The Little Theatre was founded in 1936. It was the brainchild of Capt Michael Cosgrove of the Army Signal Corps who placed an ad in the local paper for interested parties to meet at the Bon-Bon restaurant. It was well attended and as Michael was the only member at the time with experience of acting and production of plays, he was unanimously elected producer of the newly formed society. At that time there was no hall suitable in Athlone for the presentation of plays – the Father Matthew Hall was used exclusively as a cinema. Eventually the society was allowed to rehearse in what is now sometimes referred to as “Little” St Mary’s Hall, situated at St Mary’s Place.
The play chosen for the first production was the comedy “The New Gossoon” by George Shields. The gymnasium in the army barracks was the venue for this historic moment. A temporary stage was built of planks and beer barrels; curtains, scenery, lighting etc. had to be borrowed or made. The actors made up by bicycle lamps and torches under the stage. As a curtain raiser the group performed “The Bishop’s Candlesticks”, a one act play devised from an incident in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” and which contains the character of Jean Valjean. The plays were performed for two nights to packed houses and a profit of £28 was made. The entire sum was donated to the building fund for the new St Mary’s Hall which meant the society was stony broke again. Incidentally, the society called itself “The Athlone Players” at that time. Some few years later it adopted the title “Little Theatre Group”.
As was the nature of army life in those times, Michael Cosgrove moved on and out of Athlone. His place as producer was taken by the ever-present Aileen Coughlan. Aileen directed her first play “The Late Christopher Bean” in 1939. In 1984, 73 plays later, she directed her last play “The Prisoner”. In between times the group were homeless, rehearsing in any space they could find until finally, exasperated with the rising cost of rehearsal space, they leased the very building they had first rehearsed in – “Little” St Mary’s Hall. The members set to and with the help of donations from the people of Athlone, transformed the once boy’s school into a functioning theatre.
Then in February 1965 the great day came with the performance of “The Return Room”, especially written and directed for the occasion by none other than Aileen herself.
The Little Theatre Group had finally arrived at it’s permanent home.