Stagecoach, which this year celebrates its 30th birthday, has provided a platform for actors, singers and dancers. Nick Smurthwaite looks at its humble beginnings and discovers how today it is filling the gap left by school cuts
From its modest beginnings in the Thames Valley in the mid-1980s, Stagecoach Performing Arts  has grown into a worldwide franchise, with some 700 schools serving 45,000 young people across nine countries.
The UK’s largest stage-school franchise, Stagecoach has provided a launch pad for, among others, Emma Watson, Jamie Bell, Danny Mac, Tom Fletcher from McFly and the opera singer Carly Paoli.
In April 1988, a stage-struck single mum, Stephanie Manuel, then working in telesales, and former bank manager David Sprigg scraped together £8,000 to set up the first three Stagecoach schools in Redhill, Woking and Richmond upon Thames. Their ethos was not to promise false dreams, but to help children boost personal confidence and learn important communication skills.
Then as now, the formula was small classes, three-hour sessions, tight discipline and equal attention to drama, dance and singing – the so-called ‘triple threat’.
Spurred on by the immediate success of those first outlets, they soon found venture partners in the regions and by 1993 Manuel and Sprigg were masterminding 24 schools, run by other people, from a small office in East Molesey, Surrey. They launched Early Stages, classes for four to six year olds, in 1997.
Because the administrative burden was becoming so heavy, they turned to franchising, with each franchisee paying an upfront fee, plus 12.5% of the turnover. In 2001 they floated the company on the Alternative Investment Market, raising almost £3 million to expand the business. As a result, they were able to move to more spacious premises in Walton-on-Thames.
When interviewed by The Stage in 2006, Manuel put the company’s success down to “rigorous quality control”, which included restricting class numbers to 15 and scrupulous vetting of potential franchisees. Teaching qualifications were never insisted upon and the franchises were often taken up by performers whose careers had stalled for one reason or another.
This business is full of wonderful professionals who have an awful lot to give
“We have never been precious about saying our teachers have to be qualified from the outset,” Manuel said in an interview. “This business is full of wonderful professionals who are not working and have an awful lot to give.”
Stagecoach runs its own foundation course for would-be teachers three times a year. There are more than 3,000 teachers engaged by Stagecoach franchises in the UK and overseas, who can either be multi-disciplined, or specialise in acting, singing or dancing.
After the departure of Manuel and Sprigg in 2012, following a £6.5 million buyout, the chief executive role was taken on by Sarah Kelly, the former head of weight-loss franchise LighterLife.
“My aim with Stagecoach was always to have a collaborative approach to the franchisees, to have an open dialogue,” says Kelly. “We have a team of 46 at Stagecoach HQ to deal with things that come up, from providing business and marketing support to education, training and running events.
“Our job is also to ensure they have an asset value they can sell on when they quit. Every year we expect 20 or so franchisees to pass the business on to someone else.”
With the reduction of funding for performing arts education in schools, a growing area of Stagecoach’s remit is to provide an outlet for non-academic young people who might be looking for a future in entertainment.
“Not all young people are academic,” says Kelly. “We’re looking at replacing GCSE drama and BTec qualifications with our own assessment procedures, so that older children in Stagecoach can build up UCAS points that will help them move on to further arts education.
“We estimate that about 25% of our intake now is from parents wishing their children to have the kind of performing arts study that is no longer available in schools. It has been shown that children who engage in the performing arts perform better in school, so we’re really pleased we can provide that service.”
For five years Stagecoach has enjoyed a working relationship with Disneyland Paris, which welcomes some 1,500 children from the UK, Germany and Malta every year to join in the annual parade down Main Street. They also get the opportunity to perform on stage in front of an international audience, take part in voice-coaching sessions and sing in front of the Disney Castle.
“A significant number of our older students are looking for pathways into the industry and our connection with Disney opens up audition opportunities,” says Kelly.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is also playing a lead role in Stagecoach’s 30th anniversary celebrations. The company is hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most simultaneous performances of the show.
On July 1, more than 6,500 children from 150 schools, at home and abroad, will put on a one-off performance at 6pm GMT. The one to beat is Stagecoach’s record of 66 simultaneous performances of Glad Rags, set in 2008.
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