I often visit performing arts training providers. I always set off enthusiastically hoping (expecting) to find excellence. Often I am disappointed. But that was definitely not the case when I travelled to Milton Keynes for a quick look at Arts1 last week – where I actually felt encouraged and uplifted by what I saw and heard.
Arts1 is a privately run, but publically funded, performing arts further education college. Because it draws down state money for its 16-19 year olds who are doing a Level 3 BTec in Performing arts the training is free to the consumers – exactly as it would have been if they’re stayed on at school and done the qualification in a sixth form.
“We keep numbers fairly low because we want to know them all as individuals and give each of them the support he or she needs” says Mountview-trained James Grimsey co-founder of Arts 1 and Creative Director. Twenty one students completed the course last summer. Around twenty students per year is usual.
“We began back in 2006 with a part time school says principal Rebecca Carrington, Grimsey’s wife and Arts1 co-founder. “That continues to thrive from the classes for four years olds right through to the adult choir. Something for everyone!” She, incidentally, also trained at Mountview and has a good CV as a performer including working on Cunard cruise ships so she knows what she’s talking about. Both are very well connected and there’s a goodly list of industry pros including a number of drama schools who have given masterclasses at Arts1 in the last eighteen months.
The idea for the full time FE training came about partly because some of the part-timers showed interest in continuing into vocational training. “Today we get applications from all over the country” says Grimsey. Carrington explains that she has a network of local families who provide safe, reasonably priced accommodation for students who are new to the area. And Arts1 is signed up to the Time4Change charter so that there’s genuine awareness of every student’s mental health needs.
So where do they go when they have completed this course? “Last year every single student got an offer for the next stage of training” says Carrington. Grimsey, on cue, then produces a photograph and introduces me by name to each of last year’s leavers telling me as he goes what offers they received and where they chose to go. It’s always a good criterion to judge a college by – how well the people in charge know their students – and on this occasion I was warmly impressed. Rose Bruford, Fourth Monkey, Millenium, East 15, ALRA and GSA were all on that list, by the way, and that’s only a sample.
I sit in, for a few minutes, on Grimsey’s choral training session with most of the college (mixed first and second years) who are rehearsing for a forthcoming event. He’s a vocal coach who really knows his stuff and I have to sit on my hands and clamp my mouth shut because it’s infectious and I’d really like to join in. Then several of his students treat me to their audition songs and the standard is generally high.
Grimsey and Carrington had asked me when I arrived if I’d be prepared to do a short Q/A with the students so that’s what we finished my visit with. What a delightful lot! Their questions ranged from how I started writing to what to look for in a drama school and it was fun to talk to them.
I left Arts 1’s tidy, neat but modest premises – Box Studios on a small industrial estate close to Milton Keynes’s city centre – warmly confident that these young people are getting fair, thorough professional training.
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Arts1’s 2017 production of 9 to 5. Credit: Scott Rylander