Training: Feel-good factor

A supportive environment is key to PPA’s increasing success, finds Nick Smurthwaite

Performance Preparation Academy’s rather formal title in no way prepares you for the feel-good friendliness of the place itself. Situated in sumptuous new premises in the heart of Guildford town, PPA seems to be peopled entirely by a breed of bright, shiny, smiling teenagers – a species with which I am unfamiliar.

Maybe it is not so surprising since they have an excellent example in the co-principal Rachel Crouch, a bundle of energy, fluency and vision who set up PPA almost five years ago with her fellow Laine Arts graduate Louise Glarvey. Crouch had been running a very successful Stagecoach franchise in Sutton for six years prior to that, with Glarvey as her full-time dance teacher. She discerned a gap in the training market.

“I had a lot of 16-year-olds at Stagecoach coming to me, asking where they could go for further training,” says Crouch. “A level drama courses are fine academically but there is no vocational training for those who wish to take it further.”

PPA has been offering a year-long intensive musical theatre course, aimed at preparing older teens for drama college entrance, for three years. They have maintained an incredibly high success rate, hovering between 90 to 95 per cent, as well as establishing an excellent reputation for pastoral care.

“Rather than breaking them and stripping them down, like some other colleges do, we aim to be more supportive and nurturing,” says Crouch. “A lot of them need confidence building as well as knowing where they’re going wrong. However, they must fulfil their side of the bargain by giving us their total commitment. The ones who don’t find places in the top drama colleges know it’s because they haven’t worked hard enough.”

Crouch and Glarvey have built up strong relationships with a number of top drama colleges, including Arts Educational Schools, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Guildford School of Acting and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Last year, PPA launched a three-year diploma course in music, dancing and acting, with an additional musicianship module which is basically learning to play at least one musical instrument. It is run by Gerry Tebbutt, the former head of music and theatre performance at GSA.

For younger ones there is a Saturday dance school, also started last year, covering ballet, tap and modern dance, as well as one to one singing lessons if requested. Like everything else at PPA, this is predicated on Rachel Crouch’s belief that in order to fire up the kids the teaching has to be dynamic, fast-paced and passionate.

“Of course we listen to the industry, but we know the type of college and the type of atmosphere we want to create,” she says, speaking for herself and Glarvey. “This is why we would prefer not to expand our intake or start any more new courses. We want to keep it as exclusive and intimate as possible, with a real family feel. At the same time, I enjoy the fact that we can offer a full range of vocational courses.”

Compounding the family theme, both Crouch’s and Glarvey’s husbands work for PPA, James Crouch as finance director and Costa Pieri as facilities manager, placing students in local accommodation and dealing with any attendant problems. Crouch says the college has been embraced by Guildford, taking pride in the fact that her students, in their PPA hoodies, are a familiar sight in the town.

“It is a safe, friendly area and I never have any worries about students going into the town or sitting by the river,” she says. “We have a good relationship with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and G Live, a lot of our older students find part-time work there.”

Both PPA’s patrons, Kerry Ellis and Bonnie Langford, are enthusiastically hands on, offering mentoring sessions at least twice a year.

In terms of its buildings, the main one is a beautifully converted Gothic pile – once the offices of the Royal Bank of Scotland – a stone’s throw from the town centre. They are having to vacate the nearby Bellerby Theatre and Studios, which they have been using for several years, because the site has recently been purchased by Waitrose. They are at present looking for replacement back-up premises in the town.

With all this growth and positive energy you might expect Crouch and Glarvey to feel a little smug, but Crouch insists they question and analyse what they are doing all the time. “We are always striving to be better,” she says. “We want to make sure PPA is as good as we can possibly make it.”

For information about courses and fees, visit www.ppacademy.co.uk

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