Theatre taught me not to be afraid

Anne McMaster reveals how her driven mindset and love for the stage has kept her going through life's toughest times while giving her a career on both sides of the Atlantic

Currently working as a commissioned playwright and theatre director, a workshop developer and facilitator, and an artistic director/writer at the newly launched Hydra Theatre Company, you could be forgiven for thinking Anne McMaster never retired. She’s also a reviewer/editor for the Creative Arts in Education and Therapy (CAET) international journal (Eastern and Western Perspectives), writes poetry and is working on a novel. Amongst other things.

In 2016, however, McMaster took early voluntary retirement from her full-time post at the North West Regional College (NWRC), where she was Performing Arts course co-ordinator for 20 years.

Since then, however, she has immersed herself in a wide range of creative projects, linking her passions for theatre, writing and nature. One recent project – PDK (Pretty Darn Kind 2018) – is all about kindness and will involve workshops on kindness, along with a possible show and a book.

Having enjoyed working throughout America and Northern Ireland, McMaster is now back living on the family farm near Garvagh, where she began her working life. With a new company, FarmGirl Productions, recently launched she’s busier than ever – and loving every minute.

Anne McMaster

'I did what nobody expected me to do,' she says. 'I took early voluntary retirement at 53 because I’d written so many plays – I was resident pantomime playwright at the Waterside Theatre in Derry for five years – but didn’t have time to do my own writing. So I decided to retire and do stuff for myself. I also wanted to come back and look after the farm.'

The eldest of three girls, McMaster was encouraged by her parents to follow her passions and spent a lot of her childhood reading books. 'We went to the library with my mum twice a week. I read everything and I loved living on the farm. Because I was the eldest I learned all sorts of things – like driving tractors.'

When her father smashed his hip in an accident, these skills suddenly became very important as McMaster, aged 19, subsequently took over running the farm with her mother.

'That was for about a year,' she recalls. 'I’ve always said that that was the best training for any other work I’ve done since. It taught me about reliability and discipline. I loved being outside and I loved nature. It was hard but also, magical.

'Working full-time on the farm made me very determined about what I wanted to do though. It made me realise I wanted to go to university.'

Anne McMaster

When her father recovered, McMaster went on to study English Literature at Ulster University in Coleraine and it was here that she unearthed her particular passion for the stage.

'One of the units in first year was Elements in Drama, which allowed someone from the class to direct a play,' she says. 'I volunteered and at that point, my life took a screaming left-hand turn and I developed a love of theatre.

'I started my first theatre company in my first year at university. I didn’t wait for something to happen – I got an idea and made it happen. That’s what I enjoy. I ended up writing and directing five shows a year and by the time I’d finished my undergraduate degree I’d started a production company at the Riverside Theatre.'

This self-starter attitude saw McMaster set up on her own as a graduate, although she then got married and found herself living in San Diego. Taking the initiative once again, she advertised her experience and was soon contacted by a local college, where she started lecturing.

'The University of California, San Diego then asked me to design a course for them based on Irish literature, myth and legend, so I was teaching during the day and designing courses at night.'

typewriter night

Expecting to continue working in California for the foreseeable future, McMaster returned to Northern Ireland for good five years later, following the deaths of her parents when she was 30/31. Finding herself back on the farm, alone, she stopped writing for about three years.

'Then I realised you have two choices – you go under or you put one foot in front of the you and keep going.'

McMaster, of course, kept going and as a result, continued to carve out a successful career centred on what she loved most – the theatre. Again, she set up as a freelance business, working with women’s groups, clubs and organisations, doing personal development drama classes and bespoke courses in performing arts.

She then secured a part-time lecturing post in the Performing Arts & Media Studies course at both Causeway Institute, Ballymoney and the Derry-Londonderry campus, which ultimately led to her full-time course co-ordinator role.

'I’ve learned from what I’ve gone through,' she says. 'It taught me not to be afraid and as a result, I’ve been able to do what I absolutely love. I always told my students – don’t ever think that you can’t give something a try.'

The big thing I learned is that it’s ok to be scared, but do it anyway. The fear never stops. If you stop feeling scared then something’s wrong. I always have those moments when I just take a deep breath and say, if you don’t do it, what might you miss..?

Theatre career tips

This article has been published as part of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the Creative Industries in Northern Ireland which runs throughout March. This year's theme is careers and skills – click here to read other articles on how to get into various Creative Industries professions. See the programme of events featuring over 150 inspiring workshops, performances, talks and much more at www.creativityni.org/events.

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