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Rob Donnelly of A.I.M.S. on how covid-19 has impacted the performing arts

Rob Donnelly is the new National President of the Association of Irish Musical Societies (A.I.M.S) and is from Avonmore Musical Society (Arklow) in the South East Region of AIMS.

By Rob Donnelly

Show people are a very special kind of people. Hugging, kissing, hand shaking, socialising, partying, and mass gatherings are all common traits. Social Distancing and Self Isolation are the exact opposite to the life I lead.

Coming from Drogheda, a town which sadly has no musical society, I first discovered Amateur Musical Theatre when I moved to Arklow for work in January 1996. Walking in to St Mary’s College Hall on Easter Sunday 7th April 1996 was the day that changed my life.

Avonmore Musical Society were having a dress rehearsal for “Fiddler on the Roof” and having been asked to help out backstage while also hoping to make friends, I nervously walked in. I was blown away by the whole production and knew I had to be part of it.

Having been seen helping back stage, new Chairperson Kathleen Myler asked me to join the committee which I was delighted to do. The first show for the new committee to organise was “Brigadoon”. Due to a shortage of men (still the same today) I was asked to go onstage. Having never sang, acted, danced or performed in public – I reluctantly did it.

What a buzz it was, I soon vowed never to miss another show again and have been in every show with Avonmore ever since. I’ve been on the Avonmore committee for the past 24 years and was Chairman for 14 consecutive years finishing up in early 2019. I also became the Chairman of the South East Region of AIMS and have been on the National Council for the past number of years.

Happy to be in the chorus and lucky to have played some character and cameo parts, I have appeared in shows such as “Guys & Dolls”, “My Fair Lady”, “Copacabana”, “The Witches of Eastwick”, “Evita”, “Mack & Mabel”, “The Hot Mikado”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the Irish Premiere of “The Addams Family” with Avonmore.

I have also taken part in “Calamity Jane” (Henry Miller), The Pirates of Penzance”, “Me and My Girl” (Parchester) and “Sister Act” with Carnew Musical Society and played the part of Wilbur in “Hairspray” with Martina Lynch’s Studio 55. I also had the wonderful honour of being Grand Marshall of the Arklow St Patrick’s Day Parade in 2014.

Following the AIMS National AGM in Galway in January, I was honoured and humbled to be elected National President of AIMS. I headed back to Arklow and to my society, Avonmore Musical Society, with the Presidential chain and started to plan my journeys in my little red car: AIMS- Force One.

There are about 120 Musical Societies affiliated to AIMS and normally the President gets invited to most of them. The show invitations came in quick and fast and the mileage built up in my little car as I hit every corner of the country attending up to 8 shows in a week.

At the start of March things were ready to explode for the crazy season but there was a big fear about this coronavirus spreading around Ireland. On Friday 6th March, I travelled to Cork which just had the first case of the virus down there. Handshakes were cancelled, hand sanitisers and gloves

were the new norm and as I travelled from there to Naas, Birr, Dun Laoghaire and Ennis, the crowds in attendance drastically reduced and the social distancing, gloved hands and sanitisers grew more prevalent.

As I drove home on Wednesday evening from Ennis, I was planning for and excited to be making trips to Teachers (Sister Act) on Thursday, Twin Productions (9to5) on Friday, and a trip to either Waterford on Saturday for David Hennessy’s (The Full Monty) or to Trinity College for their production of Jesus Christ Superstar depending on how a friend’s child’s confirmation ran time-wise. But following the Taoiseach’s speech from Washington on March 12th, all were cancelled as were all shows that were to be staged in the following 5/6 weeks and all the visits I was so looking forward to making.

All shows were postponed/rescheduled/cancelled for the right reasons and in line with government instructions but it is a very upsetting and disappointing time for all those involved and sadly due to some shows being cancelled mid run some societies will be left with enormous debts. I hope all societies get to reschedule their shows but I understand already that that may not be possible in a lot of cases for a variety of reasons.

My own society Avonmore Musical Society, was due to stage “Joseph and his Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat” at Easter but the show had to be postponed. They hope to stage it later in the year. Theatres can reopen in Phase 5 of the Governments Roadmap to Recovery but I feel that the rules regarding social distancing might prevent any show taking to the stage in 2020.

Before being able to potentially succeed Seamus Power as National President, I had to learn to drive and pass the Driving test. I was so excited about travelling as many roads and boreens as I could to visit as many societies as possible to enjoy the many shows, renew so many friendships, and to make so many friends whilst promoting AIMS and all the activities and services they offer to all their members.

AIMS is like one big family and showpeople are a very special kind of people. Hugging, kissing, hand shaking, socialising, partying, and mass gatherings are all common traits. Social Distancing and Self Isolation are the exact opposite to the life I lead. I miss my show family but I also miss my own family and friends, most of whom I haven’t seen since early March.

Since then we’ve been swamped with talk of testing, hand washing, social distancing, panic buying, cancellation of parades, closure of pubs and businesses, pandemics, staying safe, flattening the curve, ICU units, ventilators, PPE supplies, staying at home, lock downs and cocooning.

These are unprecedented times, but the government are making the hard decisions and taking the measures necessary to ensure the safety and health of all citizens of the island, and to try stop the spread of this awful virus to save lives and to minimise deaths.

I’m asking you all to stay safe, follow all government instructions and I hope to see everyone back on stage soon doing what they love, rehearsing closely together, preparing shows for stage, performing on stage, making friendships, building relationships, fundraising, collecting sponsorship, and hopefully being cheered on by their families, friends and many supporters.

It’s unprecedented times but we will get through this together by staying apart for the next while.

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