Fame-seekers usher in a 'golden age' of theatre schools

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The Independent Culture

Stage schools are experiencing an unprecedented demand for places with some of the best-known academies having to turn down applicants in an era that has been called the "golden age" of fame schools.

Sylvia Young Theatre School, which launched the careers of stars including Amy Winehouse, Billie Piper and Denise Van Outen, is struggling to accommodate the numbers of children seeking a place while academies set up only a year ago are growing at a rapid rate, according to The Stage newspaper.

Yesterday, Sylvia Young said there was such a rush for places that the school did not even have the space to audition applicants and that it had been seeking bigger premises over the past 18 months to accommodate demand. "At the moment, I can't even audition some children, because I know I don't have room for them and I'm turning away scores," she said. "I have a huge pile of people waiting for an opportunity to audition. We've been desperately looking for premises, but it has been difficult because we are trying to double our size and we can't really move out of the periphery of the centre of London."

According to Ms Young, the problem is most evident in the older years. She has also had to limit the school's annual scholarships because there is no room for new entrants in the older years. Currently, about 30 per cent of the school's pupils attend on assisted places. "From 12 years old up, we can't find room, which is frustrating because that's when the talent really starts to come through.

"At the moment, we are using every nook and cranny, including the staff rooms. I'm desperate to offer more scholarships.

"I would rather help a child who is talented but who can't afford it than a child who is not really talented but whose parents have the money."

In spite of the crush, she welcomed the golden age for schools such as her own, which was originally set up in 1972. Over the past 25 years, it has grown from accommodating 29 full-time students to 160.

"There is so much more interest and it's more accepted as a possible career for children and more children are attracted because of the young people they see on TV," she said.

Anna Fiorentini, principal of the Anna Fiorentini Theatre and Film School, in Hackney, east London, whose alumni include the EastEnders stars Belinda Owusu and Charlie Jones, said she had witnessed an immense growth in local stage schools. The school, set up seven years ago, started out with 72 pupils and now has 165 with two sites. Its central London adult city academy, which opened this week, is almost full. But she warned against some schools that offered "false illusions" of fame for children.

"All children love singing, dancing and acting and there is a surge of stage schools in local areas which is good for young people because they are more accessible and they don't have to travel," she said. "But parents have to be wary of the reputation of the schools they send their children to – we have high-profile directors and choreographers and are an accredited agency. But there are some schools that create false illusions because people crave fame, especially with programmes like Pop Idol. People think it's easy and it's not."

Pauline Quirke, the television and film actress, has also set up her own academy, run by her husband Steve Sheen. "We are opening at a rapid rate because of the demand, but our slogan is fun not fame and we are different because we offer a TV and film element," said Mr Sheen.