Northern lights shine on stage

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Yorkshire performing arts college prepares local talent for London's West End. Kevin Berry reports

Will Folan-Conray spends half of his week dancing, acting and choreographing in the West End and the remaining days teaching at the SLP performing arts college in West Yorkshire.

He is not alone in this. All of the SLP college's teaching staff are still working in the theatre. "I work here because of the college's reputation," Mr Folan-Conray explains. "When students leave this college they are used to performing in front of an audience. They do many shows, particularly in the final year. That way they don't look like dancers from other colleges, looking as if they've just come out of college.

"These kids give off a very special air. They know what a stage is like.

They know what a camera is like. They are not going to be thrown in an audition. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane won't faze them. The aim here is to get them working in the profession and the hit rate is very high."

The SLP college is in Rothwell, a resurgent former mining town five miles to the east of Leeds. Students get taken on by agents when they graduate, which is unusual. They will work on the large American cruise ships with vast theatre spaces. They will work in touring musical shows, summer shows, pantomimes, television and corporate shows, and many of them will make it to the West End.

Sandra Reid is the principal of SLP and its heartbeat. She is known to everyone as Miss Reid and she enjoys equal measures of respect and affection. When she first came to Rothwell she started a dance school for children. It took the name Studios La Pointe and the initials were adopted when the college was formed in 1990.

"To progress, our dance students had to go down south," she says. "And they weren't necessarily coming back with what they wanted. There was a gap in the market. There simply wasn't anything in the North for musical theatre.

Now we're getting students from down south and from all over the world - Barbados, Germany, Portugal, Italy."

The emphasis is on producing a rounded performer, strong in singing, dance and drama. Tutors offer more than one specialism.

"It isn't just about being a good singer or a good dancer," explains student Laura Pemberton. "It's about being a character on stage."

The SLP students look impressive. It is mid-morning on a hot day and they have been in the rehearsal studio since 8.30. Their rehearsal clothes are neat and uniform with none of the leg-warmer scruffiness one would normally expect. They are purposeful and help each other. They begin another number and their skill, concentration and timing are astonishing.

Students Zoe O'Mahony and George Beischer, have been featured in four seasons of the Good Old Days music hall at the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds. The TV Good Old Days might have finished many years ago but the stage show is still going strong. Zoe and George have impressed some important show business people.

"I came here because of the attention you get," says Zoe. "The teachers know everyone and they don't just teach. They're still working in the business."

George agrees. They like studying near home, but when they leave SLP they will have the confidence and ability to take on London.

Miss Reid takes pleasure in spotting hidden talent. When George came to audition for a place at SLP his shyness was a drawback but Miss Reid and the staff persevered. Zoe's voice was not a strong point when she arrived but it is now. She is in demand as a backing singer for pop groups. She has been a lead singer with gospel choirs and has worked with elite performers in stadium shows.

Miss Reid is keen for education, in its broadest sense, to continue. Most of her students enter SLP when they are 16.

"Not only do we train them," she says, "we offer them examinations and they get qualifications. Here they take the national diploma in professional musical theatre and professional dance.

"I think that qualifications are as important as learning the art of singing or dancing. They do teaching qualifications so that during resting periods they can stay in touch with their art rather than stack supermarket shelves.

"They do contextual studies. They don't come here and just learn to do a piece from Chicago or some other show. They learn the repertoire of musical theatre. They learn the difference between how Oklahoma was done 20 years ago and how Oklahoma is done now. They compare choreographers. They compare musical theatre from Judy Garland's era to what's happening in the theatre now. They have something to talk about."

Miss Reid emphasises the breadth of learning on offer. Some students compose songs, some design costumes, some work the technical equipment and as a result they might take up a different career.

"If they find that musical theatre is not for them they will have developed other skills," she says. "Whatever happens they will have been educated and prepared and doors will have been opened."

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