Phil Ruddock, a 37-year-old father of four living in Buncrana, is genuinely one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Phil is a tremendously talented artist - he designs and builds sets and props for theatre, film and carnival groups. He also does make-up and special effects. And, yeah, he’s a performer too.
But beware of his dark side! For this kind, gentle man has always been fascinated by the macabre and he is the evil genius behind the Haunted House that was such a big hit in Burnfoot two years ago and is running again every night in Burnfoot up to and including Sunday.
Phil was born and brought up in London. He recalls “I was always making the strangest things. I built my first pair of stilts when I was about 12 out of left over timber I found at the back of the garage. I just wanted a pair of stilts, so I made them.”
At the age of 13, he went to Brighton College as a boarder absolutely loved it.
“It was very progressive, non-denominational school. I had a great art teacher. He was an old hippie who followed the syllabus but let us do what we wanted as much as possible, so I spent a lot of my time building sets even then.”
After he finished school, Phil stayed on in Brighton for another year or two. Then, when he was 20, he made a big career move. “My mum’s ex, Charles Winter, was a Wall of Death Rider. He asked me if I’d be interested in helping out. The wall was in bad condition, so we spent two weeks re-building it. The tour started off in Wales then we brought it to Ireland.
“One rider fell ill so I replaced him - one day I was backstage and the next day I was riding the Wall of Death! It was terrifying but exhilirating. We toured fairgrounds all around Ireland and the UK for about two years. It was great fun.” After the business was sold, it wasn’t as successful and so the touring ended.
Phil had met and fallen in love with a Buncrana woman, Melanie Connolly when the Wall of Death visited Buncrana. He came back when the touring finished to be with her. They were together for a long number of years and had four children together.
Phil got work in the building trade and also got involved with a new young performance group called In Your Space, based in Derry. “I was good friends with John Burns and started making a few bits and pieces for them. One of the first things I designed was a piece called The Performing Monks. I liked the way it looked so much I decided I wanted to be one, so that was the first piece of street theatre I did.”
In 1999, Phil decided he wanted to devote himself to art full time, so he went to the Tech in Derry to do the HND in Fine Arts.
“After that, I was asked to help out on a short film called Peace Cubed. I designed and built the sets and did the makeup on that project. I ended up becoming the Artistic Director. I don’t know how that happened! It was quite a learning curve because I had no idea about film-making.”
Over the next few years, Phil did a lot of small commercial arts projects, making props for plays, street theatre and carnival groups. He helped Locky Morris and Mark Hill with the installation of the Pole Star in Letterkenny. He also worked a lot with Inishowen Carnival Group and toured workshops with The Gasyard and In Your Space, teaching people body casting, mask making and how to work with latex for special effects.
He was artistic director on the film Agnes Jones a few years back and did a lot of the specialist makeup, especially burns for the hospital scenes.
When the Special Olympics were held in Belfast, in 2006, Phil designed and built the centrepiece for the opening ceremony - the world’s 12th largest jigsaw puzzle. He recalls “It was made of 40 pieces, each 25 ft high, carried on 15 ft poles. They already came together to become a picture, then the carriers spun around and the picture changed.” This was done in conjunction with the Inishowen Carnival Group.
Meawhile, around 2006, he got a call from Strabane District Council asking him to work on a community project for Halloween. “I came up with the idea of designing a Haunted House and then people from the local community built a very simple but very effective one In fact, it turned out to be far more effective than any of us had really imagined it would be. We did it three years in Strabane and it just got stronger each year. That kind of put the idea in my head that it could be done on a bigger scale, that it could become something with its own impetus, that could grow.
“Their funding was cut then, and they couldn’t do another one but I was determined to carry on. And that takes us to two years ago, when we did the first Haunted House in Burnfoot. This was a bit a leap of faith, because it was really done with very limited, no grant funding or anything like that. It was really a bunch of friends who were prepared to put their trust in the project and work on a totally voluntary basis. In the end, we were really taken aback by just how popular it turned out to be. It started out so quietly, on the first night I was really worried. But the numbers just kept rising and by the fourth night it was already looking like it would be a big success. I think about 4,000 people came through the doors. We’re delighted to be doing it again this year.”
As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Phil was one of the key people behind Bricriu’s Feast, the spectacular pageant peformed for Buncrana Festival. He’s also built sets and props for all of Greasepaint Productions shows and peformed in three of them - Rent, as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and, in 2008, as Bill Sykes in Oliver!
It’s a role he’s set to reprise in the forthcoming production of the show by Letterkenny Musical Society. “I didn’t really plan to audition either time! Two of my children wanted to be in the show in 2008 and I went to the audition with them. It was really my first time taking a proper stage role. Then, because I’m working at An Grianan, colleagues encouraged me to audition for LMS.”
Phil started working on the FÁS Scheme at An Grianan last year and he couldn’t have found a better job. “It’s been fantastic working in a professional setting and having access to such great facilities. Everyone is so good at what they do, Director Patricia McBride gets such great shows and talent constantly flowing through the doors. And both Niall Cranny, the technical manager and Peter Rose, the sound man are geniuses at what they do.”
Phil was chuffed beyond belief when Gerard McSorley, who was in The Aristocrats, heard about the Haunted House and very kindly agreed to appear the trailer for it. “Amazing! His performance adds so much to it and everyone involved, who are, after all, all volunteers, was so excited to get to the chance to work with someone of his calibre.” Phil is clearly a man who has found his niche - I for one am just glad it’s here in Donegal!