Shows are an annual chance for young performers to shine

July 29 2014

CHILDREN from Downend and across Bristol took to the stage for a weekend of performances at the Redgrave Theatre in Clifton in early July.

CHILDREN from Downend and across Bristol took to the stage for a weekend of performances at the Redgrave Theatre in Clifton in early July.

The children are all part of the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy, which this year celebrates 20 years in Bristol. The academy runs drama classes for children and young people from the ages of five to 18, as well as adult classes. Over the course of the first weekend in July, children from 18 classes dressed up and performed plays about tropical islands, package holidays and gangsters to a packed theatre.

Eight-year old George from one of the five Downend classes was delighted with the opportunity to be in two plays this year, one about a tropical island faced with an unexpected storm and the other about fairy stories being rewritten to have happier endings. “This year I played Pahu in Paradisia and Jack in Storyland,” he said. “I had lots of lines to learn and I could practice my lines at home. I also enjoyed being on stage and acting the parts.”

He was also enthusiastic about the academy in general. “The best part of Helen O’Grady is doing the plays and learning to act. We have a great teacher and have lots of fun,” he added.

Alison Mazanec, who runs the academy in Bristol as well as being executive principal of the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy in the UK, said that the highlight of the performances for her each year is seeing all children using the stage as a platform to shine. “Many quiet children often get overlooked in situations where the loudest and most creative are chosen. It’s important that all children are provided with opportunities to ‘shine in the sun’,” she explained.

She also praised the “laughter, positive energy and enthusiasm from absolutely everyone involved from the teachers to the students to all that help behind the scenes.”

But the academy is not just about performing, as Alison explained: “In terms one and two, we work on developmental creative drama as opposed to a structured term working towards a show. In these lessons we explore voice, movement and improvisation. We use some form of prop or dressing up every few weeks. A child can sometimes be more confident as someone or something else and using dress ups can really unlock doors of creativity.

“Occasionally, we have lessons with excerpts from some of the old masters, such as Shakespeare and Dickens, and we also use contemporary writers. Students can explore a scripted piece during a lesson to learn skills such as working with a partner, interpretation, blocking and acting out a character. Other lessons involve whole class creativity with a semi-structured improvisation - a play in a day.”

These goals are valued by past students too. Reflecting on the 20 years that the classes have been run in the city, former pupils revealed some of the highlights for them.

Mitch Webb, who is now 29, recalled his 10 years with the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy. “Even though I’ve been gone for a few years, I look back with fond memories of my time with Helen O’Grady. I owe a lot to Christina [deputy principal of the academy] and Alison for everything I’ve learnt and done with them.”

Mitch has continued to act and has appeared in shows with the Bristol Old Vic as well as some television work. “If it wasn’t for my time in the academy, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he said. However, he added: “A very important thing for the teachers is that even if you don’t continue to use drama in future the things they teach in class will help you in life and help build your confidence, things like team work and public speaking.”

Another former student, Christine Howie, shared Webb’s enthusiasm: “Helen O’Grady gave me the confidence to be myself and key skills I have used throughout school, university and now to start a career. Most importantly, it made me incredibly happy and I enjoyed every minute of my 10 years.”

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