Video & Pictures: Celebrating 55 years and moving on up...

Video & Pictures: Celebrating 55 years and moving on up...

REACHING NEW HEIGHTS: Some of the dancers at the new flagship studio. Pictures: Larry Cummins

THE Montfort College of Performing Arts, now in its 55th year, is moving to a bigger premises as the college, synonymous with drama training and musicals in Cork, continues to expand. 

Under Eileen Nolan, founder of the college, and co-director, Trevor Ryan, the official opening of a new 7,000 square feet studio in the South Ring Business Park takes place on August 13. This will make it the largest private performance arts facility in the city. On that day, families are welcome with free trial classes on offer for children aged three and upwards. The studio will be officially opened by Grammy nominee, Killian Donnelly, a Cork man, who is currently playing the role of Jean Valjean in ‘Les Mis’ in the West End.

The new premises takes in two floors with three multi-purpose studios, three vocal studios, a dedicated prop room, a costume room, a reception area, a study room for children in between classes and free parking. It is three times the size of the college’s Penrose Wharf studio where the college has been located for three years, following its move from Leitrim Street.

Before Trevor came on board five years ago, the Montfort College of Performing Arts catered for about 600 students. There are now 1,500 students and a staff of 28 part time and full-time teachers. Trevor says the increase in student numbers is down to marketing and the fact that the Montfort brand is so strong.

“It was just a question of getting the word out there,” says Trevor. “We had room to grow in Penrose Wharf and we opened a number of satellite studios as well. We now have 15 other centres outside of the main one. Even though the numbers are big, we still keep the classes quite small.”

Children start at the Montfort College of Performing Arts from the age of three. 

“We seem to retain them. Some of them are going to third level college and they’re also staying on with us and finishing their exams in dance, drama and singing. There are stand alone classes in all the subjects. Exams with various different bodies are optional. We encourage people to do them and there’s a good take-up. We like to see progression. Obviously, the majority of students are there for fun and confidence building and wanting to perform. But there are some who want to make a career out of the performing arts. About 5% make a career out of it.”

Past pupils include West End performer, Irene Warren, Broadway and West End star, Michael McCarthy, the musical director of the Broadway show, The Book of Mormon, Cian McCarthy, actor and retired RTE broadcaster and producer, Alf McCarthy, broadcaster, Elaine Crowley and writer, Louise O’Neill.

Chloe Crowley practices her ballet at the new studios. Pic; Larry Cummins
Chloe Crowley practices her ballet at the new studios. Pic; Larry Cummins

While there is much competition in Cork for drama schools, Eileen says: “We don’t see it like that. The people running them are all our past pupils. There’s Catherine Mahon-Buckley, Irene Warren, Shirley McCarthy and Rebecca Allman. We were happy to let them go if they wanted to go and we gave them our blessing. They’re still friends. That’s very much what our college is about. There are lovely happy relationships in all the classes. We have a girl staying with us who’s American. We met her when we took our group to America to do musical theatre. The Americans came back with us. The first exchange from Jefferson City was in 1978. We went there several times and still have a great connection there. Fr John Long, originally from Cork, was very important in that liaison. He’s very much involved in theatre in America.”

On one memorable occasion, Eileen hired a plane to bring her performing students to Blackpool. 

“We were very good at choral verse which is reciting poetry. We won that category at the Cork Feis and the Dublin Feis. I decided that we should try England. We came first and second at the Blackpool Choral Festival.”

Eileen has always been enterprising and open to opportunities. She has no plans to retire but was delighted when Trevor came on board, not only for his acting, teaching and directorial skills but also his tech-savvy abilities. 

Trevor, who joined the Montforts when he was twelve and taught there for a number of years, had been working in Shandon Travel for sixteen years and wanted to change careers. As he says, the performing world was the only other area in which he has expertise. He approached Eileen saying that he could open a school of his own – or join the Montfort staff. It was a no-brainer for Eileen. And a perfect fit for Trevor. 

“I want to carry on the tradition that Eileen had developed over all those years. I live and breathe my work. I’m there seven days a week and now that the new studio is only five minutes from where I live, I’ll probably be there even more.”

Originally from Turners Cross, Eileen came from a theatrical family. Her father, James O’Brien, was an amateur actor in the Fr Mathew Hall and her mother was a violinist who played with the Cork Symphony Orchestra and appeared in lots of musicals. It was a household full of music. As a child, Eileen learned the violin and took part in festivals.

She studied speech and drama at London’s Trinity College and gained a teaching diploma from Maria Assumpta College in Dublin. The Montfort College of Performing Arts was formed as a result of merging two groups that Eileen taught – from South Presentation Girls’ School and Presentation Brothers’ Boys’ School. Eileen brought the two groups together and called them the Montforts, after her mother-in-law’s house. Her mother-in-law had great faith in St Louis de Montfort. Eileen feels blessed by the saint for her good fortune in running a successful academy.

Mini-Montforts pictured in one of the new studio spaces. Pic; Larry Cummins
Mini-Montforts pictured in one of the new studio spaces. Pic; Larry Cummins

Eileen recalls being very much “a peripatetic teacher, going all over the place to teach. My father would tell me that I was spending more money on petrol than I was making in wages. The driving, to places like Waterford and West Cork, took a lot of hard work.” 

But it paid off. Eileen has taught three generations. She still travels to St Mary’s High School in Midleton and Sacred Heart School in Clonakilty where she directs shows with the pupils.

“The other thing we’re very proud of is that LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) made us their representative here,” says Eileen.

She admits that she never dreamt her school would grow to the extent it has. 

“I feel the students respect me. When I started, I never thought I’d be able to make a career out of it.”

The next show that the Montfort College of Performing Arts is putting on is the Adams Family at the Everyman in October. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ will be staged at the Firkin Crane around Christmas and the college’s end-of-year showcase will be at the Cork Opera House.

As Trevor says: “We’re the equivalent of the Billie Barry School in Dublin.” 

And it looks like the Montfort College of Performing Arts will continue to thrive as long as youngsters want to sing, dance and act, some with a view to carving out careers in showbiz.

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