Actress Diona Doherty on the creative journey from bleak starts to getting parts
Perseverance has paid off for the TV and stage star who says everyday life skills and some industry savvy can help budding performers have a career without the need to leave home
'The Queen's course I studied was Drama Studies. I very naively went into that thinking it was going to be more vocational and more performance based, and I remember on my first day one of the lecturers stating "This is not Fame Academy! You will not be trained actors!" I was like, for crying out loud, I just want to be an actor!'
University may not have been for her, but that hasn’t stopped Diona Doherty on her rise through the acting ranks. The Derry native has graced our screens through a variety of characters, including the Ukrainian Katya in Derry Girls and Tracey Jones in the wonderfully improvised Soft Border Patrol. I can’t help but think back to my own disappointment, when I arrived on my first day of a university course that I was inevitably going to dislike. It’s inspiring to hear how Diona has gone on to rise above her tutor's dispiriting words.
'I always had a performer in me from a really young age', she says, listing off the performance endeavours she indulged in as a child. Her mother’s brief flirtation with acting, in which she worked with playwright Martin Lynch at the Grand Opera House, is noted as a source of inspiration in the bid to become a performer, alongside a certain drama teacher, Mrs Mead, at Thornhill College.
It was once believed that you had to cross the water in order to make it in acting. The sector here in Northern Ireland just wasn’t bright enough. Oh, how times have changed. There truly hasn’t been a better time to enter NI’s creative sector. 'Going away can be your last option now', says Doherty. 'Six years ago I was at a real crossroads. I really wanted to take this seriously as a career. I thought the only option was going to London or Manchester. I gave myself a talking to.'
'I thought, if I leave I’m going to be a very small fish in a very big pond, but if I stay it might work out better for me and it has. I know actors that have left for London and have now given up, or they’re just not happy with where they are in their careers. There’s so much happening here, it’s brilliant.'
However, that’s not to say that there haven’t been obstacles. Doherty is a lover of comedy, but there’s a dated stereotype that exists within the concept, one that she, alongside Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee, have been keen to abolish.
'In the very early stages of my career, when I started doing comedy sketches with FNT Live (Friday Night Therapy), there were about ten of us but only two girls. It was obvious from very early on that females and comedy weren’t being represented very well', she explains.
Sketch group FNT Live – read of review of their 2012 Edinburgh Festival show
'Specifically in our sketch group, anything that was being written for females was just very Sex and the City. It was like "Oooh cocktails!" Females were being used to set up a joke for a male on stage. I started writing parts that would give us a light and make the audience see that girls can be funny. Even now girls are very under-represented in comedy. Derry Girls has done something brilliant in that sense. It’s showed this grotesque side of female comedy in such a brilliant way. We’re not just there to set up the jokes for the guys.'
FNT Live marked the beginning of a pro-active attitude for Doherty. Having a monthly project, where her work could come to life, was a massive aid in her journey to becoming a successful actor, and it’s something that she can’t advise enough for others following a similar path.
'People do come and watch; especially casting directors and production companies, they want to see the new talent that is out there. It can be the simplest showcase in the smallest, black box venue, but you will have people come to see you.'
Diona's comedy two-hander 'That's You Now If You Wanna Take Your Wee Card Out!' with Susannah McKenna was performed last year
Our attention turns to key skills. I’m keen to learn of the necessary attributes in order to become a successful actor. Some of the very best in the business maintain the ability to trigger even the most subtle and complex of emotions through the art form. So, imagine my surprise when Doherty states that the most important skills actually exist outside of the performance.
'They’re just skills for everyday life. You have to have a thick skin; there have been times I haven’t got parts and it’s knocked me for weeks. Sometimes it’s really hard to pick yourself back up, those are the times you’ll feel like giving up the most, but they’re the type of people that don’t make it.'
'You have to socialise and mingle and get to know who’s in what,' she adds. 'I was at an audition the other day and a girl who was auditioning didn’t even know what television channel the show was for or the production company's name. You have to do your homework. You have to know what casting directors are working and what they’re casting for.'
It’s worth doing your homework, too. Just before Doherty has to begin driving to Dublin to watch her beloved [comedian Sean Hegarty] perform in the next stage of Ireland’s Got Talent I ask, what does she love most about acting? What is it that makes all the hard work worthwhile?
It’s refreshing to hear such an honest response. She admits she still gets scared when going through the initial read-through of a new script with a new cast. Think of it as your first day at a brand new job. Are the people going to like me? Am I going to do the job justice? These are thoughts that most earners only have to endure in the initial stages of employment, but for Doherty they set in after every time she time she hears a director yell 'That’s a wrap!'
With the Give My Head Peace gang after her appearance in the show's 2018 series
'The start of new job also scares the life out of me. I actually like that though, you feel alive. You’re doing something worthwhile.'
'Also, it’s brilliant to be able to feel things so intensely that aren’t actually your feelings. During that hour and a half you get to tell an entire story, and the audience watching it get to live that story with you and escape wherever or whatever it is that they’ve came from that night. I love providing a form of escapism, for myself as an actor, and also for the audience watching.'
'God, I sound like such an actor!' she laughs. I wonder if that Drama Studies teacher has seen her recently.
Stay up to date with where you can see Diona next by following her on Twitter. You can also listen to now over 20 episodes of her podcast with comedian and husband Sean Hegarty on Soundcloud or iTunes.
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.