User Menu

Amy Huberman: School plays gave me confidence to be actor

Ifta-winning actor is judging the Bord Gáis Energy Student Theatre Awards for a third time

Amy Huberman with students from Coláiste Pobail Setanta in Clonsilla who are performing the musical Hairspray. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

‘For my first play I wore a horrible, green, 1980s towel with a tinfoil crown,” says Amy Huberman. “I remember feeling like I just was not happy with this role.”

The Ifta-winning actor’s disappointment at her bit-part as a king in her primary school nativity play was worsened by her brother’s overexcitement at seeing his big sister on stage. “That’s my sister!” he yelled as she came on to say her only line in the play, causing her to make a hames of it.

Huberman is being taken back to her school days by judging the country’s up-and-coming theatre talent for a third time at the Bord Gáis Energy Student Theatre Awards. She is delighted to be involved again, even if she was “silently sobbing in the audience” during last year’s awards, overcome with emotion at the enthusiasm and effort put in by the performers and hoping the house lights would not come up until she had had a chance to fix her make-up.

There are two sets of awards – one open to primary school students from third to sixth class and a second open to all secondary school students – with 12 categories.

Huberman got involved in drama all through her schooling, having managed to get over her less than starry debut in the nativity. She has always stuck to non-singing parts, however, assuring me that she is “not musical”.

But that is one of the great things about doing drama at school. “It’s such a positive thing to help people express themselves in a school environment outside the regular class stuff,” she says. “It’s trying to perform in a safe environment. You know that it’s trial and error, and that’s okay. You find out what you’re good at.”

At UCD Huberman studied social studies, but went on to pursue a career on screen and behind it, after feeling the lure of the drama society. She says taking part in productions at school gave her the courage to do that.

“I guess if I hadn’t had that base level, then I mightn’t have had the confidence to go into DramSoc in UCD,” she says. “It’s the fear of the unknown with all of those things, so if you’ve got some reference point for it, it’s always a little bit easier.”

A musical Morticia

More than 1,000 schools from across the country have taken their productions to compete at the awards since they began in 2013. At the ceremony last May, transition year students from Malahide Community School in Dublin took home one of the big prizes, when they scooped the Best Overall Musical award for their production of The Addams Family.

Seventeen-year-old Ciara McKenna who played the role of Morticia Addams, says it was an “unreal experience” that has made her even more passionate about acting. She says the excitement of being declared winners at the awards ceremony, while sitting with her friends in the gods of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, was amazing.

“When we won it, we all just jumped up out of our seats. I was scared for my life that we were going to fall over the edge of the balcony,” she says. “The excitement was just too real. It was so good.”

Fellow Malahide Community School student Tara Coleman (13) impressed the judges with her short scene script about “a girl and a nun in conversation about life”, winning the top prize in a category that would have seen her competing with pupils up to sixth year.

The win has spurred her on in her ambitions, but do not expect to see her name this time round. “I’m not entering again this year,” she says, “because I don’t want there to be an expectation for a certain style of writing. If I ever, in the future, became an author, I’d probably change the name on each book so people don’t expect it to be about something in particular.”

Martha McNamara is a music teacher at Malahide Community School and she is planning to give the competition a go again with this year’s transition year pupils. They are working on a production of Back to the 80s, and will be hoping they can make it two in a row for the school.

McNamara says one of the great things about the competition is that it makes the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre accessible to schools. She says, while it is “no big deal” for a lot of Dublin students to go there, for many of those coming from schools outside the city it is a new experience.

“Something like this just opens up a different world that they don’t always know about or they don’t always get the opportunity to see,” she says. “It’s so expensive, but at least if they’re there once for something like this, they’ll come back, which is great for the theatre, too.”

McNamara says it was important to see schools from outside Dublin competing at the awards last year, and while they do not necessarily want any more competition this time round, she would love to see that diversity improved upon with more country schools taking part in 2017.

Huberman is animated on this topic, too. She says it is important that people feel represented by theatre, as well as film and television, and that different voices are heard on the stage and the screen.

“You need to have credible stories,” she says. “You have to have credible voices coming from people’s different experiences in life, coming from different backgrounds.”

Huberman’s work on RTÉ’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope last year is an example of that. The TV show was praised for its accurate representation of young women from rural Ireland living in Dublin and was written by Stefanie Preissner, a young woman from Cork. It was also directed and produced by young women.

Huberman says it was “brilliant”, but what she wants is for this to be seen as nothing extraordinary.

“In the beginning you’re thinking, It’s great that it’s so female-heavy,” she says. “Now what I think should be the case is that you forget about it, because it should just be the norm. It shouldn’t be a thing that is standing out every day.”

Huberman is back on our small screens as a solicitor in RTÉ’s new legal drama, Striking Out, marking a break from her usual comic roles.

That too has a female-heavy crew: it is directed by Lisa James Larsson and produced by Katie Holly’s Blinder Films. Huberman says it feels like there is a shift happening, but when you’re in it, “it just becomes your working environment”.

For now, she is looking forward to getting stuck into judging entries to the Student Theatre Awards ahead of the final in May 2017.

The deadline for entries to production categories of the Bord Gáis Energy Student Theatre Awards is January 27th, and the closing date for entries to the written categories is February 10th. Shortlisted schools will be invited to a ceremony at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on May 17th and will also be in with a chance to perform on stage.