A career on the stage can cost parents a pretty packet

By Lucy Hooker
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Sophia Kiely from Matilda The Musical performs at the 2012 Olivier Awards 2012Image source, Tim Whitby
Image caption,
The success of youngsters in hit musicals has inspired many others to dream of a stage career

If you're the parent of a budding Darcey Bussell or Benedict Cumberbatch you'll know how quickly the bills start flooding in from drama teachers, singing coaches and dance schools.

So how necessary is all the expensive tuition, if you want to help your child into a career treading the boards?

Tallulah Treadaway is living many girls' dreams. Aged just 12 she has spent the last year leaving her sister and two brothers at home in Sussex, to take the train to London to perform in the hit musical Matilda.

There's no question that it's a fulfilling experience for her.

"It's an achievement," she says. "After the performance you walk out of the theatre and you hear people say 'those kids were amazing' and you feel great."

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Tallulah attends three dance classes a week when she's not performing on stage

Her run in Matilda has just come to an end and she is now in rehearsals for another West End production.

But although she has been dancing since she was five, Tallulah is relatively untutored, at least compared to many of the other children she meets at auditions.

She has noticed some of them turn up already knowing all the words and all the steps.

Increasingly, parents of a new star-struck generation are forking out for a whole battery of lessons in the hope that it will help fulfil their child's dream of a show business career.

But it's not a path to embark on lightly. Whereas you might happily pay £20 for a chemistry set for an aspiring scientist in the family, the parents of a promising performer can spend thousands on what is a notoriously fickle career choice.

Image source, Alastair Muir
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Shows like Billy Elliot give a handful of children a chance to perform professionally

Tuition fees

Costs vary around the country but one-to-one tuition in the south-east of England starts at £20 an hour. Group classes range from £5 - £10.

The costs of uniform, costumes and exams can mount up too. And the more classes that are on offer from jazz to musical theatre, street dance to singing, the more your child will want to do.

"I want to keep my daughter's dreams alive," says Naomi Phitidis, mother of one enthusiastic young performer.

Her daughter Juno attends singing, drama and several dance classes, although some are scheduled fortnightly to limit time and cost pressures.

"But I also want her to have some sort of security in her life," says her mother.

Image source, Picasa
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Juno Phitidis has her heart set on performing

She does sometimes wonder whether she's putting all her eggs in one basket, but firmly believes the skills and confidence that Juno is acquiring will help her whatever she does later in life.

Vanessa Karl's daughter, Zoe, hopes to become a professional dancer. But she knows she's unlikely to win a place at a dance college without reaching a demanding technical standard. So Vanessa spends around £100 a week on classes for 30 weeks of the year.

"If someone has a passion it's good to let them follow that passion, if you can afford it," she says.

She thinks you need an absolute minimum of four years training to get into a post-16 dance school, and more is better.

"If you're serious you need to be doing at least three ballet classes a week. And I think most dancers would want to do at least that."

'The triple threat'

If Tallulah, Juno and Zoe do pursue careers on the stage they will eventually face auditions for adult roles, where many of their rivals have had coaching in everything from poise and diction to belting out a showstopper from an early age.

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Children can start dance classes as young as three years old

Jo Hawes, a leading children's casting agent, sees hundreds of young hopefuls pass through her casting studio.

She says the truth is, while children without coaching can occasionally win a part, later on it's a different matter.

As an adult you have to nail what she calls "the triple threat" - singing, dancing and acting - because you don't know what you might be asked to do.

"You should go to as many classes as possible," she says, if you want to make it professionally. "It's important to have it all."

Drama schools

One element is not disputed: winning a place at drama school is key. That is where you gain experience, find an agent and make industry contacts. But the competition for places is fierce.

So do lessons stand you in good stead in an application for drama schools like Central, Rada and Lamda?

"It's not that they wouldn't consider someone who hadn't had any experience before, if they came in and clearly had raw talent," says Florence Hall, who was a student representative on the audition panel when she was at The Drama Centre.

Image source, other
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School plays offer young performers the opportunity to develop theatrical skills at no extra cost

"But you do have to look like you're going to be able to respond to training which I think doing classes helps you to do. You learn to not be embarrassed to try things out."

Like most actors Florence has spent a proportion of her career manning phones and serving canapes, but she is currently performing in Ghost From a Perfect Place at the Arcola in London.

She says as a straight actor you can get away without having years of tuition but not in other areas. "I think for musical theatre you have got to have been doing it from nappies, and do all the classes that you can," she says.

Life experience

However, fellow actor Charlotte Blackledge is not so sure.

She graduated from drama school last year and walked straight into the role of Mandy Rice-Davies in Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about the 1960s Profumo affair.

"The one thing I'm really grateful to my parents for is having a normal childhood and not going 24/7 to singing lessons and dancing and acting and intense coaching," she says.

Image source, Nobby Clark
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Charlotte Blackledge (right), starring in the musical Stephen Ward

She has packed her 22 years of life with extreme sports, travel, hill-walking, fashion and a lot of other "normal" activities which she says have provided her with a wealth of insight to draw upon when she puts a character across on the stage.

Sometimes she says the intensively trained students know all the notes but "there's nothing behind the eyes".

She says her audition for drama school was quite an eye opener: "Most of the people who had been training from when they were little didn't get in because they were told in the audition 'you need life experience'."

She has some simple advice for anyone with ambitions for a career on the stage.

"Go out and live, and if it's going to happen, it'll happen."