During many opening-night performances in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s cozy theater-in-the-round on Main Street, patrons got used to hearing John Phelan’s high-pitched laugh emanating from the crowd.
Within a few minutes of the start of a show, cast members could tell by that distinctive laugh that Phelan, a longtime company board member and former Buffalo mayoral candidate, was in the crowd.
Over the years, those same patrons also grew accustomed to having their tickets torn by Marge McMahon, a smiling usher who led them briskly past dozens of other familiar faces to their seats for an evening of escape.
That big laugh and that familiar smile are gone now, two important instruments who will no longer play in the enormous orchestra of volunteers, actors and staff that make a company like the Irish Classical run. Gone, too, are the behind-the-scenes contributions of Joseph Crowley and John Murray, two integral former members of the company’s board, and James Moriarity, a committed volunteer and sometime-actor who helped build the company into the regional asset and cultural destination it is.
In four months, the company lost five important figures in its tight-knit community of 120 volunteers, 25 board members and dozens of actors and designers.
These were people whose names most theatergoers more than likely never knew, but whose presence added, in vital but often imperceptible ways, to the theatergoing experience. Each of them worked not for applause or recognition, not to have their pictures in the newspaper or their names above the marquee, but for sheer love of the theater.
Phelan, a lover of the written word whose meticulously annotated books of poetry ICTC co-founder Vincent O’Neill occasionally runs across on the shelves of Rust Belt Books, died in December at 86. McMahon, a tireless volunteer and longtime fixture at the Irish since its early days and at the Kavinoky Theatre, died Jan. 31 at 85.
In October, Crowley, a longtime ICTC board member and co-founder of the advertising firm Crowley Webb, died at 78. Moriarity, who made occasional appearances on the ICTC stage and organized a popular yearly party based on an ICTC production of “The Streets of Dublin,” died Feb. 11 at 88. And on Feb. 20, the company lost another committed longtime board member, Murray, former Buffalo YMCA president, at 67.
The loss of any one of these figures would be enough to throw any company off-kilter. But five in the span of four months is a major blow for a company that thrives largely because of the commitment and passion of its volunteers.
As any artistic director will tell you, building a theater company in Buffalo is a messy and necessarily collaborative effort. While it requires a charismatic and capable leader to carry the flag and to record the preshow welcome message, the idea that a single person can sustain a company is a fantasy.
“There are people you see. You see David Lamb (of the Kavinoky Theatre), and you see Vincent O’Neill,” O’Neill said. “Behind the public face of the theater company, you have literally hundreds of people. It’s something I’m very aware of when I’m making a decision. I’m not making a decision for myself. I’m not just making a decision for the company, I’m making a decision for our staff, for our board of 25 people, for our volunteer base of 120 people and then for all the people who have contributed over the years.”
Because of its commitment to Irish culture and literature, O’Neill’s company has attracted a particularly loyal base of volunteers and board members who see their connection to the company as a conduit to their ancestral culture.
“I don’t think it’s accidental that the five names we mentioned are all of Irish extraction. But it’s not just that; I think when somebody genuinely recognizes and admires and is moved by an artistic experience, whether it’s theater or literature or art,” he said, “you want to somehow be part of it. You want to feel that you can bring your skill sets to the table even though they may not be directing or designing or acting skill sets.”
That was certainly the case with Crowley, whose company has been providing design and promotional services to the theater for more than a decade. And with Murray, a tireless worker who O’Neill said embodied the maxim that “if you want something done, give it to somebody who’s extraordinarily busy.” And it was the case with the effusive personality of Moriarity, described by O’Neill as “a delightful curmudgeon, a la George Bernard Shaw” whose annual parties gave a much-needed boost to the company’s collective morale.
To most theatergoers, the absence of these figures might not even register. There’s one less laugh in the crowd, one less familiar usher, a few names missing from the playbill. But the sum of those contributions is huge. And it’s almost beside the point to say that they’ll be sorely missed.
“They bring their skill sets, whether it’s as an usher or whether it’s helping out in the box office or whether it’s giving the party once a year. They do what they can,” O’Neill said of his company’s cherished cadre of supporters, now in search of a few new members. “They feel a part of the family. They’re not the pater familias, but they’re the third cousin that everybody loves.”