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All-age training through performance, anyone?

Jackie Palmer Stage School in action.

I visited High Wycombe last week on what was probably the wettest day of the year. I could have done with flippers. Despite the weather, it was very enlightening to visit (for the first time) the famous Jackie Palmer Stage School (JPSS) whose former students include James Corden and Eddie Redmayne and many other performing arts successes along with hundreds who have gained confidence, had fun and then taken their skills into other professions.

Founded in 1971 by Jackie Palmer (who died last year aged 95) and her daughter Marylyn, the school has occupied various premises in and around High Wycombe. Today it has spacious, immaculately converted studios in a former motorcycle showroom. Also on site, and part of the enterprise, is local radio station Wycombe Sound. Marylyn continues as principal and her husband/colleague Chris Phillips runs the radio station with the help of 100 volunteers.

JPSS offers part-time classes in dance, drama and singing for school age children. There are also two full-time courses – a BTech for post 16s and a “gap year” course. The school has a flourishing agency too.

Now Marylyn has teamed up with children’s casting director Jo Hawes in a new venture. The two women have known each other, and been friends, since they met at Theatre Royal Windsor when Jo, now 57,  “was 15 and Marylyn, err, wasn’t”. This is the project I went to High Wycombe to learn about.

The Rep Company starts next January and will offer intensive performance-based training for 6 months based in the High Wycombe area, using various venues across Bucks and Berks. This is a quasi pilot. The plan is then to continue it as a one year scheme from September 2018.

“Students leaving school or even graduating from drama school often know a lot about acting but, in my experience, they have little idea how to function effectively as part of a team putting on a show” says Marylyn firmly. She has strong views about making yourself easy to work with and not behaving prima-donnishly if you want to succeed in the performing arts world.

Jo concurs. “If you can’t be part of a team then you’re in the wrong industry”.

The Rep Company’s mission is to teach team work and show participants, through experience, how professional shows work “Everything will be performance based” says Jo explaining that the company’s  rep season will include a farce, a pantomime, a Shakespeare (probably open air or site specific or both), an Agatha Christie, a musical, a devised piece and, of course, a radio play since the facilities are on the premises.

“And they need to learn that at the end of the show everyone has to help clear up, for example.“ says Marylyn who tells me that she once saw Judi Dench cheerfully sweeping the stage thereby setting quite an example to everyone else involved in the show.

Because Jo and Marylyn are planning to bring in professional directors and teachers there will be a cost attached to the training – probably in the region of £5,000 per participant although that is not fixed yet. Ticket sales will, they hope, cover venue costs.

The pair have industry contacts coming out of their ears and seem totally confident that they can draw in casting directors and agents to see, and maybe snap up, their “graduates” at the end of the season. Even I have promised to be at Theatre Royal Windsor next year for the musical, probably Guys and Dolls.

So who are they hoping to recruit? It looks set to be a pretty mixed bag of around 20 people. They want school leavers and drama school graduates. Then there are actors, who have taken time out perhaps for family reasons, looking to get their skills back up to scratch. There has also been interest from some much older people which is good news as far as Marylyn and Jo are concerned. “It means we can cast shows much more realistically and the wider the diversity the more everyone can learn from everyone else.

Jo and Marylyn are recruiting this autumn for January starters. Tempted? Phone 01494 520 978  or email [email protected]

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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