Three into one must go
"IT WAS visionary," says Ian Muchan, headteacher of Knights-wood School in Glasgow, "first with the dance school and then the music theatre course, to put these centres of excellence into a large city comprehensive with a mixed catchment area.
"There is no problem of integration whatsoever. Mixing these highly talented young people with 'ordinary' pupils helps the specialists to keep their feet on the ground and raises the expectations of the others."
At the same time, keeping their feet off the ground is something the young people on the music theatre course are good at. Not often do I come out of a theatre feeling quite so exhilarated, if exhausted. But that is roughly the sensation after watching the music theatre course in one of its twice-yearly all-singing, all-dancing shows.
After a couple of hours their inexhaustible energy, commitment and high-speed professionalism can leave you stunned, but they are, after all, the cream of Scottish talent, trained by practitioners and aiming as high as they can go in the profession.
"The fortunate thing about selection," says Graham Dickie, artistic director of the course he created nine years ago after a distinguished career at Scottish Ballet and English National Opera, "is that we don't have to play the numbers game. In past years we have taken as few as eight, and as many as 20 students.
"We recruit from all over Scotland purely on talent. The buzzword nowadays for what the West End producers want is the 'triple threat performer' - this course has always insisted on a three-way split between dance, singing and drama. At the auditions we look for talent in all three. Young people very strong in one aspect but lacking in another are gently turned away."
Interviews and auditions for the course are being held this month. In the harsh world of show business, an audition lasts just three minutes; the Knightswood selection is more sympathetic. At centres as near their homes as possible, the candidates spend a morning in a dance class, a drama workshop, and a short singing class.
After lunch they give their solo presentation and have their interview with the school's deputy head, a mark that their classroom education is taken very seriously.
Entry level for the course is five Standard grades, and they are required to study three Highers in their fifth year and another one or two in the sixth, to get a university qualification.
After their Highers, students go on to university, art school or college in Greater Glasgow, Britain and abroad. They are highly thought of at Trinity Guildhall, the arbiter of British standards. This year, one of the students has reached the last five out of 300 for a place at the Juilliard School in New York City. But the music theatre course claims that so far every student who has auditioned for a school or college of performing arts has been offered a place.
Nevertheless, London is where it's at, and the students I met had their eyes on its three leading conservatoires and, after that, a career in the West End.
For Lisa from Broughty Ferry, confident of her Highers, a place at university is only a fall-back position: "I had enjoyed being in musical theatre in Dundee, but when I heard of Knightswood's reputation and saw how professional the course was, I was determined to get to London, and give it a go in the West End."
On the other hand, Lewis, who demonstrates his commitment by commuting weekly on the Megabus from Inverness, confesses that he is "not into academics. I've just always wanted to perform. At the panto, when they asked for volunteers, I was always the first on the stage."
Ashley from Kirkintilloch says the course gives them "the best opportunity we could ever have". But London is never far from their minds. "When former students come back they tell us we'll have a head start on others because Mr Dickie prepares us so well," she says.