PERFORM: A riot of talent and knowledge for the world stage

The inaugural festival of arts offers workshops for singers, dancers and musicians

Former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt: Don’t cha just wish you could dance like her?

Former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt: Don’t cha just wish you could dance like her?

 

When pianist and composer Cian McCarthy was studying at the Cork School of Music in the early 2000s, the only third-level opportunity for professional training was “focused on the classical music side of things”. McCarthy – who, at 23, made history as the youngest conductor to appear on Broadway – was interested in jazz and contemporary music, so he had to look abroad for opportunities, moving first to Boston to continue his music studies at Berklee College, and eventually to New York, where he was music director for The Book of Mormon, and played keyboard for the world premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score for Hamilton.

McCarthy’s is a common trajectory pursued by Irish artists who seek a career in musical theatre and commercial entertainment. They get bitten by the entertainment bug as children in stage and music schools, use the increasingly impressive amateur drama scene to hone their skills, and leave for England or America to pursue their dreams, where they end up, if they are lucky, working the touring circuit as professional musicians, dancers or actors.

Working in the industry, sinking or swimming; it is a crash course that’s impossible to replicate in a college environment

As McCarthy acknowledges, a variety of schools and colleges in Ireland now offer third-level training opportunities for those interested in pursuing contemporary music and musical theatre, including his former alma mater. BIIM Institute Dublin offer qualifications in guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and songwriting, as well as various business strands. Dundalk Institute of Technology has a Diploma in Composing for Games, the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory has a BA in Commercial Modern Music, and the Lir Academy holds a short, intensive musical theatre course, designed to fine-tune performance skills and prepare performers for auditions.

However, for McCarthy, the real advantage his training in America offered him was “the opportunity to study in environments that are international hubs for the performing arts. It wasn’t just about the teachers – although I’ve had great ones – it was about the ability to network and hustle within those vibrant communities. Connections and relationships I made at or through Berklee directly led to opportunities that were the spark of my current career. There is no substitute, in my opinion, for the training that comes from just doing it. Working in the industry, sinking or swimming; it is a crash course that’s impossible to replicate in a college environment.”

Networking and mentorship

McCarthy is just one of more than 100 professionals lined up to lead workshops at PERFORM, a three-day performing arts festival being held at the RDS, which has been conceived with the ambition of providing the networking and mentorship opportunities that are often lacking in the commercial arts landscape in Ireland. The event has been organised by Alva and Paul O’Loughlin Kennedy, who have been involved in the amateur drama and stage school circuit for years, as performers, producers, teachers and parents. The inaugural event features 170 workshops and 160 performances from international vocal coaches, Broadway stars and Irish performing arts groups, across five large stages. It also gives individual performers the chance to audition for various international colleges and entertainment groups who are visiting for the event, while amateurs can have a go at Big Sing karaoke events.

PERFORM’s inter-disciplinary programme is deliberately diffuse, as Alva explains. “You hear people talking about the ‘triple threat’ for entertainers, and particularly when it comes to musical theatre: you need to be able to sing, act and dance in the industry these days. So we want to bring together all the performing disciplines under one roof. Let people who are really skilled in one kind of dance – Irish dancing or hip-hop or freestyle disco – get a chance to see the talents that other people have and maybe give it a go, enhance their own skillset. There can be a snobbery around [the commercial entertainment arts] compared to classical ballet, say, but all these dancers, actors, musicians are also training four or five times a week. They have the same discipline as all artists do.”

Ireland has a thriving hub of talent but the opportunities – the training, auditions, the networking opportunities – are all abroad

Alva, a singer as well as a teacher, grew up in Hong Kong, attending an international school that had its own theatre (as well as its own zoo). She recorded her first album there when she was 10, before returning to Ireland in her teens. When she finished school, she took a degree in marketing. “If you are looking to pursue a career in [this aspect] of the arts business, you have to go to London or the States,” she says. She stayed in Ireland, teaching voice and drama, supporting Irish popular artists such as Westlife and Sinead O’Connor, and continuing to develop her own vocal talent: she recorded and toured a gospel album in 2009.

“Ireland has a thriving hub of talent but the opportunities – the training, auditions, the networking opportunities – are all abroad. We wanted to invite people to come see the quality of the performers here, and to provide people who work here with the opportunity to connect with each other.”

Representative organisation

There are more than 2000 stage schools in Ireland, Alva explains, “and that’s not including performing arts groups or music schools. However, there is no representative organisation for providing support or opportunity or legislation. I think people used to be afraid, maybe, of sharing resources or information in case the competition stole your ideas or poached your kids, but that isn’t really true anymore, and I think a big event like this will help to draw people in the industry together, and show them what they can learn from each other.”  

Dancer Cian Hughes echoes this sentiment for co-operative thinking. Hughes, who developed his love of performing at Spotlight Stage School, started his formal training with the College of Dance in Dublin. “It was a stepping-stone, where they helped to build the foundation of my technique so that I could audition for schools and colleges in the UK,” he says. It was London that “offered me the opportunity to receive my professional training and to develop the skills to work in the professional world”. Since graduating from London’s Central School of Ballet, Hughes has returned home to dance leading roles with Ballet Ireland, and toured internationally as one of the feline ensemble members in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.

PERFORM is a huge step in the right direction for the evolution of the arts in Ireland

Like McCarthy, Hughes also acknowledges that “the training scene [in Ireland] is growing enormously. For dance, there are now opportunities for students to study academically as well as dance full-time, and there are more workshops and masterclasses happening by industry professionals.” However, he insists “we need even more opportunities for professional development”, and the best way to do this is to share knowledge and resources.

“It’s not political. It’s not a competition, and schools, companies and theatres will only move forward by supporting one another.” A festival such as PERFORM, he says, is “a huge step in the right direction for the evolution of the arts in Ireland, an opportunity for people from all across the performing arts scene in Ireland to come together to learn and grow and to have fun with some of the top industry professionals from around the world”.

McCarthy, who will lead a workshop based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, for which he was musical director, agrees. There is nothing like the “vibrant, buzzing environment that is created when that many people [who are] passionate gather in one place. The more that commercial theatrical productions and other arts endeavours are being invested in and created in Ireland, the more professional training there will be for performers and entertainers.” This will give “even more incentive for Irish professionals working abroad to come home”.

For performers like McCarthy and Hughes, the future may one day be here. 

PERFORM runs at the RDS from February 15th-17th www.performireland.ie

PERFORM Highlights

Latin with Emily and Curtis
Dancing with the Stars TV stars Curtis Pritchard and Emily Barker share their tips for creating professional polish across Latin numbers, from cha-cha-cha to samba.

Kimberly Wyatt
The former Pussycat Doll will lead a workshop based on her own dance regime, Bring Your Heels, which draws on the disciplines of ballet, yoga and calisthenics and the fashion statement of stilettos to promote strength, flexibility, and grace.

David Stroud
LA-based vocal coach David Stroud, who has worked with Justin Bieber, Kelly Clarkson and Michael Jackson, among others, gives a masterclass in the fundamentals of voice technique.

Nikki Snelson
The Broadway star, who originated the stage role of Elle Woods, leads a workshop based on Legally Blonde: The Musical

Adam Garcia
The Australian West End star and Got to Dance judge will lead a tap workshop for dancers.

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