The impact that the late doyenne of drama teachers, Betty Ann Norton, had on her pupils is well documented. As the funeral to mark her death in June 2020 was held while lockdown restrictions were still in place, only family members were present, so tributes poured in for the octogenarian who had spent six decades of her life devoted to her students.
President Michael D Higgins said: "Her legacy as one of our foremost theatre teachers is a formidable one and will live on through her life's work of nurturing a love of theatre across so many generations." Now that her home of 50 years, Belcamp, at 38 York Road in Dún Laoghaire has sold, her private treasures will be auctioned by O'Reilly's on April 6th to 8th, in a 48-hour, timed, online-only sale.
Norton originally wanted to be an actress, but became a drama teacher on her mother’s advice, establishing one of Ireland’s most prominent theatre schools. For six decades she inspired young Dubliners to have enough confidence to take to the stage.
The Betty Ann Norton Theatre School was established at 57 Harcourt Street in Dublin in 1959 and became a hub for kids with dramatic talents. In 1965 on a trip to the Aran Islands she met Michael Cunneen, having almost run over him while cycling. They married in 1967 and with his background in amateur drama and set design he joined the school, becoming a lifelong director until his death in 2017.
Alumni of her eponymous institution include actor/writer Amy Huberman, singer Eleanor Shanley, Riverdance director Moya Doherty, opera singer Claudia Boyle, Oscar nominated film maker Vincent Lambe, Irish Times critic Peter Crawley and RTÉ broadcaster Áine Lawlor.
Award winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter Emma Donoghue, whose novel and screenplay, Room, won many international awards, described Norton in an interview with the Irish Independent as her role model. "She taught more than drama, it was about self-command and assertiveness," she said, adding: "I've used her teaching so much in my writing - in setting up different characters and having them talk."
Many of the current students at the academy – now run by Ciara Feely, who Norton appointed as director in 2020 are the children and even grandchildren of former pupils, creating a family tradition that spans generations.
“What made Betty Ann’s teaching style so special was her attention to detail – a character’s costume was never complete without the right headpiece– and a never ending belief in her students. She pushed her students, she treated them like young professionals” says Feely.
Eclectic and international
An avid collector, Norton’s style has been described as eclectic and international, and the sale includes fine jewellery, designer clothing, interior objects and period furniture.
An edit of her wardrobe on offer is filled with heavy beading, brocade, metallic and luxurious tailoring.
"These pieces characterise a collection befitting a lady who would have surely enjoyed a glamorous social whirl," says the catalogue of Norton's sartorial assemblage, that include vintage pieces by noted Irish designers Ib Jorgensen and John Rocha, along with some smaller, but still significant Irish designers in their heyday, including Louise Raymond, Thomas Wolfangel and Mary Gregory.
Her own personal sense of style is also reflected in the jewellery on offer. A dress watch by Chopard, fiery opals and amethysts, and her emerald cocktail ring sit alongside a pair of Greek comedy/tragedy masks fashioned as cufflinks that convey her sense of drama. The contents of her home at 38 York Road, which sold last year for €1.2 million according to the Property Price Register, includes silver, collectables, art and furniture with period pieces such as a late 19th century alabaster bust and contemporary pieces by Al Frank.
Norton and her husband were collectors and keen supporters of Irish art, and highlights include works by Seán Keating and Donal Sullivan. The proceeds of both her home and this sale will be part of her legacy, as they have been left in trust to the theatre school that she founded and directed, and where actors Michael Gambon, David Kelly and her brother Jim were patrons over the years.
“The secret of life is to know what you want,” she said in an Irish Times interview in 2003. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach voice and acting.”
In her early years she drove around the country teaching speech and drama in a yellow Ford Anglia from Enniscorthy to Bunclody and also teaching fishmonger Peter Caviston in Glasthule. Norton once said of Caviston: "He was a star pupil and could have been an actor if he'd chosen to be."
From Greek tragedy to Shakespeare and everything in between, Norton, who was fondly known as ‘the drama queen of Harcourt Street’, encouraged her students to perform with confidence through her constant mantra of: “Sock it to ‘em, baby!”