It’s never too early for aspiring performers to start their triple-threat training. From voice coaching to veganism, Susan Elkin speaks to parents and principals about what to look for when choosing a stage school for your child
Stage schools are big business. Many communities have several providers of drama, dance and singing tuition for children.
There is now a wide range of franchised schools, such as Razzamataz, Helen O’Grady, Pauline Quirke Academy and many more. This means individual principals run their own schools as personal businesses within the framework of the larger, umbrella organisation.
So there are choices to be made for parents. Often the classes come in a three-hour or 90-minute (depending on the child’s age) triple-threat package. How do you pick through the plethora of available options and find the most suitable one for your child?
“The principal of the school is key,” says Ellie Potbury, whose son Bill Stanley, 14, has been attending Stagecoach Cambridge and Cambourne since he was six. “I can’t speak too highly of Angharad Walter, our principal. She is a Mountview graduate and totally, warmly, caringly engaged with the children she and her staff work with.”
Alyson Walsingham, mother of Caelan Ferguson, six, agrees. He has been attending Make Believe in Sevenoaks for two years. “The people there are very welcoming and lovely,” says Walsingham. “Caelan, who has already done some adverts and wants to go to Sylvia Young Theatre School, is confident but reserved. He bonded at Make Believe from the very beginning. Talk to the principal of any school you are considering.”
Inevitably, a handful of exceptionally talented children in stage schools will one day achieve professional success, but that shouldn’t be what drives the school. “We are definitely not here to develop stars,” says Joel Kern who started Make Believe in 2003 and now has 50 schools in south-east England, Australia and Israel. “It’s mainly about having fun, developing confidence and enjoyably acquiring transferable skills”.
Amelia Sharpe, 11, has attended the Fylde branch of Little Voices for five years. “She was in desperate need of confidence and is brilliantly confident now,” says her mother, Karen. “Asked recently at school to do homework on the Trojan War, she dressed up and presented it as a rap spoken by the king. She now wants to be an airline pilot and that confidence is all down to Little Voices.”
Every child needs to be individually well known to the staff. Large classes preclude that. At Little Voices, for example, classes are limited to eight to 10 children, which is one of the reasons Amelia Sharpe has flourished. “Observe the drop-off and pick-up arrangements before you commit yourself,” says Potbury. “I was very impressed at Stagecoach Cambridge and Cambourne to see each and every child being individually greeted on arrival and then carefully, and in a friendly but attentive manner, being released back to the right adult after class. It tells you a lot about the ethos.”
Walsingham adds: “Caelan and his younger sister are both vegan. If teachers bring sweets for everyone they bring something different/suitable for my kids. That sort of individual thoughtfulness matters much more than, say, LAMDA certificates, when you’re very young.”
One of the great things about weekend or evening stage school is that it gives children the opportunity to mix and bond with, what Kern calls, a “different demographic” from the one they meet in their day schools.
“There are a number of children who have, for example, hearing loss or autism, who are quietly being supported at Stagecoach,” says Potbury.
“We’ve always made sure that Make Believe is very diverse,” says Kern. “We have a wide range of locations and the children who attend them learn from each other all the time.”
Most franchised schools charge a monthly fee per child, variable with age and sibling discounts. Make Believe, for instance, charges £44.50 per month for infants and £75 for children over six. Little Voices’ fees range from £40 to £65. Watch out, though, for hidden extras.
Make Believe is firm that children get plenty of opportunities to perform in shows, but that there are no additional costs for this apart from parents buying tickets to attend. Some schools, however, pile on charges for costumes and other production costs.
Find out what sort of show it is. Potbury is pleased with the local shows Bill has participated in, but says: “Don’t be seduced by a stage school that promise your child is to be in a huge show in a vast London venue because, typically, they will be one of hundreds and on stage only for a very short time.”
The best schools offer a short, free trial so that both child and parent can work out whether this is the right activity for them. Are you seeking a confidence-boosting activity, a teamwork alternative to sport, the opportunity to perform, qualifications or something else?
“Sometimes we can see that a child needs something different from what we do,” says Jane Maudsley, award-winning founder of Little Voices, which now has 90 branches nationwide, having launched in 2007. “We offer singing and acting but not dance and we don’t produce shows although every child with us does LAMDA exams. Other schools do it differently. Some of our students do a weekly three hours in a triple-threat stage school somewhere else as well. Or youth theatre might be better – depending on what the parent and child really want. We always talk to parents honestly.”
“One of the advantages of being with a franchised school is that you can be sure the company uses licensed chaperones and adheres to statutory guidelines,” says Potbury, who is very pleased with Stagecoach in this regard. Maudsley is a board member for Children’s Activity Association. “At present there is no recognised standard or regulation in this field,” she says. “We are campaigning for some kind of clearly understood badging system to indicate quality so that parents can see that the school they’re looking at conforms to certain standards.”
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