The Lir Casts Northward With Belfast Audition Workshop

The prestigious Dublin-based acting school sets up shop in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on January 11

Time was when aspiring young actors from Northern Ireland had little alternative but to pack their bags and head across the water to London to complete their professional training. But since 2011, however, a new possibility for training and progression has opened up a little closer to home.

On January 11, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast will be the gathering place for those in search of an affordable, accessible route into this notoriously precarious and elusive industry, when The Lir – the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Dublin – will be holding an audition workshop at the theatre.

David Horan, one of its core acting teachers, will guide participants through preparations for auditions, helping them to choose suitable monologues and then develop the characterisations that may smooth them into the next stage of the highly competitive selection process.

'Dedicated students who want to study acting will know about us already but we want to get ensure that anyone with an interest in acting, stage management, playwriting, stage design and theatre directing is aware of all of the courses we have available at The Lir’ explains Seána Skeffington, marketing manager at The Lir.

'This year will be our first year of having graduating actors – three out of the 16 – from the North. We have agents, directors and producers coming along to see these actors perform in their productions this year and so far the comments have been astounding. People are really waiting with baited breath to see what happens to these students next.'

 

Previously, when it came to taking up a place at one of the UK's top drama schools, natural talent tended to be overshadowed by money – a fortunate few students were supported by their parents, a small number were successful in obtaining scholarships and bursaries to help with expenses, while the vast majority bit the bullet and took out substantial loans to fund hefty tuition fees and subsistence.

As a consequence, many talented, dedicated graduates emerged, deep in debt and with little prospect of well paid work in the offing. Down the years, it is a situation that has been widely lamented and discussed. But midway through 2010, word went out that an exciting new initiative, combining professional theatre training with academic qualifications, was to be announced at the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen's University.

There, eager, fresh-faced sixth formers, drama students and members of youth drama groups were addressed by a glamorous young woman from Dublin, who not only understood their dilemma but was on the point of doing something about it.

Danielle Ryan's family is more often associated with planes than with theatre. Her grandfather, Tony Ryan, founded Ryanair, and her late father Cathal was a working pilot and heir to the business. But, as Ryan vividly described on that afternoon in Queen's, her family was also passionate about literature and the performing arts.

Ryan had trained as an actress at RADA, but, as she readily conceded, she had been blessed with the means to live comfortably in London while studying at one of the world's top conservatoires. 'I realise that I was one of the privileged few,' she said. 'For most young actors, it was, and still is, a real struggle.'

There is an unexpected parallel between Ryan's introduction to theatre and the Lyric's own early days. Ryan's family converted an old barn at the back of their house into a theatre, where they put on plays for the local community and to raise money for charities. And, of course, it was in the garden of the O'Malley family home in Belfast's Derryvolgie Avenue that the Lyric Theatre had its first beginnings.

Ryan recalls that when Trinity College, Dublin cut its performing arts degree course, she and her father sat at their kitchen table and talked about about what could be done to fill the gap. After three years of conversations, consultations and dinners with influential players like Pearce Brosnan, Colm Meaney and Daniel Day-Lewis, their plans came to fruition.

In September 2011, the first intake of students entered The Lir, an institution developed by the imaginative partnership of the Cathal Ryan Trust and Trinity College Dublin, in association with RADA. Since then, connections with Northern Ireland have developed along with the school itself.

Skeffington, for example, comes from Coalisland. Until a year ago, she was in charge of marketing the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, and prior to that was marketing manager at Queen's Students' Union. She is keen to see The Lir welcoming a wider representation of students from right across Ireland.

'Coming from Tyrone, I have a personal aspiration to attract more people here from the North,' she says from her office in Dublin. 'This is an outstanding facility, a centre of excellence open to everybody. The connections with Trinity and RADA give it a double-edged seal of approval at the highest academic and artistic levels. It is the only place of its kind in the country.

'Our reputation is growing fast. We have amazing teachers and visiting tutors, and we are so fortunate in having as our director Loughlin Deegan, the former director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, who has worked across many areas of theatre and knows the business inside out. And now we're casting our net even further afield.'

 

Deegan was one of the speakers at the Northern Ireland Theatre Association conference the UK City of Culture 2013 in Derry~Londonderry. The theme of the event was Change. There, Deegan praised the seismic cultural and social changes taking place in Derry and spoke eloquently about his belief that the current generation of theatre-makers is the most talented and enterprising the country has produced in half a century.

'The Lir is all about talent,' continues Skeffington. 'We have some extremely gifted people coming through our doors. Classes are small so to be awarded a place is quite an achievement. All our students are asked to meet the matriculation set out by Trinity College, but we do stress that entry onto our courses is based on talent rather than exam results.

'You don't have to be privileged or rich to come here. We can find ways around financial obstacles for people who are talented but can't afford the fees. There are various sponsorships and bursaries available to help them out, and the majority of undergraduate students have their fees paid by the Irish government, as long as it is the first time he or she has studied at undergraduate level and is an EU resident.

'The Lir came about because of a need. The theatre industry is growing day by day, so why should our young people have to go to England, or Scotland or Wales, to study? Our students are selected on the basis of raw talent, on what the panel members see in them during the audition process. That's where a workshop like the one coming up at the Lyric can be so useful.'

Based in a modern, specially adapted building on Grand Canal Quay, The Lir already offers a wide-ranging list of undergraduate, post-graduate and short courses, including a three-year BA in acting and a Professional Diploma in stage management and technical theatre. There are also Master's courses in theatre directing, stage design and playwriting. But, says Skeffington, the organisation is very flexible and open to suggestions for expanding its portfolio.

'We have had lots of requests to run a course in musical theatre. We'll be offering a short course over the summer with a real possibility of expanding it into something bigger. We are next door to the Bord Gáis Theatre and we see people going in and out in their thousands to see musicals. People just love them. We've also had enquiries about a Master's degree in acting, so that's something else that may happen in the future.'

Among the current 92-strong student community are participants from France, Norway, England, the United States and Canada, as well as from right across Ireland. The first graduations will take place in a few months time, and on the list of final year students on the acting degree course are three young people from Northern Ireland: Rhys Dunlop from Belfast, Corrin Thomas from Newry and Hannah Carnegie, daughter of Belfast actress Roma Tomelty and director Colin Carnegie.

They confirm that The Lir approach is very hands-on and that there is little breathing space before they are pitched into the reality of working in theatre. Over the past months, students have been involved in productions with a strong focus on female roles and on the work of writers and directiors from Northern Ireland.

First up was Belfast writer Owen McCafferty's Scenes from the Big Picture, followed by Bold Girls, a play about four Belfast girls by London-based Scottish writer Rona Munro. Then came Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller's classic dramatic confrontation between two iconic figures, Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. It was directed by Armagh man Conall Morrison, one of the most highly respected directors currently working in these islands.

Skeffington beams with pride when mentioning these connections with Northern Ireland, and she awaits the workshop at the Lyric with great expectations. 'We are hoping for a really good turnout. Everybody who applies will get an audition. This workshop is intended to help people through what can be a daunting experience and give them a sense of what lies ahead.

Further information on the audition workshop at the Lyric Theatre, visit The Lir website.