RISING STAR: Mary-Francis Doherty

Diversification is key in theatre, says writer, director and star of Home Sweet Home

Shows like BBC1’s Over the Rainbow and RTE’s Fame the Musical tend to paint a jaded picture of the theatre world, where the West End is the centre of the Universe and the casting director its Almighty Ruler. But as Mary-Frances Doherty, Ballymena native and all-round theatre impresario, testifies, the road to acting roles does not begin at the Marble Arch.

Since graduating from The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) with a Degree in Contemporary Theatre Practice in 2007, she has created a name for herself in regional theatre productions. 'I stayed on and worked in Glasgow for just under a year and then came back to Belfast to work with Tinderbox Theatre Company – I played the role of Betty in their studio production of Choking the Butterfly – and have been here ever since.'

In an industry where 85% of the workforce is unemployed at any given time, Doherty has had plenty of work to be getting on with. How has she managed to consistently be one of the lucky 15%? Answer: she doesn’t wait for the Casting Director to call. She creates the roles herself.

Her latest production, Home Sweet Home, is a 50-minute long one-woman show directed, produced, promoted, written by and starring Doherty herself. 'It is a difficult industry to be a part of, and you need to have a lot of determination,' Doherty asserts. 'Although I am an actress I also devise my own work, I am a writer and a director, and currently hold the post of Youth Theatre Officer for the UAYD (Ulster Association of Youth Drama).'

So where did the inspiration for the play itself come from? 'Home Sweet Home is basically about me and my story of growing up in a traditional country Irish home as the youngest of 12 – I have 8 sisters and 3 brothers.

'There are three sections to the play, the first being about my childhood and what me and my brothers and sisters used to do to entertain our guests; there are a lot of stories along with a lot of singing and dancing. The second is about my Dad, the memories I have of him, and my struggle with his illness and eventual death. And the third is about me being a young woman and wanting to have a Home Sweet Home of my own.'

While Home Sweet Homes deals with themes that resonate with us all to an extent and pull at the heart strings, my curiosity is drawn to the Herculean effort it must have taken to bring HSH to the stage - convincing directors and producers to take a risk on a graduate barely out of university with no team behind her is no mean feat. How did she do it?

'Home Sweet Home was first performed as an interactive durational performance in last years Pick ‘N’ Mix Festival,' recalls Doherty. 'I had to summit a proposal and be selected to be part of the festival. From then I contacted the Arches in Glasgow and suggested that I perform a work-in-progress of the show as a double bill with my other solo show Fragments of Love.

'I presented 10-15mins of material in order to get audience feedback and explore how I wanted it to develop. After that I contacted The Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena and was selected by The Ballymena Arts Partnership to be part of the Ballymena Community Arts Festival in April. And then I contacted The Crescent Arts Centre and presented all images and DVD footage from the work-in-progress in Glasgow and as a result have been programmed as part of their summer season to perform the present version, which is a 50 minute studio production.'

Herculean effort to say the least. Doherty contends that knowing how to act is not enough to survive and thrive in the theatre industry anymore. Performers need to be entrepreneurial and have a business-minded approach to their careers.

'A lot of people would describe me as relentless and by that I think they mean that I am very determined and focused on what I want to achieve. I also have to be organized and excellent at communicating, and presenting my ideas in order for people to take a chance on me and give me the opportunities I need to progress.'

So what are her dreams and hopes for the future? Should Andrew Lloyd Webber consider retirement? 'I would love to one day have my own theatre company, and devise and direct large scale ensemble performances as well as continuing to develop my own solo works.' Perhaps the next time we see Mary-Francis Doherty's name will be in bright lights on Broadway.

Lyra McKee

Home Sweet Home runs at the Crescent Arts Centre form June 10-11.