Phyllis Ryan, Founding Patron, Irish Theatre Institute. (c) Abbey Theatre Archive
Phyllis Ryan – Actress, Independent Theatre Producer, 1920-2011
Phyllis was born in Dublin in 1920. At the age of 13 she was accepted into the Abbey School and at 14 made her Abbey debut in Denis Johnston’s play The Moon and the Yellow River. In 1937, at 16 she played ‘Brigid’, the lead, in Paul Vincent Carroll’s play Shadow and Substance, directed by Hugh Hunt, and was then recommended for membership of the Abbey Company. With the appointment of Ernest Blythe as the Abbey’s managing director, Phyllis left the company and pursued a successful freelance acting career. By that time, 1944, she had performed in over 28 Abbey and Peacock productions and worked with the greats of Irish theatre including Eileen Crowe, Cyril Cusack, Barry Fitzgerald, F.J. McCormick, Ria Mooney and Shelah Richards.
Phyllis moved into theatrical management in 1956 and set up Orion Productions. Then, in 1958, she formed Gemini Productions with the actor Norman Rodway. The company was based for many years in the Eblana Theatre (at Busáras) and established itself very quickly as a leading producer of new Irish writing. Gemini had very important and successful relationships with many leading Irish writers including Hugh Leonard and John B. Keane. In the mid 1960s, Gemini had huge commercial success with The Field (Ray McAnally as Bull McCabe) and Big Maggie (Marie Kean as Maggie). Also, in the 1960s she produced world premiere productions of Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle, Máiréad Ni Ghráda’s An Triail (English language version On Trial) and Tom Murphy’s The Orphans. Gemini produced many world premieres of Hugh Leonard plays, often in association with the Dublin Theatre Festival. Her most significant Leonard production was Stephen D at The Gate for the 1962 Dublin Theatre Festival which, following a capacity sellout run in Dublin, travelled to the West End and launched T.P. McKenna and Norman Rodway’s careers in the UK.
In the mid-1970s, Phyllis was instrumental in setting up the state funded Irish Theatre Company and was its first Artistic Director. ITC was founded “to present plays and theatrical entertainments of a high standard round Ireland”. ITC had also a remit to give employment to actors and throughout Phyllis’ producing career she was a significant employer of actors and was especially keen to spot new acting, directing and playwriting talent.
Phyllis produced more that 100 plays and revues over her long career in theatre of which about 40 were new plays or adaptations. For many years in the Eblana Theatre, Gemini produced revues with some of Ireland’s leading theatre names including Des Keogh, Rosaleen Linehan and Fergus Linehan. The Black Rosie revue, written by Fergus Linehan, is considered to be one of Gemini’s Productions’ highlights.
In later years Phyllis made a return to acting and worked on a number of productions with director, Michael Scott including his Cuchulain Cycle. Phyllis’ final stage performance was in 2000 in Deborah Warner’s production of Medea starring Fiona Shaw for the Abbey Theatre.
Phyllis received a number of awards including honorary life membership of Irish Actors Equity and in 2002 she was recipient of the Special Tribute Award at the Irish Times/ESB Theatre Awards. She wrote and published her memoire, The Company I Kept, in 1996.
Phyllis married Sean Colleary in 1941 and had two children Jacqui and Graham (Gregg). Phyllis died on 7th June 2011.
 Irish Theatre Company First Season Programme 1975 - Artistic Statement by Phyllis Ryan (Artistic Director) and Tony Ó Dálaigh (General Administrator).
When the newly re-named Irish Theatre Institute (ITI) was launched in July 2006, Phyllis Ryan was an automatic choice to be one of its five Founding Patrons. Phyllis was an inspiration. Her dedication, energy and commitment to Irish theatre and the production of new plays, in particular, was ground-breaking. Her independent spirit and extensive experience as a theatre artist and a producer influenced a generation of theatre makers and ITI is extremely proud to have been associated with her.
~Jane Daly, Co-Director, Irish Theatre Institute
Between the 1950s and the 1980s Phyllis Ryan and her Gemini productions were an important force in the Irish theatre. She was shrewd, independent minded and courageous. She never sought personal publicity but her name is clearly written in the history of the Irish Theatre of the 20th century. Phyllis and I got to know each other in the 1940s when we were both young actors and the friendship continued through a long connection with Gemini and close personal contact until her death in 2011.
~Barry Cassin, Actor
Phyllis Ryan was a great doyenne of the theatre. She began her career in the Abbey Theatre School of Acting while still at school and first performed in a 1936 revival of Denis Johnston’s The Moon in the Yellow River performing with many of the Abbey’s great stalwarts. Her last stage performance was at the Abbey in the 2000 production of Medea, directed by Deborah Warner. As a theatre producer she was a tour de force in Irish theatre and is particularly associated with championing the plays of John B Keane. Phyllis had a lifelong love of theatre and was held in high regard by all who had the pleasure of working with her. In 2002 she was awarded the ESB/Irish Times Special Tribute Award. Phyllis was a shareholder of the Abbey Theatre for many years and was a remarkable woman who I had the pride and pleasure of knowing.
~Fiach MacConghail, Director/Stiúrthóir, Abbey Theatre/Amharclann na Mainistreach
Phyllis Ryan was a phenomenon. She was an independent theatre producer when most people hardly knew such a thing existed. And she was a producer of the best kind, one with vision, and a commitment to new work. She presented the first work of writers who are now the pillars of Irish theatre. Brian Friel, J.B. Keane, Hugh Leonard, Thomas Kilroy were some of her stable. And she didn't just bring her playwrights to the Dublin and Irish stage, she brought them to audiences abroad. Her premiere of J.B. Keane's "The Field" with Ray McAnally went as far as Broadway. Hugh Leonard's "Da", also premiered [in Ireland] by her, achieved great success on Broadway too. She is an example and inspiration to us all. Her likes will never be seen again.
~Joe O’Byrne, Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild
Phylis Ryan was a gamechanger in the development of the Irish theatre. A producer of real creativity and integrity she supported writers, actors and directors at often critical points in their artistic journey. She helped them and us to see that the independent theatre sector is no less lacking in vision and courage than any other. Dublin City Council honours her memory and legacy on this her anniversary.
~Ray Yeates, Dublin City Arts Officer
Her achievements span nine decades of Irish theatre and film. Her roles in the Abbey theatre ranged from Blanaid in the 1936 production of The Moon in the Yellow River to a role in the chorus in a 2000 production of Medea. She was a contemporary of Barry Fitzgerald and starred in many film and TV roles during her long career. She also continued to appear in exciting and cutting edge fringe productions throughout, lending support and giving encouragement to many generations of theatre practitioners. Her influence on the arts in Ireland in Ireland extended well beyond her performances. Her company Gemini productions was resident in the Elbana theatre from 1959 and she was a ground breaking producer committed to producing new plays and bringing the best of contemporary work to Irish audiences throughout the sixties, seventies and in subsequent decades. Her passing truly marks the end of an era. The name Phyllis Ryan will live on in the minds and hearts of the artistic community and people of Ireland as a symbol of the unwavering energy, versatility and tenacity of Irish art.
~Pat Moylan, Chair, The Arts Council
Had she played poker the cards would be permanently imprinted on her chest. And so she lived and worked, and so she kept her secrets. Christmas Eve year by year through the ’70's a visit to Phyllis was an essential pleasure. Quietly spoken but when she spoke, you listened. Talk of the year gone. Plans for the year to come, told by innuendo and suggestion. Never an offer but always an assurance which the year would inevitably make good. And she was alway true to her plans. And she believed in her judgement. And she fostered me into a career. She was hard, she was tough. She was adamant. She was ageless. But she was true. And I miss her.
~Alan Stanford, Actor
Irish Theatre Institute would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following people: Gregg Ryan and Family; Mairead Delaney and Aideen Howard, Abbey Theatre; Mary Clark, Irish Theatre Archive, Dublin City Archives, Pearse Street Library; Conor Hanratty; Aonghus Óg McAnally; Maureen McGlynn; Tony Ó Dálaigh and Michael Scott.
ITI is especially grateful to Phyllis’ son Gregg for his support.
If you would like to email us your personal stories about Phyllis and Gemini Productions please contact email@example.com, we would be very pleased to hear from you.
Take a look at Phyllis Ryan "In Conversation" at the Launch of Irish Playography Phase II, 1950-1975, in April 2005.