Barry Cunneen, Kenny Noonan, Mick King, Carmel Gilligan, Ann Egan, Annemarie Hynes, Aaron Casey, Colm Noonan, Fiona Ducke. Back Row: Peter Keaney, Ronan Walsh Missing from photo: Grainne Moore, Brian O'Neill, Mary Hearty, Mickey Cummins, Helge Wehder, Jennifer Cahill, Purdita Steinmetz, Martin Kelleher, Steven & Aoife Ducke, Margaret Ducke, Michelle & Sinead O'Neill, Ann Farrell, Elaine Jennings, James Wykes.
Fiona Ducke joined the Passionfruit Theatre gang in early 2008, just one year before the death of her father and Passionfruit Theatre founder member Joe Ducke. Since then she, along with just under 30 other dedicated committee members, has put in countless voluntary hours ensuring the theatre continues to be a valuable and sustainable facility for Athlone's residents.
Though running Northgate Street's Passionfruit Theatre could easily be a full-time job, Fiona fits it in around her official job as a national school teacher in Clonown NS. The daughter of the late Joe and Margaret Ducke, Fiona also has her own family commitments. Living in Baylough with her husband Brian O'Neill, Fiona has a two-year-old son Joseph.
Athlone's Passionfruit Theatre was founded by playwright and novelist Joe Ducke alongside Old Vic graduate Emily Campbell and lighting designer Emma Lohan. Joe's drama group "wanted their own venue basically" Fiona remembers. The company's first production under the Passionfruit name was a tour of Joe's one-act play "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" in 2005.
Fiona came on board with the project in early 2008. At the time she said she was working full-time but was interested in finding some way to give something back to the community. The relaxed atmosphere at the Passionfruit Theatre appealed to her, and so she quickly became a signed up member and threw herself into her new voluntary role. The death of Fiona's father in 2009 made her involvement with the theatre, and indeed its future, all the more important to her. "When Joe passed away it was very important to me and my family that we kept it going," she said.
Fiona now spends her time concentrating on what the theatre can offer musically. "I'd be more into the music side of things," she explained. "There's other people on the committee that look after the drama."
Some of the upcoming gigs at the intimate 55-seat theatre Fiona is looking forward to include a trad session this Thursday, August 16 with renowned flautist John Wynne, as well as the monthly River Sessions that take place on the final Wednesday of every month. Peter Doran comes to the theatre on August 24 next, while theatre fans can look forward to Maria Doyle Kennedy on September 8.
Over on the drama side of things, Fiona said drama director Grainne Moore is busy preparing a script for the theatre's upcoming drama next October.
"It's very busy, and very varied," Fiona says of her voluntary work with the local theatre. "You're doing different things all the time."
An important characteristic of the theatre, and one Fiona is very passionate about, is its open door policy. "We have a lot of upcoming artists in the theatre," she explained. Giving local musicians an opportunity is something Fiona said is central to the theatre's future plans. The monthly River Sessions is one opportunity for that, with local acts welcome to bring their own original music. "I think it's fantastic that we're providing a platform for musicians around Athlone," Fiona added.
All of the theatre's events are made possible first and foremost by a dedicated and loyal committee. "It's really important to mention our committee," Fiona said. "It takes a lot of time, but we have such a strong committee." Though there's no pay involved, Fiona said the voluntary work is nonetheless very rewarding. The theatre is also always open to new members coming on board. "If anyone thought they'd like to get involved that'd be great," she said, inviting anyone interested to "just call the theatre number".
Fiona is particularly enthusiastic about the new trad sessions that have recently started at the theatre on Thursday nights, as she plays traditional music herself. The flautist admits she "hated lessons" when taking them in her youth, but now thoroughly enjoys having the musical skill and uses it to unwind. "Playing music is my way of relaxing," she said. "There's a really strong scene in Athlone at the moment so it's great," she added.
Fiona said that though times are hard and the theatre doesn't get Arts Council funding, its future still looks bright thanks to local support. Complimenting the local support from businesses and residents alike Fiona said that donation requests "have never been turned away". She admitted that committee members were nervous asking for donations for a recent race night due to the economic climate, yet still the support the theatre depends on was forthcoming. "Absolutely nobody turned us away and everybody gave us something," she said. "There's an unreal good will out there. I find it great how generous people are." Fiona is also thankful to support from local media as well as Athlone Town Council and Westmeath County Council. Furthermore she said mention in local parish bulletins also helps spread the word of theatre news. "We don't have money for promotions," she explained, "but everybody helps us get the word out there."
To reflect local support, Fiona said local acts are where the theatre's future lies and what the theatre committee is spending more and more time on. "The open door policy seems to be where we're succeeding," Fiona said. In the future she said the committee also plans to forge even stronger links with the community, including working with school children in the locality. This could see theatre members visit schools to deliver workshops, or even the theatre being used as a venue for school productions.
Support for the Passionfruit Theatre can primarily be delivered by attending theatre shows.
Once there are seats left patrons will never be turned away and so tickets are often available on the door. However those wishing to book early and ensure a seat can do so by calling the theatre number on 086 3338457. More information on the theatre and future events are available by logging on to www.passionfruittheatre.com.