A typical day for an acting student at The Lir, the National Academy of Dramatic Art, begins not with a class, but a “call” for a class, usually at 8.50am. The call is a convention of the stage, the countdown to show time, and it’s one of the distinguishing marks that lets a visitor know you are not on campus any more.
In fact, you are in a purpose-built facility on the edge of Trinity College Dublin, a gift from Trinity's partner in the development of the academy, the Cathal Ryan trust.
The Lir, now in its fourth year – the first of its students graduated this year – was created to reach farther than ordinary university-based training. When Trinity’s former acting degree was discontinued in 2007, prompting a professional outcry, a high-profile forum of academics and industry professionals later recommended the establishment of a conservatory for all dramatic arts. The immensely ambitious plan came together with surprising speed when Trinity and the Cathal Ryan trust formed an association with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, intent on creating a space where students and the industry would meet.
It was imagined as a theatre company, its academic director (and one of its principal architects) Prof Brian Singleton told me a few years ago, "like a mini-National Theatre". So, a senior industry figure – Loughlin Deegan, previously of Dublin Theatre Festival – was appointed to be its first artistic director. Has it worked?
On any reading, the first fruits of the Lir have been enormously impressive. For instance, shortly after graduation three students appeared in the Lyric Theatre's incendiary production of Punk Rock, directed by Selina Cartmell, a display of inordinate skills from characterisation to physicality, psychology to unerring dialect.
Most graduates immediately found agents, in Ireland and the UK, and have since appeared in several productions by professional companies, including Anú, Druid and the Abbey. The first graduates of the Lir’s two-year diploma in stage management and technical theatre, meanwhile, were absorbed into the industry even faster.
Now that the Lir is up and running, producing 16 new acting graduates a year, almost as many stage managers, and several playwrights, directors and designers through its MFA programmes, can a relatively small industry continue to absorb them?
“You could argue that we’re enjoying a wonderfully extended honeymoon period,” says Loughlin Deegan, in an office so large and sparse it feels almost like a design oversight. “It’s very much part of the training that they consider themselves to be creative beings and not passive talent.”
Classes led by artists, managers and producers teach students about setting up their own companies, developing work, applying for grants and festival slots. There is no class on waiting for the phone to ring.
The feeding frenzy of casting directors and agents that greeted the first graduates may eventually cause a problem, though, as their books fill up fast. With most acting students in their twenties, there are only so many parts and opportunities in the bigger theatres to go around. Punk Rock, which had an exclusively young cast, is an exception rather than the rule.
“The answer isn’t simple,” agrees Deegan, although Lir students are already primed to consider opportunities overseas: they perform industry showcases in Dublin and at Rada in London, and there are plans to showcase both academies’ graduates together in New York.
“We are genuinely motivated by making the Lir one of the best drama academies in the world.”
Can professionalism be taught? One visiting speaker, actor John Hurt, was asked to define the quality. “Professionalism isn’t about turning up on time and knowing your lines,” he said. “It’s being able to do it when you don’t want to, when you don’t think you can, and when you don’t think it’s worth it.”
The word is used countless times a day among the various classrooms, studios, workshops and performance spaces in the Lir building, although the students are forbidden from working professionally throughout their training.
“There’s a whole complex pedagogical reasoning behind that,” says Deegan, “which is about creating a kind of bubble of trust: a space where students can take risks, and fail in a trusting environment.”
And yet Lir students are always on display. Their headshots and resumés are posted on the academy’s website, like a proto-agency. An environment of teaching staff and visiting lecturers from the industry means that their education can resemble an extended audition.
In third year, the graduating class stage eight productions back to back (and make two short films), which are available to the public.
“You are the artistic director of a very well resourced theatre company that is producing at a level that many companies in Ireland can no longer produce at,” says Deegan.
Ideal theatre model
An unanticipated outcome is that the industry is learning from the Lir. With its two stages, full-time acting ensemble, large technical team, construction capacity and brisk programme, it functions like an ideal theatre model. It is subsidised (undergraduate degrees qualify for fee remission), but it is independent and has developed a strong fundraising and commercial arm. More to the point, it’s a stimulating environment for professionals.
The director Wayne Jordan recently pulled off a stunning revival of Conall Morrison's legendary Tarry Flynn; Stephen Sondheim fans petitioned Deegan to work with students on last year's musical, Into the Woods; and the most recent production, Troilus and Cressida, directed by Nona Sheppard, pits an all-female cast of Trojans against an all-male cast of Greeks.
The director of Rada, Edward Kemp, told Deegan that drama schools are not about following the industry, but leading it. "It is the students who will rejuvenate the industry, generate exciting work and develop audiences and re-establish a thriving theatre scene here. They're aware of that graduating."
So where will the school stand in 10 years' time? In 20? One early product of the Lir was a coffee-table book, a photo essay by JP Keating, called The Lir Is Forever, whose title may have seemed a little presumptuous. (Its predecessor, Trinity's BAS course, lasted just 10 years.) But the Lir has solid foundations, carefully laid, properly resourced and widely supported. The conviction is real.
“We will have failed if the Lir is not forever,” says Deegan. “It’s about becoming one of the great national cultural institutions that will hopefully be here in 300 years time.”
PRONUNCIATION ISSUES: FINDING A REFERENCE ACCENT
When Loughlin Deegan was first appointed artistic director of the Lir, one of the first messages he received came from the broadcaster and voiceover artist Doireann Ní Bhriain. It was a message of congratulations, but also a heartfelt plea that he pronounce the new academy’s name correctly. Lir, as in the Children of Lir, has a short “i” sound, she explained; rhyming more with “her” than “hear”. It was, Deegan recalls, “probably the best advice I’m going to be given starting this job”.
Recently, he was coaching a new student intake in its pronunciation before radio interviews “to the extent that they got completely tongue-tied”. Articulation is important but it has political implications at the Lir. While devising the Lir’s teaching framework, Deegan consulted with his Rada counterparts about that school’s legendary default dialect, received pronunciation (RP).
“Of course, darling, you mean ‘Ah Pea’,” they corrected him. “No, I don’t,” he said. “We pronounce our Rs differently. That’s the point.”
Instead, Gavin O'Donoghue and Cathal Quinn, the Lir's new voice instructors, began to develop a new "reference accent" for the academy students, a standard Irish dialect from which they could develop all other accents. Like the imperial shivers of RP, this could be a political minefield. The standard voice, they decided, needed to be middle-class, leaning towards the east coast, but not centred on Dublin. Eventually, it hit Deegan: "We're talking about Doireann Ní Bhriain, aren't we?" The pronunciation of the Lir was settled.