From Jesus to Judas - and a whole lot of superstars in-between

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Dundee Schools Music Theatre was born when Lina Waghorn decided to stage a musical involving every secondary in the city. Ten years and more than 20 shows later, Emma Seith finds it is still going strong

Lina Waghorn found Jesus at Morgan Academy and Judas at Braeview Academy. It was quite a relief, admits the Dundee Schools Music Theatre founder and producer, as this year the company was staging Jesus Christ Superstar.

"There was no Jesus in the whole company. So once we found him, that was it. We could relax a bit because we had someone who could do it," says Mrs Waghorn, head of primary and early years education at Dundee City Council.

Every year, Dundee Schools Music Theatre performs two musicals and a preview show in May. Nothing is off limits and over the years they have staged more than 20 shows, including Les Miserables, Guys and Dolls, 42nd Street, The Boyfriend and Barnum.

"For Barnum, the circus musical, we had someone walking a tight rope, people unicycling, cake spinners and a human pyramid," remembers director Kenny Christie.

This year, the organisation's 10th anniversary, they upped the ante. Not only did the company perform Jesus Christ Superstar, a musical which would test the acting ability of far more seasoned performers, and which has a largely male cast (potentially dangerous, given teenage boys tend to shy away from musical theatre), but they also staged Celebration, a "gala performance" featuring excerpts from all the shows the group has tackled over the years.

Performing in Jesus Christ Superstar were S5, S6 and the company's sister group, Back to Back, started in 2003 so that youngsters could stay on with DSMT for a year after school. The Celebration cast was made up of pupils from S3-6.

Mrs Waghorn admits to fee-ling sorry for the Celebration cast, because they had to know it all. "From the crucifixion to juggling - we covered everything," she sums up.

The pupils' skills, however, were honed gradually over the course of almost a year.

Mr Christie explains: "With a show like Celebration, there is a lot of training to start with. They learn the skills - juggling, tap dancing, gymnastics - and we work on building up their sta-mina, so they can sing and dance at the same time."

Jesus Christ Superstar and Celebration each ran for three nights at the Whitehall Theatre, Dundee, earlier this term with pupils performing in front of audiences of more than 700 people.

Quality is key - Mrs Waghorn admits the production team has high standards - but anybody can join DSMT and nobody pays a penny to take part.

"There are no auditions for this company," says Mrs Waghorn, who is a trained ballet dancer as well as a trained primary teacher. "We take anybody who comes along - all shapes and sizes. All we ask for is enthusiasm and commitment, and I tell them to let me worry about developing their talent."

Laughing, she adds: "My son Andrew is here. He isn't a gifted singer or dancer, but he is here."

By the end of the year, DSMT promises every cast member that they will be able to do something new. They will also learn to work as a team, to cope with stress, to take responsibility and learn to handle disappointment (namely when a coveted part goes to someone else).

"Some kids are talented and naturally able but, for the majority, this is about developing them as people and giving them life skills," says Mrs Waghorn.

Mr Christie adds: "If someone is interested in a career in theatre or dance, we try to challenge and support them. But for someone else, saying a line can be their massive achievement. That is as impressive to us as someone pirouetting or back-flipping."

Being involved in Dundee Schools Music Theatre has changed some youngsters' lives, claims musical director Paul Clancy. "We improve their literacy and numeracy without giving them English or maths lessons, because they get a real sense of achievement out of this, they feel better about themselves and they improve in school - a new world is opened up."

Brenda Hadcroft became headteacher of Braeview Academy three-and-a-half years ago. Since then, Braeview has become a School of Ambition, focusing on developing the performing arts. It now has its own theatre and drama studio.

Mrs Hadcroft agrees with Mr Clancy that the arts can transform youngsters and says she is "thrilled" with Dundee Schools Music Theatre. "I've been a supporter of the arts all my life but, until I came to Braeview, I'd never seen anything like Dundee Schools Music Theatre.

"What does it do for pupils? Lots of things. You have got to attend; you've got to be part of the team; you've got to learn your lines; and you've got to believe in yourself and carry it off. It teaches self- discipline and it impacts on self-esteem and self-confidence and all the things you need to function well in society."

DSMT rehearsals take place every Sunday, with a residential held in the last week of the summer holidays, just before they put on their late summer shows. This year, it was held in St Andrews.

There could be no doubt we were in the right place. In the entrance way, beside the toilets, a group of girls had congregated. They stood staring at their feet, tapping their toes and trying to co-ordinate their steps. Round the corner, more youngsters were gathered, this time perfecting their juggling. Some of the Celebration cast were required to juggle in time to music while walking, and when standing on one leg. "I told them it would increase their brain power," says Mrs Waghorn.

That night, rehearsals ran until 11.30pm and in the morning pupils were out of bed by 7.30am - probably the earliest these teenagers had been up all holiday.

Ryan Watson, 16, joined the company six months ago. He refused to come along unless his twin sister Chelsea came too. He ended up playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and also performing in Celebration.

Ryan believes his confidence has increased and describes his new-found theatrical friends as "a great bunch of people". He was pleased the music in Jesus Christ Superstar was not "too cheesy" - he describes it as a "rock opera" - but admits he was worried about "the cross bit" (the crucifixion).

"They fit a harness on and I would lie down and the cross would come up," explains the Morgan Academy pupil, eyes wide.

Ryan also had to endure 39 lashes, which led to some interesting requests coming Mr Christie's way. "I've been asked: `After breakfast, can we practise lashing Ryan?' And I've said yes - only in musical theatre."

Ashley Gorman, 16, was the only Braeview Academy pupil who attended Dundee Schools Music Theatre when she started a couple of years ago. She was "a bit of a loner" at first but not for long, because "it's so friendly", she says.

"The group I am in, every single one of us is from a different school. I'm probably closer to them now than my friends in school."

When Steven Miller first walked through the door of the company in S4 with two of his friends, it was a baptism of fire: "We were faced with 80 people tap dancing," says the 17-year-old who left school last year and is now in Back to Back.

Steven was a singer and guitar player but admits he was not a "natural- born dancer". But practice ultimately made perfect - or close enough. "It was hard, but not too hard," he says. "It just takes practice and eventually you get it. I was quite impressed with myself for learning how to tap dance."

In Jesus Christ Superstar, Steven played Peter, one of the apostles. He was, however, after the lead role. "I was really gutted I didn't get it, but I just accepted the fact and worked really hard on my role. I think I've done a good job."

As soon as the curtain fell on Jesus Christ Superstar and Celebration, work began on next year's challenges: Me and My Girl and Little Shop of Horrors. But before rehearsals begin, the company will lose up to 30 of their best actors, dancers and singers as the eldest members leave and move on to the next phase in their lives.

As usual, Mrs Waghorn and the production team will have roughly a year to build up the talents of those who remain and the new recruits. Will they do it? Of course - the show must go on.

History of DSMT

The first show put on by Dundee Schools Music Theatre was Guys and Dolls in August 1998. It was performed at the Whitehall Theatre in Dundee to sell-out crowds.

Ten years on and the organisation, which receives its core funding from Dundee City Council, has worked with nearly 2,000 pupils in the city's 10 secondaries. Anybody can join the company - there are no auditions and nobody pays a penny.

Rehearsals are held every Sunday and youngsters are split into three groups: S1-2, S3-6, and Back to Back, DSMT's sister organisation, formed in 2003 to allow pupils to remain with the company for one year after they leave school.

Three shows are put on every year. In 2003, the company won the rights to perform Les Miserables. The performance was the north-east premiere of the show and sold out in a week. They have also staged 42nd Street, Hot Mikado, Chess, The Pajama Game, Godspell and The Boyfriend; travelled to Germany and America; and performed at the Millennium Dome and the Edinburgh Fringe.

Dundee City Council's education convener, Laurie Bidwell, said: "I am very proud of the way that the music theatre promotes learning through the arts. It is a tremendous showcase for pupils from across the city and it keeps on developing and encouraging talent."

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