Irish Theater Loses a Voice

By Irish America Staff
August / September 2001

The creative community suffered a grievous loss when actor, drama teacher, artistic director and founder of the Focus Theatre in Dublin, Deirdre O’Connell, died at her home in Dublin on June 9.

Born to Irish immigrants – her mother was from Cork, her father from Sligo – in the Bronx, New York in 1939, Deirdre was encouraged by her parents in her desire to act from an early age. Her career began when she won a scholarship to Erwin Piscator’s New York Dramatic Workshop and moved into a flat with Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand. While studying in the Actors’ Studio she was taught by Lee Strasberg and Allen Miller and was a classmate of Marilyn Monroe.

O’Connell, who considered Ireland her home, moved there in 1963 to found the Stanislavski Studio at the Pocket Theatre with Ursula White-Lennon. When the theatre closed only a year later, O’Connell turned to her talent for folk singing – she had performed with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan — to raise money in London, where she met her husband, singer Luke Kelly. With his help she converted a disused factory into the Focus Theatre in 1967. Since then the Focus has performed over 250 productions by renowned writers such as Arthur Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, Beckett, and Ibsen, and even plays from the pre-release training unit of Mountjoy Gaol, the Exit Theatre Group.

Her dedication to the Focus led her to turn down many roles including Nurse Ratched in The Gaiety’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Irish Actors’ Equity would not grant her membership and thus would not allow her to play Antigone for RTE television.

A documentary of her sacrifices and accomplishments completed just before her death features former students Gabriel Byrne, Tom Hickey and Johnny Murphy and is entitled Hold the Passion. O’Connell caught the passion early, held tight and never let it go. As Tom Hickey wrote in the Sunday Business Post, “Deirdre’s income from the studio was paltry – her tuition fees were always absurdly low…for the past 38 years [she] gave her entire existence to teaching, acting, directing, managing, and until last week, surviving.”

Asked about why she chose to dedicate herself to Ireland, O’Connell once said, “I felt I had something to give to people in a place that I loved.” ♦

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