Class act

 

DRAMA SCHOOL:A new drama school in Trinity College, established by one of the Tony Ryan dynasty, is getting ready for curtain-up writes SARA KEATING

DANIELLE RYAN SITS poised and pretty in the bar of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. Despite being demurely camel-clad, with her long dark hair and enormous eyes, she is striking from a distance.

As one of the youngest members of the Ryan dynasty, she is slightly guarded, wary even, of talking about her family, but she is pleasant and professional and deeply passionate about the ambitious project she is here to promote: the new National Academy of Dramatic Art, The Lir, which will open at Trinity College in the autumn of 2011. The school will be run in association with the Royal Academy of Arts (Rada) in the UK, with generous financial support from the Cathal Ryan Trust, established after the death of her father, pilot, philanthropist and son of entrepreneur Tony Ryan.

The Lir is a project close to Danielle Ryan’s own heart. She was bitten by the theatre bug when she was young, encouraged by an artistic grand-uncle with whom she started putting on plays in an old barn on her family’s estate in Celbridge, Co Kildare. “He noticed that the building had great acoustics,” she says, “so we sort of did up the barn.”

It ended up being transformed into a 90-seater theatre. “At first there were just plastic chairs and no stage, but over the years we put in red velvet seats and curtains – the lot. And we call it the Old Barn Playhouse. It is very intimate: from the first row of seats you can put your feet on the stage.”

Since the first performance there (a production of Juno and the Paycock, when Ryan was 13) the Ryans put on a show at the Old Barn Playhouse almost every year. She directed a production of Art by Yasmin Reza and it is one of her favourite memories. “We get local actors, family – whoever’s around – and we usually try to find a professional director and then invite people to come to see it. We do 14 or 15 performances back-to-back. It is all black-tie, and the money we raise from the tickets goes to charity. We have raised around €1.5 million over the years,” she says, with considerable pride.

But the art of it also holds great memories for Ryan. The troupe would often tour the amateur drama circuit afterwards, visiting small towns, church halls, occasionally winning a prize at the annual amateur drama festival. “I suppose my parents were relieved, as it took up all of my social life when I was a teenager.”

Having spent her teenage years treading the boards, Ryan was determined to go to drama school, and, after a year studying anthropology at Maynooth – “which I loved” – she was accepted on to the prestigious conservatory programme at Rada in London. “It was amazing and intense: two years training and a year-long showcase. I loved it. But every time I would come home, we would sit around the dinner table and say how it was a pity that I couldn’t do something like that here. And so that is what we are trying to do with The Lir.”

Ryan called upon her former lecturers at Rada when she first had the idea that, with her late father’s trust, she might spearhead a Rada-style training centre in Ireland.

Rada will remain involved in The Lir for five years as international advisers in course design, student and staff selection. In addition, she says the advice and expertise of the professional theatre sector in Ireland has also been vital in shaping The Lir.

“The training programme at Trinity was winding down when I first approached them,” she explains. “But there was a really positive energy among people about the need to find a new way to provide training at the highest level.” The Lir will provide a three-year acting programme along the Rada model, a technical degree programme, as well as MFAs in playwriting, directing and design – the first theatre MFAs in Irish universities.

Trinity supplied a building in Grand Canal Dock and the Cathal Ryan Trust is supporting its major refurbishment into a theatre for The Lir, to include a flexible black box studio, as well as two further performance studios, a dance studio, technical workshop and a range of flexible teaching spaces.

Aside from the financial contribution, Ryan remains involved in all aspects of the lead-in to The Lir’s opening, not least in the national roadshow tour that she will undertake in the coming weeks to promote the venture and answer questions about admissions, which will be “talent-based, audition-based”, and which will operate outside of the CAO system. “It is not that the Leaving Cert is irrelevant,” she says, “but it is not the most important qualification for what we hope to achieve.”

Having been through auditions herself (she performed excerpts from plays by John Webster, Oscar Wilde and Brian Friel for her Rada try-outs) Ryan will be a practical, as well as glamorous, presence. However, between organising the development of The Lir and raising her 18-month-old baby, she does not have time for acting at the moment. Even so, she does hope to put something on at the Old Barn Playhouse this Christmas. “Maybe something a little bit risky, something a little dark,” she says, with a glint in her eye. “The people who buy tickets for our shows might not go to the theatre that often, but we like to surprise them, sometimes, to show them all the many things that theatre can do.”

The Lir Roadshow will visit: Druid Lane Theatre, Galway, November 6th, 2pm-6pm; Cork Arts Theatre, November 13th, 2pm-6pm; Brian Friel Theatre, Queen’s University, Belfast, November 27th, 2pm-6pm; Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, December 4th, 1st-5th. See lir.ie.