Over the years, St Anne’s Community College has presented many outstanding theater productions by its dynamic students led by teacher Maree Murphy. Thomas Conway reports from Killaloe School
Think of a Saturday night on Broadway – the twinkling neon lights, the razzmatazz, the bling of a high-octane musical with a cast of superstars. There is no greater theater of the dramatic arts, no greater stage on which the elite of the acting profession could seek to perform. Killaloe isn’t Broadway and St Anne’s Community College isn’t the Lyceum Theatre, but once in a while, usually on an early spring evening, the school turns into something that might look like a downtown auditorium- New York City.
School musicals are a feature of most second-tier colleges, but few, if any, tend to reach the heights the way St. Anne does. Trust me. The shows are many things, on many levels, but as expressions of musical theater they are masterpieces of production. And behind them all, at the heart of the choreography, the directing, the advice and the good times in general, is Maree Murphy. The English teacher has been on staff at St Anne for over a decade now. During this time, she has presided over a string of outstanding productions, from Oliver and Grease, to the multi-award-nominated Les Misérables and, most recently, Into the Woods. But the shows themselves are only half the story. By encouraging students to come forward and participate, challenging them to let go of any preconceived notions and settle for acting or singing, Maree has helped create a unique school culture in which musicals and performances 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 interpersonal development has been effectively crippled for two years and for many the idea of raising their hands in class is probably still daunting, let alone the thought of performing on stage in front of an audience of potentially critical peers. .
“We’re just trying to pull ourselves together to get the students to perform because they’re really, really nervous and shy and reluctant to come forward. Last time we held a talent show we could have had up to 30 applicants or more, but this year I ended up having to go into the classrooms to coax the students. So we ended up with 10 contestants – a mix of dance acts, solo singers and duos. So trying to get the students back on stage was tough, but we have such talent at school.
Maree remains convinced that over time, apprehension will set in and that students will regain their fervor for the stage. Cultivating enthusiasm is usually the first step, but the music production process is long, complex and exceptionally demanding. It’s not a task Maree has ever undertaken lightly, or one she’s ever regretted, it must be said. For her though, it’s all about the students. These musicals are stories of self-development as much as anything else. Even from the start, 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, so I start thinking about myself. I have to do this one. But I will have a few shows that will run through my head when we do the auditions, and depending on who comes in, I will generally see a character in someone: there is a Fagan, or there is a Madame Thenardier. Then I’ll try to fit others around them and usually it works.
St Anne’s is a school that works at several paces. He has a sporty pace. Hurling, Gaelic football and camogie take center stage. Badminton and basketball have generated many successes. St Anne’s has produced inter-county throwers, League of Ireland football players and even an Olympic swimmer, yet the culture in the classrooms extends far beyond sport. Indeed, Maree’s influence helped make the drama “cool.” There is as much admiration for the actors who go on stage as for the athletes who populate the grounds. Part of that is because the shows are still taking place at their home in the school hall, where the atmosphere is so feverish and electric it could rival any Broadway pageant.
“What I love is the fact that we have the shows here in St Anne, at school, because it’s so much nicer – it feels like home. I know a lot of schools in Limerick might pay to hire the Millennium Theater or the Lime Tree or somewhere, but I would much rather we filled the school for a few nights. Because that way everyone talks about it in the community – you go up to SuperValu and everyone tells you, the students cross the bridge and they hear loud beeps from all the cars. So it’s great in that regard.
Many Maree students have accomplished extraordinary things – Eva O’Connor is now an award-winning actress and playwright; Hugh Finnerty is developing his own profile as a fashion designer in New York. Both went through St Anne’s informal acting academy, and though she downplays his influence out of sheer humility, you suspect Maree’s attendance at the school helped, in some way, determine their respective career paths. But the musicals themselves also goad students to extraordinary lengths. The weeks leading up to a performance are essentially a form of organized chaos. Last-minute confusions, unforeseen dilemmas, technical disasters. Maree recalls an occasion when 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 fought valiantly. Anyone who knows him will tell you, he was never going to not star in that musical.
But in the chaos, there is also tremendous fun, made possible by the relationships that develop between everyone involved. Everybody’s equal. The members of the choir are just as appreciated as the person who plays the main role. And they care just as much. For Maree, that’s basically the beauty of these productions. They foster deep friendships, create lifelong memories, and leave an emotional imprint on everyone involved.
“Over the years, I’ve learned to better detach myself from the series. In the beginning, with the first musicals that we did in school, they were just very emotional, because actors are like your family. You are here with them every night from 4-6 p.m. and you get to know these kids so well, but after all, you may never learn from them again. And you may not see them at all, except passing them in the hallway or greeting them from afar. And it’s almost like the end of a friendship, the end of a relationship. So it’s hard, and that’s why we’re usually all on stage crying at the end!
Principal Beverley Hartigan and Vice-Principal Mary Fitzgerald beam with pride when they talk about St Anne’s. They cherish their students, whether they are athletes, actors, musicians or something else. The school held its annual awards day on May 17 – an eclectic celebration of the talent that currently roams the halls. There were tributes to the school’s sporting heroes and heroines, an overall Student of the Year award for Patrick Ryan, roars of appreciation for the teachers and staff members who work so hard to nurture and guide the next generation. Whatever the scene, whatever the discipline, St Anne’s will always seek to support its students – but the musicals are particularly special. There is an incalculable emotion in these performances. They move teachers to tears and delight audiences, and for Maree, they created a moment in time that will always stay with her.
“That was my happiest moment here in Sainte-Anne – this musical, Les Miserables. 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 would love to transport myself to that moment.