Cast your mind to a Saturday night on Broadway - the shimmering neon lights, the razzmatazz, the bling of some high-octane musical with a superstar cast. There is no greater theatre of the dramatic arts, no greater stage on which the elite of the acting business might seek to perform. Killaloe is not Broadway and St Anne’s Community College is not the Lyceum Theatre, but once in a while, generally on a night in early spring, the school transfigures into something which might resemble an auditorium in downtown New York.
School musicals are a feature of most second-level colleges, but few, if any, tend to hit the heights quite like St Anne’s do. Trust me. The shows are many things, on many levels, but as expressions of musical theatre, they are masterpieces of production. And behind them all, at their core, choreographing and directing and advising and just generally having a good time, is Maree Murphy. The English teacher has been a staff member in St Anne’s for over a decade now. In that time she has presided over a swath of outstanding productions, from Oliver, to Grease, to the multi-award nominated Les Misérables, and more recently, Into the Woods. But the shows themselves are only half the story. In encouraging students to come forward and partake, in challenging them to abandon any preconceived notions and just give acting or singing a go, Maree has helped to create a unique school culture in which musicals and performance are cherished and admired.
Right now however, that culture is being challenged. The emotional and psychological impact of Covid on students continues to linger. Their social and interper-sonal development was effectively paralysed for the guts of two years and for many, the notion of raising one’s hand in class is probably still daunting, let alone the thought of performing on stage in front of an audience of potentially judgemental peers.
“We’re just trying to claw our way back into getting the students to perform, because they’re just really, really nervous, and shy, and reticent about coming forward. The last time we had a talent show we could have had up to 30 contestants, or more, but this year I ended having to go into classrooms to coax students. So we ended up with 10 contestants - a mixture of dance acts, solo-singers, and duets. So trying to get students back up on stage performing has been hard, but we do have such great talent in the school.”
Maree remains confident that, in time, the apprehen-sion will settle and students will rediscover their fervour for the stage. Cultivating enthusiasm is usually the first step, but the process of musical production is long, complex, and exceptionally demanding. It isn’t a task which Maree has ever undertaken lightly, nor is it one she has ever regretted, it must be said. For her however, everything is about the students. These musicals are tales of personal development, as much as anything else. Even from the very outset, the students shape the show, as she explains: “I usually go to see something, and if it’s a really good show, and I can’t get it out of my head, then I start thinking to myself I have to do that one. But I’ll have a few shows floating around in my head when we’re doing the auditions, and depending on who comes in, I’ll usually see a character in someone: there’s a Fagan, or there’s a Madame Thenardier. Then I’ll try to fit others around them and usually it just works out.”
St Anne's is a school which runs to several rhythms. It has a sporting beat. Hurling, Gaelic football and camogie feature centrally. Badminton and basketball have generated numerous success stories. St Anne’s has produced inter-county hurlers, League of Ireland soccer players, and even an Olympic swimmer, and yet the culture in the classrooms extends well beyond sport. In effect, Maree's influence has helped to render drama 'cool'. There is as much admiration for the actors who take to the stage as there is for the athletes who populate the pitches. Part of the reason for that is that the shows always take place on home turf, in the school hall, where the atmosphere is so febrile and electric that it could rival any concourse on Broadway.
“What I love about it about is the fact that we have the shows here in St Anne’s, in the school, because it’s just so much more personable - it feels like home. I know a lot of the Limerick schools will pay to maybe rent out the Millennium Theatre or the Lime Tree or somewhere, but I would much rather we pack the school out for a couple of nights. Because that way you have everyone talking about it in the community - you go up to SuperValu and everybody is saying it to you, the students walk across the bridge and they get big beeps from all the cars. So it’s great in that regard.”
Many of Maree’s students have gone on to do extraordinary things - Eva O’Connor is now an award-winning actress and playwright; Hugh Finnerty is developing his own profile as a fashion stylist in New York. Both passed through St Anne’s informal academy of acting, and though she downplays her influence out of sheer humility, you suspect that Maree’s presence in the school helped, in some way, to determine their respective career-paths. But the musicals themselves also spur students to extraordinary lengths. The weeks leading up to a performance are basically a form of organised chaos. Last-minute mix-ups, unforeseen dilemmas, technical disasters. Maree recalls one occasion in which Mark Sartini, who played the lead role in Oliver, managed to sprain his foot in the middle of a dress-rehearsal. Needless to say, he soldiered on gallantly. Anyone who knows him will tell you, he was never not going to star in that musical.
But within the mayhem there is also tremendous fun, made possible by the relationships which develop between all those involved. Everybody is equal. Members of the chorus are just as valued as the person in the lead role. And they care just as much. For Maree, that is essentially the beauty of these productions. They foster profound friendships, make immortal memories, and leave an emotional imprint on all involved.
“Over the years I’ve become better at detaching myself from the show. At the beginning, with the first few musicals that we put on in the school, they were just very emotional, because the cast, they’re like your family. You’re here with them every single evening, 4 to 6pm, and you do get to know those kids so well, but after it’s all over, you might never teach them again. And you may not see them at all, other than just pass-ing them on the corridor or saluting them from afar. And it’s almost like the end of a friendship, the end of a relationship. So it is difficult, and that’s why we’re usually all up on the stage balling crying at the end of it!”
Principal Beverley Hartigan and Vice-Principal Mary Fitzgerald radiate with pride when they talk about St Anne’s. They cherish their students, whether they are athletes, actors, musicians, or something else entirely. The school held its annual awards day on May 17 - an eclectic celebration of the talent which currently walks the corridors. There were tributes to the school’s sport-ing heroes and heroines, an overall Student of the Year award for Patrick Ryan, roars of appreciation for the teachers and staff members which work so hard to nurture and guide the next generation. Whatever stage, whatever the discipline, St Anne’s will always seek to support its students - but the musicals are par-ticularly special. There is incalculable emotion in those performances. They move teachers to tears and send audiences in raptures, and for Maree, they have created a moment in time which will always remain with her.
“It was my happiest moment here in St Anne’s - that musical, Les Misérables. I had my father there, and I had my aunt there, and I swear to God, to this day, it brings tears to my eyes. I’d love to transport myself back to that moment.”