Young would-be actors, singers and dancers are realising their dreams at a pioneering theatre academy. Heather Neill reports
Hilary Strong is not one to accept second best. "We want this to be the Cambridge of musical theatre training," she says, after watching an energetic session by students of the newly formed Greenwich Musical Theatre Academy. The 26 teenagers throwing themselves (sometimes literally) into "All That Jazz" have their sights firmly set on an all-singing, all-dancing stage career. Undoubtedly talented, these 16 to 18-year-olds, the first intake on the course set up by Greenwich Theatre in south-east London, had to show a readiness to work but needed no paper qualifications in order to get an audition.
The executive director of Greenwich Theatre since 1999 and the moving force behind the academy, Ms Strong is an aficionado of the musical. She realised musical theatre in the UK suffered from two problems that she could help solve: a shortage of home-grown (especially black and ethnic minority) talent, and a lack of aspiration among local young people.
A recent Arts Council report confirms that only 2 per cent of theatre professionals in the UK are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. The Greenwich academy's aim is "to enable young people from under-represented parts of the community to develop their skills in the field of musical theatre and progress into higher education".
The two-year, full-time foundation course is funded by the Learning and Skills Council and has recently been accredited by the London Open College Network. It is a solid preparation for drama school or a relevant degree course, especially for young people who would previously have considered themselves unsuitable or who lacked qualifications. Students achieve level 2 accreditation after the first year, and level 3, equivalent to A-level, at the end of the second year, an extraordinarily rapid acceleration, says Ms Strong.
Girls outnumber boys by about three to one, as is often the case in this kind of group, but Ms Strong says "getting them early" will make a difference. Local children are encouraged to become involved in workshops, theatre days and performances from the age of 14, with a view to considering joining the course when they leave school.
The course, which started in September, took four years to realise: four years of making contact with local schools, colleges and other agencies, and organising festival events, masterclasses, semi-staged showcases and full productions. Leading professionals in musical theatre formed an "artists' network" to contribute to the workshops and masterclasses and have already taken part in a production of West Side Story with young singers and dancers.
Josette Bushell-Mingo is an outstandingly successful actress, director and musical theatre star. She was the first Rafiki in the 1999 UK production of The Lion King and, in 2003, directed the Young Vic's blues and jazz musical Simply Heavenly, now at Trafalgar Studios, in London's West End. Contacted by Ms Strong, she auditioned some of the Greenwich students for cast replacements in Simply Heavenly. Although none was successful, she was impressed by their talent and gave them useful advice on their future careers.
Now Ms Bushell-Mingo is an associate artist and patron of the academy. "I can go in and share musical theatre skills and, when school groups come to Simply Heavenly, I can tell them about the course, that there is now a concrete possibility for them."
Supervising the "All That Jazz" routine on the day of my visit, and apparently thoroughly enjoying himself, is Joe Walsh, head of musical theatre at Greenwich. When the class is over, the lung-expanding singing, sashaying movements and acrobatic flourishes finished for the day, Mr Walsh tells the pupils: "It's a pleasure to work with people as energised as you are. It's exciting to be working with new talent, getting new voices into musical theatre."
The students vary in their experience and few are equally adept in all the necessary disciplines: singing, dancing and acting. "It's about aptitude rather than technique," says Ms Strong, although, after more than half a term, they present a pretty impressive version of "All That Jazz" and show definite signs of benefiting from their weekly four-and-a-half hours of singing tuition (a concentration usually found at conservatoire level, says Ms Strong).
Their personal circumstances vary too: they may have very adult responsibilities, even children of their own. Antony Poore and Tony Dinn Le have each arrived with a string of GCSEs, but Antony has already appeared as a child performer in Oliver! and has a certain professional poise. They both go to the theatre as often as possible, taking advantage of offers made by the course leaders and the Mousetrap Foundation theatre education charity, and both say the course is just what they needed. They are determined to make it.
At 18, Natasha Glean is older than most of the other students at Greenwich and may audition for drama school after her first year. Sixteen-year-old Fatima Jallo hopes to do a musical theatre degree. Both are enjoying the course. Fatima is pleased they "work at a good pace", and Natasha says it has boosted her confidence.
Fatima admires Ginger Rogers, while Natasha says, shyly, that she wants "to be myself, someone new". But it is Fatima who sums up the pleasure they share of taking part in musical theatre: "It's not about fame, it's about enjoying yourself with a live audience."
It seems that south London will be providing those audiences with some outstanding young and energetic performers in the near future.
Greenwich Theatre: 020 8858 4447; www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk