Ava Eldred is a writer and theatre producer. Most recently, she wrote the book to The 8th Fold, which was the only British musical to be accepted in to the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival following it’s premiere concert engagement at the Duchess Theatre in the West End. She has worked extensively with some of musical theatre’s most celebrated artists, including Idina Menzel, Sherie Rene Scott, GLEE’s Telly Leung and Jason Robert Brown.
Once upon a time, in the Spring of 2013, I watched a PBS documentary called Broadway or Bust about the finals of the National High School Musical Theatre Awards taking place in New York City. I loved it for so many reasons, but it made me angry for only one: that I didn’t know of a similar scheme in the UK which allowed such intensive and incredible training, from people at the top of their games in the theatre industry, outside of a formal course. Drama School training in the UK is indisputably among the best in the world; our institutions are producing performers who more and more regularly are securing their first jobs before the graduation caps have even left their heads. But what about everyone else? What the performers who come in via a different route, bypassing drama school entirely? What about the people who just love to perform but don’t have the means, or maybe even the inclination, to study acting full time?
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber commented recently on exactly this, voicing his concerns that with the cost of training being so high, and so many students relying on outside foundations and funding to subsidise their studies, so many talented people must be slipping through the gaps. SOLT president Julian Bird made a similar point, speaking at a forum event about access to the arts in London. He believes that world class drama training in the UK is under huge risk because of the reduced funding available both to educational bodies, and to students themselves. For many people, full time training just is not a realistic prospect in this economy, but why should that mean they don’t get to train at all? And what can be done to refresh performers who take a break after training, and come back to the industry later in life? Where do the opportunities to learn and engage come from once formal training is over? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that was important.
The theatre industry can only exist as long as passionate practitioners do, and I realised quickly that landing a part in the West End mega-hits wasn’t for everyone. I listened to The Last 5 Years when I was 18, In The Heights a few years later, clips from Hamilton even now, and each time I realised that there was, and is, so much more to musical theatre than what the general public perceives there to be. I want everyone to love Jason Robert Brown as much as I do, and fight the urge to give standing ovations to Lin-Manuel Miranda videos on Youtube, but even if they don’t, I want people to know that this material exists, and that learning doesn’t end on the last day of college. The performers, and producers, and writers who do this for the long haul will be the ones who never stop absorbing. I wanted to find a way to implement that in my career, and for contemporary musical theatre to be talked about in places beyond a tiny circle of fans on Twitter, and the depths of an Idina Menzel message board. So began a sort-of obsession with theatre education, and an urge that doesn’t die to be part of whatever I can that keeps people actively engaging with the future of musical theatre, particularly new writing.
As a theatre professional, my focus has almost always been on solo theatrical performances, because I believe very strongly that the future of theatre is in the hands of the people who love it, and to watch these people flourish as themselves as well as in character is one of my greatest, and most simple, joys. I’m a big believer that the power is with the individual, and that each person involved in this impossible and brilliant industry has their own unique thing to offer. It’s about being the best performer, or director, or producer or writer that you can be. Nobody else can do that, so if you don’t, the world is missing out. So last summer, when Stage Acts UK launched Onstage Acts, a week long summer course for adults focused on new and contemporary musical theatre that operates on that same principal, I could not have jumped faster at the chance to be involved.
Onstage Acts is one of my favourite things I work on all year. It isn’t glamorous, but education should not be. It isn’t elite, because we all deserve the chance to learn. It’s hard work. For one week, everyone in the room is an equal, and we learn from each other the ways of theatre, and of life. I help put this course together: I think, walking in to the room each morning, that I know exactly what is going to happen that day. But I don’t, and I can’t, and that is the absolute beauty of Onstage Acts. Even the faculty come away every single day having learnt something new. It’s an honour.
Last Summer, my collaborator Gianni Onori &I took our musical The 8th Fold to the New York International Fringe Festival. As I’m sure anyone who has ever participated in a theatre festival anywhere in the world will tell you, it’s a bubble. We spent the majority of our time with our cast, and the other shows sharing our venue, and the writers and directors we met at Fringe-organised events, and to be in an environment where new writing was so revered and respected was the most refreshing feeling. Everybody there was playing an active part in contributing to the New York theatre scene for the month the festival ran, and without even consciously meaning to, I found myself taking on board the things they said, and sharing stories and advice that could shape all of our future shows. The 8th Fold is a different piece of theatre because of the generosity of everyone who was involved, or gave their feedback. I am a professional writer, long out of education, and to learn things both about myself and about my work from my peers is one of the most exciting parts of my job. Environments rooted in mutual trust and the quest for self-betterment are so important in an industry that can be so competitive, and Onstage Acts is exactly that. We hold each others hands through it. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed, and also to discover things, both about new writing and about themselves as performers.
This year, the participants will work on material from award winning composer Dougal Irvine, newcomer (and Perfect Pitch award-winner) Ella Grace, and songwriting duo Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, who have most recently written the critically acclaimed Adrian Mole musical. They will workshop songs which may never have been performed in public, under the guidance of course leaders (and contemporary musical theatre favourites) Julie Atherton and Paul Spicer (and be put through an intensive daily workout by Julie so…good luck!), and will also be directed for a session by Dougal himself. Award winning producer Danielle Tarento and Olivier Award winner Katie Brayben will also lead masterclasses on their particular facets of the industry, and top agent Stuart Piper, of Cole Kitchenn, will be on hand to answer questions and offer advice. These are all people at the top of their game, recognised for their excellence, who understand the importance of passing it on. There will always be a ‘next generation’, and that next generation will take the legacy of the people who came before and make sure the industry we all love continues to flourish. What could be more important than that?
Yes, the theatre industry has it’s traditions and practices, and yes, what we do is still probably diminished by ‘the real world’ thinking it’s just playing pretend, but it is up to us to break out of that; to want more; to go further. To quote Jason Robert Brown, in the musical that made me fall in love with theatre in the first place: “We can do better than that”.
We have a responsibility as theatre professionals to be constantly upping our game. To not settle for the opportunities that find us, but to actively seek opportunities. To live each day asking “What more can I do?”; to finish each job asking “What’s the next level?”. To take in all we can; to never stop learning.
To apply visit www.onstageacts.com or email info AT stageactsuk DOT com