Spotlight on stage school

And so begins the smell of greasepaint, the roar of the crowd

Singing, dancing and acting comes naturally to some children, others just do it for fun. One fabulous company, Stage School Australia, has been channelling that energy and talent for 30 years, writes Clare Kennedy.

Stage School Australia, a performing arts company for children, has grown from strength to strength since it was established in a hall in Kew in 1984 with 80 child enrolments and just one staff member.

Now the company employs 105 staff, across 17 venues in Melbourne. And this year, 3500 children have signed up to develop their talents and confidence.

Musical Theatre, Drama & Boys-Only Dance

The company caters to 5 to 18-year-olds and offers specialised classes in Musical Theatre (song, dance, drama) and Drama. At the end of each semester students demonstrate all they have learned and rehearse in a spectacular performance. The musical theatre students, the Young Australian Broadway Chorus, perform at St Kilda’s National Theatre. The drama students, the Victorian Youth Theatre, and the youngest performers in Beginners OnStage (5-7 year olds) perform at Melbourne University’s Union Theatre.

“It’s a very exciting time of year. Having access to those venues is a wonderful introduction to the performing arts,” says director Eileen Dunn.

The company also runs The Australian Boys Dance Academy where young men learn classical, hip-hop, tap and jazz dance in a completely boys-only zone, which has been “very well received by the boys”, she says. “The unofficial tagline is ‘No tutus, no tights, we dance in pants.’”

Agency for change

Seriously minded performers can apply to join The Talent Company of Australia where children are prepared for what it takes to secure a professional gig in feature films, short films, TV series, commercials, theatre and photography.

Screen acting and casting workshops, held each year by the company, are led by industry professionals. “It’s great because it gives casting directors the chance to see the talent and it gives children the opportunity to experience what real auditions are like and receive constructive feedback.  It’s also lots of fun,” she says.


Kids on tour

Dunn was in her late twenties when she joined Stage School (then known as the Victorian Children’s Theatre) some thirty years ago to handle the administration. In a role that has included organising rehearsals, workshops and stage productions, she has witnessed her fair share of precocious talent in that time.

Since 1996 Dunn has overseen ten national and seven international performance tours, taking troupes of children to Singapore, Italy, Greece, England, Germany and the United States performing at Disney World, Disneyland LA, and Disneyland Paris, the Smithsonian Institute, Soho Theatre London and The Lincoln Center, to name a few.

The last tour to the United States, she explains, included 50 students, twelve leaders and six members of staff. The troupe performed in schools and public events in San Francisco, Washington and New York as well as performances at Disney World.

“We finished up with a week in New York and performed in theatres off Broadway. The children also went to six shows while they were there, which is like heaven on a stick for performing arts kids.”

Organising a three-week tour for children ranging from 10 to 18 takes some planning.  Not least are the logistics of travelling with all the props for a stage show. “The children not only take their travelling uniform, they also take their costumes with them,” Dunn explains.

“The schools hosting our performances were blown away by what we did. They were expecting us to get up and be like a choir. But we do a whole production and I say, very proudly, the shows were fantastic and so was the feedback.”

Costume Drama

Having to sew sequins for children’s performances can be a pain for parents, but Stage School company supplies all the costumes. Jennifer McKenzie is Head of Costume and oversees a vast wardrobe accumulated over years of productions. “A costume hire service has become an important part of the business”, Dunn says. “Our rates are so reasonable that schools can access high quality costumes for their own productions that they would otherwise be hard pressed to rent or make.”

Modern Family

Working for Stage School has been a family affair from the start. Dunn’s brother Patrick Conlan founded the company and asked her to help out when the youngest of her four children was a baby. “At the time I needed it like a hole in the head,” laughs Dunn.

“We used to run holiday programs and my kids were probably the first through the door. They were very sporty kids, but I’d say it has been a terrific thing for them.  My eldest son, Dominic, now in his thirties, once said, ‘I’m so glad I did it. If it wasn’t for your business, I wouldn’t have contemplated doing it. But it’s been a great exposure to the arts and I think it was fantastic for my confidence.’ And my youngest, Madeleine, 28, now works full-time with the company.”

Show goes on

For Dunn, her career with the company has been enriching and lots of fun to boot. “When a load of costumes is delivered, most of the staff dress up. Sometimes we have staff meetings where you have to wear a hat or something. While we take our work and the responsibility of working with children very seriously, if someone from another profession walked in they might think it’s all a bit crazy. But it’s a very enjoyable environment to be in and I just feel really lucky.”

The company has 35 members with Media Super. “We find Media Super to be a most professional, cost effective and flexible fund for our employees in the creative industry,” she says.


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