The drama queen of Harcourt Street

 

Trade NamesThe Betty Ann Norton School of Acting is still being driven - even after 44 years - by an energetic and passionate woman determined to stay in the business, reports Rose Doyle

Betty Ann Norton is a passionate woman. She fills the high, bright rooms of her theatre school at 11 Harcourt Street with energy, spreads passion generously and infectiously around as she talks about the school's 44-year history, its students and tutors, her own growing-up in Dublin, her brother Jim. In no time at all you're feeling passionate and generous about life yourself.

Anything's possible, life's a doddle and a joy, people are wonderful and Dublin will survive the Luas works if Betty Ann has anything to do with it.

But more of the last anon.

First, with the sun spilling through the windows and Luas works drilling outside, she talks about passion as her not-so-secret ingredient for a happy life. "The secret of life is to know what you want," she says. "I've always known that I wanted to teach voice and acting."

Her own voice is crystal and clear, a tribute to an early training at the Ena Mary Burke School at 20 Kildare Street. She was seven when she went there with her brother, the actor Jim Norton. "Burkey had taught Maureen O'Hara and Milo O'Shea," Betty Ann says, "and later Joe Dowling and Brenda Fricker. She did plays, shows, feiseanna across Ireland."

Her father, Professor Burke, had taught elocution in Maynooth in the 1870s. "I feel I'm in a direct line from all of that!"

She puts aside, briefly, the drama and entertainment of her early life to make a few salient points about life and today's Harcourt Street school. Adamant that the school is "not a one woman show" she explains that she's co-director of the school with husband Michael J Cunneen, that Carol O'Neill is its invaluable administrator as well as a part-time speech and drama tutor, that the school has a dozen tutors altogether (most of them past pupils) and has Sir Michael Gambon as its patron.

"Teaching and performing happens on on all four floors, sometimes in the hall as well," Betty Ann says, "six days a week, sometimes seven. Students come from everywhere, some even from the country on Saturdays. Not all of them want to be actors or public speakers. Many come because they find speaking publicly or socially difficult and want skills and confidence. In recent years we've opened other centres too."

She does a bit of everything herself. "Voice, acting, teacher-training, English literature, improvisation and writing original work for students. We have students doing the theory of speech, film acting and directing, mime, stage acting and diploma training."

Evidence of the school's varied activities is in bookcases stacked with everything from Shakespeare to the Bible, with volumes on Greek drama, costume, make-up, set design and in shelves of novels, plays and poetry. Among photographs on the walls there's a younger, passionately smiling Betty Ann and, hanging in a frame above her, a dreamy, blue-eyed Jim Norton.

"There were only the two of us," she says now, "just Jim and I. We lived off the SCR when we were children. My mother was a housewife; in those days ladies didn't work after marriage. She was a violinist and had an amazing interest in theatre. Our father was a shy man but she was a dramatic lady, an actress manqué I suppose.

"My father Eugene Norton was manager of the Bacon Shops in Grafton Street. He was a meticulous man for whom preparation was all. I remember him getting into his Morris Minor on Stephens' Green and Brendan Behan, passing by in an open shirt, yelling 'hey, Norton, you'll never be as good a man as your son'. Behan had met Jim, who was by then working in the Radio Éireann Rep."

A fine storyteller (as was her paternal grandmother, a Monaghan woman) and with a prodigious memory, Betty Ann is well into her stride by now.

She went as a child to the St Louis Convent in Rathmines, "a small school in those days, in a Georgian building. We used sit around an open fire on settees to be taught."

By the time she was 19 she was studying for a Licentiate teaching (speech and drama) diploma in London's Guildhall. She got 91 per cent in her final exams. "While I was at it I went on to get a diploma from the Royal Academy."

Back in Ireland she travelled the country, in a yellow Ford Anglia bought for her by her father, teaching speech and drama. She remembers classes in Enniscorthy, Wexford, Bunclody, and teaching fishmonger Peter Caviston in Glasthule, Co Dublin. "He was a star pupil. He could have been an actor if he'd chosen to be," she says.

She opened her own school in 1959, at 57 Harcourt Street, a building now gone. "It was quite revolutionary, a woman running her own business. I taught adults as well as children and it never occurred to me that I couldn't do it. I just concentrated on how it could be done. I do the same now. It worked out wonderfully. I was still living at home and my brother was making his way in the Rep."

She met her husband on the Aran islands when, riding a bike, she literally knocked him down. That was in the summer of 1965 and they married in 1967. "He was in display and design but also had a huge theatre background in amateur drama and set design. He came into the business with me and we bought the house in Dún Laoghaire in which we still live. It was and is a beautiful house."

In 1969 the growing school moved to 27 Harcourt Street."We had all of the basement - five rooms with two big studios and a lovely patio out the back. I put two camellias into tubs in the front and they grew and grew and when we left my gardener took them to Dún Laoghaire and they're just splendid, red and crimson and a memento of no 27. We moved here, to Clonbrock House which used be the home of the Dillon family, in 1991."

Her face doesn't darken, exactly, as she begins to talk about Harcourt St and the Luas works. It's more a case of fierce resolve taking over. "I was the drama queen of Harcourt Street until Luas came and tried to knock me off my perch," she says, "but they won't succeed. They'll be out there three years if they go when they say they will, next summer. They've been irresponsible and insensitive.

"When they started there was lots of goodwill for them in Harcourt Street but I don't think there's anyone now who has a good word to say. Our rates alone are almost €10,000 this year. Trying to put on showcase shows for parents and videos in the front rooms is impossible with the level of noise."

Carol O'Neill joins us and is equally adamant. "We've gone out into the street to talk to them," she says. "They say they have to do their work but I told them they were preventing us doing ours." Betty Ann says too that they've had to replace their computers, damaged by the dust from the works.

She is anxious to name and give credit to the work of her tutors. "Vincent Lambe runs our film course. He's a fine director himself and won first prize for his film Broken things in the Cape Cod Film Festival. Our other tutors include Rebecca Bartlett and David Horan of the Abbey."

Harcourt Street remains the working and booking hub of things but expansion means the school now has centres in St Louis High School, Rathmines, York Road Presbyterian Church Hall, Dún Laoghaire, the Dominican College on Griffith Avenue, in David Lloyd, Riverview (members only) and very lately in the Brackenstown Resource Centre, Swords.

Betty Ann Norton is genuinely shocked when asked about her future, about the idea of retirement. "Why on earth would I want to give up something I enjoy so much?" she asks. The question is not rhetorical - this year the school is for the first time offering students the opportunity to do a Guildhall teaching diploma in conjunction with an acting diploma.

Betty Ann Norton believes real talent "always outs". Dervla Kirwan, Barry Lynch, Hugh O'Conor, Emma Donoghue, Eleanor Shanley, Moya Doherty - the list of those who've been through the school is long. "We've a much wider programme now," says Betty Ann, "everything's improved. Standards are higher everywhere."