“˜Wwll, what do you think?” The question was asked by Pauline Ross, who, at that time, had recently left her post as director of the Orchard Gallery in Derry. It was a cold, dank November day in 1991 when the two of us climbed up onto the city walls in Artillery Street – where, coincidentally, one of Derry’s first theatres, Talbot’s Theatre, was built in 1774 – to get a better view of the gloomy exterior of the former convent schools of St Joseph and St Mary, which for many years had belonged to the Sisters of Mercy. It took exceptional imagination to envisage this towering shell, which stands at a run-down interface with the loyalist Fountain area, and which is, in fact, a Grade B1 listed building, as having the potential to be a centre for the arts.
During the dark days of the 1980s, against all the odds, the cultural and artistic life of Derry was thriving. Thanks to the vision of Declan McGonagle, subsequently director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), a number of major public art installations were finding their place and the municipal Orchard Gallery was a lively venue for high profile exhibitions, musical events and workshops. Field Day’s world premieres of plays by writers such as Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, Stewart Parker, Tom Paulin and Derek Mahon were attracting international media attention, in spite of being staged in the Council chamber of the Guildhall, for the simple reason that, for all its excellence in the performing arts, the North’s second city had no theatre.
Ross was one of many influential figures in Derry’s enterprising arts community, who had campaigned long and loud for the establishment of a theatre.