Culturally speaking, it doesn't get much bigger. With the creative great and good in attendance, Lyric Theatre executive producer Jimmy Fay reveals that the theatre has gained £15,000 private sponsorship for its annual writing residency and that the writer in residence for 2014-15 will be Owen McCafferty.
It is certainly good news in an era of arts cutbacks: 'We are hugely honoured to have him join the theatre for this coming year,' Fay beams. 'Given the recent news of cuts to the arts budgets, this is a rare good news story. It is one of the best paid residencies in the UK. Owen is one of our finest playwrights whose award-winning drama Quietly I had the honour to direct.'
McCafferty's back catalogue is impressive and includes the dramas Shoot the Crow, Scenes from the Big Picture – which won no fewer than three awards when it was produced at the National Theatre in 2003 – and most recently for the Lyric Theatre, The Absence of Women.
At the unveiling, a series of McCafferty's most famous scenes are performed, illustrating his range and emotional precision. Actor Patrick O'Kane gives a storming solo performance in an excerpt from Shoot The Crow, and pays tribute to the dramatist he has so often worked with. 'What do you say about your friend, colleague, mentor and tormentor?' muses O'Kane.
'The Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner has said he's not a flashy writer and not particularly fashionable, but that's because Owen is on a quest for purity. He demands it of you and of himself. He is truthful, not in terms of social realism and street dialogue but in terms of imaginative truth. There's an urban poetry in his work and we should cherish it.'
Talking after the short performances, McCafferty claims that he is pleased and honoured to be given the Lyric residency. 'It's a good place to be at the moment and I genuinely feel it's on the cusp something brilliant. In fact, I'm glad this didn't happen to me before. I'm not sure I'd have taken it then.'
Asked if the environment in which he writes has an influence on his work, McCafferty segues into an anecdote: 'After my first play was out, I was put forward, as everybody is at the start, for the Stewart Parker Award.
'You're sent to a writers' retreat in Monaghan, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, which is beside a lake in the most beautiful of settings. You're taken away there for a week and there is scenery and sunshine but I realised in the middle I couldn't do any writing there.
'I needed to be in the city to write. You didn't have to be in any particular part, but you need the motion, to be aware of people, of being in the things they do day to day. It's what writing is about, especially for playwrights. It's the language, a very human thing. After all, you're not writing about buildings.'
Earlier, McCafferty joked that there were rumours he might be occupying a cupboard in the beautiful building by the Lagan. On a more serious note regarding if process, he says he will be moving in his laptop, although he always writes the first draft of new works longhand. 'The second draft happens when I transfer the play to my laptop, the third in rehearsal, although not much is usually changed.'
In terms of arts residencies, they can buy artists time, free from what O'Kane dubs 'financial doom', and allow young writers and theatre practitioners already in situ to benefit from the expert's experience via workshops and other encounters, however brief.
McCafferty doesn't yet know what work he will be producing with Fay at the Lyric, but in February 2015 his newest play, Death of A Comedian, will be staged at the Lyric as part of the Northern Soul season from Feburary 8 to March 8. The brief performances by Roisin Gallagher, Will Irvine, Paul Mallon and Judith Roddy certainly whet our appetite for what is to come.
From the beautiful dramatic monologue from Days of Wine and Roses – in which a young girl muses on what it's like to be other people, a question McCafferty's plays often answer – to the poignant slice of marital life from Scenes from The Big Picture and the sparky exchanges from Mojo MickyBo, it's clear we will be moved, questioned, if necessary discomfited.
Making a living from theatre isn't easy and McCafferty muses on the importance of timing. 'To make a living out of this, you have to have your work performed further afield. In the past, the Lyric didn't do this. You'd write a play and have it on for three weeks, but you need a wider audience. It isn't just an ego thing. Work changes on a grand scale.
'Now is potentially a golden age here with Jimmy at the helm. Belfast is really on to something. We're getting closer to the edge with companies like Prime Cut and places like The MAC also doing good work. It's not to do with any style but we're moving away from the notion of writing about ourselves all the time, and that includes work on the Troubles. And we're moving away from the idea we're the centre of the universe.'
Glancing out of the Lyric Theatre café towards the river and Stranmills Embankment, McCafferty reflects: 'You can work just watching cars. It has to do with the moment.'
Visit the Lyric Theatre website for information on forthcoming events.