On Art and Belonging: In Memory of Bob Browne

A kind man is sadly missed by all who met him.

Bob Browne passed away on Tuesday, the 16th of March 2021. Late of the Millbank Theatre, Rush, North County Dublin (Fingal) his dedication to his craft and community was matched only by his friend Andy Monks’s. Two truly lovely men, both deceased. My life is ever better for knowing you.

Rush Dramatic Society, having its roots in the Gaelic League, was founded in 1927 by Irish teacher Richard Duke, and has been in continuous activity ever since. After two decades of Drama Festival and winning an all-Ireland competition in 1982, Rush Dramatic Society did something very special. They went about setting up and building a permanent Millbank Theatre in a heartland of Fingal, this gave art a home in the centre of the village. The Millbank Theatre building was established in 1988, it sits as one mapping point of an irregular quadrilateral: the old St Maur’s Church (now Rush Library), the new St Maur’s Church, and the potentially late medieval windmill (in ruins) on the mill bank itself. The Millbank Theatre was our church.

Bob and Andy opened up the theatre to the community, they ran a Junior Dramatic Society for children and youth, ages 11-18. We studied and rehearsed one-act plays each term and performed them in weekend-long competitions. Ten weeks rehearsal. Two weekends of performances. These shows ran in the local community, on the main stage of the Millbank Theatre, for the cost of a reduced-price Senior Drama ticket. There was a prize-giving every term with trophies and medals, a party organised by Mary Monks a fine actress (Andy was her husband). Mary is also now sadly deceased. There was earnest respect for and celebration of youth work.

I often think on how operating a Junior Dramatic Society in a community, for countless children, is special. It took up so much of these adults’ time, their years, their days, their months, their weeks; that they shared their love of drama with younger generations of the community was most special indeed.

Junior players graduated and moved up to play in the Senior Drama, some to Dublin Youth Theatre, others to the Gaiety School, The Abbey and beyond. Some left playing behind and moved backstage into lighting and sound design, costume and set design; stage management, assistant directing. More. Some emigrated, joined new amateur theatre groups, drama societies, semi-professional and professional companies abroad. For my best friends and I, for example, The Tower Theatre, London; Dublin City University Drama Society; and The Nomadic Players, Aberystwyth University, Wales. One is here now writing this piece. One worked in The National Theatre, London for a time – very many tickets there, for Millbank players, were comped. One set up a film company with new friends called First Draft Productions. Those of us who emigrated, often came home on pilgrimage to see and work on singular productions at various times. We all did our best long into our twenties; we made some very good work. Others moved into Traditional Arts, Musical Theatre, Film & TV, Dance, Puppetry, Music, Sound Engineering, Design, Dramaturgy, Playwriting, Scriptwriting, Literature, Poetry, Visual Arts. More. Some think they left Art behind.

We all grew up in the theatre.

I started group classes at age eleven; the earliest age you could join. I was a painfully quiet child, it is an understatement to say I had severe social anxiety; but, the theatre, in every way that art can, the theatre saved my life.

The oldest of us are in our forties now. We all carry a love of art, craft, drama with us throughout our lifetimes; because at one burgeoning time in our lives we were fearless, in that moment, that moment, that collective moment we were fearless when we trod the boards.

Theatres are sacred spaces to all who congregate within for readings and rehearsals, they embody the turning of ourselves and our bodies inside out for group performances, performances that ultimately exist for the most finite of times and are shared only in the collective memories of the players and the audience in dramatic moments of communion. We were all there together at that time in that place. We were all together there.

Rooting buildings, physical theatres, of local dramatic societies in communities is a radical act. Art is of the people and Art is for the people. Artists do not toil daily on their labours and craft to no end. When an artwork is completed, when we can make it in no better way, when our work is done, we feel a sense of pride in our accomplishment and we share it with our neighbour. Community theatres, owned and operated by those living locally exist solely for this purpose. How fortunate I was by a stroke of birth to grow up in one.

Some art forms are often considered solitary acts. I don’t understand this. I comprehend, but I do not understand. There are few societies of one. We as community visitors, residents, actors, we are creating art within a community; even if our art only ever rails against capitalist society, institutions, the State; art is of a person, of a time and of a place. Art is of society. And we esteem it because we connect with it as people, a shared humanity is present in all arts. Deep human connection is not simple, and all we have is try.

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

As writers, who work solitarily, people talk a lot about their individual art when we congregate together in groups. We listen to each other. We hear what each other has to say about process and concept and task. And, before and after those craft conversations we read one another. Through the art of reading we are always writing in correspondence. There is no such thing as individual art.

People also talk of the best art and the finest. I don’t understand this either. I comprehend, but I do not understand. All art is an act of exchange. Acts of communication. Communication in and of community is a beautiful thing. We can and do create thriving societies when we act with care for one another. Rankings are just subjective frosting; and often, hold little or no relational sense to the value and toil of an individual’s work. Heed only your neighbours who are your friends. My oldest and dearest friends are still my drama friends I played with in my youth.

We have seen the warmth and the strength of the art of community through the daily acts of care we have all offered and received during the pandemic; continue to receive and offer. The best art is an act of exchange. These days, no matter the artwork, we are almost all creating in isolated spaces alone, until we can gather together for readings and performances again.

“And, thank you, thank you for your works, thank you for the exchange, thank you for the conversation.”

I could have listed Bob’s litany of achievements here, that he was also a professional Abbey actor mentored by Tomás Mac Anna, his best performances, award winning shows, directorial hits; I could list how he taught me my craft, and more besides, mention he was the mentor who taught me how to teach to the individual within the group; I could list his accomplishments and attributes of which there were very many, tangentially note his wit, wisdom, and good humour, that he was tenacious, firm while fair, precise never harsh; but, I feel the urgent need to expressly stress at this time of heartbreak that credits are not what great artists should be remembered for.

Bob was ageing, and blind from illness, he kept a low-profile in recent years; it is immensely sad to lose him to Covid.

Originally from Portumna in County Galway, Bob Browne is survived by his dear wife Cathy, and their children Cara, Bobby, and Nigel, family, neighbours, community and friends. As an artist, a man, and a teacher Bob was many things to very many people, he gave love and was loved; in the end all that matters is that he was gentle and that he was kind.

A kind man is sadly missed by all who met him.

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The theatre is accepting donations to help with outgoings accrued during Covid closure: https://millbanktheatre.ticketsolve.com/products/donation

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