The Lurgan man who founded a highly successful cross-community community arts theatre has won the ‘Arts Personality of the Year’ award at the prestigious 2023 Ulster Tatler Awards.
Simon Hyland set up the Building Bridges Community Arts Theatre in 2015 with a few like-minded friends, recognising a need in his local area for performance art and theatre activity.
An SEN teacher at Beechlawn School in Royal Hillsborough, he also runs two small businesses.
Simon took home the award following the gala awards ceremony, which was held in Belfast City Hall on Thursday, September 14.
Simon told Armagh I that he was “absolutely elated and over the moon” following his win in the awards, which celebrate the best that Northern Ireland has to offer in business, hospitality and beauty.
Simon was always interested in working with the community, particularly young people, so Building Bridges soon evolved into an arts organisation that existed to provide opportunities for all members from all corners of the community to come together in a safe space, breaking down barriers and building relationships.
The group is entirely voluntary, led by a committee of 15 active members with Simon, as chairperson, spearheading most projects and directing all productions.
Building Bridges offer a varied programme throughout the year, staging a musical, junior musical, concert, play and Christmas pantomime, alongside a range of training schemes and social events.
Simon explains that at Building Bridges, it is a priority that the arts should be accessible, particularly to those from underprivileged backgrounds or facing poverty. With this in mind, fees to take part in productions are heavily subsidised.
Also, since starting the group, he has secured over £150,000 in grant funding for the projects he runs, including over £50,000 invested in performance arts activities.
“We’ve helped a lot of people over the years and I get loads of lovely comments about it being a safe space,” he added.
Speaking on the formation of the group, Simon explained that in the summer prior to setting up Building Bridges, he visited Australia with a friend from Lurgan who introduced him to two young men who felt the need to leave Lurgan after being continually caught up in anti-social activity.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity for kids and young people to get involved in paramilitary activity. So it’s trying to pull them out of those areas and get them into something more,” he said.
“The idea was to be very cross-community focused and to provide a safe space for kids that feel like they don’t have opportunities anywhere else. It’s about making the arts accessible for everybody.”
Since the pandemic, the group has grown exponentially, with the number of children performing in this year’s junior musical doubling to 60.
The group has also enjoyed increased box office performance, with over 2,000 tickets and six sold-out shows for the local panto, three sold-out performances of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ with over 1,400 tickets sold, and four performances of ‘Matilda Jr’ with over 500 tickets sold.
Said Simon: “We did a summer concert at the beginning of September with just over 80 people on stage. It was a real celebration of everything we’ve achieved.”
Last year, Building Bridges moved to a new premises at Carnegie Street and carried out a number 0f new refurbishments, including new disabled toilets and storage facilities.
Speaking on the awards ceremony, Simon said: “We were up against four other people for ‘Arts Personality of the Year’ and it was like being at the Oscars. It was so lovely and so exciting.
“Our members and parents and attendees see all the work that goes into it so it was really nice that it was recognised.”