THE only stage school of its type in South Holland is teetering on the brink of being a sell-out success – or a failure because its founder has run out of cash.
Youngsters have had the chance to take part in shows with Backstage Academy of Performing Arts for the past six years, learning skills such as dancing, singing and acting as well as the technical side of putting on a production.
However, Backstage founder Helen Weekley says involvement in the programme has done far more than that for the youngsters from Long Sutton, Holbeach and surrounding villages.
“The academy helps them as people and they become part of the family because family is important,” says Helen. She knows all about the importance of family, having had to leave university without graduating and move to Long Sutton with her parents because she was a single mum. She is now married to Luke, and Alfie (4) has joined Kenzie (7) in their family home in Queen’s Way.
She added: “It’s really rewarding seeing them progress, especially when they come at such a young age and progress all the way through. They become part of my family so you get to know them extremely well, so it’s a community really.”
That community has been particularly important for some of the students, such as those who have had or are experiencing a difficult family life. One student has been through a number of foster homes and was eventually adopted but has recently lost her adopted mum to cancer.
Helen says: “She’s been through the mill and has said if she wasn’t involved in this she would be in a dark place.”
A number of the children are in foster care, have behavioural problems or autism, yet Helen never has difficulties with the children, aged from four to 17, possibly because of the way they are trained.
Helen describes it as a “performing arts school with a difference”, because the students do modern dance while learning the traditional skills and techniques, such as ballet. They are also able to express their creativity, helping to create characters or choreography, as well as learning about the technical side of the stage with workshops in hairdressing, make-up and costume design, and experiencing professional photo-shoots.
“A lot of this is what I never got but wanted as a child,” says Helen. “I have made sure they have that opportunity.”
That was made possible by the Prince’s Trust and the offer of a loan for £3,500 when Helen had the idea, the experience in teacher training and as musical director for various shows, but no money. She also had a career as a professional singer for many years and had performed in productions.
The loan allowed her to set up the academy – currently, sessions are held at The Peele Leisure Centre at Long Sutton as well as in King’s Lynn – and she began coaching youngsters, with occasional assistance from the Two-Faced Dance Company, who put on workshops to create dance pieces for shows. Professional dancer Jake Nwogu teaches regularly and Charlotte Cooney will also be joining the academy in September as a dance teacher.
In return, Helen acts as a Young Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, which means highlighting the trust’s work in helping young people and getting involved with some of their events, such as judging nominations for the recent Success Awards.
Helen has re-paid the loan to the trust, but is still able to draw on the expertise of the mentor assigned to her, so it all sounds very positive.
However, Helen says: “I am not going to lie, financially we are not in a good place and we are considering registering as a charity. It’s been in danger of closing for about 12 months. We have run out of our own money and we are actually selling the house to redeem the situation. What we do is expensive – theatre costs a lot of money, and it’s really hard to sustain it. We have a good bunch of parents helping but you can only ask parents for so much.
“We have quite a lot of new students joining us in September but the problem is we can’t afford to hire the leisure centre all the time and so we are aiming to get a place of our own with Arts Council funding.”
In the meantime, Helen is doing all she can to keep the academy going, becoming a fully accredited stage school, which means they are able to offer courses in various performing arts disciplines, including full-time and part-time BTEC courses for over 16s.
In fact, all students from the age of six are able to work towards LCM (London College of Music) qualifications at what Helen has called The Imaginarium.
The students are currently working on a Prince’s Trust project which will be performed for Prince Charles in the near future. Helen describes it as dance-theatre, with a mixture of singing, acting and lots of dance fusion, so using all styles of dance.
Her biggest production though will be safeguarding the academy for the future so that children can continue to learn skills and grow confidence through the performing arts.