IRISH IN LONDON:Far from the glamour of the acting limelight is the tough world of theatre school. The Irish contingent at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art tell MARK HENNESSY, London Editor, about 80-hour weeks, living on a shoestring, and why the Irish in many ways have the upper hand in the acting game

KAREN COGAN saw actress Fiona Shaw on television when she was five and immediately knew that the acting life was for her. By 10, she knew that she wanted to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada). Last month, she graduated from there.

“I asked if I could take a class when I was four, or five. I had it in my head somewhere. I didn’t want to do singing, or dancing. I don’t know why. I think I saw Fiona Shaw and I thought, oh, yes, I think I’ll do that,” says Cogan, from Lehenaghbeg, on the outskirts of Cork city.

Studying with a “wonderful” drama teacher, Valerie O’Leary, Cogan did acting examinations and dreamed of Rada: “There was a girl who had gone there and Fiona Shaw had gone and a couple of others, so that made it vaguely attainable.

“I remember first standing up with a brochure for Rada when I was about 10 and the parents said: ‘Well, you do know that you need to wait until you are 18.’ I used to read it every night. I was obsessed with this far-away magical place that people went to.”

However, the path to London had its difficulties and Cogan failed her first audition to get into a college that receives 3,200 applications every year for the 30-odd places available on its three-year acting degree course. “I applied very young, but in spite of all of the preparation, I just wasn’t ready for it. I did an audition when I was 17 where I did Constance from King John: this hugely inappropriate monologue meant for a 50-year-old woman.”

Instead, she went to Trinity College: “I did English and theatre studies, so it made sense but I just had this massive hankering. I loved Trinity and it is a marvellous university, obviously, but I just really wanted to be here. At the end of my second year, I thought, feck it, I’ll try again. I was living with a lovely group of people and they were saying: ‘Look, they either want you, or they don’t, so go in your own clothes and just do your own thing.’ ” This time, Rada said yes.

Rory Fleck-Byrne, from Bagnelstown, Co Carlow, is another whose dreams started early: “I remember putting on Carnival of the Animals and tying on scarves and dancing around the sitting room and singing opera and Fiddler on the Roof; it was always in my blood.” Born in England, his parents, Anne and Chris, who now run the Drakelands nursing home in Kilkenny, returned to Ireland when he was nine, where he “fell into loads of theatre with the Kilkenny Youth Theatre and the Kilkenny Youth Musical Society”.

Unlike Cogan, Fleck-Byrne came to Rada straight after the Leaving Cert, preferring its more vocational approach to the theory-based drama degrees that are available in Ireland, until Trinity College’s new academy for the dramatic arts opens in 2011. “I am not an intellectual. You need to be as open as possible as an actor. You need to be up on your feet doing practical things,” says the 21-year-old.

Fleck-Byrne, like the others in the class, has put in 80-hour weeks to get his degree. Students present their work on Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Chekhov and others to staff and students: “Apparently, they grade us but we never see the grades. That’s very academic and acting isn’t that. You need your mind to be involved, you need to analyse things but you can’t be too bogged down with intellect.” In an unpredictable business, Fleck-Byrne’s first job will be to perform two small parts in a Liverpool production of Antony and Cleopatra which goes into rehearsal in September, starring Sex In The Citystar Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, “which is going to be pretty cool”.

Sarah McColgan, from Magazine Road in Cork city, says she benefited hugely from the drama and theatre course in University College, Cork: “Here, it is more practical. With UCC, it was more academic: studying plays and talking about them. There is a lot of point to that. I am so glad that I went to UCC before I came here. It taught me a lot of things that I didn’t realise at first that I wanted to know.”

The 22-year-old has just finished her first-year technical course in Rada. “[UCC] taught me a very different way of looking at things, studying things. It gave me a lot of actor-theory. Then, I could look at a play not just as a West End musical, or whatever, I could look at what it was about.” McColgan’s passion is lighting, thanks to her time on work-experience in the Everyman Theatre, working on a show by comedian Tommy Tiernan: “That’s where I saw the rig go up and the scenery come in. He had decided that he wanted to make an event of it.

“There are so many different ways that you can use lighting to make things moody, or whatever. I love the colours, the way that you can completely change the way something looks,” says McColgan. “You have the opportunity to make everyone look good: your actors, your set-builders, everyone, because of the way that you light something.”

McColgan did some acting “and I liked it”, before opting for a back-stage role. “Acting was not where I could motivate myself the whole time. Acting is a very tough job, you always need to push yourself forward, and I didn’t have that self-belief in my acting ability to be pushing myself all the time.”

Sinead O’Sullivan, from Kildare town, also went to third-level in Ireland before heading to London, completing a four-year degree in TCD in drama and French before applying for Rada’s diploma in theatre costume, where she graduated last month.

“It’s brilliant here, it’s shockingly hard training: 70 to 90 hours a week. You get completely immersed in the world of Rada. My course is dress-making and tailoring. We are all working together towards something.” Some parents fret when their offspring develop a hankering for a life under lights, though O’Sullivan’s mother, Helen Moloney, did not: “She’s a jockey, so being one of them, she could never tell us to get a stable job. She is very supportive. Am I fazed by the insecurity? Ask me in a year. I would much rather be doing something I like 14 hours a day, rather than doing something that I didn’t like and living for the weekends. My profession is my past-time.

“This is a great environment in which to learn. Everyone is on the same path. That is the most important thing here. You develop a respect for everyone else. The actors are my friends. Everyone has their own goals, but they are really respectful with it,” says the 23-year-old.

Róisín O’Loughlin from Gaurus, outside Ennis, finally decided on an acting career while teaching English in China: “Over there I realised that they didn’t have the option of choosing what they wanted to do, so I thought, why not give it a proper go. It just gave me the courage to do it.”

O’Loughlin did a law degree in Galway before coming to Rada in September 2008. She graduates next year: “It has been the best experience that I could ever have imagined and the teachers are absolutely incredible. They are really interested in the individual. If you want to act, it is the best place in the world to be because you get to try out new things every day and fail every day and be bad all the time, if you know what I mean. Through doing all of those things, you eventually hit on what you makes you better each time.

“I was apprehensive coming over [because of acting’s reputation for being cut-throat] but, actually, I haven’t encountered anything other – and it sounds really silly to say it – than love and support from each other.” Like the others, O’Loughlin’s life is run on a shoe-string, helped on by parents and a Clare Co Council grant: “We get free meals here, which really, really helps. I suppose because we are busy from nine until nine we don’t get to do much socially, anyway, so we don’t need a lot of money. I don’t think I have bought a new item of clothing in two years.”

Adam McElderry, a 25-year-old from Tully Cross in Connemara, has just graduated from a two-year stage management course, following experience gained in the Granary and Everyman theatres in Cork while he completed a UCC Drama and Theatre Studies course.

“Here, it is incredibly intensive, which is the whole purpose of it. It is designed to teach an enormous amount of material in a relatively short time. While I really enjoyed the work that I was doing before, I didn’t feel fully trained in it.

“Now, I definitely feel that after two years I am totally confident in the work that I am going to do. And the contacts that you make here are some of the best that there are. The quality of the training is phenomenal.”

Most, but not all, want to work in the arts in Ireland, but McElderry is not alone in feeling that their careers could inevitably centre across the water: “It is one of the dangers of coming to the UK for training, which is why there is a need for more of it in Ireland.”

Maureen O’Connell, a distant relation of “The Liberator”, Daniel O’Connell, grew up in Wicklow and Blackrock in Dublin, before moving to Stoneybatter as a teenager. She has already produced a short film, Girls, which will soon be touring the film festival circuit.

Being Irish in a college that devotes one full term to Irish theatre is sometimes an advantage. Every student has to do at least one Irish monologue, learn Irish dialects, perform scenes from Irish plays, and watch Irish movies and history. . “Irish people are much softer. People describe the Irish as fighters but we are quite soft and easy-going and very emotional – much, much more emotional than the English. As a result we go up and down more than the English,” says Róisín O’Loughlin.

“The English are more direct and straight, but it is good to have that. As an Irish performer, it is great to be in England because it is great to have that discipline when you are softer. You become a much better actor,” she adds.

“The English have to work much harder at the emotional side, which the Irish naturally have, but they have the discipline. It can come across as cold, but it isn’t cold at all, but it is just their mindset; their sub-conscious is stricter.”