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International: Training musical stars in Ireland

Irish College of Music Theatre's Cabaret. Photo: Eamonn B Shanahan Irish College of Music Theatre's Cabaret. Photo: Eamonn B Shanahan
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Ireland may have an enviable tradition of dramatists, musicians and choreographers to its name, but, for some reason, the country has never historically produced much internationally acclaimed, original musical theatre. It is a trend that is changing, however, and at the forefront of the movement is Deirdre Masterson and her team of accomplished tutors at the Irish College of Music Theatre.

Founded in 2014 to provide Ireland’s first diploma in musical theatre, ICMT is a timely response to the recent growth of interest in the genre. As Masterson explains: “In 2010, Dublin opened the doors to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, a new venue purposely built for musical theatre productions from the West End and Broadway. Since it opened, it is the only theatre to have a record of sell-out shows, proving that, at the moment, the Irish public are putting their hands into their pockets to see a musical theatre production.”

Ticket prices at the BGE Theatre range between 20-65, the equivalent of £15-50, where the venue functions as a major receiving house attracting international tours such as Josh Groban, Derren Brown and a range of musical theatre productions, including The Commitments, The Rocky Horror Show and the European premiere of the musical Big.

Born in Gorey, County Wexford, Masterson trained as a classical singer and actor under the tuition of Veronica Dunne at the prestigious Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music and Drama. “For students of my generation, the classical route was the only option to follow. We didn’t have the luxury of an accredited musical theatre course, there was only the classical route. I studied for four years in Ireland and went on to study in the UK, Munich and in the States.”

 ICMT principal Deirdre Masterson (front row, centre) with fellow staff members. Photo: Eamonn B Shanahan
ICMT principal Deirdre Masterson (front row, centre) with fellow staff members. Photo: Eamonn B Shanahan

Success and determination as a performer afforded Masterson the opportunity to push forward with establishing a dedicated musical theatre course in the capital. “I had set up a music school in my hometown back in 1999. The only exams available to students if they wanted to do their grading were either Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music through the UK, or the Royal Irish Academy of Music. In 2005, the RIAM implemented a musical theatre grading for the first time, as a kind of a trial. It proved hugely popular with students, but after that there was nothing on offer. Students came to me wanting to know where they could continue studying in musical theatre, but there were no options in Ireland whatsoever.”

Irish students had no choice but to go to the UK or the US and audition for schools such as the Guildford School of Acting, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts or RADA. But, as Masterson points out, it is highly competitive to get into courses such as those: “If you don’t have the training with the talent, you’re not going to get past the first entrance criteria.”

Prompted by this genuine gap in the market, Masterson approached the Irish government for assistance in researching and developing an accredited musical theatre course. With the help of patrons such as Colm Wilkinson and other Irish performing artists, it was possible to create a proper, validated training course in musical theatre.

“The first students at ICMT are currently in their second year of academic classes, so to speak. We have two courses up and running, a level 6 certified diploma, which is like a foundation year, then we have a progressional year level 7 certified diploma. Those two courses are accredited through the Dublin Institute of Technology.”

The college has also just gained an accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which also accredits well-known institutions such as the Juilliard School in New York. The instruction of these will lead to a bachelor in fine arts degree, and ICMT is also proposing a master’s. In the US, they call it a ‘double major’, where students can do an academic degree and a performance degree merged into one, which isn’t available so far in Ireland or England.

ICMT has developed out of a strong network of theatre schooling. “Our closest collaborative link is with the DIT,” says Masterson. “It’s the biggest university in Ireland, with a conservatory devoted to music and vocal training. We teamed up with the DIT because we thought that we could work well together, as demonstrated by our recent production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. The orchestra at the DIT is classically orientated, so to work on a score like Cabaret was a fresh opportunity for them; a chance to learn something new that would benefit both departments.”

After this, there is a new liaison contract that Masterson is discussing with the American College Dublin. “The plan is for students to go over to one of their colleges in the US and we do a performance over there, and then in turn, their students can come over to Ireland and we’ll organise a concert in our national council.”

With these options now available to Irish nationals, it is only a matter of time before the course starts attracting students from overseas. Obviously the original stimulus of ICMT was to create an opportunity for students to study musical theatre on their own home territory rather than having to emigrate, but the course is not exclusively for Irish students.

Particularly now, with the introduction this year of what is going to be the BFA and MFA, it stands to reason that the college will be encouraging international students for these. At the moment, because ICMT is considered a private college, students are not applicable for a grant under the Central Applications Office system, which is the educational system in Ireland.

However, the Irish College of Music Theatre does create scholarships, and is working to create funding to help students it considers worthy of a place, but who may not have the finances to do so. It is also working with the government to have its courses acknowledged as any other in Ireland. “If students wish to study musical theatre, then they should be given a grant just like every other course in Ireland.”

When it comes to the pragmatic side of employment after college, Masterson is confident that the training the graduates will have received will make them highly employable in a number of fields. “With the programme that we are designing at the moment with the ACD, we are acknowledging that not every student is going to get their dream job. The students wanting to join our courses have their sights set on the West End or Broadway. That’s their ultimate goal. The reality of course will be very different for many.

“But we are training them in a way that will help them find work in all aspects of the industry, backstage or on stage. They’re going to be trained in all areas of theatre, including the business/production side. For instance, in Ireland, we have the organisation AIMS – the Association of Irish Musical Societies – where every one of the small towns has a budget for a big amateur show, but the production teams – director, designer, choreographer, etc – are all professionals, hired in.”

Masterson is confident that the landscape of musical theatre in Ireland is changing significantly. She sees the success of some of Ireland’s exports – people such as Killian Donnelly and Annalene Beechey, who have done so well in the West End – encouraging others to aim high. Ultimately, however, it is all about trying to get funding to establish a viable local circuit. The ideas and the talent are there, but it needs producers with an understanding of how these work within Ireland to make it happen.

“We’ve had that with poetry, with storytelling and obviously with our Irish music. Now there’s a definitely a trend, an acknowledgement of what’s happening in the whole musical theatre scene in Ireland. It shows in the students applying for the course and it shows in the box-office receipts at the BGE Theatre. With the new college, new venues and with the new rising theatrical stars from Ireland, it’s all starting to turn the tide.”

Profile: Irish College of Music Theatre

Principal: Deirdre Masterson
Founded: 2014
No. of courses: Three: level 6 and level 7 diplomas accredited through Dublin Institute of Technology, and BFA in musical theatre accredited to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, plus summer schools and workshops
Affiliations: DIT and American College Dublin
No. of employees: 8, plus visiting associate lecturers
No. of students: 45, with an expected 80 commencing in September 2016
Fees: €2,000-3,500 (£1,520-2,665) per year for the diploma courses, and €6,450 (£4,900) per year for the BFA degree
Funding levels: None as yet
Key contacts: Deirdre Masterson, +353 86 3999747; theirishcollegeofmusictheatre.com

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