Andrea Montgomery

CNI talks to the Artistic Director of Coleraine's Riverside Theatre

Three years ago Andrea Montgomery, artistic director of the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, decided to do away with the traditional Christmas Panto.

Oh yes she did…

First up was A Christmas Carol with giant puppets, then the Nativity story set in the 1940s, more in the style of Jimmy Stewart than Joseph of Nazareth. This year, in the most intriguing departure yet, comes an international production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, as part of the bicentennial celebrations of the writer’s birth.

Not that Montgomery is totally against a man/McFettridge in a dress. ‘I have directed Panto myself and I love it, but I think it can be a bit the same. I wanted the Riverside to do something different, to distinguish itself one way or another.

‘The Nightingale is a really beautiful piece of theatre – visually very striking, bright colours, lots of silks, glittery costumes, not in a Panto style but in that Chinese way.’

Photo of stage production of The Nightingale- reproduced with permission of Riverside TheatreThe production involves British and Chinese actors from Yellow Earth and Chung Ying theatre companies, and is partly in Cantonese. Hans Christian Andersen was fascinated by China, setting both The Nightingale and The Emperor’s New Clothes there. As a child, Montgomery remembers watching playlets in the Chinese style Pantomine theatre in Copenhagen, a city synonymous with Andersen.

‘It’s lovely for me to see that come full circle. I grew up in the far east and am a living example of what happens when you mix those two cultures.’

Montgomery also remembers being taken at five years old to see Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. ‘I can still remember some of the choreography. Children will remember something beautiful, something wonderful, something that has an effect on them.’

A fast-talking Canadian, Montgomery admits to a tendency to seek shows that are ‘either home-grown or really exotic'. She is already in talks for next Christmas’s show with Belfast’s Bruiser Theatre Company and is excited about The Riverside’s 2006 programme.

After Ballywillan Drama Group’s 10th anniversary production of Oliver in January, highlights include Dan Gordon directing a production of Hugh Leonard’s Da, Nuala McEveer’s new show Out of the Box, which the Riverside also produced, and productions from Big Telly, Replay, and Graffitti Classics.

The Riverside also aims to further develop its fledgling Youth Theatre School and undertake more production work.

Montgomery is keenly aware of the differences of running a theatre in a rural area rather than the big smokes of Belfast and Derry. On the plus side ‘your nearest competitor is not two blocks away’, but equally, being on a university campus can make the theatre difficult for punters to find.

The Riverside’s policy of keeping ‘a fairly broad church’ and outreach and community initiatives are certainly ‘getting them in the door’. Attendance figures have more than doubled in the last two years, to 64 per cent in autumn 2005. ‘We aim to be a social hub and a driver for our community,’ Montgomery said. ‘We have a very mixed friendly environment. That’s something we value.’