Farming is life and theatre is imagination — they work together

When not busy with his work as artistic director at St John's Theatre and Arts Centre in Listowel, Joe Murphy is a beef farmer.

Beef farmer has been involved in the arts since the 1960s and now he works as an artistic director.

To meet Joe Murphy is to meet a man living life to the full.

Whether on the fields of his farm, three miles outside of Listowel, or on the stage at St John’s Theatre and Arts Centre, the beef farmer and artistic director has a zest for life that is infectious.

I caught up with Joe earlier this week to talk about theatre and tractors to talk about his life on and off the stage.

Joe first caught the theatre bug back in the 1960s.

“I was taken by my father to one of John B’s early plays, ‘The highest house on the mountain’, back in 1961.

“I was about seven at the time and was fascinated by the whole thing. What fascinated me most was the fire at the front of the stage. A little bit of turf, a grate and the obligatory red bulb.

“The boys on stage were sitting around all talking.

“A fellow came on with blood streaming down his face. A beautiful young woman appeared, having just retuned from London.

“I was looking at this and I was spellbound. It wasn’t the acting so much as the magic of it all.

“You were outside at home, you came here, the lights went up, and it created a whole new world. That was it.”

Performing with the Listowel players was next for Joe, but it was the redevelopment of St John’s Theatre and Arts Centre in 1990 that brought an opportunity which would change everything for him.

“By this stage, the farm at home was up and running well, and when the opportunity came to take on the role here as artistic director, I just went for it.”

A farmer running a theatre and arts centre, how is it going?

“It works well. For me, farming is life, and the theatre is imagination. The two balance each other. One is a reflection of the other. Whatever you pull out of your imagination has to have some source in reality.

“And on a practical level, us farmers are doers.

“If it breaks down we fix it. We do all within our power to keep the show on the road. And in the theatre business, that is exactly what you need.

“And another advantage to being a farmer is that a lot of people can feel intimidated by the arts. They might feel it’s for big shots. But it isn’t.

“And the fact that I am a farmer and that someone might see me down in the mart or someplace might make people feel more comfortable about coming in here for a look.”

Joe Murphy values such a down-to-earth audience.

“I have found through the years that a farmer, or someone like that, in the audience, can be exactly the kind of person you need to give you an honest appraisal of a play or performance.

“If he doesn’t like it, he will tell you. Something might be pointed out that you missed.

“And that is what I love. Whereas a more uppity type might merely say, “Oh, that was all absolutely marvellous.”

Joe is known far and wide these days as Joe ‘The Vicar’ Murphy because of his involvement in a theatre that was formerly a Church of Ireland building, and also because he seems to be eternally clothed in black.

St John’s Theatre and Arts Centre is home to 200 productions per year, and it’s a theatre very much with an open door with regards to new productions, as Joe explains.

“Recently we had a play performed here by transition year students from a school in the town.

As a matter of fact,

The play was written by student Katelyn Barry. The play was a contemporary piece about modern life and families.

“Her teacher directed it and I did the sets, lights and so on. The rest of her classmates acted in it. So she got her chance to put on her own play, which I think is really what theatre should be all about”.

And with her play, Katelyn Barry is following in the footsteps of film maker Ger Barrett, he of ‘Smalltown’ fame. Ger did his first bit of stage work at St John’s a few years ago.

“Ger approached me to see if he could put on a play here. His friends acted in it.

“He directed it, and I did the sets, lights and stuff.

“The play was all about the rural isolation of a bachelor farmer. Everything was going against this farmer, the TB, the cows, the whole lot. The play was put on, and it was a great success”.

“In Ger’s case, not alone had many of his friends never been on stage before, but most had never seen a play.

“Also, many people who came to the play did so for the first time”.

In the coming weeks, the theatre will be a hive of activity, with the Listowel Writers Week taking place.

This year, Writers Week runs from May 31 to June 4, and St John’s Theatre, at the heart of the town, will host at least four productions per day.

Now in its 47th year, the Listowel writers’ event is stronger that ever.

Joe recalls the heady days of the ’70s when the drink flowed, and there was no stopping the flow.

“There was a drinking culture that existed with writers at the time, in fact there was a drinking culture in almost every aspect of Irish life.

“In the ’70s, if you came home from Writers Week before 5’o clock in the morning, it was felt you didn’t have a good night.

“This period was the first time young people had money, jobs were plentiful and the hair was let down. Sometimes, you would really have to wonder how, back then, the whole country didn’t subside into a tidal wave of Harp and Smithwicks”.

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