Perspiration in pursuit of fame

17th August 2007 at 01:00
Croydon is home to the country's only state-funded school for the performing arts. Yet this is no dry run for diva wannabes but a place where realism and hard graft are shown to be at least as important as talent. Adi Bloom reports

A TEENAGE GIRL arranges a sprig of ivy carefully in the freezer compartment of an open fridge. Next to her, a girl with crimson hair hangs silver hearts on the branches of a tree. Two pupils stroll past, carrying a huge cardboard fish.

Indoors, a teacher leads several pupils down the corridor. "You will be famous, guys," she says, vanishing around the corner. Then the music starts: a pop-jazz number that reverberates around the corridors from the main hall, where a live band plays and a group of dancers in sequinned bandanas practise their routine. Jodie Clark, their dance teacher, watches them rehearse. "With any performing art, it's about how much graft you want to put in," she says. "That's up to you. You can't teach that."

If there are echoes of the dance teacher in Fame ("You want fame? Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying in sweat."), it is not entirely attributable to Ms Clark's T-shirt, with the word Fame emblazoned in the trademark cursive font.

This is the Brit school the only state-funded performing arts school in the country. And ever since it opened in 1991, comparisons have been made between its 900 pupils and the fictional teenagers who wanted to live "for-evah" at the New York school for the performing arts.

The Croydon secondary takes pupils from Year 10 upwards and teaches them the skills needed for a career in music, theatre, dance or fine art.

Most pupils come from the neighbouring boroughs, the rest from across London and the home counties. Around 5 per cent each year travel from around the country to attend the school. Alumni include chart-toppers Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse, as well as X-Factor winner Leona Lewis.

Every summer, the pupils' talent is showcased in a one-day festival to which parents and local primaries are invited. The week beforehand, lessons are cancelled and pupils rehearse dance, music and theatre pieces of their own devising, while teachers lift, carry and generally help out where needed.

Staff are regularly at school until after 10pm. In the garden, the head of English shovels debris into a plastic bag while pupils daub and decorate. Outside the main entrance, Derek Moir, head of history, is spending his lunchtime strumming a guitar with a 16-year-old pupil.

"I'm a musician," he says, before clarifying: "I'm not really a musician. I'm a guy who can string three chords together and sing a bit. But I understand where the pupils are coming from artistically. And I can make links between arts and academic stuff. I play The Doors in lessons about Vietnam. What makes history interesting is that it is life. And what is life? It is the arts."

The pupils present a rainbow array of coloured hair, tights and tunics the Brit school is a haven for the off-beat and kooky. These are the kind of pupils who in another type of school would be hiding in the toilets until the bullies had passed.

"Battered," says special-needs coordinator Simon Roberts. "Dress like that in any other school, and you'd be battered. Some of these kids have been terribly bullied."

Joy Bonfield, a 17-year-old in a bohemian smock, says that her years at the local comprehensive left her "grounded, whatever". She is putting the finishing touches to her festival offering: an outdoor theatre installation. Plants and ivy spill from an open fridge, a decrepit sofa is filled with water where the seat should be. Tomorrow, Joy will stand knee-deep in the water and deliver a monologue.

"This is the kind of place where you can say, 'I need to go and lift a fridge from someone's garden. Will you help me?'" she says. "And people are like, 'yeah, of course'. It's very much your own space to do things in."

But this is no Sylvia Young or Italia Conti, with would-be stars rehearsing their diva act on long-suffering staff. Nick Williams, the head, who moved from Thomas Tallis school in nearby south-east London, says he wants to prepare pupils realistically for the performing arts industry, rather than finding them instant roles in West End shows.

"If you were at Sylvia Young and you landed a role in professional theatre, there would be no choice that's why you go there," he says. "But that's not what we're about. We ask people to put aside immediate offers. Just being able to hit a note better than 40 others is very fragile in a world where there is more interest in commercial gain than in your long-term future.

"People who are sustainedly famous will tell you it's about having durable skills. We enable you to be successful in the long term."

Year 10 and 11 pupils study a full range of GCSEs, alongside vocational arts courses. Sixth-form pupils take a BTec in their chosen professional field, as well as optional A-levels. Many find their ambitions change during their time at the school. Seventeen-year-old Milly Pratt arrived at Brit intending to be an actress. "Lessons here made me realise there's more to theatre than acting," she says. "Now, I've trained in script-writing and directing and I don't like acting as much as I did."

Next to her, 15-year-old Mary Stephanou nods. "When I left my old school to come here, people said, 'I'll see you when you're famous'," she says. "But I ignored them. I just want to be on the stage and act. If I am famous, that's just something that will happen. It's not what this school is about."

In fact, the school serves as a slap-in-the-face dose of realism in an industry notorious for attracting optimists, dreamers and the downright delusional. Application is by workshop interview where pupils demonstrate their chosen art form and discuss their level of dedication.

Asked whether the school is inundated with applications from the talentless wannabes ubiquitous on TV talent shows, Mr Williams pauses slightly. In the silence, a passing teacher interjects: "But why would they apply here?"

"The absolute distinction between pure talent and learnt talent is fictitious," Mr Williams says. "Pure talent is worth nothing without learned skills. But there is such a thing as talent and that's why we take a chance on someone if there's a glimmer of something in there."

Brit teachers are expected to work as hard as pupils to polish and refine that something. They are relatively equally divided between education and industry professionals. Mr Williams is an educationist, Stuart Worden, his assistant head, ran a theatre company before coming to the Brit and training on the job. The school production manager was recruited from the West End show Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

"You've got to be a certain sort of person to work here," says Mr Williams. "I often say to staff, do you know what you're getting into? We're not like other schools. You can't go home at 3.30pm. We expect a lot of people, but we give a lot back."

And this commitment trickles down to the pupils. They may not seek fame for its own sake, but they know that performing arts success, in whatever form, does not come easily. Right here is where they start paying in sweat.

"You have to have a dream," says Mary. "If you don't have a dream, how do you know what you want to do? You come here to do something you have passion for.

"In my old school, I felt trapped in a brown uniform. I couldn't say what I wanted to say without worrying about being judged. Now, I feel I can do whatever I want to do. This school is a gateway. It's here to help us realise our dreams."


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