Back to School
September comes with the scamper of little feet on their way to the school gates, and then the thud of the evening classes booklet arriving through the letterbox. In September of the 1920s and 1930s, Dublin people browsing the possibilities could consider an evening class in the Abbey School of Acting. There, they could give up two evenings a week to work on recitation and enunciation and dream of gracing the Abbey stage.
I was at the Peacock last week for Maud in Cahoots, a live sonic album, and as I emerged into the foggy night, I thought I saw a queue of nervous potential stars waiting for their turn to impress the Abbey management that led the school.
One Abbey actress later remembered her own first visit to the school. She described it to a journalist in the US, telling him:
[The] audition is [a] frightening affair
You are given some lines to read–and then perhaps you are asked to recite something of your own–and all this by yourself in the little Peacock Theatre (seats only a hundred) before the principal of the school, Mr Dolan, and Lennox Robinson.
She goes on to explain that if you ‘pass’ and are admitted to the school, there is a six-month course before another audition and possibly a third for the Abbey Company. This is how Aideen earned her place in the company for her first US tour: a combination of talent, hard work (attending classes after a day’s work in Polikoffs’ factory) and good timing (Kate Curling’s marriage meant they needed an ingénue.)
I found the quote about the auditions some time ago, and loved picturing Aideen’s own hesitant performance (coached by Sr. Hanrahan) and M. J. Dolan’s furrowed brow in the second row as he watched. But I knew no more about it, until I found a rare and wonderful piece of evidence: M. J. Dolan’s Adjudicator Sheet from the Abbey School auditions.
I’m becoming canny with my resources. I’m not going to tell you where I found it.
But I held it in my hands: the yellowing sheets with the names typed neatly and enough space underneath for the adjudicators to add their own comments. And for every nervous young person that queued up outside the Peacock, there were some dejected faces.
Merton Higgins must have been disappointed. His note said simply, “Very spasmodic – not much sense in reading.”
Miss Rose O’Shea probably cried on her way home. Her note said, “I don’t think so: weak and uninteresting.”
But there were successes, young actors that made M. J. Dolan look up and maybe even roused Lennox Robinson from his hungover snooze.
Mrs Rowsome presented herself with a “Good voice – strong – self possessed.”
And another young lady made quite an impression. Dolan scribbled to fit in everything he wanted to say about her:
Made sense of what she was reading.
Robust: good strong voice.
Clear enunciation (often) Dramatic sense
Recit[ation]: flexibility and word painting good. Face expression.
Wouldn’t you like to know who that was?
Many of the names on the adjudicators’ sheets mean nothing to me and most don’t appear in the Abbey archive ever again. I find myself wondering as I scroll through the list: Who did these confident young people become? How many continued acting elsewhere? Or did they go on to lives packed with offices, children, housekeeping, football? Some may have blustered forever, refusing to acknowledge the day they’d turned up to try for a different future. But I’ve a sense that few forgot queuing that evening and walking alone onto the Abbey stage…