BY SEÁN P. FEENY
FORTY years ago a young 13-year-old Letterkenny boy saw Jimi Hendrix on television for the first time and knew what he wanted to be – a performer.
That boy was Little John Nee, last Sunday’s recipient of the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Sound Design for his show Sparkplug.
Although people have won Irish Times Theatre Awards for their roles in projects the Letterkenny man has written, this is the first time that Little John has been bestowed with the prestigious award himself in his thirty-year career as a performer.
The popular performer said it was a real shock when he heard his name being announced as the recipient of the award.
“I went not knowing what would happen and to be honest I didn’t expect to win, that’s why it was such a shock. I kept thinking back to when I was 13 in Letterkenny and first saw Jimi Hendrix on the television and knew what I wanted to do with my life.
“Forty years on I am still doing something I love, so I felt being nominated for the award alone was an honour. When my name was announced I was just so delighted.”
Little John said, being in the performing arts industry for such a long time, it was great ‘just to be recognised’ in the presence of his peers.
He said: “There were so many people there that I have worked with over the last three decades from Galway’s Druid Theatre Company to Barabbas Theate Company and I can’t say how much it means to me to receive the award on so many different levels.
“People like Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness set an example, and it’s even important for young people to see that there is room for contemporary Donegal work out there, so it’s rewarding in that sense, too.
“A woman came up to me after the awards and said she had taken her eight-year-old nephew to see me at Damer Hall on St Stephen Green in Dublin in the 1980s and he still spoke about it and then people remembered me busking as Charlie Chaplin on Grafton Street.”
Little John said the award would never have come about without the support from Earagail Arts Festival, who commissioned Sparkplug, the Regional Culture Centre (RCC) who provided him with rehearsal space, and the ongoing support from An Grianán Theatre.
“I’d like to say a special big thank you to everyone at An Grianán and to my sister Susan McFadden in the Oldtown who took me to my first shows when I was a wee boy.”
Ever the entertainer, after giving his proper thank-you’s, Little John told the audience he was making a video for YouTube and proceeded to put on a hilarious performance as he ‘accepted’ the awards for Best Actor, Best Production and Best Costume Designer.
The Letterkenny man’s character Sparkplug Callaghan has been at the centre of numerous projects Little John has done, from the An Grianán Commission The Mother’s Arms, the children’s play A Bag Of Queen’s to Sparkplug and 2013 certainly is his year. Little John is currently working on his second radio drama for RTÉ Radio One, Wee Black Bees, which will be the follow-up to the radio version of Sparkplug.
He has also been commissioned by An Grianán to produce a sequel the stage version, entitled Nostalgia: Sparkplug Troubles.
He said: “I made the conscious decision of sticking with one idea so a character could grow and the audience would get familiar with someone like Sparkplug.”
Like most performers passionate about their craft, Little John has endured the good and the bad times for the love of his profession.
“I’m so fortunate that things have been going well and that I am able to work as a self-employed performer, which wasn’t always easy. It has been hard at times, but it’s even more rewarding then when it pays off,” said Little John.
Little John’s win has been received with widespread delight in his native county with messages of congratulations flooding in from across the Donegal arts community.
Paul Brown, Director of the Earagail Arts Festival, said: “Primarily we are delighted for Little John himself, the award is long overdue for someone who has stuck to his own independent way of working and it reinforces the significance and quality of his work.
“We are delighted to have commissioned the piece and thereby supporting one of our own local artists. It’s an important accolade for Little John, as well as the Donegal Arts scene.”
Patricia McBride, Director of An Grianán Theatre, said: “I am really delighted to hear about Little John’s success at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. It’s a very public acknowledgement from his peers in theatre industry of the integrity and quality of his work.
“At An Grianán we have always recognised the immense theatrical talent and master story teller that is Little John. We have worked closely with him over the years and he is currently working on a new play commission for An Grianán.
“Nostalgia – Sparkplug Troubles, supported by Peace III, builds on the stories of his previous plays about the character in Sparkplug and A Bag of Queens. It will be premiered In the theatre in May before it goes on tour around the North West.”
Shaun Hannigan, manager of the RCC, added: “We are pleased to be associated with John and his work over the years.
“Many of his recent shows including the award-winning Sparkplug have been rehearsed at the RCC and we have been fortunate to have been associated with John’s brilliant commissions for the Earagail Arts Festival going back to the Derry Boat that had its second ever performance at the old Letterkenny Arts Centre in the Central Library. If anyone was ever over-due for a national theatre award it is John.”
Little John Nee will be performing his award-winning show Sparkplug next at the Balor Arts Centre, Ballybofey, on Wednesday, March 6. Call the Balor box office Tel 07491 31840.