Nick Smurthwaite explains how the after-school organisation Stagecoach is helping pupils with ability in the dramatic arts.

With 570 ‘schools’ in the UK, 40 overseas, offices in Minnesota, Nuremburg and Walton-on-Thames, and 33,000 pupils each week, Stagecoach is by far the largest part-time stage school in the world.

Each school offers professional tuition in three theatre disciplines – drama, dance and music – with children aged from six to 16.

Stagecoach require children to do all three disciplines. There is no place for boys, for example, who may fancy the music and drama but balk at the dancing. As well as performance skills, there is strong emphasis on discipline, good time-keeping and commitment to the task at hand (not unlike Renzulli’s three-hand whip of ability, creativity and task commitment).

Unlike TV shows such as Pop Idol and The X Factor, Stagecoach is not pandering to youthful fantasies of stardom, although a handful of past students have gone on to have professional careers in showbusiness, notably Jamie Bell, who played the title role in the film Billy Elliott.

‘We are definitely not in the business of training thousands of children for a life on stage,’ says Stephanie Manuel, co-founder of Stagecoach. ‘The vast majority who take our classes will not go into the business. The first thing I tell the parents with stars in their eyes is that, chances are, they will wait three hours at each casting session only to be told their child is too short or too tall or has the wrong colour eyes. This is an industry in which rejection and disappointment are everyday occurrences.’

Stephanie should know since her son, Paul, is now a leading player in British musical theatre. Indeed, it was his passion for performing as a youngster that first gave her the idea of starting Stagecoach.

‘I used to spend my life driving my kids around to all these different classes – music, drama and dance – and I slowly came to realise that what was needed was somewhere that offered all three under one roof.’

Despite its significant growth and the fact that all the franchises are independently owned, Stephanie and her business partner David Sprigg have been rigorous in maintaining standards and structures common to all. Class numbers are restricted to 15, and staggered according to age, everyone else has to go on a waiting list.

All the schools are independently inspected at least once a year, and criminal records clearance is mandatory for everyone involved.

By the law of averages, there will be the odd gifted student who stands out from the crowd, but it is not Stephanie’s policy to cream off the gifted and talented.

‘The parents may be consulted about whether or not their child should apply to full-time stage school, but generally we are more geared to training for life rather than vocational training for careers in entertainment. What we do find with the very talented ones is that they often act as mentors for the less gifted.

Stephanie and David have a flair for picking the right people to run franchises, be they drop-out professionals or performing arts teachers wanting to work part-time. ‘Showbusiness is full of wonderful professionals who are not working,’ says Stephanie, ‘and many of them have a lot of unused energy and talent. We’ve never been precious about saying our teachers have to be qualified from the outset.’

Stagecoach has recently started its own foundation course aimed at producing teachers to work in part-time performing arts schools, suited to former Stagecoach students or those with backgrounds in drama, dance or singing. The 10-day course includes classroom strategies, voice and movement work, creative work with experienced practitioners, and text analysis.

Each year Stagecoach produces a big show, with children aged eight to 17 coming in from branches all over the country. In 2006 it was Annie, which was staged at the former Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead, in August. There are also plans to open more UK schools, at a rate of roughly one every two weeks.

Stephanie is genuinely passionate about the long-term benefits of music, drama and dance for children, especially now that so many schools have scaled down their performing arts activities.

‘Drama and singing have been all but squeezed out of the school curriculum because of the pressure to improve literacy and numeracy. Parents come to us because they want their children to have a chance to develop their confidence and self-esteem, poise and articulation, through our activities. I like to think that all our children come away from the classes more confident and better able to communicate. The skills we teach are for life.’

Sammie Drew-Griffiths, who was involved as a student for six years, now runs classes herself, saying it helped her to overcome shyness and bullying at school: ‘I was able to stand up for myself because of my increased confidence.’

Louise Raven, 27, who spent three and a half years attending Stagecoach classes in her teens, before moving on to drama school at 19, has now returned to teach dance. ‘It’s not about creating the next Bonnie Langford, it’s about encouraging kids to grow in confidence and stand on their own two feet.’

First published in Primary G&T Update, July 2006