The performing arts: The fame graduates

Sir Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for actors and musicians celebrates its tenth birthday today. Sarah Cassidy talks to five performers who trained at the college inspired by a movie
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The Independent Culture

When Sir Paul McCartney made a sentimental journey to revisit his childhood haunts in 1985 he was horrified to find that his former school in Liverpool was derelict and decaying.

The former Beatle had such fond memories of his time at Liverpool Institute, the grammar school where he met George Harrison, that he resolved to save the historic building.

And today, Sir Paul will get to experience first-hand just how successfully his dream has become reality. This afternoon he will take to the stage as the guest of honour at a celebration of the unique "fame academy" that he helped to create on the site.

The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) celebrates its 10th anniversary today, and has already launched the careers of thousands of actors, dancers, musicians and technicians.

McCartney's £3m towards the £20m project was vital, but so was his support for the scheme which helped to prompt celebrities such as Jane Fonda, David Hockney, Billy Joel, Elton John and Eddie Murphy to give money.

"The dream we had to save my old school and turn it into something really worthwhile has happened. I find it very moving," Sir Paul said yesterday.

"I always feel great pride in LIPA - sheer pride in the students and their talent."

The unique higher education institute was the brainchild of McCartney and Mark Featherstone-Witty, an educator and former actor, who had been inspired by the film Fame to create a new type of training for performers and behind-the-scenes technicians.

The story of LIPA began as far back as 1980 when Mr Featherstone-Witty first saw Alan Parker's film Fame, the movie based on the New York School of the Performing Arts.

He was so inspired by the artistic training portrayed in the film, which saw characters aspire to master the skills of singing, dancing and acting rather than have only one discipline, that he became determined to open a similar institution in Britain.

"I don't think there's anyone else who does what we do," Mr Featherstone-Witty said.

"If you think that 80 per cent of actors at any one time are unemployed. Only about 4 per cent earn a reasonable salary, while about 60 per cent scrape by on something like £10,000 a year.

"If you had a son or daughter who said they wanted to be an actor your heart would sink, I think.

"I wanted to help young people develop some sort of sustainable career. The way to do that is to diversify your skill range, have more strings to your bow but also learn some business skills."

LIPA offers a range of degree programmes and combines practical and academic learning, with an emphasis on getting a job.

Aspiring actors, musicians and singers learn alongside future sound technicians, set designers and managers, and students must take courses from other disciplines.

Mr Featherstone-Witty is delighted at the institute's track record of preparing students for work. When students were contacted three years after graduation 75 per cent were working in the entertainment industry.

"I'm not dissing single discipline schools, but if you are a musician we would force you to learn sound technology," he said.

"When I first came up with the idea to start the school George Martin [the Beatles producer] said to me that it was vital that people in pop groups understood the kind of parameters that sound people had to work to, to make them sound good. But its equally important for techies to understand the needs of performers."

This approach has worked - LIPA's popularity has grown since it opened in 1996. More than 4,500 applicants competed for just 180 places last year.

The school has marked its first decade with the publication of a glossy book charting its transformation from derelict shell to thriving arts college.

But over the next 10 years, Mr Featherstone-Witty would like to see more Fame schools develop - to create a global network of performing arts colleges.

"People have approached us in Barcelona, Japan, Texas and Colombia to assist us in the creation of new performing arts institutes.

"I'm now beginning to think why don't we think about something more global. Over the next 10 years I would like to start sister schools in other countries."

Mr Featherstone-Witty fears that television programmes such as The X-Factor are giving youngsters false expectations about becoming famous overnight.

"X-Factor sends the message that anyone can do it and puts about the idea that you do not have to train. Some people don't, but that is very, very unusual. Most people need to learn how to do it. Even looking natural in an unnatural environment is a real skill."

The Graduates:

Lindsay Inglesby

Lindsay Inglesby, 29, is a dancer and choreographer who graduated from LIPA in 2002.

"I had won a scholarship to train in London but I choose to go to LIPA. It was the chance to do acting, singing and management which attracted me. I never ever went into the business to be a performer. I was always very interested in choreography and behind-the-scenes work. I always wanted to set up by own business. If I had gone anywhere else I would have just been another performer but at LIPA I had the chance to acquire so many other skills. Since I graduated I have set up my own dance school and also do the choreography for videos, fashion shows and corporate events. I'm making a good living. I am also part of a dance company which includes four different years of LIPA graduates. Sometimes in the dance world it can be hard to find a job and you can be limited to shows or cruise ships. That's not what we want to do so we have created our own opportunities. If I hadn't gone to LIPA I would have just been in one role as a performer. I don't think I would have had the skills or knowledge for anything else. At LIPA you have some of the best facilities in the world for three years of your life and can take from it anything that you want."

Mike Crossey

Mike Crossey, 26, a music producer, has had two top 40 singles in the last year. He graduated in sound technology in 2001.

"I chose LIPA because I wanted to do production engineering and it had the best facilities. The studios were open 24 hours a day and there were small numbers on the course. It was fantastic because you were always interacting with people. You work with people who are training as musicians and managers in the same way you will in the real world. It was good at developing your people skills."

Mr Crossey produced the Arctic Monkeys' first EP Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys, which was a limited release in May last year and is now hotly traded on eBay. "I was the first guy to spot them unsigned. They already had management. At LIPA, obviously I did a lot of music: most of the people on the sound technology course are musicians themselves. You have to do a range of courses but acting or dancing was never my thing. I did a module from the management course which was all about contracts and has been very useful. The course was perfect. I definitely would not be doing what I'm doing if it wasn't for LIPA. Some courses are very technical and involve a lot of looking at circuit boards. My course was good at preparing you for actually doing the job. I think you get good personal skills just from the vibe of the place. You meet all kinds of people you are going to work with later."

Hayley Doyle

Just 18 months after graduating Hayley Doyle won her first major role in the West End. Doyle, who is appearing in Mamma Mia!, studied acting at LIPA, graduating in 2003.

"I might have considered other places but for many of the conservatoires you need to get special funding and I didn't get it. I looked at LIPA because they offered training where you didn't have to pay high fees - you applied just like any university. It turned out to be a blessing because the LIPA course was ideal for me. You have all your curriculum classes in the mornings and rehearse in the evenings. But the afternoons were free for you to choose what to do, such as putting on your own shows. A lot of my experience came from learning from my peers in those sessions. We were also taught really useful skills about how to write letters and approach agents, which prepared us for life outside. We were told how hard it was going to be. They never made us think we were going to leave and immediately become stars. They prepared us in the right way. My training set me up really well. When I started in rehearsals for Mamma Mia! I felt nervous because I was new, but I never felt out of my depth because the process was what we had done at LIPA. When I started at LIPA all I wanted to do was musicals, but LIPA taught me that this was not the only thing I want to do. When I leave Mamma Mia! in March I am keen to try other types of roles."

Jesse Harlin

Jesse Harlin, who graduated in 1999, says his time as a music student at LIPA was vital in helping him achieve his dream of becoming a composer. He works for the California-based LucasArts, the computer and video games company headed by the director George Lucas. He specialises in video games scores.

"Mostly I write for video games. I have composed a largely original soundtrack for Star Wars: Republic Commando, our new first-person shooter."

Harlin also edits music including the original John Williams' Star Wars scores, for use in video games. He believes that his LIPA training gave him an ideal preparation for work in the music industry. "It was fantastic. LIPA was everything I had been looking for in a college. It was the attention to the business of being a professional musician that made LIPA really special."

Liz White

Liz White graduated from LIPA in performing arts in 2001. Now 27, White is starring in BBC1'S time-travelling cop drama Life On Mars as WPC Annie Cartwright. She has also appeared in the BBC drama A Thing Called Love, as well as Teachers, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Ultimate Force and A&E.

"I genuinely found it really exciting to be at LIPA. You had to put shows on and that was one of the best things. You had to choose modules from other disciplines which was a really good way of getting you to experience new things. If you are majoring in acting you have to choose a second skill. A lot of people chose singing but I am definitely not a singer so I did photography. The facilities were absolutely brilliant. I also did a dance course and remember doing drumming in my first year. Because it was a degree course you had to do a certain amount of theory. I did professional development and it was great to have all the different disciplines coming together. We learnt how to create a small business, how to apply for funding and get an agent. If you are looking for somewhere totry things, then LIPA is the place for you. From day one they said we should have a go at everything. Before I arrived I thought it would be like a conservatoire where you're in drama lessons for 12 hours a day. As soon as I got there it was obvious it wasn't. After I graduated things happened really quickly. I had done my own production for my final year and agents were invited. I had an agent and got some auditionsbefore I graduated which was great. You might not expect that to happen, but I guess I had taken on the LIPA ethos of you can make it happen."

LIPA in Pictures: The First Ten Years is published by the Schools for Performing Arts Press and costs £25