Longford Lives: Janice Gibney steps from behind the scenes to front and centre

“My favourite thing about Deloris is her spirit. It’s that joy and just feeling the music and letting go - feeling it in your bones and just letting it rip.”

Janice Gibney

Janice Gibney. Photo: Shelley Corcoran

There’s no business like show business and nobody in Longford knows that quite like Janice Gibney.

Often found behind the scenes at the Backstage Theatre, Ardagh native, Janice, is the one that drives the marketing and the promotion of each and every show that comes to the local venue.

But she’s no stranger to the spotlight either, and has taken on several lead roles in various St Mel’s Musical Society productions including the formidable Morticia in ‘The Addams Family’ in 2016.

This year, as St Mel’s Musical Society celebrates 40 years since its revival, Janice is bringing her unique acting and musical talent to the role of Deloris in 'Sister Act'.

And this is arguably her biggest role yet in what is quite possibly the biggest show the Musical Society has ever put on, with tickets for all nine performances already completely sold out.

The role of Deloris is an energetic, sassy role - one that many wanted and one that some have suggested was “made for Janice”.

So when she auditioned and got the role, it came as no surprise to a lot of people, but Janice herself, who was up against some tough competition, was thrilled.

“I really, really wanted this role,” she told the Longford Leader last week.

“I’ve never wanted a part as much. I’ve always gone for a part thinking ‘if I get it, I get it’. But with this one I was like ‘god, no, I want it’,” she laughed.

“I was really delighted to get it because it’s something I wanted to do for a really long time.”

Janice has played a large number of roles over the years with the Musical Society.

She won the Gilbert Best Comedienne AIMS Award for her excellence in the role of Miss Hannigan in ‘Annie’ in 2004, and was nominated for AIMS Best Actress Award in the Gilbert category for her outstanding portrayal of Charity Hope Valentine in ‘Sweet Charity’ in 2007.

“I loved every minute of that role,” she recalled.

“Charity had a real innocence and naivety about her, but a real joy for life.

“And she had so many knocks, but she kept getting back up. She just had this kind of rose-tinted view of life and, no matter how many knocks she got, she kept getting back up.”

That statement is also one that could apply to Janice who obtained a leg injury during a recent rehearsal.

Limping into the Longford Leader offices last week, she said she's determined not to let it phase her and is filled with optimism about her recovery.

“I tore my calf muscle, but I’m resting it lots and getting physio with Miranda Moran, so it’s well on the mend. Fingers crossed she’ll have me ready to boogie on opening night,” she said.

“It’s just a little blip - at least it didn’t happen on opening night! A nice little glittery crutch might have to be on standby in the wings, just in case it pops,” she joked.

There’ll certainly be plenty of glitter this April as the production prepares to hit the stage. The musical is based on the 1992 movie of the same name, starring Whoopi Goldberg, which was a hit all over the world.

“I’ve always loved the movie - and ‘Sister Act 2’,” Janice enthused.

“It gives me goosebumps. Deloris has always been a dream role. I’ve seen the musical twice in the Bord Gáis and I remember on the way up to see it, I found out that the music wasn’t the music from the movie and I was kind of disappointed.

“But then I went to see it… It’s the exact same storyline, but it’s set in the 70s, so it’s all Studio 54, disco balls… it’s brilliant.

“So I didn’t know the songs going into it, but I was singing them by the time I was leaving.

“And they’re the same spirit, the songs that the nuns sing. You know, you can hear bits that are similar. It’s brilliant. It’s a really, really feel-good show.”

The musical tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring performer trying to find both fame and a place in the world.

“She’s with this guy who is no good for her and she’s really trying to make it in the music industry,” Janice explained.

“She has this dream of being a massive big star. And her boyfriend is like a deadbeat gangster and she sees him doing something he shouldn’t.

“So she goes on the run and goes into hiding in the convent and starts to get into a little bit of trouble with the Mother Superior, played by Valerie Nolan, who is going to be amazing.”

Deloris soon starts to get friendly with the nuns in the convent and soon finds herself leading the choir - something she fully embraces.

“Deloris is my all time favourite role,” said Janice.

“I love her spunk, her energy and her unflappable belief in herself - something we could all do with instilling a little bit more in ourselves, I guess.

“My favourite thing about her is her spirit. It’s that joy and just feeling the music and letting go - feeling it in your bones and just letting it rip.”

Janice has also appeared in a number of other musicals, playing Mrs Hopkins in ‘My Fair Lady’ in 2006; the hilarious Barbara in the 2005 production of ‘Billy’; Ida in ‘Honk!’; and Audrey 2 in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’.

“In Little Shop of Horrors, I was the plant. That was one of my favourites, I loved that. It was a really fun role,” Janice laughed.

In her younger days, Janice appeared in the pantomimes ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Aladdin’, before branching into musicals and taking part in ‘Oliver!’ in 1992, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in 1993 and ‘The Music Man’ in 1994.

Before that, she was a member of Backstage Youth Theatre and says that the Backstage Theatre has been a huge part of her life since it opened in 1995.

She joined the Backstage Youth Theatre in 1995 and spent her school years taking part in shows.

“Then I went to college, studied radio broadcasting and journalism, then did a degree in Media Production and Management, but I did my thesis in theatre because I always had that love from when I was a kid.”

And it wasn’t off the grass she licked it. In fact, Janice’s family has a long and colourful history with theatre - more specifically musical theatre.

This year, St Mel’s Musical Society will be celebrating 40 years since its revival in 1978 and Janice’s mother, June Belton, has been heavily involved for the past four decades.

So it comes as no surprise that Janice has been performing since she was a kid.

“I think I was on stage in mam’s belly at some point,” she laughed, “so I was involved before I was even born.”

Her father, Robert Belton, has also been a big part of the society since its revival, as a long-working stage manager, alongside Eddie Kiernan.

So some might say that theatre runs in the family.

In fact, her brothers, Gavin and Derek were also involved in the Musical Society in the past.

Sadly, Derek passed away some years ago, but so dedicated was he to the society that a Derek Belton Memorial Cup is awarded every year to an 'unsung hero' of St Mel’s Musical Society in his memory.

“It’s really touching to see Derek’s name being honoured and remembered year on year,” Janice explained.

“Our family is not involved in selecting the recipients, so it is always a surprise and quite emotional to hear the name called out on the last night and to see how much it means to the winner.”

Janice has been Marketing Manager at the Backstage Theatre since 2003 and has found herself watching, enjoying and promoting some of the best shows in the country as they tour their way around Ireland.

And she’s not biased or anything, but she’s of the opinion that the Backstage Theatre is an incredible venue and Longford is extremely lucky to have it.

“Even the seats, the warmth of it, the feel of it and the ambiance…,” she said, enthusiastically.

“It’s a beautiful theatre. And I’m saying that as a fan rather than an employee.

“To think in the last few weeks, we’ve had ‘Waiting for Godot’ (Druid) and ‘Swan Lake’ (Teac Damsa)... They’re two of the biggest shows in the country, if not the world, at the moment. And they were in little old Longford.

Janice is certainly kept busy every day with her work at the Backstage Theatre, rehearsals for the musical, as well as the full-time role of mother to her three little girls, Faye (7), Ellen (4) and Gwen (3), and wife to her husband Ronan. The family is currently living in Ennybegs.

And she wouldn't change any of it.

“I love my job,” she said. “It’s an amazing industry to be in. I’m obviously working in the background, but it’s nice to have this little hobby where I can go from the background to the stage.”

And, for this musical, she’s thrilled to be back singing 70s-style disco music.

“I used to play in a band called Groove Addicts and it was all Studio 54, Sister Sledge, Stevie Wonder, all that kind of music.
“I just love disco. If I could time travel, I would go back to studio 54. So this is my ultimate role,” she said.

Rehearsals are going good so far - apart from the incident with the torn calf muscle, but that’s nothing a little physio won’t sort.

“There are some really fun dance routines in it, choreographed by Emer O'Brien and it’s a really strong cast and a really good feel with the whole cast. It’s just been really feel-good. Everybody’s really getting into it,” Janice enthused.

“I played Miss Hannigan in Annie in 2004 and there’s a couple of girls who played orphans in the chorus. Dearbhaile Barrins is actually in it. So I’m on stage with her quite a bit, so it’s lovely. It’s mad to think that she was a little orphan - it’s making me feel old,” she laughed.

And she’s quick to dish out praise and admiration for many of her fellow cast members.

“Paul (Hennessy) is such a pro. He’s bringing loads to the role of Curtis. His three gangsters are going to steal the show - they’re hilarious.

“John Kelly is playing the Monsignor. This is his 40th show. He’s in it every single year. It’s unbelievable. He’s an absolute credit. I would have done shows with him as a kid. In 'Oliver!', he was Fagin. So I’ve always looked up to him and his love of musicals.”

In fact, Longford is bursting at the seams with talent, she said.

“Things like St Mel’s Musical Society, Evolution, Peelo, Shane Crossan’s School of Rock... There’s a lot of things now that maybe weren’t around when we were growing up. There’s just so much now for kids to express themselves.

“Shawbrook is another excellent source for nurturing talent. Maryann Lynch, who plays Sister Mary Robert, is a student there.

We all know she can dance and sing amazingly - she sings with Painted Skies - but she’s a fantastic actress, especially considering this is her first main role.

“Valerie Nolan’s voice is amazing; Anthony Heavey is really coming into his own in his first lead role; Michelle Kelly Conlon is playing a blinder as both Chairperson and the wild Sister Mary Lazarus - a busy undertaking.

“We’ve been so lucky with the calibre of singers we have in the chorus, especially the core nuns who are bringing so much to their roles.

"Sean Power (Director) and Alan Recks (Musical Director) are also really lovely to work with."

And the people of Longford have always been so supportive of St Mel’s Musical Society, she added. The committee works really hard every year and it takes a lot to put on a show this size.

“The people on stage get all the credit, but it’s actually the people in the background who really bring it all together. Without them, there would be no show.

“We come on and steal all the glory, but really it’s them doing all the hard work in the background.”

St Mel's Musical Society will stage nine shows between April 20 and 28 and if you don't have your tickets already, you're out of luck because 'Sister Act' has been completely sold out since last week.

In fact, no St Mel's Musical Society production has ever sold out so fast, which is testament to the incredible work done by the group every single year.

“It’s a cracker of a show. There’s a lot of work gone into it. All the fun that we’ve had making it, I think, is just going to beam off the stage and hopefully there’ll be a lot of happy people leaving and coming back for more next year,” Janice concluded.

Read also:

Sister Act: Paul Hennessy to take on Gangster role in Longford musical

St Mel's Musical Society in Longford have got the Power

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