There’s no drama at John Connors’ Acting Academy

His show about actors from marginalised backgrounds is humanity TV, not reality TV

John Connors. Photograph: Shane O’Connor

John Connors. Photograph: Shane O’Connor

 

Growing up a Traveller, John Connors never saw acting as a realistic career choice. The doors seemed shut to people such as him. But he persevered and thanks to a powerful performance in the gangland drama Love/Hate has made his way in a business traditionally inhospitable to those from marginalised backgrounds.

With his cheerful and heartfelt new reality series John Connors’ Acting Academy (Monday RTÉ 2, 9.35pm) he hopes to give something back by extending a hand to aspiring actors from marginalised backgrounds. “The film business can feel like a closed shop,” he says. “I want to give others an opportunity.”

John Connors’ Acting Academy is reality television with a gentle touch. There are no vicious eliminations (unsuccessful candidates having been weeded out before the cameras rolled). And no attempts to set the cast of kids from the wrong side of the tracks against each other. There are some anguishing stories here so it would be a reach to call it “feel good”. But episode one of three does ever-so-slightly restore the viewer’s faith in human nature.

Six young people have been selected to work with Connors, who will introduce them to seasoned industry figures (future instalments feature director Jim Sheridan and Derry Girls star Saoirse Monica Jackson). They will also be put through their paces in acting classes.

Ruslan, Aaron, Abigail, Danny and Martin
Ruslan, Aaron, Abigail, Danny and Martin

Week one, though, is all about establishing who they are - as people and as actors. Connors is assisted by veteran casting agent Maureen Hughes, with whom he worked on Love / Hate.

The sextet of hopefuls present a study in contrasts. Danny Power, from Gurranabraher on the northside of Cork City, is a former rapper with a Young Offenders cameo to his credit, who recently became a father at aged 18.

Martin Mahon from Tralee is a member of the travelling community who has had to shoulder daily discrimination.

Abigail Ramaabya is originally from Botswana. She has been mired, along with her family, in that peculiar Irish purgatory that is the direct provision system.

We are also introduced to Aaron Connolly, from Sheriff Street in Dublin and Amy Davis, a musician from Ballymun who has been in foster care since age 16. Finally there is Ruslan Kalachov, who is severely dyslexic and was bullied at school because of his reading difficulties.

They make for an agreeably scrappy group. And they certainly all have a presence and that hard-to-define quality often possessed by those in the spotlight. It is fascinating, too, to hear Hughes comment on their abilities.

She says Ruslan is “playing the room” rather than “owning it”, a subtle and presumably essentially distinction. And she praises Danny’s “gorgeous confidence”.

Connors interviews several superstars of Irish screen. Saoirse Ronan zooms in to recall the devastation she felt missing out on roles at a young age. “I always had that thing in my head, I probably won’t get this,” she says.

Jessie Buckley says she would never have made it had a kindly patron not helped put her through drama school in London. And Tom Vaughan-Lawlor talks about how acting is about leaving your comfort zone and inhabiting personas often quite alien to you.

There isn’t much hue and cry, which feels proper. Connors’ protégés have clearly had enough tumult already in their lives. And there is a tragic coda as it is revealed Martin’s younger brother has had an accident and is on life support.

He’s understandably in two minds as to whether to continue. Connors tells him to take all the time he needs. A more cynical show would play up the tragedy. The strength of John Connors’ Acting Academy is its humanity. How strange that, in a reality series about acting, the winning quality should be a lack of drama.