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Darkness into Light

Antrim actress Gemme McMeel told David Hennessy why she and her West End friends and colleagues felt compelled to use their voices to help those suffering from domestic violence during the lockdown.

Musical theatre actress Gemma McMeel has been based in London for seven years but when she returned home to Moneyglass in Antrim to weather out the Covid-19 storm, she was struck by the amount of news coverage the issue of domestic violence was getting even in times of an unprecedented health crisis. Gemma got together with some of her West End colleagues and friends to produce, from isolation, a version of Light from the musical Next to Normal in aid of Women’s Aid Mid-Ulster.

Gemma told The Irish World: “I haven’t lived at home in seven years and throughout lockdown, I noticed it (domestic abuse) was always on the news. The numbers had been increasing and it was making the news headlines. For it to be making the news alongside coronavirus, that was high alert for me. Circumstances must be bad.

“I was chatting to my friend Flynn who is a musical director. I said I would love to create something. We can’t go to the theatre and the joy about theatre is that it’s an escapism. It takes people out of their lives and they’re transported to another world. That’s the power of theatre and we don’t have that anymore.

“And I think music is a force for change so I got together with Flynn and said, ‘Why don’t we do something from a musical?’ All the performers on there are West End performers so each recorded it from their own home and we put it together and we launched it last week.”

When lockdown came in, it took away many of the escape routes for those who suffer domestic abuse such.

“A lot of women suffer in silence and they are in darkness and just to have that video, even if it reaches one person and it makes a change in their daily thought, it will be worth it.

“I just want to shed light on this matter at this time because I think a lot of people are locked down and although now lockdown is easing for all of us, women and children will forever feel locked down if they don’t make a change, if they don’t feel that support and that encouragement to fight for their own light to shine.

“I’m passionate about raising money and awareness for women housebound especially in rural areas because they’re mostly the hardest hit and I’m originally from mid-Ulster so I contacted Women’s Aid Federation. They’re so grateful. I hope that it will raise awareness and spread the word.”

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Gemma and the team chose the song Light because it’s meaning meshed well with their concept.

“We debated a couple of different songs and at the end of the day it’s straight to the point, Light is the title of it and what’s that they need. They don’t need to be in darkness anymore.

“The quality is down to Flynn. He recorded everything. I’m very happy with how it came out. It seems to have been watched by a lot of people so I’m really thrilled about that.”

Gemma was inspired by the Irish Women in Harmony’s cover of Dreams that came out while they were working on Light.

“I thought that was absolutely fantastic. That song came out when we were recording our light video. It’s brilliant that flag is being flown. That was a beautiful rendition of that song.

“I was really inspired by it. It was great. I just love that it’s all about female empowerment and it kind of pushed us forward to get the ball rolling a bit quicker.

“If it (Light) reaches one person and it can change even a day or an hour of their day or a couple of minutes, I’m happy with that.”

Originally from Moneyglass in Antrim, Gemma moved to London at the age of 18 to train in musical theatre at the Arts Education School in West London where Andrew Lloyd Webber is president.

Gemma’s first professional job would see her sharing the stage with Frasier star Kelsey Grammar in Big Fish.

“That was my professional debut in the West End. It was a very special job.

“I was leaving drama school with a beautiful, gorgeous job to walk straight into. I was so excited. I actually couldn’t believe it.

“We had a great time. It was a wonderful first job and I couldn’t have asked for a better company of actors to share my professional debut with.”

What was it like to act with someone as A list as Kelsey on her very first job? “Kelsey was the driving force of that company of actors. Every night he led the show and he was a company member, one of us. He’s an actor doing the job telling the story like we all are too. To be a team member and have that celebrity status and still come into rehearsals and be the grounded man that he is- I have a lot of admiration for Kelsey and he was always very good to me.”

Gemma says her heart lies in the theatre but she worries for the future of the medium, post-Covid.

“It’s scary because who is going to invest in brand new musicals now coming over from Broadway or starting an original musical in the West End? Not many producers are going to put their neck on the line in the next few years and that affects the industry en masse.

“It’s not just us performers that get hit, it’s the lighting designers, it’s the crew backstage, it’s the costume designers, it’s the hair and make-up, it’s the company manager, it takes in a vast number of self-employed artists.

“Thank Goodness that fund came out last week, the £1.57 billion injected into the arts because it is a billion pound industry. I was looking at statistics. There were more theatre tickets bought than there were people going to premier league matches.

“It’s a massive industry and music is a changing force, it’s an escapism.

“The arts will come back and it will come back with a vengeance because people need the arts. I think sometimes we can’t speak directly but through theatre, arts, music, it communicates to a wider audience.”

Creative people never know where the job is coming from but always get by. Gemma sees this resourcefulness helping them get through Covid times.

“Every single person around the stage is a grafter. The ability we have is to make the best of a bad situation. We find ways of being creative and we find things that we can do.

“I’ve spent a lot of my time teaching over zoom to children across the UK. I’m now a fitness instructor. I’ve picked that up. My friends have all picked up different little skills along the way because we don’t sit and wait for things to pass. We get up and we find different ways of progressing forward.”

Gemma was keen to play some Gaelic football when she first came to London and started training with Father Murphy’s but she found it too much in addition to her musical theatre training. However, she has kept in touch with the club and performed at many of their events.

“When I was at drama school, I actually went to play. I went to one training session, it was too far out for me with my drama school. I had to prioritise my musical theatre training over my Gaelic football.

“Larry always kept in touch. I’ve performed for Father Murphy’s and I’ve performed quite a bit with the CICA in London.”

You can donate to Women’s Aid by clicking here.

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