Actress, musician, playwright and all-around performer Ann Blake is one of Limerick’s many talented natives.
Limericks got Talent! – A catch up with Limerick all-rounder Ann Blake
By I Love Limerick Correspondent Sophia DiBattista
From her band The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra, her award-winning show ‘The Morning After The Night Before’ her podcast with the Limerick Post “Ann & Steve Talk Stuff” and her activist work with marriage equality, Ann Blake is a star in every sense of the word. She’s also a professional in many other fields such as directing, performing, improv with her group Choke Comedy and more.
Having taken her award-winning show ‘The Morning After the Life Before’, a personal tale of Ireland before and after the Marriage Equality referendum, from Limerick to as far as North America, the performer has taken her story, and Ireland’s, to many different audiences.
Ann is married to the love of her life Jenny, the Student Information and Support Coordinator at the University of Limerick and they live in Limerick city centre. Both Ann and Jenny are proactive community activists who have a strong belief and commitment to the principles of equality, to community development, social justice and participatory democracy.
We got the chance to speak with Ann on her future plans and how she has been keeping busy.
- Tell me a little bit about your background growing up. All your family seem to be involved in the creative arts.
My mum, Trudy, was both a violin and viola player in The RTE Concert Orchestra before my family moved to Limerick just before I was born. Her family all sang together and even recorded an album The Gunns of Dublin: Songs from Ireland in 1958. She was keen that we all learn music and sing together growing up. It was great training and now we all are involved in music and performance both casually or professionally. It’s definitely my mum’s legacy.
- Tell me about your Creative development with theatre, music, acting, etc.?
I was exposed to so much music growing up and was always drawn to performance. I was in the school shows and joined Limerick Youth Theatre. I played in bands when I was in college, studying Philosophy and Media Studies in Mary I, and was involved with a vibrant local theatre company called Impact Theatre company. From 2004-2007 Impact had a small theatre space in the city on O’Connell Crescent where we put on thirty shows in thirty months. It was very intense and I learned a lot about all aspects of theatre. Around that time I submitted a cover of Hole In The Head to The Ray D’Arcy Show on Today FM with my brother David. It was included on Even Better Than The Real Thing Vol.2. Both my brothers, David and James, had a band when they were in college. They had a quirky set up that did fun covers and were called The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra. David had been writing original songs and, on the back of the success of the Today FM song, the band got back together, with me in tow and well we’re still playing to this day. We’ve toured the country with the likes of Liam Ó Maonlaí, performed in a theatre show The Unlucky Cabin Boy and generally have a lot of fun creating exciting live experiences.
In 2008 myself and a group of performers, including Myles Breen and Norma Lowney, trained together and formed the comedy improv troupe, Choke Comedy. At the same time I went back to college and did a Masters In Drama and Theatre Studies in NUI Galway. Choke has been performing at festivals and theatres since, as well as taking on a challenge to perform in 32 counties in 3.2 days back in 2011. We did it. We’re still recovering.
My creative development has mainly come from hands-on experience with a combination of training. A lot of my learning, though, came from direct immersion in the practice of performance and music.
- What were/are your main influences in the arts?
This is always a tough question. When I was studying my Masters in Galway a lot of us realised one day, when we were chatting, that we were all the youngest members of our family. One of them, Lucia Smyth (who went on to work with me on The Morning After The Life Before), quipped ‘Are ye surprised? Sure we’re all like “Look at me! Look at me!” I have to acknowledge my place in the family probably did influence my interest in performance, specifically.
I loved the school shows and going to musical societies like Cecilians, who my mum played in the orchestra for, and later on going to Island Theatre Company productions like Hamlet in St Mary’s Cathedral. I just knew I wanted to be part of it somehow. In later years I would see big productions nationally and internationally and study and read theatre but my first love came from being an enthralled audience member. I wanted to make people feel how I felt sitting in a theatre watching a show.
- What’s it like creating music with your family?
For the most part, it is very special and a privilege to get to work and spend time with my brothers in a creative working environment. There is an immediacy and deep connection that speeds up the creative process, one you normally have to develop with time with an ensemble of artists. I kind of pity the other band members though because they have to deal with the flip side of that which is incredibly short fuses and frustrations – literal familiarity. When it comes to the disagreements sometimes professionalism goes out the door. In general though, it’s wonderful.
My parents always loved coming to gigs as they were kind of getting three for the price of one on the family pride front. As I said, our mum taught us music and singing at a young age. In January this year we very sadly lost our gorgeous mother so playing together has an extra significance and emotion to it as will always be a tribute to her.
- We saw the new ‘Whose Side are You On?’ single that recently dropped. Why is this track ‘Whose aside are You On?’ important for people to hear?
First and foremost, it is a great song. It featured as the finale for Bread Not Profits, the play Mike Finn wrote to commemorate The Limerick Soviet, a remarkable event, when our city was last in lockdown in 1919.
Right now, though, I suppose we are constantly being pitted against each other on social media, politically and socially and being asked to choose sides. The world is also in turmoil and it’s a scary time when things like ‘fascism’ don’t seem to be necessarily considered a bad word anymore.
It’s a thumping tune that simply asks, whose side are you on?
- What else does your band The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra have in store?
We love collaboration. Last winter we had the joy of working with the incredible Kathleen Turner and the single Whose Side Are You On? features Limerick artists Emma Langford and Thick As Thieves. We hope to continue in the vein of collaboration.
It’s been very restrictive without the possibility of live performance. Only last Christmas we played the Irish Embassy in The Hague and were looking forward to many more gigs nationally and internationally this year but then we lost mum and shortly after COVID landed.
Recording the song was tricky as it all had to be done remotely. The plan is to continue recording, it’s been quite a while since we released new material, and keep getting it out there. As soon as gigging is an option again we will be on it.
- What would you like to say to those people who are pursuing careers in music and/or performance?
This is a very difficult and uncertain time. Live performance is not possible at the time I am writing this. Over the last number of years I’ve had the honour of directing theatre productions with students in Mary I studying Contemporary and Applied Theatre. There are seriously talented young theatre-makers coming on the scene as well as fantastic musicians.
Live performance will return, at some point, and there will be such a need and a hunger for it after this. Keep creating, writing and dreaming. We always need artists to reimagine, question and challenge our assumptions around what is possible. I don’t know what the future of our industries looks like but we are going to need young artists to be part of what shapes them.
- You travelled the world with ‘The Morning After the Life Before’, why were the themes of this work so important to you?
Myself and my wife Jenny’s lives got changed forever by the result of the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum. It was such a special moment in our history as a small country sending out a beacon of love and example to the rest of the world. I wanted to somehow bottle that magic and keep it as a reminder for Irish audiences as well as share it with international audiences.
The world has seen the results, society-wise, of two votes based on fear and hatred with Trump and Brexit. I wanted to focus on the power of a love vote and share with people how societies can change for the better with active political engagement. I also wanted to make people laugh and cry a little.
- What’s next theatre wise for Ann Blake?
As I said above, I am not sure. I had tour dates this year, for The Morning After The Life Before, that got cancelled. I have a number of projects right now that are at the developmental stage and I will focus on those as it is not clear when theatres will be able to open next.
- Tell me all about the love of your life.
Jenny Blake, neé Hannon (yes she took my name), is an amazing person. I met her just over ten years ago and she turned my world upside down – in a good way. She has inspired me to write a play (The Morning After The Life Before) about our own experiences and she wrote and contributed to a book about Marriage Equality that Charlie Bird compiled called ‘A Day In May’. That was then turned into a play, so she has been depicted on stage by two different actors. That’s more than I can say for myself or a lot of people I know in the arts.
Despite being from Dublin she considers herself more Limerick now – though she’s hung onto her accent. ‘I’m so Northside I’m Munster’ she has been known to say. She worked in the community sector for many years and is now working in Student Support in UL Student Life. Oh yeah, and she ran in the General Election for the Social Democrats in February. She basically had three weeks to campaign as it was a very short run in time but she did great as a first-time candidate and I imagine this is only the beginning.
She is one of the kindest, strongest, fearless people I know, whose heart is so strong for those less powerful, less privileged and lacking representation. My life is so much better for having met her. Ann Blake
- You and your wife are both community activists. Is this what bonded you together?
Actually I’d say it was swimming. That was one of the first things we ever talked about, getting into the sea or wild water all year round. We still do it to this day. Shared values, though, are incredibly important. I would have been very wary and afraid of activism and have become more confident over the years by watching Jenny work. That said, my activism tends to be through artistic means such as touring the play and organising fundraisers for causes through musical events etc
I would nearly go so far as to say, I blame my activism on Jenny.
- What was your most challenging experience in your line of work?
Financial security is a huge issue for artists. You have to be flexible and able to do a great many different things to make a living. I am not simply a performer, writer or musician. I am all three as well as a workshop facilitator in music and theatre for groups of all ages. I do realise no one ever asked me to become an artist and it is a very special line of work to get to do. The joy of the work is the variety but the downside is the lack of consistency and guarantee that you have work from year to year, month to month, week to week and sometimes day to day. This is possibly something I should have included in the question about those pursuing a career in performance. You need to be a multi-tasker and able to work with lots of different people in different situations.
The current situation has thrown everything into disarray. If people can’t gather together then my work is very much out on hold. My most challenging experience has been this crisis.
- What’s your first love – theatre, music, acting, writing or activism?
I think I am at my happiest when performing. I absolutely love writing and directing. Creating something and seeing a group of people come together to make it happen is an absolute thrill. Ann Blake
Being in front of an audience, however, as a musician, MC, actor or improviser is just one of my favourite places to be. It is live, exciting and unpredictable. I miss it as a performer and audience member too. Ann Blake
I try to imbue all my work with core values of connection, drawing an audience in and bringing them with you – what drew me to theatre in the first place. My activism is a byproduct of that process. Ann Blake
- What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I hope we are all ok and get out of this pandemic safely and soon. It is hard to plan or write new work when there is no foreseeable time or place to rehearse or perform it. An
I hope for live performance to be a possibility again, to tour, to direct, to perform to connect with fellow performers and audiences again.
To hear Ann’s band The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra go HERE
For more stories on Ann Blake go HERE