Treading the boards of the theatre, the cobbles of Corrie, his work with Irish Autism Action which led to him being Philanthropist of the Year 2013 – life certainly hasn’t been quiet since the heady heydays of Boyzone, though Keith Duffy’s world certainly turns to A Different Beat (sorry). Between family life, building a successful acting and presenting career and working tirelessly to improve the lives of families affected by autism, Fusion finds Keith indulging in something resembling light relief, as he returns to Limerick to star in the University Concert Hall pantomime Sleeping Beauty, after a well-received stint in Jack and the Beanstalk in 2014.
When we first meet he is jovial, working the Captain’s Room of The Hunt Museum at the launch event in full panto garb – purple silk, gold crown and all. When we eventually sit down with him for a chat, his attire has taken a darker turn more reminiscent of his boyband heartthrob status. However, the mood stays light as he chats away happily and relaxed, responding to compliments on his smile with jokes about the cost of his dental work. There is the sense that Keith really relishes every aspect of what he does – he is a total pro in front of the camera, testament to his years of experience in the spotlight, yet his enthusiasm for all that’s part and parcel of that still seems fresh and genuine, as he talks to waiting press and selfie seekers with genuine warmth and interest.
Of course, as a (temporarily) retired boyband member and someone who is known for being funny and not taking himself too seriously, it’s unsurprising that Keith had been asked to do panto many times before, both in the UK and here in Ireland. However, with a busy schedule and family life, it just didn’t suit him, and apart from a taste of the experience in a production of The Wizard of Oz at Weymouth Pavillion Theatre many years ago, he has always turned down the offers. “Whenever I was asked they would always get in touch around March. With all the different things I have going on and acting work being the way it is, you don’t have a long-term schedule planned out, so it’s impossible to commit to something that far in advance. So I always said no.” Why in particular did he decide to take to the panto plunge again with Jack and The Beanstalk at University Concert Hall Limerick in 2014, and then return to Limerick again for Sleeping Beauty this year? “Well, initially it was because the director only contacted me at the beginning of November last year, so then I was able to say yes, let’s give it a go. I liked it so much when I was asked to return this year, I decided you know what, that was really enjoyable, this time I made sure to make space in my diary for it.”
What was his experience of Limerick while he was here? “Over the years I never spent much time in Limerick. We would have played at the Theatre Royale with Boyzone back in the day, but of course wouldn’t have spent much time experiencing the city. Obviously doing panto last year here and staying for five weeks, I got to do more here, and I just fell in love with the place. Everybody was so hospitable, the restaurants, hotels and bars, they just looked after us so well, and of course University Concert Hall Limerick and the fantastic audience who really let their hair down and got into it. I really enjoyed the company of the other guys in the panto, we socialised every night. And not being from around here it was a bit of freedom as well, it was work but like a break.”
It was at this point I confessed to Keith I haven’t actually been to a pantomime, at least not since I was a very small child, with little other than very fuzzy memories of people shouting ‘he’s behind you!’ What, for Keith, is the whole appeal of the panto experience?
“It’s just so much fun, I had a great time, audience participation is what really makes it, it’s a really good boost for all the actors. I had just finished six months of serious theatre when I came down last year, and that can be tough, you know? Panto as an acting experience is a tonic, it really is. Acting on set and in theatre can be quite intense, you have to stay in character and go into a lot of emotions. Panto gives you the chance to come out of character and mess around with the audience a bit. And you will love this one, it really is laugh out stuff.”
His answer is a great rebuttal to anyone who may have looked down upon panto as a performance medium. Acting, as Keith identifies, is an intense and utterly unpredictable career path, surely they are as entitled to some light relief as much as the rest of us? There is a reason that pantomime has been part of the festive season since as far back as the fourteenth century. For us as the audience, pantomime is a wonderfully inclusive experience, and is often a child’s first introduction to the world of theatre and live performance. Slapstick, audience participation, local actors and well known personalities brought together in the most unlikeliest of scenarios, what’s not to like? Christmas clearly cries out for a panto, and I make my sincere promises to Keith to attend this year with the family in tow.
Keith is no stranger to regular theatre either. He first appeared on the stage at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in 2005 alongside Pauline McLynn in a play called Dandelions. When Boyzone reformed in 2007 he had to turn down a West End role. After their reunion tour ended he was to tour with an Irish play, My First Time, but this never came to be in the saddest of circumstances, as his much loved bandmate and friend Stephen Gately passed away. He returned to the stage in 2011 with a touring production of John B Keane’s comedy Big Maggie, playing Teddy Heelin, a role he will be reprising in March 2016. What brought about the return?
“The first time around Big Maggie toured round Ireland and sold out everywhere, it was amazing. Then the director contacted me couple of years ago, as Big Maggie was going to become part of the national curriculum this term he wanted to put it on again, though it won’t be touring this time, it will be more commercial. Again, I enjoyed the experience so much last time around I immediately said yes. Rehearsals start pretty much straight away after Sleeping Beauty ends, and we’ll be hopefully looking to do a big charity event through The Keith Duffy Foundation here in Limerick in February.”
The Keith Duffy Foundation comes off the back of his work with numerous Autism charities, most notably Irish Autism Action, where he became patron. His charitable work has earned him the title of Irish Philanthropist of the Year 2013, and an honorary fellowship for autism work from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).
Of course, those who know about Keith’s life will know that this passionate determination to improve the lives of children and young adults with learning difficulties stems from his experience with his own daughter, Mia. In 2005, when Mia was 18 months old, and Keith had just finished his first stint as Ciaran McCarthy on Coronation Street, she was diagnosed with autism.
Keith has previously spoken open and honestly about how he felt and came to terms with the diagnosis, sharing the fears and mixture of emotions that many parents in similar circumstances can relate to. In an interview with The Daily Mail in 2009, he admitted that it nearly tore the family apart, saying he struggled to hold himself together, and was fearful about what the future held for Mia. The realisation that they had so little knowledge about the condition, that public health services were enormously overstretched when it came to getting an official diagnosis (Keith and his wife Lisa were told it could take between 18 and 24 months), plus the lack of support that was available when they did get the answer they had so desperately sought, led to Keith taking action. He had to, in his own words, grow up fast. He threw himself into charity work, in part as a personal coping mechanism for someone who declares he always “likes to be busy”, but for the most part it was the drive to improve the situation for other parents and children facing the same circumstances. He realised the need for early intervention, which is proven to drastically improve prospects and quality of life for children with autism, and for improvements in public healthcare services and general awareness of the condition. He began by organising fundraising events, before becoming patron of Irish Autism Action.
Keith’s approach to the role was typically hands on. “People don’t realise that as patron I have been very involved in all aspects, when you see celebrities put their name to a cause you think that’s all it is, a name, but it’s not. I’ve done all sorts, meeting with people, finding out what is needed, phone calls etc. It’s not as if I know it all either, it’s about getting a feel for what people really need, the only way to do that is to talk to them directly, it’s a lot of work and it can be stressful but you do what’s necessary.”
And as the charity themselves stated when Keith announced he was to step down in February 2015, the extent of his work cannot be overstated. Forging corporate partnerships, helping to secure state recognition for 12 early intervention schools in Ireland, plus numerous fundraising events and bringing the issues into the public conscious through interviews and campaign awareness are just some of the examples of the work he has put in over the years. But such passionate dedication doesn’t just stop, and he now plans to set up his own charity.
“Absolutely. I wanted to concentrate on my family and career for a while, which is what I have done and will continue to do, but part of that is setting up my own foundation, which I have been working on in the background for the past year.” He will be moving onto a new stage of improving the lives of young adults with autism and special learning requirements with The Keith Duffy Foundation. “I’ve actually had a lot of help with The Keith Duffy Foundation from Richard Lynch, of ILoveLimerick.com, we’ve been working very hard. He has a been big support in this, he introduced me to a lot of people last year. With Mia and Irish Autism Action I was mostly looking at diagnosis early years education, now we’re focusing on secondary learning supports and adult learning centres for people coming through the process that we set up for them initially. A lot of the kids are coming of age and there’s nothing in place for them now to go to – it’s going to be a hard battle and a long slog to try and put appropriate learning facilities in place. We’ll be launching with a big black tie ball charity night at Powerscourt Hotel Resort and Spa on 5th December. From there I will be looking to do events all round Ireland, the idea is that all money raised in each county will stay in that county, as we identify what is needed in each place and makes sure the money goes exactly where it is needed.”
Keith certainly wasn’t kidding about keeping busy – his passion for life is infectious and he is so open about his experiences and motivations. There’s little doubt that The Keith Duffy Foundation is set to make a real difference in the lives of young adults, with such a dedicated and hardworking individual at the helm.
Words: Kayleigh Ziolo
Images by: Leanne Aherne